What Should I Consider Before Buying a Backpack for Hiking?

Good hiking backpacks may last for many years, and this is why it is very important to choose wisely. So in this text I discuss some criteria that are worth considering before buying one.

If you are in the process of buying a backpack for hiking or mountaineering, here are the criteria you might want to consider, given in no particular order:

  1. Capacity or volume.
  2. Versatility.
  3. Comfort.
  4. Essential features.
  5. Quality of materials.

All of them are discussed in the text below.

These are my criteria, and they are not completely independent from each other. For example, comfort and essential features may be related. The same holds for versatility and essential features.

It is interesting that at REI they give the list of criteria that includes i) capacity, ii) features, and iii) fit. In this case, features and fit may imply at least some common properties of a pack.

What Should I Consider Before Buying a Backpack - top picture showing a hiker on a mountain path.

Capacity or volume

Imagine you are in an outdoor shop and you need a pack for extended tours. You will not go to the compartment with day packs. Larger packs may be heavy so it is important to find the right volume to avoid unnecessary weight.

I like to think about three basic groups regarding capacity or volume. They include day packs with volume of up to 35 liters or so,  mid-size packs for overnight or weekend tours with the volume of up to 50 liters, and large packs.

Note that nothing is exact here, if you think a weekend pack should imply 60 liters, you are surely right. Who can know better than you what volume you need?

Versatility

The capacity mentioned above may not be enough. You might want to consider also an expandable pack. This may imply an expandable collar so that you can have +10 or even +15 liters of volume when you need this. This is related to essential features.

With such a collar you will have a floating lid to accommodate such an extra load. Such expandable collars are typical for Deuter packs. The picture below shows how the expanded collar and raised lid fit nicely when the pack is loaded for extra 10 liters.

Deuter Women's Aircontact Lite 60+10 Sl Trekking Backpack.
Deuter Women’s Aircontact Lite 60+10 Sl Trekking Backpack.

The reason for this is that sometimes you will need more space if you carry bulkier stuff for cold weather for example. Or you may carry more food and water, etc. In the past, Kelty used to have a pack that could expand drastically, but it is not on the market any longer.

Some packs have a lid that transforms into a day pack. This is very convenient to have in various situations, regardless if this is a small summit push pack or a pack for city day tours. You can see one great example of that type in the MYSTERY RANCH Glacier Backpack, the picture below.

The lid of MYSTERY RANCH Glacier Backpack transformed into a day pack.
The lid of MYSTERY RANCH Glacier Backpack transformed into a day pack.

In some large packs, inner reservoir sleeve can be removed to serve as a day pack.

You might also want to consider an adjustable pack (more below) so that several family members can use it when necessary, or at least your partner. Packs are expensive and it is good to use them as much as possible when you make such an investment.

Comfort of a backpack

This includes several different aspects that should contribute to your overall feeling of comfort when you carry a backpack.

Carry load aspect

This may imply the presence or absence of a frame, you will want to have one if this is about larger packs. How large? I would say if this is above 30 liters or so, I would want to have a pack with a frame.

The other aspect is a quality of the padding on the hip belt (if the pack has it), in the lumbar area, and on the shoulder harness. Not every pack should have a hip belt, but this is useful for various points of view. Such a belt keeps the pack in place so it does not bounce if the pack is small or not fully loaded

Harness fit

There can be no comfort if the pack does not fit your body properly. If you are lucky, your pack may be just your size, and this means that the torso length is just right, and the hip belt fins hug your hip area perfectly.

But if this is not so, you will want to have an adjustable harness. This may include torso length adjustability as well as hip fins adjustability. Some good packs designed for very heavy loads have adjustability even in the lumbar padding.

Ventilation

If you follow outdoor backpacks industry, then you have probably noticed that all top brands now massively build ventilated backpacks.

Never heard of this? Well, if so, just to stress that this implies a tensioned trampoline-style mesh that completely separates your body from the main body of the pack. This allows air to circulate in all directions. Even when you sweat, this helps in drying on the go. You can read more about this in my text about sweating when using backpacks.

Gender specific features

As you probably know, there are packs designed specifically for women, and this is what top brands offer without exception. This includes various design details related to comfort, you can see more in my separate text.

All the aspects discussed above are covered also in my separate text addressing the issue of essential specifications of a backpack.

Essential features

Some of essential features are already mentioned in the text above. But packs can have them many, and this holds in particular for Osprey packs that may be loaded with great features. If you have seen their UNLTD Series then you know what I am talking about.

But do you really need them all? More features usually means more weight. The mentioned Osprey UNLTD packs are quite heavy, but they are still not the heaviest on the market.

Do you already have an old pack? If so, check its features and see if it has some that you have never used. For example, I have packs with an inner divider which I never use. Such a divider includes a zipper and this means extra weight.

So make a list of what your pack must have, you may not need or possible bells and whistles. This will reduce weight and you may save some money.

Here are a few things more discussed in this video, please have a looks:

Quality of materials

There are several elements here that are of essential importance.

Zippers: I would say that zippers are one of the most important elements. They are supposed to be easy to use and durable. If a zipper fails, it is far from easy to repair it. The best zippers on the market are those from YKK company, so if you choose a pack with them, you will have less chance for disappointment.

There are some reliable brands that offer repairs, and this is important to bear in mind. Deuter is one of them, this brand has been around for longer than a century already. I have a Deuter pack that is 20 years old, and its zippers are like new.

But the same holds for Osprey through their All Mighty Warranty. So if you pay a bit more for their pack, this is for ease of mind, remember this.

Durable buckles: As you know, a hiking pack has quite a number of them. If a buckle on your hip belt fails, this can ruin your trip.

This is why it is important to buy a pack from a reliable brand. I already mentioned some, but in the same group are Mystery Ranch, Gregory, Mountainsmith, and Kelty.

Strong fabric: Modern hiking packs come with plenty of features, and those tend to increase weight. This is why manufacturers now use thinner fabric, to compensate for the weight.

I can clearly see this when I compare my pre-historic yet indestructible Deuter Futura 38 with my new pack from their Futura Vario series. The new pack is with a far less durable fabric.

But there are still packs made from strong fabric, you will find them if you check among the packs from the mentioned Mountainsmith and Mystery Ranch brands. See also the Deuter Aircontact X to realize what a truly durable fabric is.

Final thoughts

So I hope I have answered the question in the title, this is a real question that people ask. If you feel that I have missed something important, please let me know.

I did not discuss the issue of price. The reason is that paying for the right pack is worth the money. My own packs last long, this is because they are of high quality. So I am willing to pay for a piece of equipment that I am going to use for many years.

But consider this – top brands come frequently with new versions of their existing models. This is usually just marketing and in many cases there is nothing substantially new in such new versions. Sometimes you can see several different versions of the same pack on the market. Do you really need the latest one, which is always the most expensive one?

One more thing to consider is the brand, a well-made pack will serve you for years. See in my separate text what I think about Kelty backpacks.

This site is all about outdoors questions and answers and I add texts here on a regular basis, so bookmark it and keep as a reference. Please use the comment box below in the case of questions or comments. Thank you for reading and have a nice day.

 
Me on Jalovec.Hi, I am Jovo, the founder of this OutdoorsFAQs site and several other outdoor sites. I have been mountaineering for almost 40 years already, and I have created this site to use as a reference for various questions that I receive in my sites. Being a theoretical physicist by profession, I tend to base my answers on facts and on my own personal experience.

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