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A Trail Trekker’s Guide to Choosing the Right Hiking Backpack

Four people wearing Osprey and Gregory hiking backpacks, and a man sliding gear into a Gregory backpack.
Osprey/Gregory

Hiking is a hobby that’s perfect for anyone who loves the outdoors and appreciates all that Mother Nature has to offer. If you really get into it and start going on adventures often, a comfortable, reliable, and accessible backpack is not only a necessity, it’s an absolute game changer.

Whether you already love hiking and need a quality pack, or you’re just getting started, we’ll help you select one that’s perfect for your shape and size.

A lot goes into the pack selection process, and, lucky for you, I’ve already gone through it more than once and made all the rookie mistakes. This means I can help you avoid them!

Here’s everything you need to know before investing in a pricey hiking backpack.

Can I Use a Regular Backpack to Go Hiking?

A backpack is a backpack, so any kind will get the job done. But for convenience, comfort, and quality, it’s definitely advisable to look into backpacks specifically designed for hiking. So, what does that mean?

If you’re brand new to hiking, still rocking your old kicks, or breaking in a new pair of hiking footwear, using any old backpack might be a great option for you. This is especially true for shorter day hikes that don’t require you to pack many belongings.

If you have a friend who’ll lend you their hiking pack, that’s also a solid place to start. Then, you can get a feel for new features, like waist or sternum straps, which regular backpacks don’t usually have. This will also give you the opportunity to discover if you love the sport enough to invest a few hundred dollars in a backpack.

As you get more into it, day hikes might turn into overnight hiking trips, or possibly, even longer excursions, which will require more gear and food. This is when it’s time to invest in a hiking backpack.

What’s the Difference Between Hiking and Regular Backpacks?

A hiking backpack next to a pair of hiking boots.
fotohunter/Shutterstock.com

Hiking backpacks usually have features you won’t find on a normal back-to-school backpack. Here are a few perks you’ll love about them:

  • Extra pockets: Hiking packs are usually loaded with extra compartments and pockets, which are great for organizing various gear, snacks, bottles, and more.
  • An upper compartment: You’ll usually find most packs are designed with a top compartment or lid fit for easily accessing important things like your map, snacks, lip balm, or anything like that.
  • A hip belt: Also often called the waist strap, this is one of the most valuable features, as it’s meant to transfer most of the weight of your pack from your shoulders to your hips. After hiking for 8-12 hours with 30+ pounds on your back, you’ll really appreciate the way these straps lighten the load.
  • A sternum strap: Also called chest straps, these are built into the pack to keep it from shifting, which can be dangerous and even cause you to fall on unsteady terrain.
  • Hydration reservoir pockets: These unique “water bladders” hold water and allow you to drink hands-free using a built-in tube. Hiking packs will typically have built-in pockets to hold the bladder and a small hole to feed the tube through the front so you can position it near your mouth.

As your hikes get longer, you’ll really appreciate the convenience of these special features.

Different Frame Types

As you shop for a hiking backpack, you’ll notice the following main types of frames:

  • Frameless: These are really popular for slack packers or anyone devoted to hiking with very minimal weight. These packs have no frame built-in, which helps people hike much faster because they are lighter. However, these aren’t very comfortable when you have a heavy load to carry for a few days.
  • Internal-frame: These are possibly one of the most popular packs worn by hikers. They are built with an internal frame, hence the name, which helps keep hikers steady and comfortable while carrying a heavy load.
  • External-frame: You’ll notice right away when a pack has an external frame because you can see the metal frame along with the pack. These are great for attaching things like sleeping pads or tents.

Once you start browsing and trying on packs, you’ll quickly discover the style you like best and which one makes the most sense for you.

Male, Female, and Youth Fit

You’ll notice packs are often marketed as women-, men-, or youth-specific, based on the general torso size and other features that often differ with age and gender.

Women-specific packs are typically designed with waist straps molded to fit wider hips, and shoulder straps designed to accommodate a woman’s chest.

Youth packs tend to be smaller, with more adjustability and room for growth.

Everyone has a unique build and body shape, so don’t pay too much attention to these marketing details. The absolute best way to understand how a pack fits your body is by trying it on.

There are plenty of men who prefer women packs and women who appreciate the specs on a male-specific pack. You’ll know when you try one on.

Consider the Three P’s Before Selecting a Backpack

A man packing a hiking backpack on a bed with supplies surrounding it.
New Africa/Shutterstock.com

There are several things to consider when selecting a pack, but remember the three P’s while shopping.

Pack Access

Having convenient access to the inside of your pack is so valuable to a hiker. Most packs are accessible from the top, using a zipper or drawstring to keep it closed. If this is the only way to access the inside of your pack, you’ll have to pack smart, keeping what you need towards the top.

My first pack only had access from the top, which made multi-day hikes a nightmare, especially when you find yourself digging for things at night with only a headlamp for light. Really consider a pack with extra access and pockets.

While you’ll pay extra for additional access, it’s totally worth it when you get into multiday hikes. Panel access will allow you to unzip separate sections of the pack on the sides or bottoms; you can unload what you need without removing several items.

Pockets

We all love pockets! They’re great for storing smaller loose items and keeping things organized outside of the main compartment.

