Choosing the Right Hiking Backpack
We all walk for different reasons. Some to suspend reality, some to experience reality, some to forget and some to ponder, but nobody walks for a sore back.
Einstein famously walked to ‘work out the complex problems’ in his head. Can you imagine he was wearing a backpack that cut into his shoulders? Goodbye theory of relativity.
That’s how important choosing the right hiking backpack is. So, we’re going to run through a few considerations, before you make that all important purchase. First of all be aware you get what you pay for, so the more of your hard earned coin you part with, the more your body will thank you for it at the end of a five-day hike.
Also, this is not a sponsored post. We’d never recommend a Ferrari when a VW will do.
This is twenty-six years of walking experience, all wrapped up into a neat little package, especially for you. Backpack size, you might say.
So, let’s get on with it.
ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all for hiking backpacks. Although that would make life a lot easier, it’s just not the case. The right hiking backpack depends on the type of walk you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it.
If the goal is to complete a day walk or a supported multi-day hike, for example, then a smaller hiking backpack is in order. However, be wary of going too small. Consider the weather where you’re going. What time of year will you be there? Will it be cold? Wet?
You may need room for a few extra layers, or your wet weather gear.
If you’ve set yourself the challenge of hiking the South Coast track in Tasmania, however, you’ll need a hiking backpack with a 60 Litre capacity, or potentially even larger.
One of the tricks we’ve picked up over the years is to look out all the gear we’re going to need, then take it down to the outdoor store, and literally stuff it into a few backpacks and try them on.
And don’t forget the water. If you have a water bladder or a system of bottles that work for you, fill them up and bring them along too.
It’s amazing what you can find out when you do that, and nobody is ever bothered, in fact, most working in these shops are keen outdoors people too, and they think it’s a great idea.
WEIGHT & FEEL
If you follow the advice above, you’re going to find out what a hiking backpack feels like when it’s fully loaded. Probably the most important factor when deciding on a new hiking backpack.
Ten kilos feels very different from five when it’s on your back I can assure you, so please do try before you buy. Even if you don’t have all your gear with you, some stores have ‘inserts’ of a variety of weights that you can experiment with, if you just ask.
Again, don’t forget the conditions. In winter you might need extra room for warm layers or wet weather gear, while in summer you’re likely to need a lot more water.
Two or three litres at least, for a full day walk in the heat.
So make sure your estimate of weight is as accurate as possible.
The very exercise of loading all your gear into a pack, can sometimes help you trim down to the bare essentials too. Do you really need that bottle of red? Maybe get it delivered to your accommodation for the night instead, no?
Be sure to carry only what you need, is always a good guide for walking trips.
STYLE VS FUNCTION
How a backpack looks is a key factor for many, but I promise you, how it functions is way more important.
Top or Side Loaders
You don’t need to worry about this too much. How the backpack opens will have no bearing on its performance. Choose whatever you prefer, and then focus on a the following features instead.
No matter what size you’re looking at, I’d firmly recommend buying a hiking backpack with a decent waist, or hip belt, preferably with some padding.
The belt transfers much of the weight you’re carrying onto your hips, allowing your shoulders to relax. A fully loaded hiking backpack supported only by your shoulders, is a quick way to ruin a perfectly nice walk I can assure you.
If you’re unconvinced, once again try before you buy, see if you can feel the difference. And if you can feel it right there in the shop, imagine how it’ll feel after eight hours of pounding across a mountain range.
Extremely handy for those regularly used items such as sunscreen, mosquito repellent, cameras or mobile phones – switched to silent mode of course.
If you’re a photographer, easy access side or top pockets is going to be very useful. Make sure they can fit your lenses, and any other equipment you might need on a regular basis.
Although colour for style is secondary, colour for function can be quite important.
Bright colours are handy for groups, so that Guides and walkers, for example, can easily spot each other out in the wild. As can rescue teams in case of an accident, heaven forbid.
Natural colours on the other hand, such as an olive green or a drab ochre, are much more suitable while looking for wildlife. So if you’re planning a walking safari, neon pink might not be the best look.
WALKING IN THE RAIN
The days of external frames and heavy canvas bags that weigh a ton are well behind us, thank goodness.
