Best Hiking Backpacks
Hiking has shown benefits such as improving balance, strengthening bones, aiding in respiratory health, and even a lowered risk of depression. If you’re new to hiking, you probably want to know which backpack is best.
There are so many features on this vital piece of gear it can be overwhelming. That’s why I’ve broken down what to look for in a hiking backpack. I’ve also hand-selected my top picks for the best hiking backpacks.
If you’re getting gear for the first time or replacing some old pieces, check out my list of the best backpacking tents and best camping hammocks to pack along with your bag. Now, onto the best hiking backpacks!
Why a Hiking Backpack is Important
If you’re new to hiking and backpacking, you might be considering an old backpack you already own in which to stow your gear.
Both hiking backpacks and ultralight backpacks are fitted to hikers for long trips with more comfort than an old-school rucksack—and by that, I mean actual school. Your JanSport is not ideal for hiking.
Hiking backpacks have broader, more padded shoulder straps as well as frames to distribute the weight from your shoulders and upper back onto your hip area.
How to Choose a Hiking Backpack/Features to Look for in Hiking Backpacks
Ultralight backpacks Vs. standard hiking backpacks
An ultralight backpack might be ideal for you if you’re trying to shave down the weight of everything. However, hiking gear is so light now compared to a decade ago that your pack’s base weight will probably be relatively light if all of your equipment is new and you don’t overpack.
Compared to decades past, most hiking backpacks are relatively lightweight. If you expressly opt for an “ultralight backpack,” then you might be forgoing a few features just to cut down one or two pounds.
What size hiking backpack do I need? Capacity counts
Capacity is one of the most critical features to decide on when picking a hiking backpack. The capacity of hiking and ultralight backpacks goes by liters (L), and there are three main categories of sizes: weekend, multi-day, and extended trip.
There are varying sizes within each of these categories but hiking backpacks will typically fit the items needed for trips of this length within these sizes.
You don’t want to pick an ultralight backpack that is too small if you are hiking for a full week or need to carry things for your kids. Likewise, you don’t want to purchase a pack that is far too big, or that encourages you to pack items you don’t need that will just weigh you down.
Weekend trips will often work with a 30 to 50L pack. If you only plan to do day hikes or need your bag for one or two nights, this could be a decent option.
You won’t be able to fit a lot of extras in weekend trip hiking backpacks, but if you know for sure you will never go longer than a couple of days, this size could be perfect for you.
A multi-day pack is better for packing some layers and extra food. A multi-day backpack is generally between 50 and 70L. Most standard hiking backpacks will fall in this range, and this is often a suitable size for most people.
Anything above 70L falls in the extended or expedition trip pack category. An extended trip pack is best for those who need to haul lots of gear. Expedition or extended trips hiking backpacks are only something to consider if you have kids and need to carry all of their items in your pack along with extra food.
Picking your frame type
There are two primary types of frames in hiking backpacks: internal and external.
The frame of an ultralight backpack is to help transfer weight from the shoulder straps down to the hip belt area, making for a more comfortable hike. Internal are lighter and usually more comfortable. More substantial internal frames will have metal tubing sewn in as a frame to distribute weight to your hips.
Some lighter models of internal frames only have a rigid plastic sheet along the back. These are better for shorter trips, as they will not be as comfortable for long hikes.
External frames used to be the most common frame type. They are heavier and are not as popular now. An outer frame is suitable for individuals who want to clip more items on the poles of the frame or just want a more traditional experience.
You will need to decide if you want top-loading access or side zips on your pack. Top-loading closes at the top and makes it easy to get to items at the top of your backpack, or for someone else to grab something out of the top.
Side zips open the entire side, so it’s best to set your backpack down while opening it. However, side zips make it easy to get anything—even in the middle or bottom of the pack—with ease.
Pockets are worth paying attention to when picking your hiking backpack, too. It’s smart to make sure your hiking pack has a water bottle pocket at the hip belt area. If you prefer using a CamelBak for water, look for a bag that has a suitable spot for one with a place for tubing.
One often overlooked feature many hikers fail to consider is whether you are going to leave your natural “restroom” waste in nature, or if you plan to pack away a bag to dispose of it elsewhere. If you plan to dispose of it responsibly, you will want a dedicated pocket for this, as well as perhaps a trowel or toilet paper.
Extra features will sometimes add weight to an ultralight backpack, so you need to determine what uses your pack will get. For example, consider whether you need loops for trekking poles or a sleeping bag. Some ultralight backpacks will also have a daisy chain or stretchy straps on the outside on which you can hook gear.
Getting the right fit with your ultralight backpack is crucial. Much of the sizing of your hiking backpack will depend on torso length. It’s also worth considering a gender-specific pack. Ultralight backpacks for women are not designed only with varying colors—that’s the least of the design differences.
Backpacks for women often have shoulder straps that cut out sooner around the chest area and sometimes have features like more padding in the hip belt, or more adjustment in the hip area.