Many packs come with elasticized side pockets, which are great for water bottles if you don’t like water bladders. A great pack will have an exterior pocket, often called the “shovel” pocket, which is great for storing things like a headlamp, jacket, rain cover, map, and a few snacks.

Padding

Not only is extra cushiony padding a luxury on the trail, but having padding in the right spots makes a huge difference. If you haven’t gotten properly sized or fitted, though, padding won’t make a difference, and you’ll feel the sore spots forming while out in the woods.

Now that you know the three P’s, it’s time you understand the importance of getting properly fitted.

How to Get Fitted for a Pack

We can ramble off all the features and give you plenty of recommendations for pack brands, but the absolute most important part of the process is getting measured and fitted for a pack.

Your best bet is to go to an outdoor sports store and get fitted by a specialist. They are trained to help guide you to a perfect fit using your torso and hip size measurements.

They’ll also your questions about what type of hiking you like to do or plan to do. They should be knowledgeable about the pack you’re trying on and provide help with adjusting it. If you feel like they aren’t helping you or answering questions, perhaps ask for someone with lots of knowledge.

Some sports store employees know a lot about one sport, but not every single other sport. Places like L.L. Bean, REI sports, or EMS will usually have knowledgeable employees who love outdoor sports. Many of them have experience in the sport and will give you great recommendations.

Be sure to try several packs, and don’t worry too much about the gender or age marketed for the pack. Your build, torso length, and hips are unique to you, and there is a pack out there that’ll mold to you perfectly.

If you plan on getting into multi-day hikes, where your pack will weigh 20, 30, or even 40 pounds, it’s important to fill it with that same amount of weight while in the store. Knowledgeable specialists will encourage you to do just that, so you can really get a feel for the weight and comfort of your pack.

Keep in mind the recommended weight for an extended hiking trip should be around 20% of your body weight.

Types of Packs

Below, you’ll find examples of the three main types of backpacks. Peruse them to get an idea of the size and overall look of each pack. You can often find better deals online, so if you find a pack you like at the store, you might want to actually purchase it online to save a few bucks.

Daypack

Four hikers wearing various light hiking packs.
Osprey

Daypacks come in several sizes, which will accommodate room for enough gear for the day. Efficient packers can usually find a way to pack these for an overnight hike too, but this takes careful planning. The tradeoff for not taking as many things into the trail is reaping the rewards of a lighter pack.

The Osprey Daylite day pack is a reliable pack for anyone getting into day hikes without worrying about spending loads of money on day one. The lightweight pack features water bottle pockets, a well-ventilated mesh back panel, and extra front pockets for essentials like your phone and wallet.

Multiday Packs

Someone putting gear in a Gregory backpack, and someone securing sunglasses to its strap.
Gregory

Multiday backpacks offer a larger capacity to account for the extra gear, clothes, and food you’ll need for multi-day hikes and overnight camping. You’ll love a pack like this for anything longer than about three days of hiking.

They are designed to carry more than a day’s worth of hiking gear, including extra fuel, food, a tent, a sleeping pad, and a bag. While they are designed for three to five nights, an efficient packer could easily use one of these for over five nights.

Gregory is another well-loved brand that designs really comfortable and reliable packs. The Gregory Jade is perfect for anyone who loves hiking for a few days and camping overnight. The body-hugging fit means extra comfort and less shifting, and the extra pockets are clutch too.

When shopping for my second pack, I was set on a different brand that many friends raved about. After trying my Gregory pack, I was hooked and had been hiking with it for many years.

Expedition Packs

Two hikers hiking along the ridge of a trail while wearing their hiking packs.
Osprey

Expedition packs are often called backpacking packs or extended trip backpacks. They are great for anything over five or six days in the woods as you can fit extra gear and warmer sleeping clothes. These are great for four-season hiking, too, so you can really fit thicker clothes and warmer sleeping bags.

Here’s another example of an Osprey backpack designed with several perks, which will hold between 40-70 pounds.

Remember, the packs we’ve recommended are all excellent brands that are very popular in the hiking community, but trying one on is best before purchasing.

Other Must-Haves

A good hiking backpack is a must, but there are two additional accessories you’ll want to have, as well.

A hydration reservoir or hydration bladder provides easy access to water while you hike. Some prefer grabbing their water bottles when they need some H20. The Osprey reservoir holds 3 liters of water and has top opening access for convenient filling and cleaning.

A hiker filling her Osprey hydration reservoir on a hiking trail.
Osprey

Believe it or not, hiking backpacks aren’t usually waterproof. Rather, they’re usually just water-resistant, which means you’ll need a rain cover for your pack if you get caught in a storm.

While some manufacturers make waterproof backpacks, they aren’t as comfortable to wear due to the material. They’re also super expensive.

A rain cover like this one is what most hikers use to protect their packs. It’s durable, super light, and will keep your pack and belongings dry.

A hiker enjoying their meal on the peak of a mountain representing his osprey gear.
Osprey

Now that you know what to look for in a hiking backpack, it’s time to head to the store, get fitted, and browse. And what’s next on any trail trekker’s list of necessities? Hiking poles, of course!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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