Hiking Backpacks: How to choose

Choosing a backpack for hiking or backpacking can be super tough. This guide will help demystify the different aspects you should look at when picking a hiking backpack. I’ve also included a few tips that can be the difference between a comfortable and uncomfortable days carry.

While this how to guide is geared towards backpacking and hiking you might just find it useful for picking out a backpack for travel or even day to day commuting.

Choosing a backpack is often a very personal decision as your gearlist, needs, and location all play determining factors in choosing the right pack – for you.

Personally I’m looking for a pack that can handle 4-6 days worth of food and gear, and a day and a half worth of water. For me and my current gear selections this is going to be a 4kg baseweight and around a 10kg (22lb.) full skin out weight. My gear is quite compact so this should only require around and 30-40L of volume space.

  1. Fit

    After walking for any amount of time with an il-fit backpack you’ll understand why this is the most important consideration.

    If the fit isn’t suitable, no heavy load will ever be comfortable to walk with.

    To check for fit:

    Ensure your torso size is correct

    Checking the measurement of your torso size can be done by measurement, or by feel:

    • Put the empty pack on
    • Pull the underarm straps to where they feel right – this should be a little loose
    • See where the hipbelt naturally rests – this is where it will move to while walking
    • The vertical center point of the hipbelt should be cupping the top of your hipbone, as in the middle of the belt should not be any higher than the top of your hip bones, ideally the center point should line up with the top of your hips or be slightly lower.

    Having a pack with the wrong torso can cause a lot of discomfort. Too short, and you’ll find it rides up and requires a lot of re-adjustment. Too long and it won’t properly transfer weight to your hips.

    Check for Strap Comfort

    Ensuring suitable strap comfort can be the difference between burning shoulders and happy shoulders. Foam padding used to be less durable and had to be quite thick to provide prolonged comfort. These days there have been improvements in the types of pack strapping materials and foam. Popular osprey backpacks now use a thin dense foam with wholes cut out for breathability, flexability, and weight savings. This foam is then covered in a highly breathable mesh. This mesh combined with the foam inner produces a very durable pack strap, perhaps not quite as durable as two-inch molly webbing but it sure is a hell of a lot more comfortable.

    An often missed concern with pack straps is their length, as a taller and wider guy I sometimes run into the issue of packs built for smaller people, you’ll notice the issue if you loosen up the pack and find the buckle riding above your nipples. If this is the case, size up or look for a new pack. The problem being that this buckle, once tightened will likely be riding too close to your skin causing chafing or pinching.

  2. Load capacity

    Load capacity, similar but different to Volume, load capacity is the amount of weight you can comfortably carry.

    For each pack you look at this will depend on a few factors:

    Pack Design

    The pack design and shape – this determines how and if your gear can be packed optimally. For an example, a long barrel style backpack like the osprey talon 44 offers an easy way to load heavy things low and close to your hips resulting in a very stable carry. On the flip side, the barrel shape also has the effect of moving more pack items further away from your back. Contrary to the Talon, the osprey Exos series offers a curved back panel and a very wide and flat, almost a rectangle box pack design. The exos can be very difficult to pack resulting in odd placements and potential for a lopsided weight distrubution. And on the flip side of that, the pack shape and design both transfers weight exceptionally well, and keeps weights close and low to your hips – also resulting in a comfortable carry.

    So both packs work and don’t work? Yes. Like I said earlier, picking a backpack is a personal decision and your gear list must be considered fully in order to choose the right backpack.

    Pack stays & Frame

    The frame, or lack there of will dictate how well the pack is able to transfer weight from your shoulders to your hips where your body is much better equipped to handling heavy loads.

    A frame could be as little as a peice of foam in the backpanel or a couple of thin stays down the side of the pack like in a KS 40, all the way up to something like the osprey exos with a curved trampoline frame and heavy stays.

    What kind of frame do you need? There is a cut off line where the weight of the frame or pack stays add more in comfort than the weight of the frame adds in discomfort – There is a reason some people still swear by their super comfortable 3kg worth of 70 liter packs. The cut off line for me seems to be around the 6lb (3kg) and 22lb (10kg) mark.

