Comprehensive hiking backpack guide
Choosing a reliable hiking backpack might not be that straight foreword. Essentially you are carrying your house for the next few days on your back. You rely on it to keep your equipment and food safe and dry.
You also rely on its ergonomics not to damage your shoulders and lower back. A proper fit to your torso length is essential.
A good tent, a warm down sleeping bag and comfortable hiking boots might be the three most important items you don’t want to skimp on. But I would add a good backpack to that line up because that is what is going to hold all your gear. And you need your backpack to be reliable because of that.
In this guide, I will show you how to size a properly fitting backpack to your body frame. How big or small it must be. What materials are most popular and what will work for you.
Let’s also not forget about price.
A quality backpack can be very expensive and you might not need all the bells and whistles it offers. At the end of this guide we will look at some reliable and affordable hiking backpacks to get you started on the right track.
A hiking backpack has to be the right size for you otherwise you risk at the very least to feel very uncomfortable and sore during your hiking trip.
But how do you choose the right size backpack for your frame?
You are going to need one of 2 things – flexibility or a friend. I chose the friend because my body screamed at me when I tried to bend it that way with tape measure stretched from my arms behind my back.
Find the C 7 vertebra at the base of your neck, it’s going to be the most prominently sticking out bit when you lower your head and feel it. Got it? Good, this is your top reference point.
Credit to: Bodypart3d/Anotomography
Now place your hands on your hips, feel the top of your hip bone. Guide your thumbs to the back while staying on that top hip bone line.
The imaginary level line between your thumbs is going to be your bottom reference point. Stand up straight and have your friend measure from that point to your C 7 vertebra. That is your torso size.
Why did we need all that? Isn’t any backpack going to do the job?
Not really! When you go backpacking you carry a reasonably heavy load in it. The weight has to be 60 to 80% on your hips through the hip belt and only 20 to 40% on your shoulders. Otherwise, you are begging for shoulder and lower back problems.
The hiking backpack comes with a hip belt which is designed to close over your hip bone so you can safely carry the weight.
If the backpack is too small for your torso size, you might be able to fit it properly on your hip, but the shoulder straps will be pulling your shoulders and it will put a strain on your lower back and shoulders – see what I mean – you need the right fitting backpack for your torso size.
As the saying goes – “Lift with your legs, not with your back!“
The right fitting backpack helps you do exactly that. Your hips in this instance but you know what I mean.
Another way to do this is to use an app.
Osprey has created a free PackSizer app that does the measuring for you so check it out. You download the app, take a picture of yourself in full length from head to toe. Locate the upper and lower torso points and voila, you have your torso measurement!
What features can a hiking backpack have?
- Top cover pocket for easier access to essential items such as snacks and medical kit. Some can be removable.
- Water bladder compatibility – basically the backpack has a pocket to store a water bladder and a small semi-protected hole to take out the water hose so you can drink on the go.
- Mesh pockets – there are different approaches to those but generally a big mesh pocket on the back of your backpack comes in very handy. Side pockets for water bottles, little mesh pockets on the shoulder straps and hip belt for handy miscellaneous like lighters, flashlights, pocket knives or snacks.
- Compression straps – once you’ve loaded your backpack you can pull on those wrapped around the backpack to tighten everything up so stuff doesn’t sway or shift in your backpack making you lose balance at a very crucial moment.
- Load lifter straps – located above the shoulder straps, their function is to pull closer the top part of the backpack to your shoulders for a more stable center of gravity. If the top part is too far from your shoulders it can sway and make you lose balance at inconvenient moments.
- Sternum straps – located on the shoulder straps at mid to top chest level, they help to reduce the backward pulling motion from the shoulder straps.
Hip belt – it can be adjustable and none adjustable, I’d go with the adjustable option to have a perfect fit around your hips. The hip belt is the load-bearing structure of your backpack and is where most of the weight is focused. Good padding is a must when carrying heavy loads.
Sleeping bag/tent holding straps on the outside(bottom or top part)
Adjustable torso length moves the top base of the shoulder straps up and down to fit your torso just right.
Rain cover– a backpack can have a designated “hiddne” compartment for it.
Tethering points on the back to secure additional items that require easy access before you even need to open the backpack.
