Packing for a hiking trip revolves entirely around the backpack. You need to ensure that everything you need can fit inside with easy access. For a successful hike, you want a backpack that will have all the most important features to make the trip go as smoothly as possible.
The 10 essential hiking backpack features to look for are:
- The right size
- The right weight
- Padded shoulder straps
- Hip belts
- Lumbar padding for back support
- Back ventilation
- Storage space
- Durable zippers
- Hydration bladder
The features that a backpack offers are incredibly important for its performance. The backpack must be able to keep up with you and all your necessities. Below, we go through the 10 most important features to look for in a backpack to ensure you have the best hiking experience possible.
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The features you should look for in a hiking backpack are those that combine to create the most comfortable and convenient hike for you. The most important features will be the size and weight of your backpack, but some people may require others, like a built-in hydration bladder.
Our list of the 10 essential hiking backpack features to look for is a great starting guide and ticking off as many of these key features as possible will result in a superb backpack that should make your hiking much more enjoyable.
The size and weight of your backpack should be your primary concern. Make decisions based on your height, fitness, and physique. Remember, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your backpack on, therefore it is necessary for it to be a good fit.
Once you have found your starting point, you’ll want to focus on the how. How does your backpack feel when it’s on? How secure does it feel? Are the shoulder straps padded and adjustable? Making sure your potential new backpack is fully adjustable is vital to getting the right fit. A badly fitting strap will soon cause discomfort and eventually affect your posture.
Posture is important when it comes to backpacks, and a hip belt can make a lot of difference. Therefore, hip belts should be high on your list of expected features, along with lumbar support for your lower back. Remember, the comfort and functionality of the backpack are necessary features, the style and design are just benefits.
Once you’re comfortable with the way your backpack sits on your back, your next thought should be its ventilation. You want the mesh system or frame to leave enough of a cavity between yourself and the backpack for air to circulate. It should feel as if the backpack is a part of your body, seamlessly integrating hiker and equipment.
Though the previous features take priority, the following features are also beneficial for a great hiking experience. First, having the right storage capacity will allow you to carry everything you need on your hike. Having exterior pockets, like a kangaroo pocket on the front, will make accessing your necessities much easier.
Hopefully, the hip belt also has pockets, try thinking of it as a utility belt that’s good for your back. The more your equipment’s weight is distributed, the easier it is to carry. A hydration bladder is another key feature. Hydration bladders are designed to carry more water in a much more weight-distributed way.
You want to avoid overloading your backpack if possible as this can damage zippers. A backpack that doesn’t close properly becomes a liability. Sturdy zippers are a must. Gently cleaning zippers with soap and water frequently will help them resist jams and snags.
Now that you’ve obtained all the necessary features thus far, your bag fits well and functions perfectly. There is one last check, waterproofing. Waterproofing is essential for keeping your gear protected from moisture. Most packs are water-resistant, but you should consider a rain cover and drybags to ensure your pack contents remain dry.
While many backpacks are of similar shape and build, it’s the quality, additional features, and functionality that make the difference. Prices and materials used may vary, but they should all have some basic features.
Every hiking backpack should have the following:
- A haul handle
- Sternum strap
- Hip belt
- Shoulder straps
- Top pocket
- Ventilation system
- Internal frame
- Gear loops
- Side pockets
- Hip belt pockets
- Water bottle holder
- Kangaroo pocket
- Sleeping bag compartment
- Hydration port
Most backpacks will have most or at least some of these features and finding the right backpack with the best features available in your price range will ultimately allow you to hike in comfort and style. You may not be able to find all ten features in your backpack but try to aim for as many as possible.
1. The Right Size
For obvious reasons the size of your backpack is important, but that doesn’t necessarily mean bigger is better. Choosing the right-sized backpack for your hiking needs is one of the first things you should take into consideration.
The type of hiking you plan on doing, whether you are going on day trips or camping out for several days, will affect the amount of equipment you need to take with you. Backpack sizes are measured in liters, and can range from 6 L to over 60 L.
For shorter hiking trips a 20 L to 30 L backpack should be more than sufficient. You want to be light on your feet, unencumbered by non-essential items. A smaller backpack should still have all the additional support and features of a larger pack. Comfort and usability are just as important, only on a smaller scale to fit for shorter hikes.
