If you want to know how to choose a hiking backpack, you’ll first need to know what you’ll be using it for. The needs of a person who is a traveler staying in hotels or cabins will be drastically different from the needs of a person who camps or hikes frequently and both will be different from the needs of a person who hikes during the day and returns home by evening. The right backpack for you will be determined by what activities you do and how frequently you do them.
A person who hikes during the day will most likely need a small day pack with enough storage for a day’s worth of food and water and navigation tools. On the other hand, a person who frequently spends a few days or more camping in the wilderness will need a much larger pack capable of carrying both food and supplies for the duration of their trip.
The size of the pack is very important when it comes to what activities you will be able to accomplish with it. Overnight packs come in a variety of sizes. The typical daypack and one-night overnight packs are smaller than 35 liters, but packs can come as large as 75 liters. Each pack size is intended for a different person.
10 liters or less – The smallest of the packs available on the market. These backpacks are intended for day use only, and not for long trips. These packs are more useful for small hiking trips where a small amount of food and water are needed. Typically these packs can hold only a few bottles of water and light snacks as well as a jacket or sunscreen.
10 to 20 liters – Packs that are 10 to 20 liters in size are a good option for day trips that are more rigorous than a short hike. They’re designed for longer hikes or mountain biking and are also a good option for people who travel frequently. This medium sized daypack can hold a good amount of water and snacks and are usually equipped with extra pockets for storage.
20 to 35 liters – These packs are designed to house enough gear for a one night trip. A pack under 35 liters can typically hold a tent, sleeping bag, an extra layer of clothing, and a small amount of food and water. These packs can also be used as a large daypack, possibly for more than one person.
35 liters to 50 liters – A 35 liter and above pack is a good pack for weekend trips or trips lasting less than 3 days. Like the smaller packs, weekend packs can fit a tent, sleeping pad, and extra clothing. In addition to that, they can fit a few additional supplies such as a small stove and cookware, first aid kits, navigational tools, and food and water.
50 to 75 liters – These packs are the largest of the overnight packs available. These are considered multi-day packs, capable of storing enough gear for trips lasting 5 days or longer. A multi-day pack can hold all of the shelter supplies, including tent and sleeping bag, plenty of extra clothing and materials, cooking supplies, food, first aid kits, and navigational tools and survival gear. Multi-day packs are intended for serious campers and hikers who spend a large amount of time in the wilderness.
There are many design features that might sway a person’s decision on which pack works best for them. Let’s start by looking at the structure.
Frameless pack – Some daypacks are available without a built in frame to for support. They’re smaller and lighter and contour more easily to the shape of a person’s back. The downside to these packs is that the lack of support makes them suitable only for short trips with a small amount of gear.
Internal frame – Both day and overnight packs come with an internal frame. An internal frame typically consists of aluminum rods built into the structure of the pack to give it shape and stability. The internal frame allows for the pack to hold more supplies and gives it additional durability. Unlike external frame packs, internal frames are lighter and easier to transport and store and the load is carried close to the body, which improves mobility and balance. They’re also generally easier to find than external frame packs.
External frame – These packs are intended only for overnight use. The build consists of a cloth pack attached to an external medal frame. The external frame offers a lot more stability than an internal frame. The stronger the frame, the more gear the pack can contain. These packs can also accommodate more gear attached to the outside. They tend to be less costly but they are harder to find than internal frame packs, with few retailers still supplying them.
This might not seem like the most important of features, but depending on the person and the activity, the point of access on the pack may be more or less important.
Top access – Most packs are going to come built with top access. Most bags in general are designed to be accessed from the top. To make the most of a top access pack, store the items that aren’t going to be needed until later in the trip at the bottom, making the most frequently used items more readily accessible.
Front access – A few packs are designed to be accessed from the front of the bag instead of the top. Typically the design features a front flap that zippers open and closed in a U shape. This can be handy for accessing the majority of your internal gear at once.
Bottom access – Some bags will come with bottom access capabilities. This is usually in addition to front or top access, rather than the only point of access.
Side access – Like bottom access bags, the side access point is an additional access point rather than the main.
Both daypacks and overnight packs will frequently come with a feature specifically designed to help the hiker maintain proper hydration. Some packs will come with an internal storage sleeve for keeping a water reservoir. The sleeve will come with a hook to hold the bladder of the reservoir upright and typically the pack will feature a way for the mouthpiece to be accessed from the outside of the pack. Other packs will come with either internal or external bottle pockets that may include insulation for keeping liquids cool and fresh.
Sleeping Bag Compartment
Although daypacks are not intended for overnight use, sometimes people can get caught in unpredictable weather and end up needing to extend their stay. That’s why many daypacks will come equipped with a sleeping bag compartment. Overnight packs will usually come with this feature as well. The sleeping bag compartment is typically stored at the bottom of the pack and is accessed via a zipper.
Sizing Your Pack
Another important feature of the pack to keep in mind is how well it fits you. A pack that you can’t carry comfortable is not a pack that will serve you well. There are several areas that you have to size appropriately on your pack: torso, shoulders, and waist. Most of the weight of the pack is going to be supported by the waist and shoulders so the fit is important.
You’ll need to find a pack that works well with the length of your torso and has a snug fit around your hips. To do this, you can go to the store and try on several packs to find one that fits well. Another option would be to measure yourself with a measuring tape. There are a few packs available that have an adjustable feature, allowing you to customize the fit at the torso, shoulders, and waist.
Knowing how to choose a hiking backpack that’s right for you will help you stay prepared for every trip, no matter how short or long.