Three Steps in Choosing a Hiking Backpack
We've said it before but in outdoor adventure, nothing goes quite so well as camping and hiking. One completes the other, the perfect marriage.
At Crua Outdoors, we've put a big focus on helping our community choose their camping essentials. For camping, that means the sleeping bag, camping mattress and camping chairs among a number of other things that we've explored already. There's a lot more items we hope to get to shortly. For hiking, we've already looked at what to consider when choosing hiking boots. Those hiking boots will help to carry you along. Of course, how you carry everything else depends on your hiking backpack.
When choosing camping gear it is important to think carefully and purchase wisely. Buying camping gear should be a long-term investment so it's important not to be too hasty. Weigh up all considerations and pick the right piece of equipment for you. Equipment that will stay with you for years of camping, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors.
There is no need to get lost in the details. Once you know the basics, you will be well equipped to find the right camping backpack for you. We recommend following a few easy steps. Start with the volume, then torso size and finally it's finding a comfortable fit.
Capacity: Matching Your Bag With Type of Hiking Trip
The first thing to consider is the type of hiking trips you plan on taking and the volume of the bag you will need. In general, hiking backpacks are measured in litres. Depending on your trip, you might need more storage space and a bigger bag. There are generally three types of hiking trips.
- Day or Weekend Trips (30-50 litres)
- Multi-day Hikes (50-70 litres)
- Extended Hikes (70+ litres)
Different brands will name these three categories in different ways. For example weekend, week long and expedition. However, the logic behind them is much the same.
The longer the hike, the more time you will be away from your base. That could be your car or home. The longer you are away from your base, the more room you need for food, spare clothes and other supplies. The type of trip might not even come down to the duration. You may be hiking with your children and carrying their gear for them. Maybe you don't plan on being away for too long but want to have room for a small tent or sleeping bag. Maybe you are a minimalist hiker and like to keep it light no matter the duration.
Whatever the reason for your hike, it is good to match your hiking type with hiking backpack specs. Just know that anything below 50 litres would be considered quite lightweight. As your need increases you might want to look at bigger bags with increased storage capacity.
Knowing Your Torso Size
Whichever hiking backpack you decide is best for you, it needs to match your torso length. Before you start looking for a hiking backpack, our advice is to get a partner to measure your torso length. They can do this by measuring the length from your C7 vertebra down to your hip bones. Finding your C7 vertebra might seem like an overly technical challenge. Put simply, it's the part of your spine, between your shoulders, that sticks out when you lean your head forward. Once you measure that length, you have a rough idea of your torso length. Knowing this piece of information will come in handy when shopping.
For the camping backpack to fit correctly, the distance from the top of the shoulder strap to the hip belt needs to match with your torso length. Bare in mind that torso length does not necessarily correspond to height. A tall person can have a short torso, while a smaller person can have a relatively long torso.
The Fit: Strapping Yourself In
You have determined the type of backpack you need and the correct backpack length for your back. The final step is making sure that your backpack will be comfortable once you get down to the small matter of the hike itself. This all depends on the Suspension System. This system refers to the parts of the backpack responsible for bearing the weight and connecting the bag to your body. Specifically this includes: shoulder straps, the hip belt, the frame, the back padding, and additional strapping. We will quickly examine those five areas below.
Hip Belt - For heavy loads, the majority of the weight will be taken by a good hip belt. To carry the weight, the hip belt should be centered over the hip bone and needs to fit snugly. The perfect fit is when the hip belt is securely tightened, there should be a gap of 3 to 6 inches between the padded portions/buckle area of the hip belt. If the gap is too big or too small, it might be necessary to find a different hiking backpack.
Shoulder Straps - The best shoulder straps curve with your body and the anatomy of your shoulders and back. Thankfully, the majority of the weight of the backpack will be transferred to the hip belt. This means that the padding doesn't need to be overly thick. Well fitted shoulder straps should be comfortable to wear and flush to the front and top of your shoulders. This leaves very little room for rubbing or chafing.
The Frame - The frame refers to the two parallel bars that give the backpack its shape. There are two types of framing that a hiking backpack can have. Internal framing is where the bars are secured inside the back panel. When fit right these should hug the contours of your back. There is also external framing, where the bar frame is visible and sometimes longer than the bag itself. Much like choosing capacity, deciding on which frame to choose depends on your hiking trip. Internal framing would be by far the most common. External framing is useful when you are carrying equipment that is much longer than the back itself.
Back Padding - This is the the area of the hiking backpack that presses against your back. Without quality padding this area could cause the most discomfort. Once padding is accounted for, there is one drawback - poor ventilation. Having insulated padding against your back for the duration of the hike can cause your back to sweat. To combat this, some manufacturers build in added ventilation. Deciding on which is more important, proper ventilation or padding is a matter of preference. However, porous air-mesh foam can offer the best of both worlds.
Additional Straps - For larger bags and to prevent unnecessary strain on your back, it is good to have an understanding of the additional straps offered by most manufacturers. A Sternum Strap is an adjustable strap which lies across your chest. This connects your shoulder straps for added stability. Load Lifter Straps are stitched into the top of the shoulder straps and connect to the top of the backpack frame. This serves to keep the top of the bag close to your body. This again gives better support, stability and centre of gravity.
When finding the best hiking backpack for you, there are a lot of additional features available. There are a number of useful pockets and storage units. Some hiking backpacks even come with built-in hydration reservoirs. Some bigger bags even come with removal day-packs. These small packs can be extremely practical and provide you with much greater functionality.
There are a number of cool features to choose from. However, the very best place to start is getting through Crua's three steps. Make sure you have enough room, right size and right fit. A well fitted and functional backpack that improves your hike, not hinders is what you're after. All else is bonus territory.