Hiking Backpacks - Making The Right Choice

The variety of hiking backpacks is tremendous, in features, styles, price and brands. Before making your selection, you should know these important points. Read the tips below, and soon you'll be hitting the trails, happy as a clam with your new hiking backpack.

Here are some quick-links to the main topics on this page:

Pack Size Calculator
Fanny Packs
Day Hiking Backpacks
Hydration Packs
Multiday Hiking Backpacks
Common Features to Consider
Recommended Backpacking Gear Sources

Your hiking backpack is the foundation of your gear. Whatever your trip, you will always be carrying your stuff in a pack of some sort. For long hours. Sometimes with "heavy" loads (although you CAN use lightweight hiking backpacking techniques to avoid this). It needs to be of good quality, adjustable, the right size and "type". You also need to choose among hiking backpacks built for your specific activity.

If you're like me, you'll eventually own several hiking backpacks. Aside from my "old" gear, I have two main packs -- one for day hiking and one larger one for multiday trips, both North Face brand. My full-size North Face pack is the Inca Trail model (no longer available), purchased over a decade ago, and I'm still using it. Because I love to run trails, I also have two CamelBak hydration packs (a backpack-style one, and a smaller fanny pack one).

OK. Enough general stuff. Let's dive into the specifics of hiking backpacks.

Pack Volume Calculator

The first consideration is the duration of your trips. Longer trips require more gear and food which requires larger hiking backpacks. If you're out for a day or part of a day, you'll want to use a fanny pack or a day pack. A two-week trip means using full-size hiking backpacks. Totally obvious, right? Well, how large? Pack size is measured by volume, typically by cubic inches. Try this calculator:

Hiking Backpack Volume Calculator
Body Weight:
Gear Type:
Party Size:
�CalculatorCat.com. Based on formula in The Complete Walker.

Treat the calculation as an estimate. It's not fool-proof. The formula breaks down at the extremes. For example, a cold-sleeping, 200-lb. backpacker with average gear taking a 5-day winter trip with a partner calculates a pack over 12000 cu in (it's rare to find hiking backpacks over 7000 cu in). But an unreasonably large volume number DOES tell you that you either need to cut back on something, or just get one of the largest hiking backpacks available, and make it work.

Here is a general breakdown of hiking backpacks, categorized by volume:

Fanny Packs / Mini Backpacks: 150 to 1200 cu in
Day Hiking Backpacks: 1200 to 3000 cu in
Multiday Hiking Backpacks: 3000 to 7000 cu in or more

Fanny Packs

Also called "Lumbar Packs"...

  • Tucked into the small of your back, they are the most efficient at carrying small loads.
  • Compact, convenient, easily stuffed into larger hiking backpacks or in your suitcase for airline travel.

  • The more the weight, the more they tend to sag -- and annoyingly bounce with each step. Ten pounds is about the maximum load, but that is enough for day hiking. Though some models claim to carry up to 20 pounds (approx. 1200 cu. in). Good models allow you to compress your baggage and eliminate the sagging for most day hiking loads.

    For day hiking, I prefer full-fledged hiking backpacks, simply because they can carry more gear. But I do love hydration fanny packs for trail running (see below).

    Day Hiking Backpacks

    Hiking backpacks are defined as "day packs" mainly by volume, but don't be limit yourself because of such a categorization.
    • You can transform so-called "day" hiking backpacks into overnight/weekend packs simply by using lightweight gear and techniques. True lightweight afficionados could go for a week using such "day" hiking backpacks.
    • Hiking backpacks made specifically for lightweight backpacking are often the same volume as a "day pack"
    • Heck, some people have even used large fanny packs on overnight trips
    So the label or definition doesn't matter -- day hiking backpacks should be big enough for your intended gear, but not more.

    For the reasons mentioned above, I believe good day hiking backpacks should have a good padded waist belt and padded back. The belt doesn't need to be large. It will add only ounces to the pack but gives you the option to carry additional gear (i.e., overnight gear) much more comfortably. That's just my opinion. Other people think a waistbelt gets in the way or want to cut every ounce possible. At the least, day hiking backpacks over 2000 cu in should have a waistbelt. And if large enough, maybe an internal frame or some sort of support system.

    Hydration Packs

    Hydration packs are essentially day hiking backpacks or fanny packs with an internal water pouch and tube dispenser. For very "active" outdoor sports like trail running, fast-packing, and biking, they are ideal, but many hikers love them. The main advantage is the ability to get a drink whenever you want, without taking off your pack, and they generally carry large volumes of water easier.

    Unless you plan to use your hydration backpack exclusively for road running, short biking trips, or walking around town, I recommend getting one that can hold a little extra gear. How much extra is up to you.

    I have a CamelBak Cloud Walker I use for long trail runs, and couldn't be happier with it. It holds 70 oz of water and has 1345 cubic inches volume. It expands to hold a bit of gear, but not so much that it is bulky or heavy. It can contract/compress when the space isn't needed. I am a big fan of the CamelBak brand -- they have the most durable bite-valves (the ending of the tube, the part you stick in your mouth). Bite-valves from other brands have a higher failure rate.

