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How To Choose A Hiking Backpack (Buyer’s Guide)

A hiking backpack is an essential piece of gear for most hikers. It carries your equipment, your food and water, and so many other necessary items. With so many backpacks to choose from on the market, many do not know where to begin when choosing a hiking backpack.

To choose a hiking backpack you first need to consider the type of hiking you will be doing. You should then choose based on the size, materials used, comfort level, and how much stuff the pack can hold. This ensures you choose the backpack best suited for your needs.

It is important to choose the right backpack, but with so many factors to consider it can be easy to get confused. Below, we walk you through everything you need to know about hiking backpacks to help you make the purchase that is best for you.

Different Types Of Hiking Backpack

First, you should know that different types of hiking backpacks exist, and each type is suited for different hiking conditions. Understanding the conditions that each backpack is best for and why, will help you decide the option that is right for your hiking needs.

A Mini Backpack

Mini backpacks are the smallest backpack option available. This particular backpack is often used by children or athletes. Some individuals who are heading out for a day trip or short hike may wish to carry this type of backpack due to its small size.

This option is especially good for sports and short adventures due to its exceptionally light and compact structure. This pack will sit close to your back when worn on both shoulders. It cannot store a lot or carry too much weight.

The Daypack

The daypack is the most widely used backpack. It is designed to provide enough capacity to carry all that is needed for a day hike or hike that will last several hours. The backpack contains several external pockets, as well as a larger internal pocket for storage. This provides ample space for refreshments, waterproofs, and other essential items.

This backpack can carry a reasonable amount of weight, but it is not designed for storing all gear and equipment required for overnight hikes. It does not have the proper capacity or structure for that use. Daypacks come in many styles and designs offering ample padding and support to keep you comfortable for miles.

The Medium Backpack

Medium backpacks are typically used by serious hikers who cover longer distances or go camping overnight. This backpack has more capacity, offering more storage for camping equipment and gear. You can easily attach your tent and sleeping bag to this pack and still have significant space for clothing and essentials. Knowing how to pack items correctly is the best way to get maximum use of space.

This backpack usually contains additional support features, including straps that wrap around the body. These straps distribute the weight of the pack’s contents and provide more balance and comfort. This allows for you to remain comfortable while carrying more weight on your hike.

The Large Backpack

Lastly is the large backpack. The large backpack is best suited for those who are going trekking. In this case you need to carry more equipment that will sustain you for a longer duration of time. Therefore, this pack has the largest capacity and is designed in such a way that all this weight can be carried on your back in a balanced way.

To distribute the weight evenly and provide balance, the large backpack features strong, adjustable straps. The straps are typically across the chest and sometimes across the hips. This allows you to hike comfortably for a longer duration of time.

As you can see from these options, each type of hiking backpack is best suited for a different type of camping. The daypack option is most popular as it is designed for day hikes, which is the most popular form of hiking. Each pack will perform well for the purposes they are designed for.

Features To Look For In A Hiking Backpack

When selecting a new hiking backpack, you have several features to pay close attention to that will help you make the right choice. Each aspect, or feature, is important and you need to think carefully about each one to determine if it meets your own individual preferences and requirements.

Waterproofing

You should make sure your backpack contains some degree of waterproofing to keep the inner contents dry. This could also apply to external pockets. However, many packs use mesh there, which is not waterproof. Consider whether waterproof external pockets are an important feature for you.

Be aware of the seams of the backpack, they can often be weak points that allow water or moisture inside. You will want a backpack with sealed seams. These reduce the potential amount of water that could work its way inside the pack.

External Pockets

You should look for a backpack with several external pockets that are easy to access at all times. These pockets may be positioned in different locations from the side of the pack to the front. Some packs have a small pocket on the top, however, this is not useful if it cannot be accessed easily.

Padding

Ensuring your backpack has adequate padding will make your hike as comfortable as possible. The padding should not only be present on the shoulder straps, but also on the back of the back as it will be pressing against your spine. Look for padding that is substantial but does not feel too bulky.

Easy Adjustment

You should choose a backpack that is easy to adjust. Being able to adjust the straps to your personal preference will make it more comfortable. One-size-fits-all is not a feature that works with hiking backpacks. We all have different back widths, and each have our own preferences on where we like the pack to sit.

