Updated on October 10, 2021
Hiking backpacks come in all sizes and colors, in a range of materials, and with enough add-on extras to satisfy the most demanding gadget freak. To help you to find your way through the forest of hiking backpacks available here are some basics.
Don’t be tempted to purchase a bigger hiking backpack than you need “to allow for longer hikes”, or you’ll simply end up with the problem of taking everything including the kitchen sink with you.
Small packs, such as waist packs or fanny packs, aren’t technically backpacks. After all, they’re not worn on the back. But they serve a similar purpose on a smaller scale. For short hikes, they can do just fine.
Those smaller packs have a strap and usually two or three compartments. You can use them to store or hold a water bottle, nutrition bars, band-aids, disinfectant, sunscreen or a dozen other small items that are handy on the trail.
Some even have small, special-purpose water bladders with tubes and other mechanisms for drinking. They’re often called hydration packs and hold up to a couple of gallons. Remember, a gallon of water weighs about 8 lbs.
Just don’t try to put too much in them. When you intend to be out longer or need to carry more, there are lots of choices. Most of those are categorized by size (volume typically), measured in liters. A liter is just over a quart in volume, but it refers to space, not necessarily the amount of liquid something holds.
Day packs are designed for what the name suggests – to be used for relatively short hikes. They are anywhere from a dozen to three dozen liters in volume and come in a variety of styles. Some have no belt strap. Some have a chest strap to keep the backpack stable. All will have shoulder straps.
Larger packs, about 35 to 70 liters, go by a variety of names – midsize, midrange, light-duty packs and others. Used properly, they can hold quite a lot of gear, so be careful how much you bring. Remember, you have to carry it.
Remember that your gear is going to weigh enough by itself without the weight of the backpack and choose the lightest high-quality hiking backpack you can find.
They’re typically made with really sturdy material and have a variety of shoulder strap and waist belt styles. A common type these days will have the sort of plastic ‘dog-leash’ clipping buckles that are everywhere now.
The largest packs also go by a variety of names – full-sized, expedition, heavy-duty and so forth. Over 70 liters, they can carry a lot of gear and have a number of special features to help you do so.
Special splines or supports are often threaded through the shoulder straps, across the back or waist and otherwise. These stiffer elements help stabilize the pack making it easier to carry. They often are designed to ride higher on the back in order to keep the load off the lower back. That helps enormously to prevent fatigue and back pain.
Just as one analogy to understand the difference, think of carrying a child. When you carry a two-year-old on your shoulders, it’s pretty easy. You could do so all day. Try to have them hang off your shoulders and wrap their legs around your waist instead. You’ll tire quickly.
These heavy duty packs have all kinds of lumbar support, pads, special materials and well-engineered balance mechanisms. The frames have aluminum tubing in a form that has been really well thought out. Many have special holders for sleeping bags, or even a small fold-up tent. They come in ultra-sturdy composite materials and are just about indestructible.
Of course, you’re not, so you should still keep in mind that you have to lug all that stuff around. Make sure you’re only carrying what you actually will need, no more, no less.