How to Choose the Best Hiking Backpack for Your Adventures?

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 multi-day hiking backpack. Both types of backpacks have their advocates and opponents. Each of them has its own advantages and disadvantages as well.

What's most important when choosing the best backpack for hiking? Before thinking about particular features, it is best to think about what the primary use of your pack will be. Do you like longer backpacking trips or you are more of a weekend warrior? Do you expect your hiking backpack to last years or you just need a simple pack that can last a single hike? There are many questions like these that need to be answered before proceeding to the next step - considering certain features such as the load-carrying and volume capacities of a backpack. Then, you may consider pockets, compartments, weight, materials, ease of use, and closure systems. And what's most important - your hiking backpack needs to be comfortable. You see that picking out the best hiking pack isn’t easy. Take the time and effort to find a pack that fits and your backpacking trips will be more fun.

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Selecting a backpack can be as tough as selecting the right hiking boots since there are hundreds if not thousands of options. What’s more, your pack is almost as important for your comfort as your footwear. That’s why we wrote this article. We hope that it’ll help you choose not the best hiking backpack but the right backpack for your kind of backpacking.

How to choose the best hiking backpack: adventurer wearing backpacking backpack

Types of hiking backpacks

The weight and size of your hiking backpack depend very much on the trip length for which it is intended, the mode of travel, weather conditions, and the quantity of gear you’d like to bring on a backpacking trip.

Day packs

Day packs are typically frameless hiking backpacks. A foam padding or plastic sheet (the so-called framesheet) for more rigidity in the back panel usually substitutes frame in larger-capacity day packs. Since this kind of packs doesn’t have a frame, most of the weight hangs on the shoulders. In general, this shouldn’t be a problem when you carry a modest load and that’s why day packs (frameless backpacks) are very popular among the ultralight backpackers. A day pack can also be used as an everyday carry bag or a summit pack as well as for day hikes, long-distance running or long bike rides. However, for heavier weights, frameless packs are very uncomfortable so you’ll need additional support in the form of a rigid chassis and a foam hip belt (both typical for multi-day hiking backpacks). Framed packs transfer most of the weight from the shoulders to the hips very efficiently.

Day packMost good day packs have comfortable, adjustable, and durable shoulder straps that are well-padded for more comfort. A ton of day packs has fallen apart because of low-quality shoulder straps. The main function of shoulder straps is to help you carry the weight on your shoulders so the straps have to be strong enough. That’s they are usually reinforced where the shoulder straps connect to the sack. Compression straps along the sides of the pack compress the load, secure trekking poles and other gear that won’t fit inside, and ensure a better balance. A waist strap (usually an unpadded hip belt) keeps the pack close to your back and doesn’t allow it to bounce against your back. The top compression strap reduces pressure on the chest and helps stabilize the pack for better balance; it also offers additional help for heavier loads. Padded back panels of ventilated air mesh allow good airflow, reduce the build-up of heat, prevent excessive sweating, and defend your back from sharp and other potentially dangerous objects inside the pack. A multitude of pockets for smaller items allows fitting water bottles, snacks, documents, keys (some day packs feature a special loop to hold keys), mobile phones, and other small necessities. A built-in rain cover stowed away in the bottom pouch is very effective in bad weather and keep the pack dry when caught in some rain.

There aren’t strict rules about the volume of day packs but it typically ranges between 20 and 40 liters. Generally, you can carry comfortably 10-14kg in a day pack in a variety of settings, while the biggest frameless backpacks are designed for loads up to 14-18kg.

Recommended day packs available on Camotrek:


How to choose the best hiking backpack: hiker wearing blue day pack

Multi-day hiking backpacks

Multi-day hiking backpacks are the obvious choice for longer trips because they have both the suspension system adequate to carry the weight with reasonable comfort and the capacity needed to pack all the bulky gear you may need.

There are two types of multi-day packs - external frame packs and internal frame packs. Both types are rigid and are comfortable enough to handle significant loads by transferring most of the weight directly over the hips. And it’s known that the hips can carry more weight for longer periods than the shoulders. This can be a huge plus for winter travel and off-trail scrambling as well as when you’re carrying a heavy load. Certainly, there are and other advantages and disadvantages of multi-day hiking backpacks. We’ll discuss them in detail in the sections about external frame backpacks and internal frame backpacks below.

