How to Choose the Best Hiking Backpacks for New Adventures

When it comes to outdoor adventures, a hiking backpack serves as an ideal solution for carrying necessities, such as water, food, and extra clothing while exploring the great outdoors. However, a hiking backpack is a far cry from the typical school bag. Attempting to use a child’s backpack on a serious hike is likely to be met with ridicule from fellow hikers and forest critters alike. A proper hiking backpack boasts durable materials and an array of pockets to accommodate various items, as well as an adjustable design for optimal comfort during trekking.

While the feeling of setting off on a nature excursion with only the essentials in a backpack is unparalleled, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your needs, regardless of whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a novice. The market is saturated with so many variations in design, capacity, fit, and features, selecting the perfect backpack can be daunting., so selecting the right one can be a challenge.

This guide to hiking backpacks outlines the various types available and provides guidance on how to determine which one best suits your requirements.

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What to Look for in a Hiking Backpack?

When choosing a hiking backpack, it’s important to consider several factors:

Types

There are three types of hiking backpacks: frameless backpacks, internal-frame backpacks, and external-frame backpacks. Below, we provide a brief description of each type.

Frameless backpacks

Frameless backpacks are constructed with flexible materials, making them very lightweight. They do not contain heavy aluminum rods or plastic frame sheets, which allows them to weigh as little as 600 grams, even with a volume of 40 liters. However, they do not transfer weight from the shoulders to the hips efficiently, as a rigid construction is necessary for this. Therefore, they are not ideal for carrying heavy loads and usually have a capacity of no more than 40 liters. Nevertheless, frameless backpacks are well-suited for day hikes and fast lightweight alpine ascents due to their low weight.

Internal-frame backpacks

Internal-frame backpacks are designed with flat aluminum rods or plastic frame sheets, which give them a rigid or semi-rigid structure. These rods or frame sheets are positioned vertically behind the backpack’s back panel to prevent it from collapsing.

Nonetheless, some internal-frame backpacks have detachable frame sheets/rods, which allows you to reduce the backpack’s weight when rigidity is not necessary, such as when carrying light items.

Typically, backpacks with a capacity of over 40 liters are internal-frame backpacks. They are heavier than frameless backpacks because the rigid structure adds some extra weight to the backpack.

This sturdy construction enables the backpack to transfer its weight from the shoulders to the hips through the hip belt, which enhances your performance because the hips are supported by larger muscle groups than the shoulders.

External-frame backpacks

Compared to the other two types of backpacks, external-frame backpacks are seldom used for hiking nowadays, since they are bulkier, heavier, and less travel-friendly

An external-frame backpack is made up of a harness (shoulder straps and a hip belt), an aluminum frame, and a pack. The aluminum frame is completely rigid to offer excellent load support. However, the large and robust aluminum frame significantly increases the weight of the entire system, with a capacity of 50 liters typically weighing more than 2000 grams.

External-frame backpacks have an advantage in that they typically have highly adjustable harnesses, fitting both tall adults and teens. Additionally, they can be customized – the pack can easily be replaced with a larger or smaller one without replacing the frame or harness. External-frame backpacks are often used for carrying items of irregular dimensions. By attaching a bungee cord or rope to the frame, various bulky items can be easily transported.

Capacity

Determining the appropriate capacity for a hiking backpack can be a daunting task for hikers. The market is flooded with backpacks of various sizes, and it is crucial to consider how you intend to use the backpack when selecting the right capacity.

The required capacity of a hiking backpack depends on the amount of gear and supplies you intend to bring. Most hiking backpacks range in size from 20 to 80 liters.

Each hiker has unique equipment preferences, which makes it difficult to categorize backpacks by trip length.

Classifying them as overnight, weekend, or extended trips may not be helpful. A better approach is to pack the gear you intend to carry into a backpack or any other container with a known volume. Based on this, you can decide whether you need a bigger or smaller backpack. However, keep in mind that an excessively large backpack is not optimal as items may shift, affecting your balance, especially on technical terrains. A backpack needs to be adequately filled to be stable.

It’s worth noting that different backpack manufacturers measure the capacity of their bags using different units, such as liters, cubic inches, or cubic feet. One cubic foot is equivalent to approximately 28.3 liters, while one liter is equivalent to roughly 61 cubic inches.

Overnight packs

For an overnight camping trip or day hiking trip, a small hiking backpack with a capacity of 20 to 40 liters is sufficient. These backpacks have a tall and thin design and can carry essentials such as food, water, a first aid kit, and extra clothing. However, they may not be able to accommodate a tent or heavy winter gear.

Weekend packs

A backpack with a capacity of 40 to 65 liters is a good choice for a weekend camping trip. This size works well for carrying a small tent and other necessary gear for a couple of nights. While you can fit some cool weather gear in this size pack, you may need a larger pack for carrying a lot of winter gear.

