Hiking Packs Essentials

It's essential to have a reliable hiking backpack when on the trail. Depending on the duration of your hike and your preferences, you may choose to use a hiking day pack or a standard hiking pack. But what's the most important in choosing the best trekking bag for your day hikes or multi-day trips? First, you need to choose the load-carrying and volume capacities of a backpack. Then, you may consider pockets, compartments, weight, materials, and closure systems. And what's most important - your hiking pack needs to be comfortable.

Types of Hiking Packs

  • Ultralight Packs

They weigh about half a kilo and are designed for loads up to 9 kg. These packs have minimal features, with no frames and often no back padding or hipbelts.

  • Lightweight Packs

A lot of people carry no more than 11-20 kg. For these weights, you don’t need a traditional backpack, but you do need more support than you get from an ultralight pack with no frame or hipbelt. Lightweight packs weigh from 0.5 kg to 2 kg and have capacities from 40L to 80L. Capable of carrying loads up to 18-20 kg, these are the ideal packs for most backpackers.

  • Standard Packs

Most packs fall into the standard pack category. These packs are sophisticated and complex. Without them, carrying heavy loads would be much more difficult. This category subdivides into two suspension systems based on frame type.

  • Travel Packs

Travel packs are derived from internal-frame packs and have similar suspension systems and capacities. The frame and harness can be covered by a zippered panel when they’re not needed and to protect them from airport baggage handlers.

Main Features of Hiking Backpacks

  • Suspension Systems

The suspension system is the most important feature to consider when choosing a pack; it supports the load, and it’s the part of the pack that comes in contact with your body. A quality, properly fitted suspension system will let you carry loads comfortably and in balance. An inadequate or poorly fitted one can cause great pain. As with boots, it takes time to fit a pack properly. This applies even to frameless packs - they still need to be the right length for your back. There are two frame types: external, with the backpack, hung on a frame by straps or clips or clevis pins, and internal, which fits inside the fabric of the pack, often completely integrated into it and hidden. The debate centers on which frame best supports a heavy load and which is more stable on rough ground; the answer used to be external for the first and internal for the second.

  • Frameless Packs

The design is common among schoolbags and day packs. Frameless packs require truly minimalist packing and they’re typically made with ultralight materials. Without a rigid structure, most or all of the weight hangs on the shoulders. Even with a modest load, this can become uncomfortable over time.


From left to right: Daypack, Internal Frame Pack, External Frame Pack 

  • Framed Packs

In contrast, framed packs have a rigid chassis that helps transfer weight from the shoulders to the hips and weight is best carried by the hips. When all of the pack weight is carried on the hips, shoulder straps help only in preventing the backpack from falling backward.

External frame packs

Shoulder straps, a waist belt, and a pack bag are fastened to an exposed frame, usually made of aluminum. They excel in carrying heavy and bulky loads and allow for excellent airflow through the back area. External frames are usually not adjustable, though some have frame extensions for carrying larger loads while others telescope and come in different back lengths. Unlike internal-frame packs, which hug the body, they allow sweat to dissipate. The disadvantages of external frames are balance and stability. External frames do not move with you; on steep descents and when crossing rough ground, they can be unstable and may make walking difficult or even unsafe.

Internal frame packs

They are more stable, conform better to the body, and are not as bulky. The construction is more complex, and thus prices are higher. Each pack maker has its own type of internal frame. Whatever the style, internal frames are flexible and with use conform to the shape of the wearer‘s back, allowing a body-hugging fit that gives excellent stability. The frame is embedded in the pack like a skeleton. Because internal frames move with your body and let you pack the weight lower and closer to your back, they are excellent where balance is important, such as when rock scrambling, skiing, and hiking over rough, steep terrain. A disadvantage of this is that you tend to lean forward to counterbalance the low weight. On many packs, the stays are removable; this is one way to lighten the pack for a side trip or an ultralight trip.

  • The Hipbelt

By far the most important part of any pack suspension system, it is designed for carrying loads of more than 10 kg. A well-fitting, well-padded hipbelt transfers most of the pack weight from the shoulders onto the hips, allowing the backpacker to stand upright and carry a properly balanced load in comfort for hours.

