Choosing the Best Camping and Hiking Backpacks for Your Needs

Because you’ll often need to bring a number of tools and supplies when you head into the bush, a high-quality backpack is probably the most important piece of equipment campers and hikers need. Whether you are trying to cross the Darien Gap, tour the entire Appalachian trail or simply heading out for a weekend trip to a local state park, you’ll need a good backpack to have any chance of success.

Always take your time when selecting a backpack and try to select the best model for your needs.

Capacity

The very first thing you’ll need to consider when purchasing a backpack is the capacity you need. After all, what good is a pack that can’t hold everything you need to bring?

To determine the capacity you’ll need, consider the length of your typical journey. If you are a weekend backpacker, who travels only a few miles into the wilderness, you can probably get by with a rather small pack. Something offering between 40 and 50 liters is ideal for these kinds of trips.

On the other hand, if you are heading out for a week-long excursion through the Northern Territory, you’ll need to bring much more stuff along on your journey. Backpackers who enjoy these types of trips will need a pack of at least 50 liters; however, some may find they need up to 80 liters of space or more.

If you aren’t sure how much space you’ll need, get your gear out and try to assemble it in a pack-like manner. Then, multiply the length, depth and width of this pile in centimeters and divide the result by 10 to obtain its volume in liters.

Keep in mind that aside from a little extra weight, there isn’t much downside to purchasing a pack that is slightly larger than you’ll need. Most backpackers will easily figure out how to fill any unused space! Additionally, by using a pack that with more than enough space, you won’t have to cram things into your pack, which often leads to broken equipment.    

Frame Style

Because it’s often necessary to haul a ton of gear as you wind your way down the trail, many backpacks are built around a rigid frame. This helps distribute the weight of the load evenly and reduce fatigue. However, manufacturers design framed packs in two different ways.

External Frame Packs

External frame packs were the original style produced, and for many years they were the only game in town. External frame packs are great for use in wide-open places, but they can be a bit unwieldy when trying to sneak through tight rock crevices or dense vegetation. However, the externally accessible frame provides a wealth of locations for attaching equipment to the outside of the bag. Additionally, external frame packs are usually a little less expensive than internal frame packs, which may play an important role in the decision-making process of budget-minded buyers. 

Internal Frame Packs

Internal frame packs have been around for a while, but they are still the new kid on the block. Built around a frame that is completely contained by the pack, you won’t have access to the frame without completely disassembling the pack. Internal frame packs are the preferred choice by most modern backpacking enthusiasts and you’ll find that there are more models from which you can choose, relative to external frame packs.

Organization

Packs are generally built around a large central compartment that is accessible via the top of the bag. However, this arrangement can make it difficult to access the items at the bottom. Accordingly, you’ll need to plan carefully when loading your pack to avoid the flashlight-at-the-bottom-of-the-pack phenomenon.

If this sounds like a pain, you may be more interested in packs that provide access from the back of the pack, rather than the top. These provide you with easy access to the contents throughout the main compartment, but you’ll need to take the pack off and set it on a horizontal surface before opening it – otherwise your belongings would spill out onto the ground.

Additionally, you’ll want several small and medium sized pockets on the outside of the pack, to provide you with quick access to things you’ll need often. Different manufacturers often prefer different pocket sizes, shapes and closure mechanisms, and it pays to look around and select the one that appeals to your sense of organization best.

Fit

It is absolutely vital that your pack fits well, or you’ll be miserable for the duration of your trip. While most packs provide several different places in which you can adjust its size, these adjustments won’t allow a 5-foot-nothing camper to comfortably use a large-sized pack.

To ensure a good fit, you’ll want to measure your torso from the top of your shoulders (technically, the lowest neck vertebrae) to the top of your hip bones. If your torso is less than 15 inches, you’ll want to look for an extra small pack, while those with torsos of 16 to 17 inches will require small packs.

Those with 18- to 19-inch-long torsos should select a medium size, while those with torsos longer than 20 inches should use a large pack. Of course, there is some variation in the sizing guidelines of various manufacturers, but these guidelines are pretty reliable.

Historically, women and children often experienced difficulty finding packs that fit them well. But fortunately, manufacturers have begun making backpacks designed specifically for these oft-neglected groups over the last few decades. It isn’t always necessary for women or children to use backpacks specifically designed for them, but these types of packs may offer a better fit, and therefore, a better backpacking experience. 

Important Features

Once you’ve narrowed your search down based on the capacity and other major characteristics, it’s time to turn your attention to the features included in those remaining. There are no right or wrong answers here, but you should try to prioritize your needs and wants to make the best decision possible.

Some of the best features to look for in a backpack include:

Rain Covers

Most packs will keep your stuff dry in very gentle showers, but you’ll need to use a pack with a removable rain cover to keep your gear dry during a proper downpour. Many modern backpacks come equipped with such a rain shield, but you can purchase an aftermarket rain cover if your preferred pack does not include one.

You can improvise a make-shift rain cover from a poncho, plastic tarp or heavy-duty garbage bag in a pinch, but a commercially manufactured product will perform much better.

External Pockets, Clips and Rings

No matter what type of pack organization you prefer, you’ll almost always find external clips, rings and straps handy – some would say indispensable.

Things like water bottles, sandals and walking sticks are best to store on the outside of your pack for ease of access, and most good packs have clips or straps that will hold these items nicely. Additionally, if your adventures require the use of crampons or an ice axe, you’ll definitely need some way of attaching these to the outside of your pack.

Removable Day Pack

Once camp is set up, many backpackers like to head off on shorter day hikes to fully explore the area. You’ll need to bring along a few basic supplies, so you’ll want to bring a backpack, but you don’t want to lug the weight of your entire pack around. Fortunately, many modern backpacks feature a removable day pack, which can provide you with the chance to do exactly this.

Hydration Pouch

If you like to use a bladder-style hydration system so that you can sip away without using your hands or dealing with a water bottle, you’ll want to buy a pack that includes a pocket or pouch for it. These are fairly common among high-end backpacks, but they are less common among budget-priced packs.

Color: The Final Consideration

Color is often considered an unimportant aspect of a pack, but that’s not necessarily true. Some people care a great deal about the color and styling of their pack, and there’s nothing wrong with this. However, you should always ensure that your pack functions the way you need, before worrying about its appearance.

Aside from the subjective preferences of various backpackers (some people like blue backpacks, others like red ones), color does have a few important ramifications. For example, the color of your pack can influence how visible you are while walking through the forest. In most cases, it makes sense to use a bright color for safety purposes; you’ll want to be easy to find if you need assistance. However, if you are trying to keep a low profile for some reason, you’ll certainly want to select some type of earth-tone-colored pack.

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As you can see, there are a lot of things you’ll need to consider when selecting a backpack. But don’t let this overwhelm you – just go through each of the above points and try to identify the characteristics and features that are most important to you.