Choosing the right hiking pack can feel like an episode of ‘Goldilocks Goes Camping’ (not a show, but it should be). Not too large, not too small, with just the right amount of pockets and carrying capacity.
We often get asked, what’s the most important piece of hiking equipment? Is it a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tent, maybe even a first aid kit — we love going on about how important those first aid kits are?
While they’re all up there, you won’t be able to carry any of them without, what I actually reckon is the most critical piece of gear for a hike of any decent length.
There’ll be no points for guessing what it is — you clicked on the article to read about hiking packs after all — so without burying the lead any further, a reliable, durable and most importantly, comfortable hiking pack, is arguably the best investment you can make for future leg-powered adventures. At the very least, your shoulders and back will thank you.
We’ve written about the need to get a fitted hiking backpack before. So, before going in-store and seeking a professional fit, here are some things to have in the back of your mind.
What size hiking pack should you get?
What size pack you require directly correlates with how long you expect to be hiking for. A couple of hours? A day? Two days? A week? You crazy animal!
Too small and you’re going to be cradling your gear in your arms or have it dangling off you and clanging together like a wind chime. Too big, and you’re forced to carry excess pack weight and an empty shell of ripstop nylon.
Packs are also designed to be most comfortable and ergonomic when full. An empty pack will be ill-fitting and uncomfortable.
When hiking for a few hours or up to a single day, something in the 10 – 25 litre range will be enough. These sized bags tend to weigh around 300-600g. And ought to be able to fit everything in our packing list for a day hike.
For an overnight hike — which means two days of hiking — you’re going to need a bigger bag.
You’ll notice this is where the biggest increase in pack litreage will occur. We recommend anything from 35 – 65 litres as you have to account for camping and cooking gear, as well as extra layers and food.
Expect packs of this size to weigh anywhere from 1-1.5 kgs when empty.
For a multi-day hike, something in the range of 50 – 70+ litres is in order. Be aware, these packs alone can weigh up to and over 2kgs.
However, you needn’t invest in three separate packs. Most people will have a small dedicated daypack and one large overnight hiking pack of 60+ liters which will accommodate for longer trips as well.
You’ll notice the biggest increase in pack size when going from one-day to two-days. The more days you add after that, you tend to just carry additional food and collect water along the way, as you already have sleeping items and extra clothing.
Packs come in different weights? No kidding!
While bigger packs inevitably weigh more, it’s also important to remember that not all packs of the same litreage, are the same weight.
Some packs are innately heavier than others and they tend to be cheaper because of it.
Often people will over think that extra snickers bar, or camera battery, and forget they’re lugging an extra 500 grams around in pack weight because they went for a cheaper option years ago.
However, like all self-sufficient hiking, the important thing is striking a balance between the things you can and cannot go without.
The lightest pack may not be the best pack for you, because it my lack extra features that otherwise make life easier.
Male, Female or Unisex Fit?
Having determined what pack volume is right for you, next you want to consider the fit.
Just as one size does not fit all hikes, one size does not fit all hikers either.
While women’s specific outdoor gear is often just a pink, downsized version of the men’s item, when it comes to hiking packs, there’s a reason to go for the women’s specific fit.
Put simply, female packs are designed to accommodate the wider hips and chest areas for women and typically come in a shorter torso length. They may have a slightly different center of gravity and more curved, ergonomic straps.
Unisex packs, tend to have a more male oriented design, and may be cheaper because they’re trying to cover both markets — albeit ineffectually.
Osprey Atmos AG 65L Mens Hiking Backpack
Osprey Aura AG 65L Women’s Hiking Backpack
Design & Features
This is really where the fun starts and packs get a little personality. While their are niche operations that will let you design your own pack and handmake it for you. Most people will be better served by starting with a classic design and seeing what works and what doesn’t after some use.
Naturally, more expensive packs will have better design elements and greater consideration for the user — one example is being able to put your water bottle back in the pocket without taking off the pack.
If there’s one thing I daresay a hiking pack, or even daypack, can’t go without, it’s a sturdy waist belt.
For hiking packs above 25 litres, this is a must-have and you should anticipate most of the pack’s weight being supported on your hips via the padded belt, as opposed to your shoulders.