There are generally 4 types of backpacks with different durability, weight, and purpose. They can be framed and frameless. The framed version helps to support heavier weight and fit better on your back. Hiking backpacks have internal frames wich are lighter and are much more preffered.
Traditional backpacks – this is the workhorse. This type of hiking backpack is made of heavy-duty ripstop nylon material and have many pockets, comfortable padded shoulder straps and back suspension system to help with breathability. If they get wet they soak up the water, become very heavy and dry very slowly so keep them well protected with a rain cover or pack liner when the weather decides to bless you with a refreshing cold shower.
Pros: rich in features, Durable, some come with a lifetime warranty.
Cons: heaviest of the bunch, not water resistant, but they usually have a rain cover which adds to the weight
Ultralight backpacks– this is the minimalist approach to hiking in nature. Carrying the bare essentials in a lightweight backpack. They forego the top closing lip and instead have a roll on closing. They have less shoulder strap and hip belt padding, but since you are not carrying so much weight you don’t need the extra padding. Ultralight backpacks are usually made from an expensive waterproof material(cuben fiber) which is less durable than the traditional packs. Depending on the use you can get as much as 2 seasons from an ultralight backpack. They are less commercially available. Most of them are custom made wich demands their higher price.
Pros: light, waterproof
Cons: expensive, low durability
Super Ultralight – here we get to the extreme and forego all the minimal comforts of the ultralight. They are frameless so you lose the supporting structure that helps you carry the weight on your back, but then again, you don’t need the frame since you are carrying even less weight than the ultralight backpack. You basically have a stuffing sleeve with straps, but you save up to an extra pound off the weight compared to an ultralight backpack.
Pros: waterproof, “super ultralightweight” – who knew
Cons: low durability, cost
Traditional “ultralight” – this is the middle ground between comfort and lightweight. They are still made from a tough tear-proof material but have stripped down features to get to that lower weight. They usually have a single main compartment and in most cases that is enough.
Pros: lighter than traditional backpacks, more versatile than ultralight backpacks
Cons: less durable then traditionl backpacks, less comfort features, more expensive than traditional backpacks
What hiking backpack do you need?
For a beginner backpacker, I’d go with a traditional or traditional ultralight backpack just because of the versatility. You are not going to have all the space and weight saving equipment from the start and will generally overpack with more items.
So you need the space for that initial piece of mind that you’ve brought everything you might need.
The difference between an overnight backpack and a multi-day backpack is only in the amount of food you bring.
A good all-around backpack would be somewhere between 40 to 50 liters. With a fully loaded weight between 20 to 40 pounds.
A day hike bag would be anything from 10 to 35-liter capacity.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the 80 to 110-liter towering monsters that are chosen for 7+ day hikes.
Let’s talk about price
Let me level with you. The more you spend on a hiking backpack the more quality you will get. Think of it as an investment in your good experiences for many years to come.
If you buy a cheap hiking backpack chances are one or most of all these things will happen – the zippers will snag/fail/rip from the fabric. The backpacking fabric might leech paint coloring your clothes. The fabric might tear even when the backpack is packed under the specified weight. The plastic clips on the straps are another point which often fails on the budget models.
Everything you don’t want to go wrong can go wrong in a cheap backpack!
And that is not something neither me or you want when we are out on a hike. I will not show a ultralight backpack here, because they are pricy and that can be off-putting to a new hiker.
So let’s look at what a good hiking backpack looks like!
Weight: S: 3 lbs. 15 oz. ; M: 4 lbs. ; L: 4 lbs. 1 oz.
Torso sizes: S: 16-19’’; M: 19-21’’; L: 21-23’’
Hydration bladder compatible
Main materials:100D and 630D Nylon Dobby for places with higher strength requirement.
This is a great all-rounder. It comes in several colors but my favorite is the graphite grey with bright orange accents. The Atmos can be your one stop shop for all your gear. It has all the features you could possibly want. Fits your back like a glove, the padding is in all the right places for comfort. There is torso length adjustment up to 3 inches to fit your body perfectly.
The AG stands for “Anti-Gravity” system which is a suspension system to separate your back from the backpack letting it breathe.