Three different hiking backpacks - day pack, internal frame pack, and external frame pack

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

External frame packs

External frame packs revolutionized backpacking allowing for longer trips over a variety of terrain from gentle and moderate paths to rugged mountainous terrain. External frame backpackThe external frame packs have a simple but very effective design allowing much larger amounts of weight to be easily and safely carried. This is done by taking most of the weight off the shoulders and distributing it to the hips. The frames also allow for larger and bulkier items such as sleeping bags, sleeping pads or tents to be strapped on the outside expanding the carrying capacity of the backpack. External frames are usually not adjustable, though some have frame extensions for carrying larger loads while others telescope and come in different back lengths. Hiking packs with external frames excel in carrying heavy and bulky loads and allow for excellent airflow through the back area. Unlike internal frame backpacks, which hug the body, they allow sweat to dissipate. This makes the external frame backpacks suitable for hot weather and summer hiking trips. In general, externals are cheaper so if you are on a tight budget, you may opt for an external frame. The disadvantages of this type of frames are balance and stability. They don't move with you; on steep descents and when crossing rough ground, packs with external frames can be unstable and may make walking difficult or even unsafe. So, externals are definitely not recommended for off-trail hiking (also called bushwhacking). Moreover, hitting your head on the frame can happen and it can be very irritating, especially when falling on the trail. And falling can happen to anyone who’s walking or trail running. Today, the demand and supply of external frame backpacks are much lower than they were twenty or so years ago. This reflects on the manufacturers who are reluctant to invest more money in R&D for improving the simple designs available on the market. Here are some main advantages and disadvantages of externals:

Advantages of external frame packs
  • Good for carrying weight along smooth trails and over long distances.
  • Your back doesn’t sweat as much as when carrying an internal frame pack because the external frame allows for some air space between your back and the back of the hiking pack.
  • Good for summer hikes.
  • It’s easy to strap extra items to the frame expanding the carrying capacity of the backpack.
  • As a rule, they are cheaper than most hiking backpacks with internal frames.
Disadvantages of external frame packs
  • External frame backpacks can throw you off balance, especially on difficult terrain.
  • Though the aluminum frame is lightweight and strong, it can be easily bent.
  • Bulkier when traveling because the frame isn’t compact and cannot be folded to occupy less space.
  • Not good for winter trips or off-trail hiking.
  • Usually targeted at consumers on a budget, which means simple and cheaper designs and reluctance to invest more effort and money in improving them.

The volume of this kind of hiking backpacks usually varies as the smallest packs start from about 30 liters while the biggest models can reach up to 70-80 liters. There’s also a lot of space for attaching items such as sleeping bags and pads so the carrying capacity of an external frame backpack can be much bigger than the pack bag volume.

Internal frame packs

The history of internal frame backpacks started some 50 years ago (in the late 1960s) when Greg Lowe designedInternal frame backpack a revolutionary backpack that featured an innovative internal frame and compression straps aimed to give him more freedom of movement to climb effectively in the mountains. His design is the basis of most of the internal frame packs manufactured today. Hiking backpacks with internal frames are more stable, conform better to the body, and are not as bulky. The construction is more complex, and thus prices are higher. Different manufacturers make different types of internal frames. Whatever the style, internal frames are flexible and thanks to harnesses, straps, and other adjustments they 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. It can be made from a wide variety of materials such as aluminum stays, carbon fiber, plastic sheets, and foam. Some internal frames are adjustable to fit a range of back lengths, while others come in specific sizes. There are two different basic designs. The first type is made by two parallel metal bars sewn inside the pack. The other one is made by X-shaped bars sewn inside the backpack. The frame is fitted to your body, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. The main advantage is that such a frame ensures excellent balance due to the lower center of gravity of the internal frame backpack. It also allows better mobility and flexibility, which can be very beneficial on longer hikes and difficult terrain. The disadvantage associated with internal frames stems from the fact that the load is contoured to your body, which may not very comfortable in certain situations, especially in hot weather. 

Internal frames 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, which can be tiring. On many packs, the stays are removable; this is one way to lighten the pack for a side trip or an ultralight trip.