Multiday packs

To ensure a successful multiple-day camping trip, it is essential to choose a backpack with a capacity of 65 liters or more. These larger packs can easily accommodate winter weather gear, tents, cooking gear, food, and even specialized equipment like mountaineering tools.
Additionally, for overnight or extended hikes, a larger backpack is necessary to carry extra supplies such as food, water, sleeping equipment, and extra clothing. If you’re planning to hike challenging trails or in winter weather, you may also require technical equipment like climbing harnesses, helmets, snowshoes, ropes, and bulky insulated clothing, which will further necessitate a larger backpack.

However, investing in high-quality, compressible gear like sleeping bags and insulated jackets can help you reduce the volume and weight of your equipment. Similarly, packing calorically dense food can help you reduce the weight and volume of your food, making it easier to carry in your backpack.

Fit Properly

A good hiking backpack should fit comfortably on your back, distributing the weight evenly across your shoulders and hips.

Ensuring a proper fit is crucial to a comfortable and safe hiking experience with your backpack. If the backpack doesn’t fit properly, it can cause discomfort and even pain during use, especially when carrying heavy loads, and it’s best to test it out with the actual weight you’ll be carrying on your trip.

To determine the appropriate size for your hiking backpack, measure your torso using a measuring tape with the help of someone else. Measure the distance in inches from the base of your neck’s back to the tops of your hips. This measurement will guide you in selecting the best-fitting backpack for your height. Look for a backpack that is adjustable to your body size and shape.

Nowadays, most modern backpacks feature adjustable harnesses, making it easy to find a well-fitting backpack. Some backpacks also come in different sizes to cater to various torso lengths. Although hip belts are adjustable, it’s crucial for petite or heavyset individuals to pay extra attention to ensure a proper fit. One way to do this is by measuring the circumference around the top of the hips, specifically the iliac crest, and comparing it to the backpack’s specifications.

Material

Hiking backpacks are commonly crafted from nylon and polyester, which comes in various deniers. The higher the denier, the more durable and resistant the fabric will be against abrasions. However, higher-denier nylon is also heavier, so hiking backpacks tend to use nylon with a maximum denier of 210. Reinforcing tougher fabrics is used in high-abrasion areas, such as the backpack bottom, for enhanced durability.

Nylon is typically strengthened with ripstop interwoven threads spaced at regular intervals, preventing tears from expanding and improving tear resistance. To make it water-resistant, hiking backpacks’ nylon is usually coated with polyurethane or silicone. But note that this doesn’t make the backpack waterproof, as backpacks usually lack waterproof zippers.

Access

Backpacks with a top-loading design typically feature a drawstring closure and a lid at the top. Many top-loading backpacks come with an extendable top lid, allowing for additional gear storage between the main compartment and the lid. Some medium and large top-loading backpacks also provide access to the main compartment through a zipper located at the bottom or sides. This feature is particularly handy for retrieving items typically stored at the bottom, like a sleeping bag, without having to unpack the entire backpack.

Backpacks with a panel-loading design feature a U-shaped zipper that provides easy access to the main compartment (similar to a suitcase). This allows for effortless organization and retrieval of items. However, the long zipper makes panel-loading backpacks less durable compared to their top-loading counterparts since zippers are prone to malfunction. Typically, panel-loading designs are used for daypacks, while larger backpacks feature a top-loading design to provide more robustness.

Back Panel

The comfort of a backpack is significantly influenced by the back panel design. Most back panels feature ergonomically contoured foam with “air passages” to enhance ventilation. A gap between the wearer’s back and the backpack’s back panel may occasionally be created by a suspended mesh fabric covering the foam back panel, which improves ventilation.

High-tech and comfortable back panels, however, can increase the weight of the backpack because they call for more materials. As a result, back panels with such sophisticated construction are frequently absent from backpacks made for light alpine ascents.

Pockets

Pockets help to easily locate items while attachment points are useful for carrying bulky gear like ice axes and hiking poles. Various backpacks come with different configurations of pockets and attachment points. It is important to consider how much a particular type of pocket or attachment point will be used during a hike as not every feature is necessary for everyone.

Backpacks offer various types of pockets and attachment points to make organizing and carrying gear more convenient during a hike.
An internal lid pocket provides a secure spot to store valuable items like car keys, cash, ID card or wallets.

An external top lid pocket is useful for storing frequently used items that can be accessed with the help of a hiking partner.

Side pockets are great for holding water bottles and other frequently used items, though accessibility may vary depending on the backpack.
Hip belt pockets are easy to access and perfect for storing small items like cell phones, cameras, and GPS devices.
A stash pocket, typically located on the front of the backpack, is useful for storing wet clothing or items that shouldn’t be placed in the main compartment.