    For shorter trail runs, I use the Day Trekker CamelBak hydration fanny pack that holds 45 oz of water. It is the same as the FlashFlo (60 cu in) but has an additional small front pocket, making a total of 90 cu in volume. I love it - after tightening the straps, even when full it hardly bounces (all you can hear is a little water sloshing).

    Overnight and Beyond: Multiday Hiking Backpacks

    Larger packs need some kind of support structure, or "frame". The two main types are internal-frame and external frame. External-frame hiking backpacks were the norm in years past. Now internal-frame packs are the most popular (for good reason).

    Internal Frame Hiking Backpacks

  • closer to body means less shifting, more control
  • the only choice for snowshoeing and ski trips, off-trail scrambling
  • hugs and conforms to your body and can be very comfortable
  • some models are narrow and free of hoops and pockets (good for mountaineering/skiing where packs can catch and snag)
  • they're hip, cool, with a huge variety to choose from

  • hotter, more sweaty (close to back)
  • they sometimes have less pockets, making it less desirable for disorganized packers.
  • External Frame Hiking Backpacks

  • proven for trail hiking and open country
  • inexpensive; often good as a starter pack for young Scouts
  • great for hauling big, heavy and/or awkward loads. For instance, strapping on your tired child's backpack. You could even tie a load directly to frame (i.e., hunters).
  • Cooler (less sweaty because of airflow next to your back)

  • very cumbersome to travel with (cars, cabs, airlines, etc)
  • can shift unpredictably (i.e., if you stumble, or when skiing, scrambling on rough terrain)
  • BOTTOM LINE: If you can't decide ... go with an internal frame. Most people will be happiest with a good quality internal frame backpack.

    Common Features to Consider for Hiking Backpacks

    Suspension System
    The suspension system is one of the most crucial elements, especially for full-size packs. Suspension systems can get quite involved and sophisticated. But you don't have to understand every little detail about the system. If you choose a pack by an up-to-speed, reputable manufacturer (see Where To Buy below), you'll get a good suspension system.

    But while we're on the topic, here are the main components:

    Hipbelt - This is THE most important part. Without a good hipbelt, all the weight would end up on your shoulder, neck and back muscles instead of your stronger hips and legs. Generally, the broader and better-padded the belt, the better. A good fit here is important otherwise it will slip and do no good. The heavier your load, the more it tends to slip. Detachable/independent belts of various kinds (versus sewn on) give the best custom fit, but the North Face pack I've had for years has a sewn-on belt and has fit me like a glove.

    Shoulder harness - The shoulder harness isn't meant to support your entire load. Very little, in fact. If your hipbelt is doing its job, the shoulder harness simply serves to keep the upper pack near your body. Look for a curved shoulder harness -- they fit better.

    Stabilizer straps are important as well, especially for internal frame packs. Look for packs that have upper stabilizer straps (from pack to top of shoulder harness) and hipbelt stabilizing straps. Hipbelt stabilizing straps work especially well on large fanny packs, because they of course don't have shoulder straps to help with the load.

    A final component is the lumbar pad, the padding situated at the small of your back. Most of the downward force ends up at this point, so a lumbar pad with high-friction fabric is nice because it reduces belt slippage.

    Main Compartments
    Most hiking backpacks have at least one main internal divider. Internal frame packs often have two compartments, one for a sleeping bag at bottom, one for other stuff. This sounds good, but in practice it tends to be a bit too restrictive and less efficient. My internal frame pack has one main compartment. This means I can arrange gear however I want, but also means I have to pack carefully -- putting oft-used gear at top or near access zippers, without unbalancing the load. Many packs have detachable dividers, which could be the best of both worlds.

    Loading method
    Probably the best solution -- particularly for full-size internal-frame packs -- is to get a pack that allows both top and front loading. The front loading system could be a panel zipper, a "J" zipper, or the like. Some hiking backpacks, like my North Face Inca Trail, have zipper straight down front as well as a top loading closure. That system works very well for me, allowing me to access any gear in my pack. For day hiking backpacks, top-loading is common; there is no need for front zippers.

    Most people like pockets in hiking backpacks, and they are very useful for organizing gear. For me, the main use for outside pockets is to put frequently used gear in. I think this is important with internal-frame hiking backpacks, where pockets can be scarce. I personally can't see getting along without the two pockets on either side of my pack. There's always something I need to quickly access. If the pockets can collapse when not in use, that is ideal, but not necessary.

    Recommended Stores

    First of all, unless all you're looking for are quick and cheap hiking backpacks, I highly recommend you get name-brand gear from reputable companies. Some of the well-known, quality manufacturers are Dana Designs, Gregory, Mountainsmith, Vortex, North Face, Granite Gear, Kelty, Jansport, Osprey, ArcTeryx, and a number of smaller specialized/custom manufacturers.

    I highly recommend Backcountry.com,especially if you are ordering by mail (internet orders). They'll treat you right, and have a number of features including Live Help, to help you pick the right gear. REI is also a longtime favorite of mine. REI also has Live Help. Both these stores sell only quality gear, but still have a good range of prices.

    Discount Gear

    If you have a specific pack in mind, don't forget to see if it is in stock at Sierra Trading Post (save 35-70%), REI-OUTLET.com (save 20-70%), or BackcountryOutlet.com. These online stores often carry highly-discounted name-brand gear. If they have what you want, I'd snatch it up, as the inventory is usually limited to stock on hand.

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