How to choose the best hiking backpack: external frame pack and internal frame pack

Backpackers wearing external frame pack (left) and internal frame pack (right)

Many internal frame hiking backpacks are hydration compatible and have a water reservoir sleeve in the main compartment making it easier to accommodate a hydration system (which is a technical term for a soft, collapsible water bladder with a drinking tube attached). The drinking hose ends with a bite valve for easy sipping while hiking, running, cycling, mountain biking, practicing winter sports, etc. In principle, a water bladder is more difficult to clean than a water bottle but it can be very practical to have when hiking in desert country and in other areas where carrying all the water you need for the entire day is an absolute necessity. As long as loading is concerned, there are three types of internal frame backpacks. Most packs use top-loading, which can’t always ensure an optimal loading process. Moreover, to get an item that’s on the bottom of the backpack, you have to dig through all your stuff. What’s good about top-loading internal frame packs is that you need to be very organized to pack them properly to distribute the weight more evenly. In addition, they don’t have as many zippers as other types, which makes them more water-resistant. The second type uses panel-loading, which saves you some time and effort when looking for an item. They have more zippers, which can be interpreted as a higher chance of bursting zippers and a lower level of water resistance. The last type utilizes hybrid-loading which is a combination of top-loading and panel-loading. There are more zippers and it is easier to get something placed on the bottom of the pack without unpacking everything. However, as in the case of the panel-loading packs, they are more susceptible to water leakage.

Advantages of internal frame packs
  • Ensure better balance; suitable for rock scrambling, skiing, and off-trail hiking.
  • Suitable and comfortable for both short and long trails.
  • Good for off-trail as well as cold weather and winter hikes.
  • More compact and flexible.
  • The backpack frame stays of many internal frame packs are removable so you could lighten the bag for day hikes and when necessary, in general.
Disadvantages of internal frame packs
  • Excessive back perspiration as a result of the pack bag and frame being directly against your entire back.
  • The carrying capacity is somewhat fixed as it is close to the internal volume of the pack. You can’t attach a ton of extra items on the outside; it’s difficult to strap awkwardly shaped items that won’t fit inside the backpack.
  • Generally, they are more expensive than the external frame backpacks.
  • More difficult to load; top-loading is the most popular

The volume of internal frame backpacks usually varies between 40-45 liters (you can even find internal frame backpacks with a volume less than 30 liters) and 80-90 liters (the larges models can reach up to 110-120 liters). There isn’t a lot of space for attaching additional items so the carrying capacity of an internal frame hiking backpack is more or less fixed close to the backpack volume.

Internal frame backpacks can be used on all trails eliminating the necessity to purchase two packs - one for easy trails and another one for more technical hikes. The volume of most hiking backpacks with internal frames can be adjusted with compression straps. This way, the backpack can be transformed into a compact pack when necessary. Moreover, internal frame packs have a narrow profile, which makes them suitable for heavy brush and walking through narrow trails. The multifunctionality makes this type of hiking packs so popular among many backpackers.

Recommended internal frame backpacks available on Camotrek:


Backpacker wearing a large internal frame pack

Backpacker wearing large internal frame backpack

Features of hiking backpacks

  • Suspension systems

The suspension system is the most important feature to consider when choosing a backpack for hiking; it supports the load, and it’s the part of the pack that comes in contact with your body. So, finding a suspension system that is as adjustable as possible can be a huge plus. 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. 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. Hiking backpacks with external frame best support a heavy load, while internal frame packs are more stable on difficult terrain.

  • Frameless packs

The design is common among schoolbags and day packs. Frameless packs require 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.

  • Framed packs

The main idea behind framed packs is to effectively transfer the weight of the backpack onto its strong framed construction. There are two types of framed backpacks - internal and external frame packs. Both designs try to effectively transfer the weight through the pack onto the hips. When all of the pack weight is carried on the hips, shoulder straps help only in preventing the backpack from falling backward. It is important that the hiking backpack maintains its shape and remains rigid to prevent the transfer of the load off your hips and back onto your shoulders. The manufacturers of framed backpacks use either framesheets or pack stays to prevent slouching of the hiking pack. There are different types of framesheets but their main function stays the same - to provide structure and to increase the rigidity of a backpack in order to prevent slouching. Hiking backpacks with framesheets defend your back against annoying pokes and from hard-sided objects in your pack. Hiking backpacks with removable framesheets are more flexible and functional as they can be used in both day hikes and multi-day trips. Pack stays are usually made from aluminum or composite material and can be used with or without a framesheet. Pack stays are more effective than framesheets at providing vertical stability, rigidity, and comfort especially when the pack is arched away from the back to allow for better ventilation and air circulation.