Backpacks with adjustable features are usually achieved via a loop thread system. This allows you to easily alter the length of the straps to whatever position feels best for you. You may find that you will want different adjustments for different types of hikes. Having an adjustable strap system will prove handy in this case.

A Hip Belt

A hip belt is not as essential as other features, therefore not every backpack comes with this option. They are more standard on medium and large backpacks as they carry more weight. Hip belts are used to help distribute weight and load on heavier packs. It keeps the backpack balanced and prevents excessive movement. This allows for more comfort and security, as well as more safety.

The Fabric

Most modern backpacks are manufactured from nylon. However, it could be listed in a variety of ways including Cordura nylon or Ripstop nylon. Nylon is stronger than most people think. It is woven in such a way that it is difficult to rip or tear. Fabric is an important aspect of the backpack. Nylon is a good choice as it is waterproof and durable, two characteristics vital for backpack fabric.

Robust Zippers

Another important feature to look for is strong, durable zippers. Robust zippers make a huge difference in the function of your pack. You particularly want the largest compartment of your backpack to come with a heavy-gauge zipper as you will spend the most time opening and closing it.

Many modern backpacks tend to come with a curved top section. This is a design change that was implemented to remove excess stress on the zipper. With a curved path, there is less pressure created from the fabric pulling on the zipper. This design encourages durability and functionality of the zipper.

An Internal Frame

An internal frame gives the backpack structure and support. The frame is very important as it helps distribute the weight on your back. It also influences the balance point of the load you have and keeps it in line with your body. Therefore, it is easier for you to carry your pack and you won’t need to worry about losing your balance.

The importance of internal frames increases as the weight you carry increases. Carrying a lot of weight without proper frame support could lead to discomfort or injury. The frames can be metal or plastic, which is then covered by fabric. Despite being covered, you will still feel the frame so make sure the pack remains comfortable.

A Well-Ventilated Back Panel

Many people know to check the back panel for padding but fail to realize the importance of ventilation in this area. Ventilation helps stop your back from swearing when carrying your backpack. Sweat quickly becomes uncomfortable, making for a less pleasurable hike. Therefore, make sure to look for a backpack that provides ample ventilation on the back panel.

An Expansion Zipper

The expansion zipper is not always available nor is it always necessary. However, it can be beneficial for some. Sometimes, you want your backpack to be smaller or more compact. Say you are not carrying a full pack of items and you want to condense your pack some, an expansion zipper could provide that feature.

When unzipped, an expansion zipper allows the backpack to expand in size by a small amount. This can provide room for additional items or bulky items. Closing the expansion zipper will make the bag slightly more compact. This feature provides another aspect of adjustment that can suit personal preference.

Now that you know the many key features to look for in a pack, you must consider the size and fit. Understanding how to choose the size and get a perfect fit will ensure you have a comfortable and functional backpack for hiking.

What Is A Good Size Hiking Backpack?

A good size hiking backpack depends on the type of hiking that you are doing. The type of hiking will directly impact the number of items and gear you must carry, therefore impacting the size of the pack. Generally, the longer the hike, the larger the backpack needs to be.

As mentioned previously, understanding the different types of backpacks and the types of hiking they are suited for will make the decision-making process much easier. If you only plan on taking day hikes, you will not need a medium or large backpack. Whereas someone who frequently hikes overnight will need a larger pack as they carry more equipment and gear.

How To Choose The Right Size

As mentioned above, to determine the appropriate size of the hiking backpack, you must determine what type of hiking you will be doing most often. It requires planning ahead and considering what all you need to pack and how much space is needed.

For an example we will use the most common form of hiking, the day hike. When day hiking you can expect to be on the trail for several hours and then you return home. You will need a backpack capable of holding the necessary items needed for this type of hike. This could include food, refreshments, your cell phone, waterproofs, a first-aid kit, and some emergency gear.

These items typically do not take up a large amount of space, therefore you do not need a large backpack. You would likely choose a daypack or a pack similar in size that accommodates the few items you’re carrying and does not include excess weight or space. Planning like this allows you to choose a backpack that meets your hiking and personal needs without overdoing it.

The Exception To The Rule

If you are an avid hiker or believe you may become one, then things will be different. You will likely go on many different types of hikes often. However, each type of hike still calls for different type of backpacks. Therefore, avid hikers will likely own more than one hiking backpack to accommodate the different types of hikes they go on.

