Getting out on the local trails, wandering the desert or taking in expansive views among the high peaks—few things are as freeing as a good hike out in the wild. And whether you’re gearing up for your first dayhike ever, packing for an ultralight overnight, or loading up for two weeks in the remote wilderness, a functional and comfortable pack to carry your gear is an essential. There are a range of things to consider before determining which is the best hiking pack for you.
The duration of your hike will be the biggest factor in which pack you choose. If you’re only headed out for short dayhikes in warm summer conditions, a streamlined 10-15 liter pack without a support frame will be perfect. If you’re doing a week-long backpacking trip with the potential for cold weather, you’ll need something with a beefy suspension system and plenty of space for camping gear and extra clothing. The key is to be prepared without overpacking. For those looking for something versatile that can handle anything from a quick after-work hike to a lightweight overnight or a day of rock climbing, something in the 35-45 liter range with a supportive yet flexible internal frame is perfect. Remember, adults should not carry a load of more than 20 percent of their body weight, while the target weight for children should stay between 10-15 percent.
A backpack’s suspension system includes its frame, shoulder straps, load lifters, hip belt and sternum strap. Together, these components take the weight of the pack off your shoulders and transfer about 80 percent of it to your hips. Measuring and sizing your pack correctly is incredibly important—if the pack’s torso length is too short, the pack digs into your armpits and puts all the weight on your shoulders. Too long and it gaps at the shoulders, making the load unstable.
To get your torso length, enlist a friend to help measure, and find your C7—the bony protrusion at the base of your neck when you bend your head forward. Put your index fingers on the top of your hip bones and point your thumbs around your back, keeping them level. The spot on your lumbar spine between your thumbs is your other measurement point. The tape measure should conform to the curve of you back to get an accurate number.
Smaller and more minimalist packs will often be one size fits all, but larger-capacity packs will usually come in several sizes. Each size will often fit a range of torso lengths with minor adjustments, and some pack models even features fully adjustable suspension systems to fit a wide range. If your measurement falls right on the borderline of the size guide, we recommend ordering the next size up or selecting a different style. Some brands also offer women’s sizes with shorter torsos than unisex sizes. These packs also tend to have a narrower frame and contoured straps to fit the female shape more comfortably.
Our general rule of thumb for choosing the right size pack.
For day hikes up to 12 hours, a 15-30 liter pack will carry the essentials and a few extra items. Single overnight trips usually require 25-50 liter bags with your sleeping bag attached to the exterior straps, which most packs of this size include. For a weekend trip (up to 2 nights) we prefer bags between 45-55 liters. If we're going for a multiday hike between 3-5 nights we'll pack between 50-80 liters. Any expedition trips of 5+ nights definitely require more gear, 75-105 liters, especially if the season requires heavier layers.
Weather & Seasons
Though we recommend versatility when getting started, consider what the weather is like where you’ll be hiking most of the time. For most fair-weather hikes, packs made with lightweight, weather-resistant materials and breathable backpanels to vent excess heat makes hiking in the spring through fall more comfortable. If you spend a lot of time traveling in the tropics, dayhiking on the coast, or backpacking in wet mountain ranges, look for packs with highly weather-resistant or waterproof materials. Removable rain covers are also an option for weatherproofing any pack. Packs made for winter trail pursuits will often have attachments for skis, snowboards or snowshoes, as well as an insulated sleeve for a hydration reservoir that keeps your water in liquid form when the temps dip. Don’t forget to account for the extra clothing and gear you’ll need to carry in the colder months.
Do you prefer a minimalist bag with a main compartment and two shoulder straps? Or do you like having all of the bells, whistles, organizational compartments and comfortable extras to attach gear and fine-tune the fit? If you’re doing mostly short dayhikes without much gear, you likely don’t need a pack with a frame or hipbelt to support the weight. If you’re out on the trail for a long time, a variety of pockets and zippered organizers can help for keeping your gear accessible. A good rule of thumb is that as the weight of your gear and length of your trip increases, so should the support and features of your pack.
Care and Storage
Like any outdoor gear, it’s important to give your hiking backpack a little love and attention so it remains committed to your cause. Dirt, sap and salt can ruin a pack if allowed to accumulate in zippers or penetrate the fabric. We recommend gently brushing zippers and spot cleaning the interior and exterior of the backpack after each trip. Wash your entire pack according to the manufacturer instructions as needed, and make sure it is completely dry before storing it to avoid mildew. This is especially true when it comes to hydration reservoirs. For packs with this feature, it’s also important to keep the bladder clean and dry between uses.