How to choose the best hiking backpack: two packs on a green hill

  • 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.

Diagram: anatomy of a backpacking backpack

  • 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

Sternum straps may feel restrictive but they help stabilize the pack. They are especially 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.

  • Internal compartments

Most large hiking backpacks 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 backpacks with more than two compartments.

  • Buckles and fasteners

There are various options but the most widely used closure systems include buckles, zippers (zippers with pulls are much more convenient to use especially in winter conditions), hook-and-loop fasteners (Velcro), and drawcords with cord locks. All fasteners have their advantages and disadvantages.

  • 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 as they usually use buckles, drawcords or a buckle and strap.

The lower compartments of backpacks are always closed by zippers. Sometimes straps run over the zippers to take some of the strain and reduce the likelihood of them bursting. Top compartments usually close with two drawcords. Be careful with seams and zippers because moisture often leaks through these weak points.

A pack cover (it’s usually fitted to a backpack by a drawstring) can be an effective solution against dew and rain. It fits over your backpack allowing it to stay dry in bad weather. Keep in mind that pack covers are not designed to protect the straps and back so if you don’t have room for your pack in the tent, when camping in bad weather, cover it with a plastics bag. It provides extra protection at almost no additional cost.

Man wearing backpacking backpack with rain cover in snowy conditions

Keep your backpack nice and dry in snow and rain with a pack cover  

  • Pockets

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

External frame backpacks normally come with one, two or three fixed pockets on each side. Internal frame backpacks don‘t usually have fixed side pockets because they could cause problems when climbing. Instead, detachable pockets can be fastened to the compression straps.

The side pockets can hold water bottles as well as snacks, fuel bottles, and other items you want to have outside the main pack. The side pockets can cause you some problems when hiking in winter. For example, once frozen they can lose their elasticity. They will also collect snow, which can be quite unpleasant.

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.

The hipbelt can be used for storing small items. It’s usually convenient to keep your snacks, maps, camera, sunglasses, etc. there for easy access during the day.

  • Straps and Patches

Side compression straps can be used to attach skis and other long items (trekking poles, tent poles, foam pads). Most hiking backpacks come with one or two sets of straps for ice axes and straps for crampons on the lid or the front.

Other factors to consider when choosing the best backpack for hiking 

Materials

The materials used have a direct correlation to the weight and durability of the hiking backpack. You’ve probably heard the term denier but do you know what it means? It helps describe the fabric thickness as denier indicates the weight of 9000 meters of yarn. This way, 9000 meters of a yarn that weights 400 grams is denoted as a 400-denier fabric (or 400D). A fabric that is 1000-denier is much coarser than the 400-denier fabric. Manufacturers often use this unit of measurement when describing the thickness of popular fabrics for backpacks such as nylon and Cordura. Another unit of measurement for the weight of fabrics is grams per square meter (g/m2 or GSM).

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. Nylons are probably the most widely used fabrics for backpacking backpacks. Ripstop nylon fabric is used because of its excellent tear resistance and low weight. Dyneema is a brand of ripstop nylon with applications in lots of industries including textile, workplace safety, maritime, and law enforcement. It’s an extremely strong, abrasion-resistant, lightweight, and versatile fiber that has low moisture absorption and low elasticity. Dyneema is used for manufacturing tough and ultralight backpacks for hiking and backpacking. The melting point of Dyneema is around 130-140°C. The manufacturer argues that it isn’t advisable to expose Dyneema fibers at temperatures exceeding 80 to 100°C (176 to 212°F) for long periods of time. So, be careful around heat sources. Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is even stronger than Dyneema. DCF is a waterproof, rip-resistant, and lightweight material that doesn’t absorb water and doesn’t stretch. However, it’s more expensive than and not as abrasion-resistant as other materials like Cordura. Cordura has been used by the military for various applications thanks to properties such as durability and abrasion-resistance. It’s also used for manufacturing outdoor gear such as hiking bags, boots, and clothes.

