What’s the Difference Between a Hiking Backpack and a Regular Backpack?

Here you have discussed in detail the most important differences between hiking and regular backpacks as an answer to the question from the title that is asked on the Internet.

The main difference between a hiking backpack and a regular backpack is functionality. The former is built for a certain purpose, and this implies i) some features that not available in standard packs, and ii) some that are more frequent in hiking packs but rare in standard packs.

What's the Difference Between a Hiking Backpack and a Regular Backpack? Top picture showing my two backpacks.

What’s the difference between a hiking backpack and a regular backpack?

This and similar questions on the Internet I have seen answered by quite a number of people. Unfortunately, I could not see an answer that would be complete and correct enough.

I have seen some claiming that regular backpacks have fewer pockets, that they are smaller, etc. This is simply wrong. I could show you many regular backpacks for day use that have more pockets than some of hiking packs.

The top picture above show my hiking pack Osprey Stratos 24 on the left, and my Samsonite backpack for my daily use.

So the Samsonite pack has many pockets, in fact it has them more than the Osprey pack. But this is just by chance, there is no obvious rule here.

The Samsonite pack is also visually smaller, but the actual official volume is the same, and again, this is just by chance. I have several other hiking packs that are smaller than this Samsonite backpack.

So what would be the main difference. Here is what I suggest – take a look at the top picture above and also at the picture below. So tell me now what do you see?

My Osprey Stratos 24 hiking pack on the left and my Samsonite pack for daily use.
My Osprey Stratos 24 hiking pack on the left and my Samsonite pack for daily use.

It is about functionality, and in my view this is the main difference. The hiking pack is built to be used for hiking, and this means it has the following essential features that make it different from standard backpacks:

1. Plenty of attachment options. These include various straps and also attachment loops. This is absent in typical day-use packs.

2. The distribution and functionality of pockets is different. So you see that the hiking pack has them on the hip belt. Why? Because you want to have some essentials close at hands on the go. You may not need this in a regular backpack or for example in a cycling backpack.

Also, hiking packs will have side stretch mesh pockets, while my Samsonite has two side zippered pockets.

3. A sternum strap. This is available in practically all hiking packs and not at all in standard backpacks.

I may have forgotten some, and if so please let me know.

Apart from these most important differences, here are a few more features that you may find more frequently in hiking packs, and I repeat more frequently and this means not always:

  • It has a wide hip belt. Many hiking packs have it but not all, this is why it is in this second group of features.
  • A rain cover. The Osprey pack above has it, and I have it also in a few other hiking packs. But this is because I want to have this feature. There are many hiking packs without it. Regular backpacks for daily use are almost always without it. Why? You are less exposed to elements and this is not really essential. You will likely use an umbrella instead.
  • An emergency whistle. This is usually integrated into the mentioned sternum strap.
  • Load lifter straps. This feature is available even in my Osprey pack above, but for a pack of this size it is not essential at all.
  • A lid. There are many hiking packs with a lid, you can see one of my packs below with this feature. This adds to functionality because usually there is at least one pocket in the lid. You can also put some extra stuff on the top of the pack and fix it in place with the lid. A lid is rare in standard daily-use backpacks.
A hiking pack with a lid.
A hiking pack with a lid.
  • Adjustable torso length. So some hiking packs have this and some not. The Osprey pack is with it, but the other pack shown above is without it. Standard packs are practically always without it. This feature may not be essential for light and fast tours, but you would want to have it in the case of a substantial weight in the pack.
  • A frame. Not all hiking packs have a frame, but many do have it. I have never seen this feature in a regular pack for day use.
  • Most hiking packs come with a water hose port and a compartment for a water bladder. About water needed for hikes you can read in my separate text.

Can I use a regular backpack for hiking?

This will depend on the type of your hiking tour. If this is about some easy hill walking tour, then the answer is yes, any pack will do the job.