When it comes to hiking for two or more days, realistically you are going to be carrying more equipment with you, and a backpack with at least 40 L to 60 L capacity or more is advisable. The more you can comfortably carry, the better, but getting the balance right can make your hiking trips a great deal easier.
Consider your physique and fitness when choosing the size of your backpack, trying out backpacks in a store is preferable to buying a hiking backpack online, at least when trying to judge sizes. Shorter hikers may struggle with a 60 L backpack, and a taller hiker may find a 20 L backpack doesn’t feel comfortable.
2. The Right Weight
The weight of your backpack, both empty and fully laden, should have high priority on your list of essential features. Regardless of functionality or comfort, if you can’t lift your backpack, you can’t hike. You may question why the weight of your backpack when empty is even relevant, but every pound of weight saved is something to consider.
Many backpacks are made of lightweight yet extremely durable materials. This reduces the weight while retaining the strength to withstand the hiking conditions. Before your hiking trip, fill your backpack with everything you plan on taking, and try it on to determine whether it will be too heavy.
If you feel that your backpack is too heavy when full or too light, it may be worthwhile to reassess whether your pack is the right size. You may need to scale up if your pack is too light or scale down if it is too heavy to manage.
Once you are happy with the size and weight of your backpack, it’s time to look at the key comfort and quality of life features that it must have. Without comfortable padded straps, you will experience discomfort. Your backpack may feel fine when testing it at home, but after half a day hiking, you’ll likely wish you had prioritized padding.
Each strap needs to be durable, well padded, and adjustable to whatever length you may require. A backpack must be strapped to you so that movement of the pack is restricted. You should be able to control the width of your shoulder straps too. Whether you have broader shoulders or a slimmer build, the pack should be able to adjust to your preference.
Try looking for shoulder straps that have a sternum strap too. A sternum strap doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to lifting or supporting weight, but they stop shoulder straps from sliding off, which can be handy when freedom of movement is vital.
A backpack that comes with a hip belt is an absolute necessity for a comfortable hiking experience. A good hip belt can transfer a massive amount of the weight of your backpack from your back and shoulders, transferring up to 80% of the weight onto your hips.
Looking at the physical relief and load-sharing capabilities of a hip belt, the benefits it provides are incredible. The weight that your shoulders and potentially your lower back would have to endure is now spread onto your hips, which due to leg muscles being stronger, allows for a much more comfortable hiking experience.
As already mentioned, your backpack needs to be set tightly against your back. A loose pack will bounce around and the lack of weight distribution and potential loss of balance can quickly become annoying and uncomfortable. A backpack with shoulder straps firmly adjusted, and a thick, padded hip belt can make all the difference.
Many hip belts come with pockets or pouches, which makes it much easier to store smaller essentials that are easily at hand when needed. Taking off your backpack to simply get one item can be a laborious effort, so having extra pockets right at your hip is a great addition to your backpack.
It is worth pointing out that so far, every backpack feature listed has been focuses solely on the comfort and ease of use, and this is no accident. Before even thinking about how many cool and fancy things you can add to your hiking trip, your backpack must be comfortable.
The next essential feature, also targeted towards comfort, is lumbar padding to support your lower back. Lower back pain will, quite simply, ruin your hiking trip. Every step becomes agony as you become mired in trying to find a comfortable position for your backpack. Lumbar padding can take help prevent this.
Many backpacks don’t come with extra lumbar padding, but you can purchase the padding separately and it is strongly advised to do so. This feature will improve your posture and allow your backpack to better contour with the curve of your spine, making the hike easier and more comfortable.
Hiking warms the body quickly, which results in excess sweating. Sweating is a normal part of hiking and may even be desired by those seeking a workout, but this can become an issue if your body doesn’t cool down. Without proper ventilation, your back has a hip belt, lumbar padding, layered clothing, and a heavy backpack on top with nowhere for the sweat to escape.
Choosing a backpack with a built-in ventilation system will make your hiking trip a great deal easier, cooler, and more comfortable. Your options are varied, although one of the best ventilation systems is a suspension system that keeps your backpack off your back entirely.