While most of the fabrics used are waterproof (or at least water-repellent) 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.

Size

How large a backpack 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. As a rule, a half-full large pack is more comfortable than an overloaded small bag. When choosing a pack, think about whether your gear will all fit in with room left for food.

How to choose the best hiking backpack: packs comparison

Backpack comparison (from left to right): 55L, 75L, and 90L

Weight

How much should your hiking backpack weigh? How much to carry on a hiking trip? It is reasonable to ask questions like these, especially if you’re new to backpacking. It sucks, but there isn’t a simple answer.  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 carrying 20 kg or more, an extra kilo of pack weight is worth it if you get a more comfortable carry.

  • Ultralight packs

They weigh about half a kilo and are designed for loads up to 9 kg. Ultralight backpacks have minimal features - they don't have frames, back padding or hipbelts.

  • Lightweight packs

A lot of backpackers carry on the trail no more than 11-20 kg. Although no traditional pack is needed, more support is needed for such weights than an ultralight pack can offer. Lightweight packs weigh between 0.5 kg and 2 kg and have 40-80 liters capacity. 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 hiking backpack 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 the frame type.

  • Travel packs

Travel packs are preferred for one bag travel. Derived from internal frame packs, they have similar suspension systems and capacities. However, the frame and harness of travel backpacks are covered by a zippered panel to protect them from airport baggage handlers.

On day hikes, you may not need more than a few kilos. However, multiday backpacking trips require much more gear. As a general rule, carry between 15 and 25% of your body weight. So, if you’re 100 kg, the load in your hiking backpack should be no more than 15 to 25 kg. Of course, there are exceptions when you’ll have to carry more weight - winter hiking (more/bulkier clothes and gear), desert hiking (more water), etc. What’s really important to remember is that you shouldn’t carry more than you can handle. You don’t want to risk your health so prune out the nonessentials and carry only what you need. Before your trip, take the time to adjust and try on your loaded backpack at home.

Durability

Top-quality hiking backpacks 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. To make sure that everything is all right with your pack, you can check it before a trip. Examine the pack bag to check for rips or tears or signs of any stitching failure; take a look at the hipbelt and various straps; check all zippers and buckles.

Tactical backpacks are famous for their durability.

FREE SOLDIER Tactical Attack 45L BackpackFREE SOLDIER Tactical Attack 45L Backpack is a heavy-duty tactical backpack engineered to enhance performance in your outdoor activities. The multifunctional design makes it suitable for a variety of activities from rugged trail hiking and daily work duties to a carry on pack for international flights. Made of durable and water-resistant 1000D nylon, this tactical backpack is sturdy, functional, and well-made. The 45L volume of the pack is divided into several compartments with various zip, slip and mesh inner pockets designed to provide plenty of space for organizing the placement of your gear and tools (there's also a laptop pocket in the main compartment). MOLLE web platform on the front as well as side and shoulder straps can be used for accessory attachment. Padded and breathable back and ergonomic, padded, and adjustable shoulder straps allow for comfortable carry for long periods of time. This bag will exceed your expectations.View on Camotrek

Cost

The more you spend, the better backpacking backpack you will get. Right? Wrong! Certainly, you may get what you paid for but no one can guarantee that if you pay top dollar to get the newest pack, you will get a top-quality hiking backpack. Think of your purchase as an investment, do your research, and find the best value for your money.

View Bags & Packs

Conclusion

When looking at hiking backpacks, pay attention to the little things that get used a lot. Everybody’s preferences will vary so the best hiking backpack for you may be considered crap by someone else. 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 multi-day hiking pack carries heavier loads comfortably. Since your comfort on the trail can make or break your experience taking the time to find the best backpacking backpack that fits can give you a flying start to your hiking adventures.

 

Related Articles

Packing for a Day Hike

How to Pack for a Multi-Day Hike

Ultimate Guide to Planning Hiking Trips

Backpacking Repair Kit

Hiking in the Rain

Guide to Hiking Clothes

Guide to Hiking Footwear

Water Bottles & Hydration on the Trail

 

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