12 June 2019
A backpack is an essential part of your hiking or camping gear. So it’s important that you know how to choose the backpack that’s right for you and your adventures.
Types of backpacks
Most people who enjoy the outdoors own more than one backpack. These usually have different capacities to cover a range of activities.
(Top tip: Backpacks usually contain a number in their name. This number indicates their capacity in litres.)
A hydration pack is a lightweight bag that can be worn either on the back or waist. This bag has a compartment for a lightweight hydration system or water reservoir, often known as a bladder which allows you to drink water hands free. There may also be other small pockets in the pack to store lightweight jackets or trail foods.
Best use: Hydration packs are ideal for activities such as trail running, cycling, and kayaking.
A daypack will usually be a smaller backpack that holds enough for a short hike, or one or two days’ worth of activities. They aren’t large enough for normal backpacking using full-sized sleeping bags and backpacking tents, but may be large enough for ultralight backpacking. Padded waist belts or unpadded waist straps may be provided to distribute weight across the body for an easy fit.
Best use: This type of backpack is best for day hikes and can be used as carry-on luggage when travelling.
The design of multi-day backpacks, particularly the straps, aims to let you carry maximum weight while keeping you comfortable during strenuous treks. Many pockets and packing spaces allow you to compartmentalize your gear. As a rough guide, for 3 to 5 nights, you’ll need between 50 and 80 litres of capacity. Extended trips, longer than five nights, usually call for 70 litres or more.
Best use: Multi-day backpacks are extremely versatile but are conventionally used for hikes stretching over several days.
These bags are equipped to store anything you might need on a weekend away as well as trips which require larger amounts of luggage. Roller backpacks such as the K-Way Stowaway are convenient when transporting your luggage at the airport. Some of the smaller travel backpacks are also hand-luggage friendly.
Best use: These are ideal for plane travel and urban journeys.
How to fit a hiking backpack
Once you’ve chosen the right type of backpack, you’ll need to make sure it fits you properly. This is particularly important for multi-day backpacks.
First, loosen all the straps, including top and side stabiliser straps, the hip belt and shoulder straps. Fill your pack with the weight you expect to be carrying and place the pack on your back.
This is the most vital aspect of a good fit and is measured against your back. While daypacks usually only come in one size, a multi-day backpack that is too small or too large for your torso will affect your comfort and balance on long hikes. Most multi-day backpacks have a size range that they cover. To find your torso size, measure your back length from a point on your back in line with the top of your hip bone up to the knobbly bone in your neck when you look down.
Your hips should carry more than two-thirds of the pack weight, so the belt must sit comfortably around the top portion of the hips. If you are carrying heavy loads, you’ll want to make sure the hip belt has enough cushioning to prevent sore spots.
To fit, position the hip belt on your hip bone. Centre the hip belt along your hip bones, then fasten and tighten until snug. It may help to bend forward while you do this.
These should be in contact with as much of your shoulders as possible to distribute weight evenly and to maximise comfort.
Pull down and tighten the shoulder straps until they are comfortable. The straps should curve over your shoulders without leaving any gaps or cutting into your shoulders.
Load adjustment straps
These are at the top of the shoulder straps. They should touch the shoulder straps in line with the middle of your shoulder straps.
Tighten the top load stabiliser straps to pull the backpack closer into your back, raising the pack’s centre of gravity. Tighten the side stabiliser straps on the hip belt to control the amount of flex between your body and the pack.
Lastly, adjust the sternum strap, in the front chest area, to ensure that you keep the shoulder straps in the most comfortable position. This will boost your stability by preventing the pack from being thrown off balance.
10 features to look for in a backpack
1. Does it have a raincover? (If not, consider packing items in a dry sack too)
2. Is it hydration reservoir compatible? There will be an internal sleeve and a hose portal.
3. Are there tool loops that allow you to attach extra gear?
4. Does it have ventilation? Suspended ventilation frames keep the pack away from your back or padded back panels can create chimneys for air to flow through.
5. Does it have an internal frame? This adds to the weight of a pack but improves load support.
6. Is it easy to open and access items? Top access only means that it’s hard to reach items at the bottom. Larger backpacks should have separate compartments as well as front or side zippers.
7. Are there plenty of different pockets that will allow you to organise and find your gear?
8. How much does the pack itself weigh? Obviously, you don’t want to carry extra weight. However, an ultralight pack may lack some of the features and comfort of a regular pack.
9. Does it have compression straps that allow you to shrink or expand the pack as required?
10. Does it have lockable zippers? If each compartment has two zips, you’ll be able to lock them together with a zip-tie or a padlock when travelling.