Plenty of packs will even throw a pocket onto the hip belt — I personally call this my scroggin pouch. But it’ll also work well for phones, sunscreen, lip balm and quick draw chocolate bars.
Speaking of pockets, side pockets, top pockets, water bottle pockets are all pretty standard stuff. It’s worth seeing if you can reach any pockets yourself without taking the pack off — can you grab the water bottle from the side or will you be that annoying friend? Or worse, will you have to take the pack off, and subsequently have to heft it back on again?
Consider the size of your drink bottle and whether the elasticised side pockets will accommodate it (mine are too short, and it’s a perennial annoyance).
It’s odd to consider ventilation in a backpack, but pack tech has come a long way in recent years and now some have the ability to regulate airflow and may even have their own suspension!
Typically, you’ll have two options when it comes to ventilation, and this comes down to the padding used in the pack — foam padding, or mesh ‘trampoline’ style padding
Foam padding style packs are the more traditional build, and arguably cheaper option. They tend to sweat more, and don’t vent well, as they’re in direct contact with your back.
Sometimes these style packs will have ventilation channels or ‘chimneys’, which attempt to direct air and moisture out of the back panel.
Trampoline style packs, also called ‘tension-mesh suspension’, vent air better, with a window between the back of the pack and your own back. This makes — or at least tries to make — it feel as if the pack is floating on your shoulders. It’s a pretty attractive thought!
Built-in Hydration Sleeve
A pretty standard feature these days, but something to double check for if you’re fond of hydration bladders. Just be sure the bladder itself is secured properly, I’ve personally had 2 litres drain through my fully packed bag before, which brings me to another tip — compartmentalise gear with waterproof bags.
Built-in Rain Cover
Some packs have built in rain covers, whereas others can be bought alongside the pack. Depending on the environments you expect to hike in, and how strict you are when it comes to weight, the choice is yours whether you prefer it attached or separate.
While it’s better to contain most gear within the pack – possible when you’ve chosen the correct litreage for the duration of hike, sometimes it’s useful to attach hiking poles to the outside of the pack. Look out for gear loops, mesh webbing or buckles that allow you to secure extra items to your pack.
As with any hiking equipment, durability comes with a price tag and equally reflects how you treat your gear. If you want durability without the price tag, then you’ll typically be sacrificing weight.
If you want ultra-durable and ultralight, then it’s hard to go past a custom option like you’ll find from some of the handmade Aussie ultralight gear.
But, if you’re not quite ready to go that far, there are a number of bombproof bags on the market that are made with canvas or other strong and scrape resistant materials like ripstop nylon and Dyneema.
For example, the Osprey Aura AG 65 Hiking Pack that Amy reviewed actually comes with a lifetime warranty and employs features like reinforced zippers, extra padded shoulder straps and strong buckles.
Oftentimes, the first place you’ll notice wear and tear on a pack will be underneath at the base. This section takes a beating when inevitably plonked on the rough ground after your shoulders give out. So, be sure to inspect the hardiness of this material before making a purchase, especially considering Australia is particularly hard on gear, ‘known for its scrub, which can be hellishly thick, abrasive, and close to the ground.’
Not only is it important to find a well fitting pack, it’s also important to learn how to pack it. And no, it’s not as simple as shoving camp items into every nook and cranny.
For some curious reason — I suspect physics has something to do with it, but then again, I don’t know anything about physics — a pack will feel heavier or lighter, depending on how it is packed.
We’ve already written about how to pack a backpack like a boss. The long and short of it is, ‘A well-packed backpack means you’ll be more comfortable, you’ll feel more steady on your feet, and you’re less likely to annoy your comrades with complaints of a bulky, ill-fitting monstrosity.’
Often it’s not until the end of a long day hiking that you truly know whether a pack is or is not a good fit.
Indeed, plenty of beginners learn this the hard way and discover the cheap do-it-all outdoor pack is not as comfortable as it was when tried on while empty in the shop — or indeed online.
Therefore, not only does ‘try before you buy’ come into play here, but we’d go a step further and say ‘pack before you buy.’ A 15-20kg pack feels a whole lot different to the empty shell and will help identify any weird pressure points.
Now you’ve got a top line knowledge of what to look for in your next hiking pack, consider visiting a store and have a pack fitted. There’s a pack out there for everyone!