How to choose the best outdoor backpack
Choosing the right outdoor backpack can take as much thought and planning as a hike in backcountry. You need to consider size, features, and fit, not to mention anti-theft security for a bit of extra peace of mind. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to navigate how to choose the best outdoor backpack for your adventures. All you need to do is ask yourself three simple questions…
How long am I going for?
Where am I going?
What am I going to do while there?
1. How long are you going for?
You might be just going for a day hike, heading off for a long weekend, or going for more than a week. Obviously, the longer the trip, the more things you need to take and the bigger the backpack you’ll need to cover it. Part of this also depends on what you need to take, which we’ll address in the next section. For now, here’s a basic guide for backpack size based on trip duration.
Day Packs – 12 to 30-liter backpacks
A day hike outdoors generally requires somewhere between 12 to 30 liters of space. These size backpacks are ideal for a single day, or for trips where you’re packing most of your gear in travel luggage and want a something for those frequent excursions out and about. Around 20-30 liters is generally the best-selling backpack size due to their versatility for day hikes, flights, or trips into the city.
Weekend Packs – 30 to 50-liter backpacks
For somewhere between 2-3 days, you’ll need a bag that’s between 30 to 50 liters. This will allow you to fit in a couple of changes of clothes (assuming you’re smart about it), and perhaps strap on a sleeping bag if you need it. At this size, you’ll also really want to start thinking about features like hip straps and back support, which is explored in greater detail below.
Longer Trips – Over 50-liter backpacks
If you’re heading away for more than three days, you’ll need a backpack over 50 liters. Somewhere between 50 to 70 liters should serve you well for up to a week, or even more, as long as you’re willing to do a little washing along the way. Anything bigger than that and you’re really looking at full-on hiking packs that take a very serious commitment to carry for any length of time. If that’s the case, do your research to make sure you get a pack that fits perfectly and has plenty of support for your spine.
2. Where are you going?
The next thing you need to look at for choosing a backpack is where you’re going to go with it. Will there be stores where you can get supplies, or do you need to take food and water? What is the weather going to be like? How safe is the place you’re headed? Also, is the backpack going to be exclusively used hiking out in the countryside, or are you also going to use it in the city too?
The answers to these questions will determine both the features you’ll want in an outdoor backpack and also help you adjust the size.
There are a few things that weather will change when deciding on which outdoor backpack to take. If you’re headed to the tropics, you’ll be packing much less bulky clothes. That means the range of 30 to 50 liters for a weekend pack will probably be at the smaller end. On the other hand, if you’re going somewhere you need sweaters and snow jackets, then rethinking capacity is worth the time.
Second, if it’s going to rain or snow, you’ll probably want a rain cover. You can either get rain covers that fit the size of your bag and pack up nice and small, or some backpacks come with built-in rain covers.
If there aren’t a lot of stores where you’re headed, backpack capacity again comes into play. Just as importantly, organisation to store any food and water you’ll need to bring along with you, will be something to consider.
External stash pockets are amazing for grabbing and putting away some nuts while on a trek. There are also hydration systems that fit a water bladder and let you run a hose out for easy drinking. Or, if there’s clean water that’s easily accessible, you might prefer to simply have some water-bottle pockets for quick drinking and refills. A little planning here will see you happily munching and sipping away without getting all hangry that you should’ve been able to fit more in.
If you’re headed somewhere that has really soft sand, or is quite rocky, chances are that you’ll want some attachment points for hiking poles. Most of the time these are simple loop straps on the outside of a bag, which look innocuous when picking out a backpack, but make a world of difference at your destination.
Whether you’re going to be exclusively out in the country, or need an all-rounder to use in the city, will determine what kind of look you’ll want from your backpack too. If you want a specific hiking pack with all the features that go along with that, it’s an easy call to get something with a full outdoor look. But, if you want to blend in, in the city and not immediately look like a tourist that’s passing through, it could be a good idea to choose something with different curves to suit a wider range of environments.
Finally, where you’re headed will determine what kind of safety features (if any) you might want on your bag. Let’s face it, out in less populated national parks, you probably don’t need a massive amount of security. Unless a raccoon is likely to make off with your bag, you’re feeling pretty safe about your gear. However, if you’re transitioning through airports, or taking your bag into a city at all, that could be another story.
