Hiking Backpack Guide: Choose Your Pack Wisely

Your hiking backpack should be like a trusted friend in the outdoors. It’s with you every step of the way, helps you with a heavy burden, and shouldn’t be a pain in the neck.

Choose your pack accordingly. The main decision maker with hiking backpacks is your personal comfort and convenience.

Something that clings to your back and hips for several hours and carries your most important gear should ultimately be something you feel good wearing and above all should not be painful.

Hiking with a backpack should be as enjoyable as hiking without one.

Step 1: Think of the end use of your hiking backpack.

  • Are you a casual day-hiker and never do any overnight treks?
  • Do you take multi-day backpacking trips?
  • Do you often take your pack on summit climbs and scrambling treks?
  • Are you a winter or fair weather trekker, or both?

Hiking Backpacks can be described in a few categories:

    • Day Packs: Day packs are pretty small (think high school size) and carry just enough to make it through a day-long hike without a hitch.Even though they aren’t too hefty, it’s good to have a hip belt to distribute the weight evenly. Your shoulders will thank you for it too.
    • Hydration Packs: Like the name says, these hiking backpacks keep you hydrated with a water reservoir integrated into the pack. With a mouthpiece and water tube located close to your mouth, your hands are free for things like gripping trekking poles.Different models are designed to suit a range of activities, from biking to hiking.Purely hydration packs are generally small but can carry a few essential pieces of gear for short hikes and day treks. Hydration reservoirs can also slip into almost all new outdoors-oriented backpacks.Water is one of the heaviest things a hiker hauls on a trek. Using a hydration pack helps to distribute this weight better. The only downside might be that it takes a bit more effort to clean than a water bottle. Leaks are also a possibility.
  • Multi-Day Backpacks:Multi-day packs carry enough for at least two days of trekking with an overnight stay.A wide hip belt spreads the weight evenly and make carrying 20 or more pounds a breeze.Multi-day hiking backpacks are rated to carry around 35 liters and upwards and are built to lug a small tent and the other essentials for an overnight backpacking trip.

Internal Frame Backpacks: The Hiking Backpack of Today and the Future…

Traditional external frame hiking backpacks have become almost obsolete. They are still available in small numbers and have a few advantages when hiking on easy terrain with heavy loads.

In the last few years, internal frame hiking backpacks have become a mainstay in outdoor gear.

Why? Here are some important reasons:

  1. Internal frame packs are compact, which is useful for any hiking in dense brush, as well as loading into a car.(Don’t forget the trip to the trailhead. Is that Prius going to fit five hikers and their multi-day packs?)
  2. You don’t have tons of gear lashed to the outside of your pack. So, you won’t get snagged by tree limbs, rocks, fences, etc.
  3. Overall, internal frames are lighter than their external frame counterparts.
  4. Internal frame packs hug your body closely, so that your balance is better and you move as a unit with your pack.

Step 2: Choose one with enough space.

Nowadays, almost all hiking backpack brands use liters to measure the space inside their packs.

(This system is replacing the cubic inches often used in the past.)

Generally, day packs offer anywhere from 8 to 30 liters of space, while multi-day backpacks can start around 35 liters and go up from there to 95 and 100.

(A 35 liter pack for a long trek is pretty Spartan; ultra light and compact gear is a must.)

Tips for Choosing the Right Volume:

  • If you are purely a day hiker, choose a pack 30 liters or under.
  • Do you have an arsenal of ultra-light gear for your multi-day treks? If so, you should be good with a pack between 35 to 65 liters.
  • Do you have mostly traditional backpacking gear? These bulky items take up more space, so…Consider investing in some modern equipment or increase your pack capacity to hold your older gear… 65 liters and upwards.
  • If you do any winter hiking or foul weather hiking, more space is good. You’ll need it for extra insulating layers, a thicker sleeping bag, and heavier-duty tent.
  • Hiking with kids? Again, more space is invaluable. You’ll probably be lugging most of their gear.
  • Trip duration. The more days you are out in the backcountry, the more rations and gear you may need.For trips under 4 days, a 40 to 65 liter pack should do. For longer treks, consider packs larger than 65 liters.
  • Finally, if you’re in doubt, err on the side of more space. You never know when you might need that extra piece of gear, extra fleece jacket, or hat.In bear country, you’ll need the extra space for bear-proof containers, which can be a bit bulky.A few pockets of dead space are better than carrying a bunch of stuff in your hands or lashing gear haphazardly to the outside of a small pack.

