This summer, after all these years of good services it was time to give my old and loved Quechua backpack a well deserved retirement.
When you love outdoors like I do, a visit to your local outdoor shop can turn into a half day activity. For backpackers or hikers, the backpack becomes quickly an extension of yourself, a part of you or your team that you hope will never let you down at the wrong moment.
I am a nerd when it comes to outdoor gear and buying a new backpack ended being a 3 months activity. I am sharing here the process I followed and recommend so that you can also find the best travel or hiking backpack for you!
1. Define what is the best backpack… for you!
It is not necessary easier to buy a backpack when you are experienced, as you will be picky and will know exactly what you need.
Which kind of backpack are you looking for?
There are 3 main types of big backpacks (I am excluding from the article smaller day packs) depending on the type of activity:
- Trekking: focus on comfort, as you will carry them for a long time
- Backpacking: focus on functionality, with several pocket to compartment the load and organise your stuff
- Mountain climbing: aims to be as light as possible as every 100 grams count while you are up there.
In my case, I was looking for a backpack that could do all! By I realised I will probably use it mainly for trekking.
My first backpack went with me to Australia, Norway, Sri Lanka, Bali, South America… but after all these years of good services it was time to give my old and loved Quechua backpack a well deserved retirement..
How much should you spend on your backpack?
This is a really personal question. Think about the usage you will have for it. Are you getting into this for the first time and you are not sure if you will fall in love with outdoors? Go for a good basic. For $100 you should be able to find a good entry level backpack. It was the price of my first backpack and it performed exceptionally well.
If you are going on a 3 months trek you may want to spend a bit more. You will get something probably lighter and more resistant. As I now know I love hiking I choose to allocate a 200euros budget for my new backpack. Yikes! I know… but if it lasts 5 years or more, and dozens of avdnetures, it will be worth any penny.
How big should your backpack be?
Not too big! If you are an experience traveler or hiker, you learnt to travel with less and you probably have an idea of what is the minimum amount you need to carry.
I like to believe that the ideal capacity for backpack is somewhere around 50-60L. With this capacity, you can go on a 3 weeks backpacking tour, or on a 7 months gap year and you can do a 7 days trek in autonomy.
The start of Kungsleden, 7 day trek. Heavy but everything fits in the 58L backpack (2 people trekking)!
If you are fairly new to backpacking or hiking, the temptation could be to take a bigger bag. I have seen many backpackers desperately trying to lift their 70L backpacks from the bus… Whatever bag you buy, you will always fill it up! Choose a bag that just fits what you need so that you don’t overpack (see my minimalist packing list for trekker). That is the main reason why I limited myself to a 55L backpack: I just would not be able to trek with a bigger full bag.
If you are going backpacking and are worried there won’t be space for souvenirs consider: sending them home, buying only small ones or having a separate bag for them.
After a few try you will quickly realise that there are no 50L bags that would fit the same amount. The capacity of bags are usually measured with small balls that can be fitted. It is a good indication but not so useful in reality and side pockets with supposely huge capacity can end up being useless. If you think you need a 50L, expand your search to bags between 45-55L, but also the 40+10 and the 50+10. You will be surprised…
What features should you be looking for?
Dozens of features are marketed by outdoors companies. Some have real value, others won’t make a big difference. Here is the check list I used starting with 3 must have:
Hip and chest belt as well as adjustable straps. Don’t buy a backpack that doesn’t have this, crucial to make sure the load is spread correctly.
Light. Whatever you do, this is the weight you will never be able to cut out. Weight for a 50-60L backpack can vary from 1.2kg to more than 3! I put my limit at 2kg.
Robust. You don’t want it to break at the worst time.
Boyfriend’ backpack fully loaded on our 2 day Villarica trek (Chile)
The rest is really up to you, your usage and your preferences. Below I list the features that I find useful (in order of importance):
Elevable lid. Allows for carrying extra. I found this really usefully when trekking as if you are hiking in autonomy and carry you own food you will have more at the beginning of the trek than at the end. It can be also good to pack your tent or a jacket.
Compression Staps on the sides. Allow you to attach tent, poles… or to compress the bag when it is not full.
A couple of pockets except the big one, especially one at the tpp. Always good for the small items such as hat, sunglasses, scarf, suncream, map… Watch out for too many useless pockets, they will just add weight!
Bottom opening. I had this feature on my previous backpack, and got quite addicted to it. Accessing the bottom of your backpack easily without taking everything out can be really good when backpacking but also when trekking: I will backpack all my things the night before and on the morning I will just push the sleeping bag in at the bottom via this opening.
2. Comparing backpacks and making a selection
Where to look?
I always like to start my research online. The choice is vast, you can take your time, compare…
A specialised travel or outdoor distributor is a good place to get started. I also liked to check the websites of all backpacks brands I could think about here: Lowe Alpine, Osprey, North Face, Mountain Hardware, Salomon, Gregory, Bergans, Deuter, Fjallraven, to quote a few.
What to look for?
Scan through and bookmark the pages of the ones that meet most of your criteria. Note that contrary to capacity, I would actually trust the weight claim by the manufacturers. Remember to always check if the rain cover or some accessories are included so that you can compare apples with apples.
Based on your first selection, read reviews for these items. Pay especially attention to the part of the review mentioning the parts they didn’t really like and ask yourself if these defaults are important for you. (Always be carefully when reading review of the writer and cross check your resources!).
3. Trying backpacks and choosing the best
Don’t buy a backpack online without having tried it in reality!!! Or make sure you can send it back and change. Think of it as a pair of shoes: it has to fit, it has to be comfortable.
Make sure it fits properly
Check the shape of the backpack and how it fits on you. Some packs have fix back lengths, some are adjustable. Women model usually have a different hip support. Everybody is different and you might or might not need that. Ask the shop assistant to make sure it is properly adjusted. Walk around in the shop, how does it feel?
Our backpacks under the protection of an hindu goddess in a Sri lankan bus
Buy a robust backpack
It is something difficult to evaluate from pictures in catalogues. In shop, pay attention to the quality of the manufacturing. Will the fabric hold on? Is there some weak spot? How do the zipper look?
Try the backpack again… with your own pack!
There is little point about trying a bag unload as it is not how you will use it. Shops usually have this weight you can try with but I don’t really believe in this: they don’t spread the weight the way your pack will do. Go back to the shop with your own stuff or if you don’t own things, try with real gear from the shop: a sleeping bag, a cooking kit, a tent, a mattress and see how much space you would have for a bit of clothes and some food.
Sleep on it. Buy!
4. Bringing your backpack on its first adventure
It is only after a couple of trips that you will know if you made the right choice. A bit like shoes, you might feel a bit awkward towards your new backpack and it will take you a couple of days to practice how to load it best, where to put different items etc.. Just remember that nobody is perfect and backpacks are not exceptions to that 🙂
My verdict about my backpack Kaipak 58 from Fjallraven:
After spending so much timing researching and trying out backpacks I was relieved to appreciate my backpack during our 7 days on Kungsleden. I had to compromise a little bit on the weight (2.1kg with rain cover when I was more looking for 1.7kg) but it has all the features I was looking for, seems extremely robust and there is no lost space. I love it!
You made it to the end of this really long post. I hope it gave you some ideas about what to look for when making your decision 🙂