    • At 6lb, I’m going to want something more substantial than pack material, a thin frame sheet (foam or plastic) fits the bill for this weight. Alternatively, some smart packing of water bottles or other gear with structure can provide a comfortable carry into the high single digits and low teens.
    • At 22lb, the need begins to arise for more substantial frame system, if you’re borderline on the weight, I suggest getting something with a minimal frame – the KS-40 mentioned previously fits this bill well with only a couple of low weight stays becoming the frame system. A more available (but heavier) option would be the ula ohm
    • Well above the 20lb mark you’re going to need to start looking at something with a heavier frame and preferably something with a thick comfortable hipbelt. The osprey exos and AG (anti gravity) models come to mind.

    Hipbelt and Packstraps

    The hipbelt and shoulder strap system decides how well the pack can handle loading or overloading.

    This is an especially important thing to look at when going lighter as while your gear compactability will reduce the size of your pack, the load capacity of smaller packs is often not a linear drop with weight. E.g. a 30L pack is highly unlikely to carry my 10kg very well even though I can fit it all in there with ultralight selections.

    Contrary to some hipster’s belief becoming rather prevelent, the hipbelt is the most important pack strap, shoulder straps actually do very little comparatively. Let me explain:

    Hipbelt purpose: hold pack base close to your hips transfering weight from the entire pack onto your hips which are able to carry heavy loads with relative ease and stable balance.

    Shoulder strap purpose: hold the pack close to your body in order to help the hip belt transfer weight even better – preventing a lot of sway and producing a more stable carry.

    Yes, thats right, shoulder straps aren’t meant to be load bearing. With a correctly packed backpack and the right sized hipbelt, you should be able to fully remove your shoulder straps and your pack shouldn’t really move much. This video on how to adjust a backpack is helpful for explaining this belief:

  3. Volume

    Pack volume is a simple and easy one if it fits your stuff, its a go.

    A couple of notes on this point:

    1. Tying things off the back of it when your food bag is full is OK but if you have to do it for your whole trip you may want a bigger bag.
    2. Having too much free space all the time makes your pack look funny and it can distribute the weight wrong.

    Do not upsize unnecessarily, I’ve never seen a pack compress down as much as I thought it would be able to while looking at it in the store or online. You really need to find a backpack that fits your gear and food load correctly with only a little bit of space spare for the changes in seasonal weather.

    Upsizing will almost always result in carrying more than you need as you attempt to fill it out (because you can!)

    If you happen to be stuck with an oversized pack, decompress your sleeping bag and let it take up the bottom half of the pack, this can help stabalize the carry.

    Try before you buy:

    Like you would try clothing on before you buy it, take your gear in a rubbish bag to your local REI or other retailer and fill one of their display models with your gear along with a couple of weights to compensate for lack of food and water. Most hiking and backpacking stores will have weights and pillows or other stuffing for you to try packs on with similar weight and volume you would expect from your gear.

    This has the added benefit of seeing how it feels packing and unpacking the backpack. Hiking for days on end, unpacking every night, and packing up every morning is a chore that gets old fast. Having the odd strap or lid flap that constantly gets in the way might not seem like a big deal when you’re in the store but on the trail it will quickly drive you up the wall.

  4. Weight

    Adding weight to your backpack without adding load capacity or volume should be avoided. Aim for a pack as close or below 1kg as possible. There isn’t much reason to ever go over 3lb or 1.5kg unless you really need to carry a huge amount of gear, food, or water think artcic expeditions.

    It really does depend, but 1kg is where I start to wonder about what they have done to add so much weight. The usual culprits are extraneous straps, pockets, and zippers.

    There are a great number of packs in the 3-4lb range that are good packs (think osprey), however, we as a community really need to start asking retailers why their packs weigh so much. I think you’ll find the true answer is that pack materials and designs haven’t changed a lot over the last decade or so and the only thing manufacturers are able to do in order to sell you a new and better pack is to add features. Features, that imo, are completely useless.