Most well-designed larger backpacks now have internal frames made from light-weight materials, and the fabric will generally be waterproof to a certain extent.
‘Showerproof’ is what most claim, meaning you’ll be OK for a short time in light drizzle. For extended periods however, or in a deluge you’ll still need a rain cover, and an internal waterproof liner.
Many hiking backpacks come with a rain cover included, often hidden in a pocket at the bottom so make sure you have a good look before you buy a piece of equipment you don’t need.
You can buy these in shops, however we’ve found that plastic bags and heavy duty garbage bags do the job just as well.
Be sure to keep your most precious items in a ziplock bag, and put that inside a garbage bag (even two) inside your pack if you think you’re going to be out in the rain for a while.
DURABILITY & REPLACE-ABILITY
Much like yourself at the end of a week-long hike, your hiking backpack will be subject to some wear and tear. Buckles and zippers are generally the weakest points, and you should first ensure the zippers are heavy duty, sliding easily back and forth before you slide over your cash.
Metal vs Plastic Zippers
It’s often said that metal zippers are less likely to warp, or break than plastic ones. While that may have been the case in the past, technology from the yachting industry has improved plastic zippers no end.
In my opinion, they’re now more durable than their metal counterparts, with the added benefit of being waterproof, and easier to operate in muddy conditions.
When you look at a bag you’ll be able to tell if the plastic zippers are cheap and likely to break. If they’re well made, then it’s plastic every time for me now.
Buckles & Clips
Buckles and clips are other weak points, however, they’re easily replaced, and if I’m going on a long walk I often throw a few spares in the bag. Many outdoor stores stock replacement buckles, like the Sea to Summit Range for example.
Or you could try Spotlight (the Australian sewing shop) for a range of generic buckles that will do the same job, for less cost. You’d be surprised how much useful ‘stuff’ you can find in there, that’s nothing to do with sewing!
COMFORT & FIT
Would you buy a pair of shoes that don’t fit you properly? No. Same with your backpack.
All of the following items are about comfort, and fit. So if you like being comfortable, read on.
The first thing to check is that the straps have adequate padding. If not they’ll bite into your shoulders, and you certainly don’t want that. As mentioned earlier, also try the backpack fully loaded, to see how it feels with a bit of weight in it.
Make sure the pack is constructed to allow airflow between your back and the hiking backpack.
This will prevent excessive sweating, especially important in warmer conditions.
The best hiking backpacks often have some form of netting on the back too. This keeps more of the load off your lower back, helping you not to sweat so much in the first place.
As a key element in comfort, adjustable straps are simply a must.
At the very least, you need to be able to loosen and tighten the shoulder straps, the waist straps, and the height–adjustable sternum strap. All of these have a significant effect on how a bag sits on your back.
The better a backpack fits, the lighter the load will feel too.
A good bag will also allow you to adjust the length of the harness, altering the position where the shoulder straps attach to the hiking backpack. This means you can balance the weight in the bag correctly, taking even more stress off your back.
Outdoor stores often have a measuring and fitting service for good quality packs – take them up on it if you get the chance!
Some brands are now offering backpacks designed specifically for women, with sizes and harness configurations tailored to their body shapes. So if you’re struggling to find a pack that feels just right, give them a try.
And that’s it! Seems like a lot to take in.
In the end, it’s all about getting something that’s comfortable, that’s going to last, and will carry everything you need it to. That’s all really.
Get those three things right, and you’ll be fine.
I have a number of packs I use for different types of walks, but then again I do walk an awful lot – it’s my job!
Most of our Guides, myself included, use Mont or Deuter backpacks. Mont is an Australian brand that’s extremely well-constructed, and Deuter is a German backpack that’s, well, it’s German engineered, so enough said there.
For full-size packs, you might want to consider the 65 Litre plus range from Osprey, an American brand with a great reputation.
All of these companies have excellent products, however as we said at the beginning you pay for quality in this game – so they’re not exactly on the cheap side.
On the other hand, if you’re going to be walking a lot, what price do you put on your comfort!
Best of luck with your choice, and I’ll see you on the track.