Hiking / Trekking / Tramping Backpack Buying Guide

Backpacking Buying Guide

Whether you are heading off on a quick overnighter or plan to be on the trail for some days, weeks or even months, there are a quite a few things to consider to help you choose the right backpack for your trip. Getting the right pack that suits your needs and fits correctly is crucial for longer walks with heavier pack loads. We've put together a guide to assist you with what to look for in a hiking backpack.  

Backpacking Trip Duration and Frequency of Use

Are you after a hiking pack that will be used for brief short stints, or are you going to be walking for several days or a couple of weeks away from supplies?  Overnight and weekender backpacks are smaller in volume as they don't need to hold as much gear and are usually between 30 and 50 litres in volume. Larger volume hiking backpacks are made to carry additional gear and supplies for longer trips. Pack volumes of 65 to 75 litres are generally suitable for trips 3 to 5 days duration. Trips for longer than this may require a pack larger than this depending on the supplies you need to carry. Good quality larger volume packs will also have sturdier harness systems with thicker supportive foam padding and stronger frame systems to be able to carry the heavier load in your pack. Is the pack going to be used regularly or sporadically? Backpack fabric is an important consideration if your pack is going to be used regularly.  Ultralight fabrics with low thread counts are not suitable for extended use and will wear much quicker than heavier denier nylon fabrics will. Backpacks made for fast and light adventures need to be treated like you would if you were driving a high performance car tyre - with lots of care. The Osprey Levity/Lumina Backpacks fall into this category. Expedition style backpacks or packs made for tour and outdoor groups tend to be made of more durable fabrics as they are used for longer periods of time. 

Osprey Ultralight Backpacks

The Osprey Levity/Lumina Series are an example of an ultralight backpack that needs to be handled carefully.

Seasonality, Weather Conditions and Equipment Required to Carry in your Backpack

Are you heading off somewhere cold or wet and require space to carry more clothing and gear to protect you from the elements? You will need to think about a backpack that is large enough to hold all that extra gear.

Are you walking in warm weather and would like a backpack that provides ventilation for your back? Backpacks with ventilated suspended harness systems the keep the backpack from sitting directly on your back will allow airflow onto your back and are ideal for warm weather walking.

Are you going on a walk where accommodation and meals are provided? Or will you need to carry a tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag in your pack?  A larger volume pack will be required to carry all that extra gear. Some hiking backpacks will have external webbing straps, pockets and compartments on the outside of the pack where you can stow some of this equipment.  

Backpack Load Range

The weight you carry in your backpack will determine what harness system will be required to carry that pack load on your back comfortably. Smaller loads will require less padding and support in the shoulder straps and around the backpack hipbelt. Very small loads may be carried without the use of a strong framed backpanel in some backpack designs. Some smaller packs will use just a foam or plastic backpanel for rigidity. As the backpack load increases, then so will the amount of foam and padding in the shoulder straps and hipbelt. A backpack frame is also required to provide structure for larger backpacks.  A good backpack frame when worn correctly will put more pack load onto your legs and less on your shoulders. Leading backpack manufacturers publish a recommended load range for each model of their backpacks to let you know what weight that model of pack is designed to carry. 

Backpack Load Range Harness Comparison

Backpack harnesses become more supportive as pack volume and pack load increases.Thicker and stonger foam is used in the shoulder straps and on the hip belts for support and comfort. Backpack suspension is more substantial in higher load packs. 

Gender Specific Backpacks

Leading backpack manufacturers make women's specific backpacks to fit the shape of a woman's body. The backpack's shape is designed to be more narrow with added depth at all the right places.  Shoulder harnesses have differing angle changes and varying padding thicknesses to best fit a woman's neck, shoulder and chest. Hipbelts are built with different angle changes and varying padding thickness to create a better anatomical fit for a woman. Hipbelts are also made narrower in height for better comfort so it does not dig into the ribs or thighs when scrambling or climbing. As women's hips are more conically shaped with a large difference between the waist and hip measurements, good backpack manufacturers sculpt and angle their hipbelts accordingly for comfortable load transfer and optimal support. 

Backpack Sizing and Custom Fit

The cheaper and more basic backpack will be made with a one-size-fits-all harness system - for both men and women.  This harness system may or may not have any adjustment in the harness yoke to fit your back length. It may also be missing some basic backpack adjustment such as pack load stabilisers.  Getting a pack such as this one to fit you correctly may be a challenge or just not possible.  Some adjustable harnesses end up with the harness sitting too high on a shorter torso, or too short on a longer torso.  Leading backpack manufacturers offer their backpacks in men's and women's harnesses, with backpacks in different volumes to suit different back lengths. They also have different hip belts and shoulder straps available to suit longer and short torsos and skinny and wide hips.  The Osprey Aether/Ariel Series and the Gregory Deva/Baltoro series have interchangeable shoulder straps and hipbelts available for a more customised fit. Some backpack models will have extendable hipbelts that also go some way towards a customised fit. 

Parts and Key Features of a Hiking Backpack

Backpack Entry

A hiking backpack will usually be top loading, meaning access to the inside of the backpack is through a gusseted drawcord opening at the top of the pack. Some packs will have a bottom zippered compartment which is a good place to put a sleeping bag. There may be a removable divider between this compartment and the rest of the backpack so you can access your gear from either the top or the bottom of the bag if you wish to. Some models will have zippers through the main compartment of the pack as well to give you a third option to access your gear in side your bag.

Backpack Pockets and Sleeves

Within the top of the backpack lid, there are usually a number of pockets where you can stow quick and easy to access items. Some packs will have pockets on the sides of the pack to house your water bottles. Some will have a reservoir sleeve where you can slide in a hydration sleeve. Other external pockets on packs are good places to stash a jacket for cold or wet weather. Some packs have zippered hipbelt pockets where you can stow food or electronic equipment for quick and easy access on the trail.

Webbing Straps and Buckles

Compression straps on the outside of the pack when pulled in tight will bring the pack load in closer to your back for more effective carrying but can also hold bulky items that may not fit inside your pack like a sleeping mat or tent. Ultralight backpacks will have options for some webbing and pockets to be removable and left behind to bring your pack load weight down. 

Other Features

Other features that a backpack may include are: trekking pole attachment points, clips to hold a daypack on the back of the pack; a removable raincover; ice-tool attachment loops; zippered external pockets.

Parts and key features of a hiking backpack

If you are still unsure of which backpack will suit for your upcoming trip, we offer a free backpack fitting service when you purchase from us here at Seven Horizons. Feel free to contact us for more information or to book a fitting appointment.

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