After footwear, the backpack is one of the most crucial pieces of equipment that most outdoor enthusiasts will own. I mean you can’t even discuss hiking without talking about a backpack. With one or two rare exceptions, every time I am out hiking, I will be carrying a pack.
Now I need to own up here and state for the record that I’m a ‘gear freak’ and I currently own eight packs. I will use three of these regularly with a further pack getting wheeled out about once a year for big loads. Which one I use will depend on the particular type of hike. The remaining packs I haven’t gotten around to selling just yet but have found that on occasions when I have taken friends hiking who don’t own their own gear, they act as loaner packs so end up being quite useful and I’ll probably hang on to them ‘just in case’.
Choosing a backpack shouldn’t be something you do on the spur of the moment or just because it’s on sale. Ideally you need to do your research to work out what it is you really need and want (which can conflict with each other), and then go out and try different packs on. My oldest pack is currently 11 years old and while it doesn’t get used much any more, it is still in good condition and still very usable.
I tend to buy packs that are readily available from retail stores rather than cottage manufacturers. Its not that I have anything against cottage manufacturers its just a personal choice and it means that in most cases I can buy a pack on the spot or if ordering online, have it within a matter of days which was a big consideration when I purchased my current pack.
The following are five (5) considerations you need to think about when choosing a pack:
What are you going to be using your pack for? This is an obvious question that many people tend to overlook and this question often forces you into owning more than one pack. Are you going to be doing a simple day trip on a well formed trail within mobile phone range or are you doing a multi week/month trips that require you to carry your home on your back for an extended period and be fully self reliant?
While you can choose to compromise and just go for one pack you will find that this is a compromise you may not want to make.
And this is where the arguments start between hikers. Ideally when you choose a new pack you should do so based around your own personal requirements not someone else’s. What this means is that you should know what size pack needed to carry all of your equipment and food for the length of the trip/s you will be doing. My current main backpack, the Osprey Exos 48 (51 litres in capacity in size Large), is based around my need to carry all my equipment, including food, for a 3-season hike for seven-eight days.
If you are new to hiking, then see if you can borrow a pack at least for a weekend or two to work out the capacity you are likely to need.
An Osprey 20 litre ultralight pack used just to carry the minimum essentials on short hikes of around two hours. This pack weights in at 68 grams and will often come with me on multi week hikes to be used as a ‘town pack’
A 70 litre pack for carrying big loads needed for multi-day up to multi-week hikes. This packs weights in at 2.3 kg
Oh the choices we have! Before you choose the features you want, hopefully you have considered the first two points of purpose and pack size. Features to consider when buying a pack include:
Frame type – Internal-frame backpacks versus frameless
Built-in rain cover
Built-in hydration sleeve
Pack frame on my Osprey Exos 48 showing the trampoline style support that lifts the pack off your back and minimises sweating on your back
Trampoline style pack. The air gap between the pack and my back is noticeable in this image with the contact points being at the hips and the shoulder blades
A foam style pack that sits fully against the back. Very comfortable but also very sweaty in hot weather. This pack is also fully adjustable on the torso length
Pockets on a pack are essential but just what you need is really up to you to choose
Padded hip belt. The heavier the pack weight the more padding and support you will need
Attachment points shown on an Osprey pack to hold trekking poles when not in use
Built in rain cover in its own dedicated pocket
A built in sleeve to hold a hydration bladder
Just how long do you want a pack to last? Very lightweight packs are not going to last as long as the heavy grade, heavy weight packs. My oldest pack is just over 11 years old and is still in very good condition but I wouldn’t necessarily class it as durable – I’ve just looked after it.
When choosing just about any piece of hiking equipment there is always a trade off between cost, weight and durability. It’s rare for you to find gear that is cheap, durable, lightweight, and has all the features you want. In most cases you won’t get everything and will have to work out where your priorities lie and backpacks are no different. Highly durable backpacks are usually heavier and if we are talking durability there are a number of brands on the market that are constructed with canvas or extremely heavy grade material.
Everyone has a budget and after working your way through items 1 to 4 on our list, you will hopefully be left with a choice of at least two or more packs. This is where you need to decide which of the packs you have identified you can afford and whether paying the extra money for a dearer pack is really worthwhile. Only you (or your partner) can answer that question.
Spend the time doing your research and have a look around. If you haven’t worked it out yet, no one store carries every brand on the market so you may need to visit a number of different stores to try on your short list. The key takeaway here is not to rush into buying a pack and to remember that this is a piece of gear you are likely to be using for a number of years if not longer.