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How to choose a backpack: a beginner’s guide

Knowing how to choose a backpack will make your outdoor trip more enjoyable. Whether you’re on a day hike through gently rolling hills or an extended expedition crossing an ice shelf, getting this right will ensure comfort and reliability day after day. With this in mind we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to choose a backpack.

What to consider

The main purpose of your backpack will inform every part of the buying process. A winter mountaineer planning on spending a month on the slopes of an eight-thousander will have different requirements to a round the world traveller expecting to do little else than the odd day hike.

how to choose a backpack - karrimor

My Karrimor Cougar 60-75 litre

Kia and I are a perfect example. My backpack is a Karrimor Cougar 60-75 litre. It’s very spacious and durable. The material used is very strong and thus heavier than her choice. I need something that can be carried for long periods of time so the shoulder straps and hip belt are well padded offering extra comfort. I also carry a lot of camping and hiking gear so need plenty of external accessory straps, additional storage panels and stash pockets.

I’ve had this backpack since 2008 and it’s served me well on numerous wild camping trips, winter mountaineering expeditions as well shorter, more generic trips.

I also have another backpack for rock climbing trips: a Berghaus Arete 45 that has fewer compartments but more distinct features such as a finger grip belt, hydration system and lighter, more flexible back support.

With Kia at little more than five feet tall, weighing just over seven stone and a severe aversion to the cold, her needs are a little different. She has a Jack Wolfskin Highland Trail XT 45 litre litre backpack. The material is super lightweight but not as durable as mine. The backpack has fewer external compartments but more panel access points than mine. This backpack isn’t suitable for winter mountaineering but was perfect for our round-the-world trip with a few hikes and treks thrown in.

So, when considering how to choose a backpack, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where are you going?
  • When are you going?
  • What will the weather be like?
  • How long are you going for?
  • How much will you be carrying?
  • What equipment will you be carrying?
  • What activities will you be doing?
  • What terrain will you be covering?
  • How strong are you?

Size and capacity

All of the above considerations will influence the size and capacity of your backpack. Preferences and requirements will of course vary, but the below is a good reference point.

Weekend (1-3 nights; 30-50 litres)

If you’re only escaping into the wilds for short break then staying lightweight should be your priority. If you’re efficient, then you can make the trip very light on your feet (and back), cover more ground and avoid unnecessary aches and pains. You must be disciplined and leave the luxuries at home whilst simultaneously never ignoring the ten essentials.

Multiday (3-5 nights; 50-70 litres) / long-term travel

These are the most popular backpacks and cover most eventualities. Kia’s choice would firmly fall into this category. 50-70 litre packs are very versatile and can be used by backcountry skiers, day-trippers and overnighters. They are also ideal for long-term travellers with more to carry than the average vacationer.

Extended-trip (5+ nights; 70 litres or larger)

Extended trips of 5 days or more will usually require packs of 70 litres or more. These are usually the preferred choice for myself and:

  • Winter activities lasting more than one night. Larger packs can more comfortably accommodate warmer clothing, thicker sleeping bags and 4-season tents with heavier poles.
  • Longer trips in the wilderness requiring more supplies and equipment.
  • Adults with children. (Mum and dad end up carrying more of the kit!)

Features of a backpack

Not all backpacks will have all of these attributes, but they are the sorts of features you should look out for when considering how to choose a backpack.

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Walking pole/ice axe loops: Use these loops for your walking poles and/or ice axes.

Zipped front panel: This can be unzipped for easy access to the main compartment.

Lid: The lid usually incorporates a pocket for easy access storage at the top of your pack. In some cases the lid can also be removed to save weight or even to use as a small hip pack.

Load lifters: These adjustment straps may look small but they are essential to carrying loads as comfortably as possible. They connect the shoulder straps to the top of the pack frame and can be used to change the angle and distance of the pack in relation to your body. This helps prevent a heavy pack from pulling away from you and keeps the load/weight of your pack centred on your hips.

Chest strap: The chest strap (or sternum strap) is attached to the shoulder straps and when done up sits across the chest. Both the position and the length of the strap should be adjustable. They will improve the stability of the pack and keep shoulder straps stable by stopping them slipping.

Shoulder straps: As with the hip belts, the thickness and type of padding used on the shoulder straps will change with the size of the pack. Thick padded straps provide comfort and support while thinner ones offer better flexibility. Again, mesh straps provide better ventilation.

Back panel: These should be contoured and padded for comfort. They should be adjustable and include foam channels to provide cushioning that also improves breathability. For warm weather hiking you may consider a pack with a suspended mesh system which offers better ventilation.

Hip belt: A hip belt that fits correctly can make for a great hiking experience. Conversely, it can make for a miserable experience if it doesn’t fit well. The pack’s weight should be distributed evenly so it doesn’t leave your shoulders aching. Usually the bigger the pack the beefier the padding, offering maximum support and comfort when carrying heavier loads.

Hip belt pockets: Quick-access pockets, great for snacks, phone, wallet, gloves and other small essentials.

Front stash pocket: Great in changeable weather. Perfect for stashing your jacket, guidebook, camera, rain cover etc.

Sleeping bag compartment: Two compartments make organisation easier. Commonly used to store a sleeping bag, the base compartment is usually separated from the main pack by an internal, sometimes adjustable divider.

Stretch side pockets: Usually for storing water bottles; often made from a stretch material for an easy and secure fit.

Roll mat/accessory straps: Often used to secure a roll mat, these can also be used as general lash points. I usually keep my tent here.

Compression straps: Use these straps to reduce the volume of your pack. They’re particularly useful if your pack isn’t full, as they’ll help keep the load stable.

How to Fit a backpack

This is arguably the most important aspect when considering how to choose a backpack. Get it right and you’ll have a pack that is comfortable, supportive and stable in all conditions. Get it wrong and shoulder, hip and back pain will almost certainly be an issue.

Instead of bombarding you with endless diagrams and images on how to measure your back length, I’ll hand you over to my favourite outdoor store, Cotswolds Outdoor. My one piece of advice is not to order your backpack online without trying it on first. Go into a store to test different packs before buying.

Additional features

Waterproofing: Fully waterproof packs, especially large capacity backpacks are rare because they require lots of stitching, zippers and will invariably have a hole in the top (so you can pack it!). Instead, tough and durable fabrics are used offering some water resistance. These can be coated with a water repellent treatment, or a far more popular option is a removable rain cover. Another (or additional) option is to pack your gear in waterproof stuff sacs.

Hydration reservoir: Many packs offer an internal sleeve where you can fit a hydration reservoir (sold separately). These are ideal for hot-hiking trips.

Security: If you’re backpacking abroad and likely to be travelling through a lot of cities and transport hubs it could be worth investing in additional security products. Slash proof mesh nets and padlocks are just one way to further secure your luggage.

Streamlining: Backpacks are not ideal for airports and often fall foul of conveyer belts and end up in the oversized luggage area. A product like Osprey’s Airporter can make flying easier and your kit that touch safer.

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