Pacsafe offers a wide range of anti-theft outdoor backpacks with lockable zips, slashguard panels, RFIDsafe™ pockets and more for that bit of extra peace of mind. And, if you’re really adventurous and are going into avalanche areas, it might be worth getting a backpack that has pockets to fit a personal location beacon, first aid kit and hip flask of blood-warming brandy.
3. What are you going to do?
The last (and potentially most important) question you need to ask when choosing an outdoor backpack is what you’re actually going to do on your trip. Are you going on long hikes? Camping out and need to take a sleeping bag? Doing a little photography and need to take your camera and lenses? Or going surfing/boating and need some extra water resistance? Or, do you need to adapt between outdoor hikes and work trips, taking your laptop along the way?
This is all where a bag’s features come into play even further. Here are a few main things you might want to look for.
Taking your own accommodation entirely on your back is at once a liberating experience and burdening at the same time. Selecting a bag that’s going to hold the weight well (see back support below), plus have room for everything, is often hard to find. You can go one of two options here: 1. Select something completely specific to camping and go a tech brand’s bag, or 2. Get something with multi-purpose external attachment points that can fit on sleeping bags, yoga mats and more. If you’re a serious hiker it’s worth the investment for the first option, but if you’re more day hiking, or staying in backpackers or cabins most of the time, then you’re better off with the second more all-round version.
If you’re tying in some work while you’re headed away, or just want to stay in touch with family and friends, it’s a great idea to take your laptop. A lot of outdoor backpacks come with padded laptop compartments built in. Sometimes these also undertake the dual function of working as a hydration system as well, so research your options to get the most out of what you’re carrying.
Most of us are pretty happy with using our phone as our main camera, but there’s plenty of people out there wanting to go the extra mile. If this is you, you’ll know how hard it can be to find a good outdoor backpack that fits in your DSLR and lenses. Here’s one option that’s specifically designed for camera gear that takes an insert to arrange lenses, or you can use a camera insert in any backpack with a reasonably sized compartment to sort your things.
We already mentioned backpack rain covers earlier when it comes to weather, but sometimes you need something that’s going to handle more than a sprinkle. If you want something super watertight, then a roll top backpack made from water-resistant materials is going to be the best bet. As an in-between option, you can also select a bag with Aquaguard coated zips and water-resistant construction.
If you’re carrying heavy loads, or are planning on doing a whole lot of walking on your trip, it’s probably an idea to select a bag with support structures that help your spine. This could be hip and sternum straps to help spread the load, or an actual frame through the backpack to help it sit comfortably as you trek. Padded shoulder straps are also key, but most outdoor backpacks worth their salt should have those as standard already. When looking at the extra mile, a comfortable back frame, and hip strap both carry their weight in gold when fit properly.
Extra tips for fitting
Everyone’s body shape is different, which means different bags will work better for others. Fitting a backpack depends on a few factors, the two most important of which are torso length and hip measurements. Here’s a really great video by Clever Hiker that walks you through how to fit a backpack.
Finally, many bags are designed to be unisex, fitting different genders and body shapes. Their adjustable nature means every time you put on the bag you should go through a few steps. These steps are:
- Make sure all the straps are loosened to make adjusting inward from each angle easy.
- If the bag has a hip strap, adjust that first. This is because most of the weight from larger bags sits on your hips. Therefore, having this at an optimum is key.
- Next, adjust the shoulder straps so the bag sits nice and high, yet not too tight. This means less pull back on your shoulders.
- Finally, clip the sternum strap across your chest and adjust to be firm. This spreads weight right across your front, instead of pulling individually against each shoulder.
Voila! You’re ready to get out in the world and enjoy your adventures with peace of mind.
To check out the full range Pacsafe’s anti-theft outdoor backpacks, head here.
By Tim Hawken
Tim Hawken is an Australian writer who enjoys surfing, Indian food and romantic midnight strolls to the beer fridge. He has clocked up visits to 23 countries on 5 continents (and counting). Find out more about his weird world by heading to his website, or following him on Instagram and Twitter.