Attachment points on hiking backpacks typically include ice axe loops, trekking pole attachment systems, and adjustable straps at the bottom of the backpack. Adjustable straps at the bottom allow for easy attachment of bulky items such as tents or sleeping pads.

Useful Straps

Padded shoulder straps

To provide additional comfort, most shoulder straps are padded. It is especially crucial to have well-padded shoulder straps when carrying heavier loads.

Sternum strap

The sternum strap on a hiking backpack is designed to increase the stability and balance of the backpack by connecting the two shoulder straps across the chest. It helps to prevent the backpack from shifting or bouncing around while hiking, particularly on rough or uneven terrain.

The sternum strap also helps to distribute the weight of the backpack more evenly across the shoulders and chest, reducing strain and fatigue on the shoulders. Additionally, some sternum straps may have an adjustable buckle or whistle, which can be useful in emergency situations.

Hip belt

The purpose of a hip belt on a backpack is to transfer weight from your shoulders to your hips, which not only enhances comfort but also improves the stability and balance of the backpack. This feature is particularly beneficial when hiking on technical terrain, where an unexpected shift in the backpack could result in a fall.

Load adjuster straps

A load adjuster strap on a hiking backpack is to help balance the weight of the backpack and distribute the load more evenly on the body. The load adjuster straps connect the upper part of the shoulder straps to the top of the backpack and allow you to pull the upper part of the backpack closer to your body. Doing so decreases the pressure on your lumbar area, which can help reduce fatigue and discomfort during long hikes. The load adjuster straps are particularly effective when the backpack is fully loaded as they help to distribute the weight more evenly across your shoulders and hips.

Compression straps

A compression strap on a hiking backpack helps stabilize the load and reduce the bulk of the pack. Pulling the contents of the backpack closer to your back helps to improve your balance and center of gravity, making the backpack easier to carry.

Compression straps can also be used to secure items that are attached to the outside of the backpack, such as a sleeping pad or tent, so that they do not shift around or come loose while you are hiking. Overall, compression straps are a useful feature that helps you to carry your gear comfortably and securely on the trail.

How Can I Use a Hiking Backpack Properly?

To get the most out of your hiking backpack, consider the following tips:

Choose the right backpack: Select a backpack that is appropriate for the length of your trip, the amount of gear you need to carry, and your body size and shape. Try on different backpacks and adjust them to find the right fit.

Pack efficiently: Organize your gear in the backpack in a way that distributes the weight evenly and keeps frequently used items easily accessible. Use compression straps to minimize the size of the backpack and keep the contents stable.

Adjust the backpack: Make sure the hip belt, shoulder straps, sternum strap, and load adjuster straps are properly adjusted to fit your body. This will help you carry the weight more comfortably and prevent the backpack from shifting while you hike.

Practice good posture: Stand up straight and keep your shoulders back while wearing the backpack. This will help you maintain good balance and reduce strain on your back and shoulders.

Stay hydrated: Use the side pockets or hydration bladder in your backpack to carry enough water for your trip. Stay hydrated throughout the hike to avoid fatigue and dehydration.

Take breaks: Take frequent breaks to rest and stretch your muscles. This will help prevent fatigue and reduce the risk of injury.

Maintain the backpack: After each trip, clean and dry the backpack to prevent mold and mildew. Check the zippers, straps, and buckles for damage or wear and tear, and repair or replace them as needed. Proper maintenance will help your backpack last longer and perform better on future hikes.

In Addition to Carrying My Gear for Hiking, What Else Uses Does A Hiking Backpack Have?

Hiking backpacks are designed primarily for outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking, and camping, but they can also be useful for other purposes. Here are some other uses of hiking backpacks:

Travel: Hiking backpacks are often used for travel as they are versatile and can carry a lot of gear. They can be used as carry-on luggage for flights or as a backpack for road trips.

Gym bag: Hiking backpacks can also be used as gym bags. They are spacious and can hold gym clothes, shoes, water bottles, and other accessories.

Photography bag: Hiking backpacks are also useful for photographers who need to carry camera gear while hiking. Many hiking backpacks have special compartments for camera equipment.

Emergency preparedness: Hiking backpacks can be used as emergency kits in case of natural disasters or other emergencies. They can hold essential items such as food, water, first aid supplies, and communication devices.

Camping pillow and backrest: Soft-sided backpacks can also double as a pillow or backrest for a quick nap or a seat on a soft surface.

Storage: the backpack can be used to organize and store camping gear at home.

Finally, placing taller items in the backpack can provide some protection from the sun while hiking, offering shade on the back of the body, neck, and head. However, when using the backpack as a pillow or a backrest, it’s important to avoid sitting on the water bladder to prevent damage.

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