Packing your hiking backpack is all about personal comfort and preferences.

How many of those creature comforts do you really need? If you can make do with only the essentials, go with a smaller pack.

If you absolutely need that comfy sleeping pad, the coffee maker, and the sandwiches, then make sure you have enough space.

Use your past experiences lugging a load on the trails. How much are you comfortable with?

Step 3: Choose the right size.

Volume is not the only way hiking backpacks are sized. They also are made in extra small, small, medium (regular), and large (tall) sizes.

The size corresponds to your torso length.

There are men- and women-specific hiking backpacks, naturally since men’s and women’s bodies are contoured differently. There are youth sizes too.

Some hiking backpacks feature an adjustable suspension, so you can adjust the size within a certain range. While this system adds some ounces to your pack, it can be useful for people who share their packs with others, as well as people “in between” common sizes.

Size is super important for your balance when hiking. If your pack is too big or small, you’ll put strain on your body.

Start by measuring your torso length. (Ask a friend to help you with this.)

With a flexible measuring tape (use a piece of string if you don’t have the tape), start measuring from the back of your neck, right where you feel a prominent vertebra sticking out, and where your shoulders meet your neck.

Put your hands on your hips and feel the tops of the hip bones. Spread your thumbs out towards your spine. Have your friend measure to an imaginary line between your thumbs. Now you have your torso length.

Use the chart below to find a close match in size. (This shows roughly how most pack makers size their backpacks.)

Other Hiking Backpack Features to Think About

Besides use, volume, and size, consider these other important features when choosing a hiking backpack:

  • Pack material: Backpacks are made with materials ranging from super thin and lightweigt to heavy duty rugged fabric. Light means you lose some of the ruggedness and are prone to holes and tears. Thick fabrics add some ounces (even a pound or two) to your backpack.Unless your goal is ultra light trekking , go with a “middle-of-the-road” fabric. Rock climbing packs should be even more rugged.
  • Hydration. Most hiking backpacks include a sleeve for popping in your water reservoir, along with portals for the water tube. Look for packs with portals on both sides—the extra option is a nice touch, and allows you to drink from your “good side.”
  • Comfort and durability vs. lightweight. With an ultra-light hiking backpack, you lose some of the stiffness of a slightly heavier pack.Also, the super lights skimp on the padding. You should ask yourself if the extreme lightness of the pack is worth the possibility of sore spots at the end of the day.I personally would lug an extra pound all day if it meant no bruises or muscles strains during my trek.
  • Ventilation. One of the drawbacks to internal frame packs (unlike externals) is that they rest squarely on your back, causing “sweaty back syndrome.”In order to help this problem, most manufacturers have designed certain packs to allow air to pass between your back and the backpack. Usually, this is a frame with some sort of mesh stretched across it, leaving a small air gap.While these systems certainly add a tad of comfort, they won’t totally eliminate sweat.
  • Climbing Packs. Do you take your hiking backpack on summit climbs, scrambling treks, or boldering? Several packs are tailored to these more extreme forms of hiking.
    The main differences are:1. A more compact and narrow profile, to allow more upper body movement and avoid snagging your pack on the terrain.2. More loops and lash-on points for your climbing gear like helmets and tools.

    3. More rugged construction, to withstand bashing on the rocks as well as pointy tools and crampons.

Try it before you buy it.

Before you buy any hiking backpack, make sure it feels good on your back. The best way to do this is go to a local outdoor retailer and test a few models out.

Load the pack with 15 to 20 pounds and try it on, walk around. Are there any points that are uncomfortable? (Most discomfort can be fixed by adjusting the straps properly.) Ask a salesperson to help you adjust the straps if you’re not sure how.

After finding a good hiking backpack that appeals to you, you can always purchase one online, often at discounted prices.

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