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How to Choose a Hiking Backpack

Choosing the right hiking backpack is important. It may seem like any pack will do, but this just isn’t so. Hiking with the right backpack for the conditions, load, weight, your body type, etc can often make or break your trip.

Because of this, if you’re getting ready to buy a hiking backpack, you’ll definitely want to take a look at these tips to make sure you put your money into a pack that will help make hiking the fun and amazing experience it should be.

What Type of Hiking Do You Enjoy?

Are you a day trekker or are you planning a backpacking trip? Regardless of how long you go out, what type of terrain are you generally on; easy to moderate hills, or are you out climbing the mountain peaks? How about the goal of your trip; are you heading out for a backcountry ski/snowboard trip or, maybe you’re going climbing?

The type of hiking you do will help determine what your backpack needs are. You’re going to be carrying more weight for a longer period of time if you’re going on a week long backpacking trip vs. a day long journey. Also, if you’re heading out climbing or boarding, you’ll need special spots to carry all your gear.

There’s a wide variety of backpacks on the market and all of these needs can be accommodated with one pack or another, however, you’ve got to know your own personal goals so you don’t end up with more or less backpack than you need. Once you know where you’re going though, you can move on and look at the various features of the hiking backpacks on the market today.

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The Basics; External Frame or Internal Frame Backpacks

The main feature you’ll need to decide on first is whether the hikes you want to take will require an internal frame backpack or an external frame backpack. Let’s start with the internal frame packs.

Internal frame hiking backpacks have the framework of the backpack built inside the pack behind the shoulder harness. This frame is made of flat bars called “stays”. These stays are designed to conform to your body over time, and many can even be bent by hand into the desired shape.

As a result of the way internal frame backpacks are built, they end up being tall and narrow, and hug your body which makes them great for off trail hiking, climbing, etc because they allow for increased flexibility, maneuverability, and balance.

External frame packs, as you’ll probably guess, have their frame attached to the outside of the backpack. These frames are more rigid and as a result, provide more support for heavier loads. However, this rigidity also makes the pack stiffer and reduces the pack’s ability to bend and move with you.

These features make external frame hiking backpacks a great choice for beginner level hikers, or, a hiker that will be carrying a lot of weight, regardless of terrain or length of time.

Other Features You Might Need

Whether you choose an internal or external frame hiking backpack, you’ll also want to look at the additional features that the pack provides. Things like the quality of the hip belt, shoulder harness and stabilizer straps are essential to a safe and comfortable hike. If you’re a woman, there are also hiking backpacks with special belts, and harnesses made to accommodate contoured hips, shorter torso lengths and straps that go around instead of over the chest.

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You’ll want to consider the pockets on the pack, especially if it’s an internal frame backpack, since they are usually comprised of one main compartment, which makes organizing your gear a bit more tricky. With some good pockets on the outside though, you can easily accommodate your more frequently used gear in either type of pack.

Additional features you might want to consider include daypack conversion (a removable lid or front pocket that you can use for day hikes or short hikes from your base-camp), a hydration reservoir, and special pockets, straps or cord configurations to accommodate ice axes, climbing ropes, or snow shoes.

You’ll also want to decide if you need your pack to be waterproof or not. This really depends on your climate as well as your plans, but if you can swing it, having a waterproof hiking backpack is always a good thing!

Capacity – How Much Space Do You Need

The following are some general guidelines to help you decide what your capacity requirements for your backpack might be:

  • Up to 3,000 Cubic Inches – You’ll find enough space in this size of a pack for a day hike or even an overnight excursion in warmer weather when you need less gear.
  • 3,000 – 4,000 Cubic Inches – These packs are good for a 1-2 night hiking trip and will hold all the essentials including gear, warm clothes and food.
  • 4,000 – 5,000 Cubic Inches – With this capacity you’ll have the space to pack for a 3-4 night backpacking trip.
  • 5,000 – 6,000 Cubic Inches – You can pack for a week long backpacking trip in a pack this size.
  • 6,000 Cubic Inches and Up – This level of capacity is either for those who enjoy trips longer than a week, winter hiking where you’re carrying a lot of equipment, or, for a parent who ends up carrying the majority of their family’s camping gear.
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After reading this information, you should be ready to start looking at hiking backpacks with a solid understanding of what type of pack will suit your specific needs. Then, you can confidently make your purchase and hit the trails!

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