Getting The Right Fit For A Hiking Backpack

Ensuring that your backpack will fit well is incredibly important as it will carry weight and be on your back for many hours at a time. Without the correct size, the support and padding you sought out earlier will not be useful.

Forget About Your Height

Your height is important, but for ensuring a hiking backpack fit you need to determine your torso length instead. You must accurately measure your torse length by measuring from your neck to your hips, and then across your hips. This will determine if you need a small, medium, or long backpack.

Torso length is key because of the way the backpack sits against your back. Having an incorrectly sized backpack will make your pack sit on the wrong parts of your spine causing discomfort.

You want to also measure hip width to determine how the hip belt with fit. This part is important for distributing the weight of the backpack across your back evenly. A hip belt that is the wrong size could throw everything off balance.

Getting The Right Size

Many backpack manufacturers will have a chart detailing the length of each pack in their range. Check the measurements and compare them to the ones you took of yourself. This is the best way to ensure the pack fits. After that, you can consider adjusting the straps until the fit is perfect.

If you have any doubts or concerns here, you can often contact the manufacturer for assistance, they will likely be happy to help you out.

Adjustment

Even when you feel you have purchased a backpack that is the correct length, there is still a need for some adjustment. However, this should be easy to do, and it should take just minutes to complete. Be aware that most backpacks will come with four different adjustment straps. These include the shoulder straps, the load-lifter strap, the hip belt, and the sternum strap.

A Tip For Adjusting

Try your backpack on while at home. Add some weight to it and then loosen all the adjustment straps at the same time. After, tighten the shoulder straps first and then the sternum strap. This helps the backpack sit better on your back. Get this position down first and then fine-tune later.

Remember, no backpack will fit perfectly as soon as you get it. You will likely spend a lot of time changing and adjusting your straps, this is normal even for experienced hikers. It is a continuous process. Also note that you should not adjust your pack when it is empty, this gives a false impression of how the pack will sit.

How Many Liters Should A Hiking Backpack Be?

The capacity your backpack should have directly relates to the type of hiking you are doing and how much storage capacity you will need. This could range from 6 to over 50 liters. The larger the backpack, the more liters it can hold. For longer hikes, you will require a backpack with more space.

Liters refer to the measurement of storage capacity that a hiking backpack has. The capacity volume increases with the size of the backpack. To determine how many liters to look for in a pack you must determine what you must carry during your hike and therefore how much storage space you will need.

The Mini And Small Backpack

Mini and small backpacks have a capacity between 6 to 10 liters. This does not hold many items, leaving room for only necessities. Therefore, these packs are generally used for day trips or for children and sports activities. These backpacks are lightweight and do not take up much space on your back.

A Daypack

Backpacks that have a storage capacity between 10 to 30 liters are considered a daypack. These packs are often used for commuting and day hikes. They hold plenty of items without becoming too bulky or cumbersome, making these packs perfect for hikes that last several hours.

Daypacks provide ample space for refreshments, food, necessities, and even some additional gear. This type of backpack is the most popular as it is best suited for the most popular type of hiking, day hiking. They are perfect for hikers who love to simply get out into the world for an afternoon and be back inside by nighttime.

Medium Backpack

A medium backpack is any pack with a capacity of between 30 and 50 liters. This is the ideal solution for people who plan to stay overnight, so hikers who cover extended routes over a couple of days should focus on this particular type of backpack.

This is also the primary option for people who plan on going camping. It provides ample space for additional clothes, camping equipment, more pocket options for safety equipment, and extra food and nourishment.

Large Backpack

Finally, we have the large backpack, which refers to any pack with a capacity of more than 50 liters. This option is best for a backpacker or people going on long treks. It gives more options for storage, but be aware that these packs end up being significantly heavier due to the number of items they can carry.

These backpacks are more of a specialist item. If you only plan on venturing out on hikes that take a few hours, then this backpack would not be a reasonable option for you.

When looking over these capacities and types of backpacks, consider how they relate to your hiking and personal needs. Choose a backpack that is best suited for you based on the type of hiking you will do and the features that you deem necessary.

Final Thoughts

To choose a hiking backpack you must consider the type of hiking you will do most often and what your hiking and personal needs are. With this information you can choose a backpack type and the necessary features that are best for you. Lastly, ensure that the pack is comfortable and fits correctly.