Everything You Need to Know About Hiking Backpacks

Hiking backpacks are different than your typical backpack simply because they are more rugged and generally have some novel features that make them more useful or comfortable on hikes.  Hiking backpacks also come in a few different flavors, sizes and feature sets.  This article will cover the major features that you may want, what to look for in a pack and best places to find them.

Why Use a Hiking Backpack

Packs designed specifically for hiking aren't a requirement.  If you don't hike often or you don't go on very long hikes then you may not need one at all.  Something small like a $20 hydration pack or no backpack at all might be the way to go for you.  Where these bags start to make sense is when your situation is slightly more complex and the different features start to seem useful. 

Hiking Pack Basic Features

There are a handful of features that are common to most hiking bags.  These are the main things that seperate a hiking pack from a regular backpack.  They should also be your bare minimum feature requirements.

Ripstop Nylon

Most outdoor backpacks are made of nylon instead of natural fibers.  They are tough, lightweight and easy to clean.  While canvas bags have been used a lot historically and may be making a sort of comeback with the hipster hiker sect, they are heavy and rigid.  Using anything other than nylon should be because the pack was astoundingly cheap or it's a fashion statement.

Sternum Strap

You will usually find that hiking packs come with a sternum strap.  This does help your shoulders somewhat by dispersing weight but that is not the primary purpose.  Mainly these straps will keep the bag secure and allow for a better range of motion as the straps will not be pulling back on your shoulders as much.

Mesh Pockets

There are a million little uses for a mesh pocket while hiking.  Mostly people use these to carry water but they are often used to dry things off as well.  I actually selected my main day-pack due to it having 3 (two on the sides one in the middle) mesh pockets for me to stuff things in.  They are usually ziperless and easily accessible which makes them ideal for storing wet stuff while you're hiking.  

Loops and Straps

Another key feature to most hiking backpacks is that you should be able to secure things to the outside using sewn in loops.  This could be trekking poles, flashlights, noise makers etc.  The ability to stow trekking poles alone is enough to justify their inclusion, but the uses are endless.

Adjustable Shoulders

As you walk the weight in your pack will shift, your posture will change and things that seemed perfectly comfortable before will start to rub you the wrong way. One key must have feature is adjustable shoulder strap.  Most backpacks have these but avoid bags without them at all costs, it's basically throwing all ergonomics out the window.

Hip Belt

Webbing Only Belt

Webbing only belts hold the bag against your body.  It's basically so that when you're having to jump over logs or scrambling over some rocks the bag isn't just following the direction of gravity, it's staying firmly against your back.  It will not help you carry weight on your hips, but for most day hikes that isn't really needed.  Unless you're hiking down flat paved trails then hip belts can be useful for stabilizing any weight inside the bag.

Padded Hip Belt

Padded hip belts are designed to keep the bag against your back but also to hold weight on your hips.  The much larger straps sit on top of your hip bones and take weight off your shoulders and onto your legs.  Moving this weight allows your legs to take work off your back and shoulders and generally makes long trips with a heavy pack easier.

Other Considerations

Size/Capacity

For your average day hike you should be fine with a 20L pack if you don't carry much beyond the basics.  You should have room enough for the 10 essentials and maybe a couple extra small items.  If you're carrying (or may need to remove) extra clothes, camera equipment, food for 2 or anything out of the ordinary you'll want to consider getting a larger pack.  For the most part the high end of “day pack” sizes is around 40L.  It doesn't really hurt to buy a bag slightly larger than you think you need in case some new need arises but larger packs cost a little more and weigh a little more.

Waterproofing

Fair weather hikers are common, trudging through the rain to get to an amazing view of a cloud parked in front of the mountain range you're pretty sure sure be there isn't everyone's thing.  For those inclined to head out anyways, or those who just hike in areas with less predicatble weather, you'll want to know how to keep your bag dry.

