A backpack is your most important piece of hiking equipment. And choosing the right backpack can make or break your hike.
Your goal is to find a durable and comfortable backpack that fits everything you need without being overloaded. You also don’t want a bag that’s too big otherwise you will have a lot of unused space. There are just so many options available it can be difficult to know where to start.
I’ve had a few backpacks over the years, and I’ve learned what makes a good backpack. In fact, I’ve had my current backpack for the past 8 years! So, it’s safe to say that I know how to choose the right backpack for the right adventure. And, while it can be time-consuming, if you put the time in you won’t regret it.
To save you time and money, I’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to choose the right backpack.
Things to Consider when Looking for a Backpack
There are several things to take into consideration before choosing a backpack. Here are five key questions you should ask yourself before deciding on a backpack:
1. How long is your trip?
This is the first question you should ask yourself. If you are going on a day hike, your backpack will be smaller than if you are going on a multi-day expedition.
2. Where are you going?
Will you be camping in the wilderness or passing by towns? If you won’t have access to clean water, you will have far more material to carry.
3. What activities will you be doing?
Do you plan on only hiking, or will you go climbing as well? In the latter case, you will need a backpack that can carry climbing gear.
Once you know what activities you will be doing, you should make note of what equipment you will need (i.e., tent, sleeping bag, ice pick, crampons, water filter, etc.). The amount of equipment will also dictate the size of your bag.
4. How much will you be carrying? And can you carry everything?
The more activities you do the more you will need to carry. But you should also assess whether you can carry everything. If you have enough equipment to fill an 80L bag, but you can’t carry it, you will have to reevaluate your situation.
5. When are you going?
As with any hike, you will need to know the weather and terrain. If you are hiking in the desert during the dry season, then you will need A LOT of water. And you will need a backpack that can carry that amount of water or have space for a water bladder. On the other hand, if you are hiking during the rainy season, you will want a backpack that is weatherproof.
Types of Backpack (Size and Capacity)
All the above considerations will influence the type of hiking backpack you will need. Below I’ve categorized backpacks by their size and capacity. Here it’s important to choose the right backpack size. Why? Because you don’t want the contents to be moving around while you are hiking. And, when the weight is evenly distributed across your body, it’s much easier to carry.
10-20 Liters – Running and Cycling Backpacks
These bags are lightweight and are ideal for activities where you can’t carry a lot. In general, you can fit a small water bladder, a few snacks, and a small jacket, but not too much more. They can also be used for short walks. I have, however, tried this myself, and I found the straps to be uncomfortable.
20-35 Liters – Daypacks (Ideal for Short Day Hikes)
If you are planning a day hike, then a 20–40-liter backpack is the best size. You will be able to fit all your essentials, including water, snacks, extra layers, and your camera equipment. Generally, these backpacks are compact and lightweight, so they won’t weigh you down. The smaller end of these bags (i.e., 20-25 Liters) can also be used as carry-on bags.
I use the Wandrd Prvke 21L backpack. It’s the ideal daypack for hikers that carry a lot of camera gear. It’s comfortable, waterproof, and holds everything I need it to.
35-50 Liters – Weekend Trip (Ideal for Medium Length Hikes)
If you’re going for a weekend getaway then you will need more room than a daypack. But you will still want to be lightweight. There are several options available for weekend trip backpacks, but I, personally, use the LowePro Whistler 450. It’s perfect for holding all my camera gear along with everything I need for a weekend getaway. Granted, it’s not the lightest backpack, but it’s very comfortable, so I don’t notice the extra weight.
Useful Tip: You will also find mountaineering and alpine climbing backpacks in this size range. They typically have more features and are very lightweight.
50-70 Liters – Multi-day Backpacks (Ideal for Long Hiking Trips)
These backpacks are perfect for extended trips (i.e., 5 days or more) where you are hiking for several days. Not only do these backpacks have more capacity, but they are also designed to support heavier loads. This means that they evenly distribute the weight across your body so you can carry them for longer. They also have more bells and whistles, like extra straps, buckles, and handy pockets.
I use the Deuter Aircontact Trekking Backpack (50 + 10 SL). I’ve had this backpack for the last 8 years, and it’s never failed me. It’s lightweight, durable, comfortable, and holds everything I need.