The suspended mesh is held in place above a concave cavity between your back and the backpack itself, which allows for airflow to pass between the two surfaces and keeps your back cool. Having a well-ventilated backpack system is another key feature that adds a huge quality of life improvement and should be a priority on your backpack feature list.
Now that we’ve covered essential features for improving comfort and functionality, we can look at features that provide additional convenience and protection for yourself and your gear.
Storage space is often the first consideration novice hikers think about when choosing a new hiking backpack. How much can I carry with me? Can I fit a 6-person tent in there? 8 liters of water, a folding camping table, and five changes of clothes later, the novice hiker can barely make it out of the parking lot due to excess weight.
Once you have the right size and weight for your backpack, utilizing the storage space available is vital. From having plenty of external pockets, even on the hip belt for quick access, to a roomy main compartment to store your equipment in it is important to optimize all storage available to avoid excess weight.
Naturally, the larger your backpack, the more pockets and storage space it may have. It is usuallybetter to have a larger pack that is partially fullover a smaller backpack that is overloaded. After adjusting all the straps on your pack, removing it to access your items can be tedious. This is when hip belts with pockets are beneficial for storing small, frequently used items.
Another handy addition to keep an eye out for is a kangaroo pocket on the front of your backpack. These are often not secured by zippers and are stretchy enough to hold items such as raincoats. Kangaroo pockets are a quick and efficient addition to any backpack for easy access to items that you may need at random times during your hike.
The more storage space you have, the better, but you should find the right balance between storage and functionality. Don’t overload simply because your backpack has enough space to take three weeks of rations, even on your two-day hike. Before filling your pockets, try to picture how happy you’ll be after three days with your backpack on.
You should also pay careful attention to the quality of the zippers on your backpack. A great fitting backpack that sits snugly on your back and carries everything you need can be ruined by cheap or broken zippers that don’t function properly.
Zippers are the only real moving part of the backpack and must be taken care of. From being opened roughly, to overpacking a backpack and forcing the zipper closed to keep everything inside, your zippers need to be sturdily built and well maintained.
Many hiking backpacks come with a two-zipper system, this offers both an extra load-bearing strength to the pack and allows for locking of the backpack with a padlock. You can also open just a small amount of the compartment without having to open it fully.
A water-resistant backpack will keep your equipment dry and clean, while also helping to keep down the weight of a pack that could quickly become saturated with water. Most hiking backpacks are water resistant or in some way waterproof. Fully-waterproofed backpacks tend to be more expensive.
To avoid going over budget on your backpack, ensure it has at least had some waterproof treatment on the materials. This will keep most water out of your equipment. It can be very difficult to waterproof zippers and seams, so you should counteract this by having a secondary system in place.
There are alternatives to a fully-waterproofed backpack, such as drybags. These do exactly what they sound like, keeping the contents of your backpack in drybags keeps the items separated and protects them from water in the event some leaks into the pack.
Another alternative is to get a waterproof rain cover for your backpack, this keeps everything inside and outside of your backpack dry and can even be coupled up with drybags to add a double layer of protection.
Water intake is one of the most important things a hiker must consider. The more clean water you are able to carry, the better. Water bottles are great, but the design is rigid and takes up valuable space, especially when taking into account the amount of water needed every day.
A great alternative is a hydration bladder. This is a water bladder that fits inside your backpack and can store much more valuable water than a bottle can. A hydration bladder has the bonus of being flexible and is shaped to fit into a backpack in such a way that it distributes the weight of the water much more efficiently.
The addition of the bladders water tube means a hiker can drink on the go, taking sips to keep hydrated while walking. Some hiking backpacks come with a free hydration bladder, although there are multiple sellers online or at hiking shops where bladders can be purchased separately if needed.
So even if you go for a backpack that doesn’t come with a hydration bladder, it is an excellent addition to consider. The extra water storage is well worth the cost, the water is kept cooler in your backpack, and the water is within easy reach while hiking.
Falling into the trap that “a backpack is just a backpack” separates the seasoned hiker from the chiropractor’s next patient. The perfect backpack may not exist, but through solid research and by prioritizing essential features, you can make your backpack work with you rather than against you.