Hiking backpacks aren't usually waterproof.  They frequently do have included or optional rain covers.  Rain covers are probably more practical than actually having a waterproof bag.  Once the rain stops the cover can be removed, shaken off and stowed away in your mesh pocket to start drying.  The contents of your pack need to stay really dry and waterproofing things in a full on downpour is actually quite hard.  By simply using a cover you're actually make it so that the rest of your bag is better than it would be if it were actually waterproof. 

Back Ventilation

Hiking can be hard.  Not like rubix cube or extreme sudoku, like physically hard.  That means your body is going to generate heat.  The single largest contact point between your sweattyness and the backpack is, you guessed it, your back.  Great back venting can be the difference between feeling disgusting and just feeling a bit grungy after your hike is over. 

The better the back venting, though, the more expensive the bag.  Some brands, like Osprey, have bags with a mesh net that makes contact with your back but has incredible airflow.  Others simply have padding that contacts your back in fewer places.  There are different ways to give your back airflow but broadly speaking you get what you pay for.

Warranties

The best hiking backpack brands have outstanding warranties and guarantees.  These brands are built to last and they back that up and make it a core operating policy, something you see a lot in the outdoor industry.  Considering how these things are used it's generally impressive.  Read the fine print, it's slightly different between brands but if you aren't abusing your backpack you should get a solid decade out of it.

Major Brands

While generic backpacks for hiking are everywhere there are a few brands that are worth special consideration as they generally manufacture their own bags or have significant influence over how the manufacturing is done.  If you're looking for a long term investment and not just something you're going to leave in the closet after you take that girl with a Patagonia trucker hat on a hiking date then pay attention to what brand you're buying.  In fact, if she was wearing a Patagonia hat then you'll probably need to buy a brand name pack anyways.

Osprey

Hands down the biggest name in hiking backpacks.  You'll find that Osprey tends to make packs with a lot of thought being put into them and a lot of attention to the small stuff.  Usually on the higher end of price for any given size but still reasonably priced.  Osprey has an especially nice suspension system for their packs called Anti-Gravity.  It's basically a mesh trampoline that keeps the pack off your back to spread airflow and maximize contact around your entire back.  Of all the backpack manufacturers I think that Osprey has the best warranty.  It is a warranty, not a return policy, but it's great.  From their website:

Osprey will repair any damage or defect for any reason free of charge – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If we are unable to perform a functional repair on your pack, we will happily replace it. We proudly stand behind this guarantee, so much so that it bears the signature of company founder and head designer, Mike Pfotenhauer.

Gregory

Started not long after Osprey, Gregory is based in Salt Lake City, UT and their packs can be seen just about everywhere.  Thoughtful, simple designs that continue to evolve with the times.  Their material tends to be a little more heavy duty than you would get with Osprey but the trade-off is obviously durability.  That being said, their warranty is a little less giving than Osprey's.

We build our products to last a lifetime and that's how long we stand behind them. We guarantee to you, the original purchaser, that this product will be free from defects in workmanship and materials for as long as you own it.

Deuter

Very old company, very German company.  Expect to see heavy weight materials that will last a long time.  Right now they are pretty well known for their kid-carrying line of packs, but they make a broad range bags that all come with a lifetime warranty on materials and workmanship:

Deuter USA, Inc. warrants its products against defects in materials and workmanship for the lifetime of the product. If a product is deemed defective, Deuter will repair or replace it. Because Deuter does not sell direct to consumers, monetary refund or credit is not possible.

 

REI

It's hard to even try to think of hiking without REI coming to mind.  Their store-brand hiking backpacks are usually priced a little lower than the ones listed above but cover most of the same features.  You're usually paying extra for styling and specialty features but the build quality on REI brand gear is very comparable.

The warranty and return policies are major selling points, though.  If you buy something at REI you can return it no questions asked within a year.  Regardless of if it was Osprey or REI.  After 1 year, however, it's a bit more standard:

If your item has a manufacturing defect in its materials or workmanship, you can return it at any time. Many of our items also have a separate warranty from the manufacturer, and you can also return any of those items that don’t meet the manufacturer's warranty.

 With that being said, even if you don't buy an REI brand pack it can be beneficial to buy it at REI, which sells all of the above listed brands.

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