Choosing a Backpack

The category of backpacks can seem like a bewilderingly large, diverse, and confusing one. As the human spine is a complex and sensitive thing, it’s also particularly important that when choosing one for a particular activity or trip, you get it right! Thankfully help is at hand in the form of this Gear Guru help page: your guide to choosing the perfect backpack.

Cost – How Much to Spend?

After your walking boots, a bag for transporting your kit is the most important piece of equipment you can buy in terms of your personal comfort and wellbeing. As such it’s worth spending a decent amount of money on a good one. That said, the price of backpacks varies significantly from brand to brand, and there are some good deals to be had. Whatever you do though, be sure to try on any pack you are considering buying, and make the final decision based on how it feels on your back, rather than on the size of the dent it’ll leave in your account! Much as with outdoor footwear, comfort is king when it comes to backpacks.

Back Length – What’s Yours?

It can be useful to know the length of your back before buying a backpack, because most styles will be available in different back sizes – and you’ll need to know which one to opt for. To find this out, you’ll need a buddy to measure you. To find the correct spot to measure from, tilt your neck forward and feel along your spine, working downwards from the base of your scull. The first large vertebra you feel, projecting outwards at the base of your neck (your sixth vertebra), is the point from which you should measure. To find the second point, locate the projections at the top of either side of your pelvis: you ‘iliac crests’ (commonly referred to as the ‘hip bones’). The point on your lower spine directly in-line with your iliac crests, is the second measurement point. Get your friend or relative to measure the distance between those two points with a measuring tape, and you have your back length!

Size – How Much Capacity?

The size of bag you require depends entirely upon your activity of choice, and also to some extent upon the weather conditions (i.e. if it’s cold you’ll need more space for extra layers). Bear in mind though that someone’s idea of what lightweight means is another person’s heavyweight! Here is a rough guide to what sort of pack size you’ll require for a certain activity:

40-50 litres: This size range is somewhat of a crossover between the top-end of daypacks, and the lower end of lightweight backpacking bags. In winter, you may find you need up to 50 litres of capacity for day walks, to hold all the extra layers and winter equipment that conditions necessitate. This is also a good size for single-day mountaineering and longer trad climbs, as it provides space for clothing and provisions, as well as ropes and safety equipment. For those into ultra-lightweight backpacking, 40-50 litres is all the space necessary to carry the very lightest kit over multi-day hikes.

Alpine 45 Backpack

50-60 litres: This size range is suitable for light-travelling backpackers and those going on longer mountaineering trips (i.e. staying in huts or bothies overnight).

Lowe Alpine AirZone Trek + 45:55 BackpackLowe Alpine
AirZone Trek + 45:55 Backpack

60+ litres: This is traditional backpacking territory, where the user can expect to fit everything they need for many days of trekking into their pack. This is a good size for ‘backpacking travel’ packs – in short, for lugging around everything you need for weeks on end! This is also the capacity required of ‘expedition packs’, including high altitude mountaineering and polar missions.

Lowe Alpine Metanoia 65:80 BackpackLowe Alpine
Metanoia 65:80 Backpack

Features to Look Out For

Back Systems: If you simplify back systems, there are essentially three types; adjustable, fixed, and gender specific. Fixed does exactly what it says on the tin, in that it cannot be adjusted to fit your specific back size. Some manufacturers will have different back sizes available in the same pack, that will enable you to get the right size for your height.

Adjustable back systems come in numerous different forms, under numerous different brand names, but they all have adjustably in common. They can be lengthened to fit your back size exactly.

Gender specific back systems are sculpted specifically to fit either a female, or a male back shape. Female specific rucksacks are often more comfortable for women than gender neutral ones, but do not rule out standard fits, as comfort is dependent as much on style, brand, and personal preference.

Waist Belt and Chest Strap: Many people who aren’t used to wearing a heavy backpack may assume that the weight is carried on the shoulders – but in fact 75% of the weight should be taken on the hips. This is better for personal comfort as well as for the long-term health of the back, so you should closely assess the quality and suitability of a backpack’s waist belt before buying! When looking at a backpack waist belt, ensure that it has sufficient padding, is not too stiff (will cause chafing), or too soft (will not provide support). When you try it on, make sure that it sits comfortably on your hip bone to take the load successfully.

The chest strap takes none of the load, but does ensure that your shoulder straps sit in the correct position. Make sure that the chest strap of the pack doesn’t cut too high around the neck, or if you’re a woman, too low around the breast.

Materials: Backpacks come in a variety of materials, some very rugged and near bombproof, some very lightweight and compressible. Most are made from durable synthetics such as nylon or polyester. What you need depends very much upon what you’re going to be using the backpack for and what your priorities are. The heavier the material, the more durable and rugged your pack will be, but the more it will weight. If you are mountaineering or scrambling, it’s worth looking at packs with rugged, ripstop materials and reinforced sections. On the other hand, if all you will be doing is walking, you can look at some of the more lightweight packs. The lighter the pack, the easier, quicker and faster you can travel! As with all packs, never rely on them to provide any kind of waterproofing, always use a rucksack liner.

Sections: The main benefit of having two sections is to keep wet and dry kit separate, or to provide a separate compartment for sleeping gear (which you won’t need to access often). This is only an important feature in bags designed for multi-day activities.

Pockets and Gear Loops: Most bags will have one or two main compartments, supplemented by various pockets and loops. Additional pockets are extremely useful for accessing your gear without having to completely empty your bag on the hill. A top pocket is probably best for keeping all the gear you may need quick access to when out on the hill. Many backpacks also have side pockets, however if you are doing any activity where you are moving your arms a lot, such as climbing or acrambling, they can be more of a hindrance than a help, as they could impeder arm movement. Some backpacks also have ‘wand’ pockets on the sides, very useful for carrying tent poles, or for getting easy access to stowed walking poles. Alternatives storage for walking poles or ice axes can come in the form of gear loops on the outside of the pack; a common feature of climbing and mountaineering backpacks.

If you have a hydration system, ensure that your prospective pack has a hydration pocket inside! A final note on pockets is that you should only choose a bag with the number and type of pockets you require; additional pockets will only serve to make your bag heavier.

Compression Straps: On larger bags (i.e. larger than 40 litres), compression straps are a pretty essential feature. They can be tightened if the backpack is not entirely full, so that your kit doesn’t shake about inside: detrimental to your centre of gravity, and to your nice tidy packing!

Closure Systems: To summarise the backpack closure systems available, there are two main types; zip closure and drawcord closure. Zip-up bags have a large u-shaped zip around the top to access the main compartment, making them easy to rummage through. This is great for smaller bags, particularly urban designs. Drawcord backpacks are lighter and simpler in design than zip closure bags of comparable size. They are also easier to ‘stuff’ your equipment into when required, so are good for larger backpacking rucksacks and lightweight packs. Most packs above daypack size will be drawcord closure designs.