If you are a heavy sweater like me you’d greatly appreciate this feature. The shoulder straps are meshed and very breathable so they will dry out faster in those sweaty warm weather hikes.
The hip belt is also meshed, with wonderfull padding and get this – you can adjust the length at two points. One at the base which can increase or decrease the padded area and of course the other regulation point is the straps at the clasps. There are hip belt pockets which can hold a phone or other small items.
To finish off the strap part there are four compression straps to tighten the backpack. The front has a big mesh pocket secured with a clip, the side pockets for the water bottles can be easily accessed from the top and the side so you don’t have to bend your arm in painful angles just to get a drink.
A cool feature that this backpack has is the removable floating top lid. By adjusting it you can put additional gear between it and the backpack as well as completely remove it. This comes in handy when you want save a bit of weight and don’t need the extra storage.
Another small attention to detail is that there is an emergency whistle on the sternum strap clasp. There is a sleeping bag compartment on the bottom of the pack instead of having straps for it on the outside.
There is also a water bladder pocket that fits all sizes. For all the good features this backpack has I will admit it is not lightweight. The rain cover is not included which kinda ticks me off. I’m willing to forgive it because of all the things it has done right.
The backpack hugs the body and moves with you. It lets your back breath and has enough storage space for your needs. There are bigger and smaller models in the range. The 50 liters with 40 pounds maximum load weight is the sweet spot for most backpackers.
One thing you should consider is when you are first gathering gear(the budget kind). At first your gear isn’t going to be the most compact so opting for the Osprey Atmos AG 65 might provide that extra room.
I’d take this hiking backpack with me on multi-day hikes and be sure that it will not fail!
Do you want to know the best part? Osprey offers a lifetime warranty or as Osprey calls it – The “All Mighty Guarantee”, which covers defects that might occur.
I love it when a company has so much faith in their products that they are willing to offer such deals to give an additional piece of mind to their customers. It’s not cheap but it certainly is on the affordable end when it comes to reliable hiking backpacks. The durable materials, the amazing AG system and all the features you might need – it’s well worth the money! You can’t go wrong with the Osprey Atmos AG 50, check it out!
Material: 420D Nylon
Torso length: it will fit between 15.5 to 21’’
Going down in price, but not in quality is the Kelty Redwing 50. This is a bit of a strange beast with interesting features.
Since its 2016 update, the pack has become lighter with adjustable torso length which is Keltys “perfect fit” system – a welcome change. While the back is not the amazing Anti-gravity system on the Osprey, it is still breathable and very comfortable.
This can be your daypack and your multi-day pack. Made possible because of its design (no rigid sides). The four tension straps can make the backpack more compact when you don’t need the extra space.
The adjustable hip belt has 1 adjustment point on the straps, unlike the Osprey. The hip belt also does not come with pockets, but that is a minor gripe I have with it. The sternum straps are adjustable height and lengthwise. They also have an emergency whistle on one of the clips.
The side water bottle pockets can only be accessed from the top. Above them are big zipper pockets with a pass-through pocket between them and the backpack. This makes carrying longer items like trekking poles, axes easier ans more secure than just a holding strap. There is no mesh pocket on the back of the pack. Instead, there is a zipper pouch with many small pockets.
Behind it, there is a deep pocket big enough for a jacket.
The backpack has 2 grab handles. One at the top and another one at the back. This helps you can carry it like a sack so it can double as a traveling backpack!
On the inside, there is a water bladder pocket and surprisingly a laptop pocket continuing the traveling pack alternative theme. The main storage area can be accessed from the top lid or it can be unzipped like a clam from the sides.
There is no sleeping bag designated pocket making the inside deeper.
This is a very budget friendly multipurpose backpack. While it may not have the infinite adjustability and features like the Osprey Atmos Ag 50 it still has traveling backpack features to set it apart and make it an easy choice as an affordable all-around hiking backpack.
Choosing the right backpack can be a never-ending quest. Sifting through the features you like and those you don’t need. So whether its a day hike or a multi-day adventure with this guide you can be confident in choosing the right hiking backpack. I’m always on the lookout for a practical hiking backpack of any sort. If you have some interesting examples please share them in the comments below!