    Which brings me to the next point:

  5. Access

    Acess, its kind of a big one. The whole point of a backpack for hiking purposes is to provide access to things you wouldn’t normally have access to on a long walk.

    Features you want

    • Single big, and preferably rolltop opening. Lids or brains with pockets generally just get in the way but are sometimes unavoidable. At least try to aim for something with a removable lid or something like the exos’ lid flap.
    • Large side pockets, preferably stretch-mesh but large gaping holes like the ULA ohm has have their place
    • Large external stuff pocket, again, preferably stretch-mesh. This is where you can throw little things you need throughout the day or large wet items that need to dry off
    • Compression straps that allow you to ensure your pack contents are close and low to your hips

    Features to avoid

    • Zippered openings, these have a habbit of failing and bursting your pack contents all over the trail – sometimes with you unaware until a few miles later. They also add a lot more weight than a piece of draw cord.
    • Large lid pockets, they make trail life more difficult than it should be
    • Sleeping bag access points, usually zippered compartments or simply bottom access to your pack. Sounds nice, but excuse me, when was the last time you got your sleeping bag out for lunch? I suspect this feature design was built for the casual backpack-across-europe type that may want to get their sleeping bag out without unpacking. For backpackers and hikers, this idea is quite possibly the stupidest feature I’ve ever heard of. By the time we hikers want our sleeping bag, we’ve already emptied out the entire pack.
    • Over organisation, too many small pockets add weight you don’t need and often take up internal pack volume, one or two small pockets are nice to have, more than that and you’ve got too many.
  6. Durability

    Another simple but important point.

    Your pack should last at least a whole thruhike or many, many weekend and multiday trips.

    Failure points to ensure are well supported with larger straps, thicker material or bigger clips include:

    • Bottom of the backpack, this should be a heavier material to put up with scrapes and dumping on the ground or surrounds
    • Shoulder straps cannot fail, make sure these are stitched well (the square with an X is the strongest, question designs using a circular stitching pattern as its weaker.)
    • Main access point, while draw string closures are often repairable in the field, it can be quite the pain. Ensure sturdy clips and cord is used as this part of the pack will get a lot of use day in and day out.
  7. Features

    Standard Backpack features I value and expect:

    • Hydration sleeves, I personally don’t use these anymore but I do question and pack without at least a tube hole and a hook to hang the bladder. External hydration sleeves like those on the Talon series are by far the best if your pack has a habbit of being close to capacity.
    • A whistle on the sternum strap, its not a deal breaker but I don’t see why a pack wouldn’t have one these days.
    • Small pockets, because one or two are useful
    • Mesh side pockets, personal preference, but you should be able to fit things in side pockets without having the pack empty. Compression straps over or under side pockets are annoying as anything, try to avoid. Many claim under the pocket isn’t a big deal. Maybe, but I see it as a lazy design none the less.
    • Mesh or similar back panel, a place to store wet stuff, every hikers pack should have one.
    • Gear loops, useful if you require an iceaxe for some of your trails.
  8. Usability

    Ease of use is important, but perhaps speed of use is a better way to describe this one. Packing and unpacking should be easy and relatively fast.

    Lots of pockets, or lots of straps can get in the way of this. Minimise the outside features for this point. Stick to the basics.

    Why is packing and unpacking quickly important? It does comes down to a personal need for me but I prefer to spend more time in camp exploring the area, getting water, or cooking dinner/breakfast. Packing and unpacking is very low on my list of interesting parts of backpacking.

  9. Look

    It’s not really something you should worry about when looking at packs but it can affect how much you love your pack. Pick one that is at least appealing to your tastes!

    Be wary of perfect looking full packs on marketing material, osprey is hugely guilty of this one. A lot of their packs look really good when they’re filled with what I can only assume is pressurized air. Once you see them in store or partially filled a few of them can look god awful. In other words, I like their packs but man their marketing material is something out of /r/ExpectationVsReality.

    Remember, your pack will be partially empty for the majority of your use due to food loss.