Above 70 Liters – Multi-day Backpacks (Ideal for Long Expeditions)
Backpacks above 70 Liters have an exceptionally large capacity. They are often used for expeditions in very harsh environments or by people with larger/taller body frames. If you need a bag this size, make sure you can comfortably carry it when it’s fully loaded.
How to Fit a Backpack
How a backpack fits your body is one of the most important things to consider when choosing a backpack. You can have an excellent backpack, but if it’s doesn’t fit right you could end up with a lot of hip and back pain.
Here is a video that explains how to correctly fit a backpack.
Must-Have Features in a Good Backpack
When choosing a backpack, you should also consider what features are available and what you need. Here are the seven most important features to look out for:
Padded Hip Belt: A comfortable hip belt that fits correctly can make or break your hiking experience. Your backpack’s weight should be evenly distributed so your shoulders are not doing all the work. Bigger backpacks (50L and up) usually have larger hip belts and more padding. Daypacks, on the other hand, don’t always have a hip belt. My daypack has a hip belt, and, while it’s thin, it does provide an extra amount of support.
Padded Shoulder Straps: Like hip belts, the thickness and type of padding are directly proportional to the size of the backpack. Thick padded straps provide comfort and support while thinner ones offer more flexibility.
Chest Strap: The chest strap (or sternum strap) attaches the shoulder straps. It provides an extra level of stability by holding the shoulder straps in place. For me, this is a must-have, along with a hip belt. Your back, shoulders, and hips will appreciate it.
Padded Back Panel (with Internal Frame): For maximum comfort, the back panel should be contoured and padded. It should support the natural arch of your back to avoid any back pain. The best and most ergonomic backpacks also have an internal frame. This helps keep everything in place while providing an additional level of support.
Top and Front Loading: A top-loading backpack allows you to access everything from the top of the bag, whereas a front-loading allows access only from the front. For larger backpacks (50L and up), you will want both top and front loading. It will be much easier to access your things.
Water-Resistant Material: Most hiking backpacks are not 100% waterproof, but they are made of water-resistant material and come with a rain cover. If you get caught in a torrential downpour, which has happened to me on more than one occasion, you’ll want to have these two features.
Load Lifting Straps: These adjustment straps connect the shoulder straps to the top of the back frame. They can be used to change the distance between your body and the backpack. It’s an essential feature that prevents a heavy backpack from pulling away.
Below is a list of additional features, and, while they are not necessary, they will make your life easier.
Ventilation System: I would recommend a pack that has a suspended mesh system. This minimizes the sweat buildup on your back and offers better ventilation, on both warm and cold-weather hikes.
External Pockets: A hip belt pocket, front stash pocket, and stretch side pockets will all give you quick access to your gear.
Walking pole/ice axe loops: Use these to hold your walking poles and/or ice axes.
Lid: The lid usually has a top pocket for easy access. It’s a very convenient accessory to have.
Sleeping Bag Compartment: This is the lowest compartment on a backpack. It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s very useful for organizing your gear.
Extra Accessory straps: If you plan on carrying a sleeping mat or tent you will need extra external straps.
Compression Straps: These straps help reduce the volume of your backpack. They also prevent items from moving around.
Hydration Reservoir: Most multi-day hiking backpacks have an internal sleeve and hook where you can attach a water bladder. It’s not essential, but for long treks, it can be very useful.
Protective Cover: Backpacks larger than 20-30L usually need to be checked at airports. So, you will want a protective cover with lockable zippers to secure and protect your bag. It also comes in handy on long long-distance bus routes where your bag either goes on top or under the bus.
Average Cost of a Good Hiking Backpack
There are a lot of options out there, and once you narrow down what you need you can start looking at backpack brands. As with most travel and hiking gear, you get what you pay for.
Obviously, store brands are cheaper than name brands like North Face, Osprey, Gregory, Deuter, and Arc’teryx. But, if you want a good quality backpack that will last you for several years, expect to pay around 250-300 USD. I paid 250 USD for my Deuter backpack and I’ve had it for 8 years. Store brands will be as low as 100 USD, but, then the quality will not be as good.
In general, you should test out what works for you. Visit a store where you can try on a bag with various items inside. See how it feels on your shoulders and hips. If it’s uncomfortable at the store, it will be uncomfortable during a hike.
While choosing the right backpack does require a lot of research, if you put the time in and follow my suggestions in this guide you will have it for years to come.
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