But if you plan a longer day tour at higher elevations, perhaps you might want a more suitable hiking pack that offers more space in the main compartment and options to attach gear from outside. Though, even for some tours of this type you might manage with your regular pack.

I think the bottom line is like this: If you are a beginner in this, do not spend money on such things. It is best to try if you like this activity and use a pack that you already have. If you realize this is hard for you, then this is fine and you did not invest anything.

But if you discover that this is an activity for you, in time you will want to invest a bit into equipment. This is simply to make it more pleasant and efficient.

What kind of backpack do you need for hiking?

This question is practically answered above. So again, if you are a beginner, just use any pack that you have. But ideally, here is the list of features I love to have, and the order is more or less my list of preference:

  • Plenty of attachment options. You never know what you will need for next tour. Such attachment elements allow you to carry lots of stuff on the pack in spite if its eventual small size.
  • Ventilated design. I have discussed this issue in my separate text, so please follow the link and see more.
  • A rain cover. This is important for me, but perhaps not necessarily for you.
  • Plenty of pockets. I love to have them, this allows me to stay organized and I always know where my stuff is.

What size backpack do you need for a 3 day hike?

My guess is that some would correct you if you ask such a question by telling you that a 3-day hike is not a hike but backpacking or mountaineering. More in my separate text about differences between hiking and mountaineering.

But let’s focus on what is essential here and not discuss semantics. So for a 3-day tour, the size of the pack will depend on the type of the tour as follows:

1. A self-supported tour

In this case you would have to carry stuff for outdoor sleeping. This implies ‘big three’ pieces (a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, and a tent), plus perhaps an inflatable pillow, food and water. There may be more essential stuff, but in any case, think about a 50-liters-plus pack.

In the case of a cold environment you will carry bulky stuff so you might need even a larger pack. I would warmly suggest a pack with an expandable collar. Deuter is particularly known for such packs, you will recognize them by the numbers +5, or +10, or even +15 in the name. These Deuter Futura Air Trek packs are a great option.

2. A non-self supported tour

This can be a hut-to-hut tour or anything similar where you have place to sleep and no need to carry bulky stuff. In huts you may have food and water as well. For such tours you can manage even with day packs. Now, this term may mean lots of different sizes, but think about a 30 liters pack or so.

But there are places in the Alps where you have a shelter with beds, sometimes real beds and sometimes bunk wood structures. Usually they have blankets and mattresses as well. The picture below shows one from my tour to Monte Confinale in the Italian Alps.

Monte Confinale refuge with beds and blankets.
Monte Confinale refuge with beds and blankets.

So in this case you do not need a tent, and a smaller pack will do. How small? I would say 40 liters or so would be fine. But if you have a 50 liters pack, use it, no need to buy a new smaller pack.

But in some other cases you may only have a shelter with wood surfaces for sleeping, so bring at least a sleeping bag as a minimum. You may want to have a sleeping pad as well, and an inflatable pillow. This Bivak IV is one place where I stayed the night during my climb of Skrlatica in the Slovenian Alps:

Bivak IV, Skrlatica in the Slovenian Alps.
Bivak IV, Skrlatica in the Slovenian Alps.

How big of a backpack do I need for a day hike?

This question is not so simple to answer. A day hike may imply many different activities. If you plan to hike to a mountain hut and have a lunch there, and then go back, a minimal pack would do, say 15 liters or so. Here you can keep just your personal things plus a rain jacket, a small water bottle, etc.

But for some walk-up summit tours you might carry food and water, say two liters or so, plus rain gear, one warm mid layer, etc. In such cases, use a daypack of 25 liters or so. Up to 35 will be fine. Can it be even bigger? Of course it can.

So this was more or less all I wanted to say about differences between a hiking backpack and a regular backpack. I hope I did not miss something important, but do let me know if you feel something is missing.

You might want to read also my text about carrying a tent in the backpack. As you see this site is an informative type with evergreen content and I add texts here regularly. So bookmark it and keep as a reference.

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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