  • Shoulder Straps

Do little more than stopping the pack from falling off your back. Many straps are curved so they run neatly under the arms without twisting. The key to a good fit is the distance between the shoulder straps at the top.

  • Sternum Straps

Pull the shoulder straps in toward the chest and help stabilize the pack. They feel restrictive, but they can be helpful for stability when skiing or scrambling and for varying the pressure points of a heavy load during a long ascent. The position of sternum straps is important. They should sit high up, just below your neck, to reduce pressure on your chest.

  • Size

How large a pack you need depends on the bulk of your gear, the length of your trips, and how neatly you pack. Most people will find that a 60-70L pack has sufficient volume for extended weekend backpacking trips (two to three nights out). Some might need only 50L while others may need as much as 100L. A large pack cinched down when half full is far more comfortable than an overloaded small one. When choosing a pack, think about whether your gear will all fit in with room left for food.

  • Internal Compartments

Most large packs come with zippered lower compartments, though you can get packs with one huge compartment. Compartments with long zippers that run right around the pack or curve down to the lower edges are the easiest to use. A few pack makers offer packs with more than two compartments.

  • Lids and Closures

Lids keep the contents of your pack in, prevent things from moving around, and protect the pack opening from the rain. Ultralight packs often have no lid at all, just a rollover top that closes with buckles or a couple of drawcords and a buckle and strap.

The lower compartments of packs are always closed by zippers. Straps that run over the zipper take some of the strain and reduce the likelihood of its bursting. Top compartments usually close with two drawcords, one around the main body of the pack, which holds the load in, and one on the lighter-weight extension, which completely covers the load when pulled in.

  • Pockets

Pockets are useful for stowing small, easily mislaid items and things you may need during the day.

External-frame packs normally come with one, two or three fixed pockets on each side. Internal-frame packs, often designed for mountaineering as well as backpacking, don‘t usually have fixed side pockets since these can get in the way when climbing. Instead, detachable pockets can be fastened to the compression straps.

The side pockets can hold water bottles so you can reach them while wearing the pack. You can also use them for snacks, fuel bottles, and other items you want to have outside the main pack.

Many packs have internal hydration sleeves or pockets designed to hold water bladders, with an exit hole for the drinking tube. If you use a hydration system, these are useful otherwise they can be used for storing items like maps and small items of clothing.

  • Straps and Patches

Side compression straps can be used to attach skis and other long items (trekking poles, tent poles, foam pads). Most packs come with one or two sets of straps for ice axes and straps for crampons on the lid or the front. If straps don‘t come with the pack, there are often patches so you can thread your own.

Anatomy of a Hiking Pack


Most packs are made from a variety of coated nylons and polyesters. These fabrics are hardwearing, nonabsorbent, and flexible. The most common is Cordura, though a few companies have their own proprietary fabrics. All of these materials are strong and long-lasting.

While most of the fabrics used are waterproof when new, the coating that makes them so is usually soon abraded. The seams will leak in heavy rain anyway. Use liners and covers to keep the contents of the pack dry.


Somewhere in the region of 1.5 kg to 2 kg is likely a good choice for many backpackers. A good rule of thumb for estimating pack weight is that the pack shouldn‘t weigh more than 10 percent of the maximum total load. However, when you‘re lugging 30 kg or more, a kilo of additional pack weight is worth it if you get a more comfortable carry.


Top-quality packs are very tough, but many won‘t last for a walk of several months. After months of constant use and harsh treatment, it seems that something is almost bound to fail, considering how complex a modern pack is and how much can go wrong. The heavier the load, the more strain on the pack another reason for keeping the weight down.


When looking at hiking packs, pay attention to the little things that get used a lot. Everybody’s preferences will vary. For fast and light trips, a good hiking day pack carries all your gear with minimal weight and still has features you need. On longer trips, or when an extra gear is required, a large internal-frame pack carries heavier loads comfortably. The best internal-frame packs are fully customizable, so you can dial in the fit for maximum comfort. Only your hiking footwear is as important to your comfort as your trekking bag, so take the time to find a pack that fits.

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