Choosing a backpack – one of the Big Three

A backpack is one of the “Big Three” but probably the hardest to decide upon. The other two (shelter and sleep system) are usually easier to decide upon for most people. I’ll be discussing those in other blogs as all the Big Three are important to reducing overall weight that backpackers carry.

For a backpacker the choice of backpack is paramount because it’s one thing we all need. Shelters, sleeping systems, cookers and everything else varies depending on personal choice but we all have to transport our kit. So what makes a good backpack? After 30-odd years of hiking experience, what follows is my choice of decision points. I’d like to point out that the backpack is the last thing you should buy as you need to know what the weight of the gear is that you’ll be carrying and it’s volume first.

Firstly, the pack has to fit the wearer. We all have different body shapes and a pack that fits me may not suit you. Back length is crucial to comfort and I’d recommend any buyer of a pack should consult the maker’s guide on how to measure your back length and sizing guides. Good outdoor gear shops will help the buyer to get the perfect fit. Then there’s the sizing of the shoulder straps, sternum strap, waist strap and the effectiveness of the load lifters to consider. That’s assuming you want those extra straps of course. If you find the perfect pack but don’t want the extra straps you can always cut them off.

Equally important is the comfortable carrying capacity and load bearing strength to consider. This will depend on the pack itself and what you need to carry. There is no point in having a 65 litre sack when you’re carrying a 35 litre volume load or a rucksack that can carry 5.5 kg when you need to carry 10kg. The wrong pack will be uncomfortable and unstable at best. The only sure way to test fit, capacity and load bearing is to fill a pack you’re interested in with your gear. That means physically going to an outdoor shop and trying the packs out. As you get more experienced you will know your fit etc and so you can buy “on spec” but people new to backpacking should always try before buying.

The next thing to think about is what features do you need in your pack? Simple packs are that; just a bag with shoulder straps sewn on. They work well but have a number of problems including organising your packing and the absence of compression straps to stabilise small volume loads. I’ve found additional pockets to be really useful and I wouldn’t buy a pack without them because I can access my water bottle, rain gear and so easily without getting the rest of my gear exposed to the elements. Compression straps not only help stabilise the pack but can be used to lash extra gear on if need arises -again, all my packs have them.

Then there’s the weight of the backpack to consider. Every backpacker needs to reduce the weight they carry and some packs are much heavy than others for the same volume rating. For example, I have a 20 litre pack made by Lowe Alpine that weighs 0.9kg compared to a Sea to Summit 20 litre day sack that weighs under 100g. However, the Lowe Alpine pack can carry very heavy loads, is a lot more durable than the other and has an airflow system that stops my back getting sweaty. Both are great packs but are designed for use in very different scenarios even though both will do perfectly well for an overnight trip.

So, we need to think about durability, weight, fit, comfort, load, volume and extra features as a minimum when selecting a rucksack. No one backpack will be perfect for every trip a backpacker makes because there are too many trade-offs. As a rule of thumb:

  • A 20-35 litre pack is fine for day walks and overnight trips depending on terrain and season,
  • A 35-55 litre pack is fine for weekends to a week in warmer seasons,
  • A 60-75 litre pack is fine for extended trips and winter trips when you need to carry more food, water, clothing and so on.

Regardless of the trip I find a pack with a water bottle holder, compression straps and at least two pockets to be best. Why two pockets? Separating wet gear is essential is the reason along with easy access to your shelter. Even better is when the external pockets are mesh pockets as it allows wet gear to dry more easily. Hip belt pockets are great for snacks, compass, camera and the like but not essential.

Here’s a few of my favourite packs:

  • Day walks and overnighters – Sea to Summit 20l day pack, OMM Classic 25 or 32 litre packs, Gossamer Gear Murmur (35 litres)
  • Weekends to a week – OMM Classic 32 litre, Gossamer Gear Murmur, Golite Jam,
  • Extended/winter trips – Golite Pinnacle, Six Moons Designs Starlite

All of these packs are light and weigh less than 1kg, some much less. All of them, apart from the Sea to Summit day pack, have two side pockets for water, hip belt pockets for snacks and a larger external pocket for the shelter and rain gear. There are many other fine makers of packs (Z-Packs, MLD, Osprey, Montane, Berghaus and Lowe Alpine amongst lots of others) but those fit me perfectly.


About ReidIvinsMedia

After working for many years in Higher Education I've decided to drop out and join the real world. Here I blog about my interests which include education, politics, backpacking, poker, photography and real ale.
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