Choosing the Right Hiking Pack: A Guide to Picking the Best Backpack for the Mountains

What you should consider when shopping for a hiking pack

Choosing the right backpack for hiking in the mountains can feel like an overwhelming task for both beginners and experts. With so many options and new technologies and models available in the market, it can be tough to determine which pack is best for your needs. To begin with, good backpack should have a couple key factors: it should be comfortable, durable, and provide enough space to carry all your essentials whether you're planning a day hike or an overnight adventure. In general, it's important to consider factors like the size, weight, and design of the pack and you should consider the weather conditions you may encounter on your hike. The mountains, especially the Rockies, are notorious for weather flipping on a dime, so it's important to be prepared and to plan ahead. So without further ado, lets dig in and learn all about packs.

a guide to choosing the right hiking backpack for the mountains
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Comfort and Fit

When choosing a pack, comfort should be your top priority. A comfortable pack will allow you to enjoy your hike without any distractions from a poorly fitting pack. To get the best fit, try on different packs and adjust the straps until you find one that feels comfortable. Keep an eye out for packs with adjustable shoulder straps and waist belts, as these will help distribute the weight evenly across your back and hips. The straps and waist belt may be the most important consideration to take as they will affect the pack's comfort and stability during your hike. Make sure to also take your body size and shape into consideration, as packs come in different sizes and shapes to accommodate different body types. 

The main difference between a day pack and a backpacking pack is that the latter has more adjustable straps, waist belts, and load-bearing support systems to help distribute weight evenly and reduce stress on your back and shoulders so that you can carry heavy loads more comfortably over longer distances.

Size and Capacity

The size and capacity of the pack are important factors to consider. A day pack should be large enough to carry all your essentials, such as food, water, extra clothing, a first-aid kit, and any other gear you may need. However, it should not be so large for your body size that it becomes cumbersome to carry. A good rule of thumb for day packs is to choose one that has a capacity of 20-35 liters. When it comes to a pack for an overnight back packing trip you'll need something larger to accommodate for more gear, around 40-80 liters or more depending on the trip you're taking and how much you can physically carry.

things you should look for when shopping for a hiking backpack

Durability and Material

Look for packs made of waterproof or water-resistant materials, as this will keep your gear dry in case of rain or other moisture. Nylon and polyester are common materials used for day packs, as they are lightweight and durable. Backpacking packs are typically made of heavier-duty materials and have more reinforcement to withstand the demands of a multi-day trip.

 

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Additional Features

Think about any additional features that may be important to you, like pockets, hydration compatibility, and load-bearing capabilities. Pockets can be useful for organizing your gear and keeping smaller items within reach. Some packs have a rear or mid-pack access zipper which is nice to have so that you don't have to dig through the top of your pack when searching for something. Hydration compatibility can be an important factor as it allows you to hydrate without having to stop and take off your pack. Load-bearing capabilities refer to the pack's ability to support additional gear, such as a sleeping bag or tent. Some packs will have additional straps on the outside for your sleeping bag or sleeping pad.

Weather

As I mentioned above, the weather can quickly change especially in the mountains. It's important to check forecasts before heading out and keep watch for changing skies. If you do plan on hiking in the rain, make sure that your pack is water-resistant. If it's not water-resistant, you'll want a rain cover like this to keep things dry. If you’ll be hiking in warm weather, look for a pack that is made of breathable material and has ventilation to keep you cool.

how to choose the best backpack for hiking

How to spot a poor quality pack

Shopping for used gear is a great way to get started as equipment can add up quickly. When you're browsing, it's important to examine the straps as they can give you an idea of the quality and state of the pack. Straps that are thin, frayed, or have weak seams indicate that the pack is of poor quality and may not provide the support you need. Make sure the material of the pack is in decent shape and absent of any rips.

Again, the fit of the pack is crucial; a pack that feels uncomfortable, doesn't fit properly, or puts too much pressure on certain areas of your body can be a sign of poor quality. An unbalanced weight distribution can lead to discomfort and make it difficult to carry. Look for signs of wear and tear such as frayed seams, holes, or loose threads as they can indicate that the pack may need repairs otherwise you run the risk of it not lasting as long as you'd like.

Here are some modifications you could make to a pack that you find may be in need of some TLC:

Add padding - If you feel any pressure points with a loaded pack you should look to add extra padding to the back panel, shoulder straps, and waist belt to make the pack more comfortable to wear and reduce spots of pressure.

Reinforce seams - Using a quality needle and nylon thread you can reinforce the seams of the pack in the high-stress areas like the bottom of or the sides. Doing so can help prevent tearing and extend the life of the pack.

Add attachment points - Adding attachment points, like sewn on loops or hooks like carabiners. These can help you safely carry extra gear and customize the pack to your specific needs. Lightweight carabiners work great to hang things from the outside of your pack.

Upgrade the zipper pull tabs if some are missing or nonexistent altogether.

Add a rain cover  Adding a waterproof rain cover to protect your gear from moisture can be especially important for hikes in wet weather.

By making even a few of these modifications, you can take a used or cheaper pack and transform it into a more reliable and comfortable pack that meets your needs for hiking.

Shopping gear guide for hiking packs

Shopping suggestions

As I mentioned previously, there are a ton of options out there, but here are some of the few of reputable ones I can recommend:

Best of the Best: Gregory is a brand of backpacks that is known for its focus on comfort and fit. Their packs feature well-padded shoulder straps and a well-ventilated back panel. Gregory packs are also designed to fit a variety of body types with a range of pack sizes and adjustable straps to ensure a comfy and stable fit. Again, these packs are made with high quality materials and are designed to withstand the rigors of outdoor activities. There is plenty of storage available with an ample amount of pockets and storage compartments to keep your gear organized. As for warranty, they do offer a lifetime warranty on all of their packs.

These packs are more expensive than brands like Osprey which could be a drawback for some buyers. They are on the heavy side which can be an issue for some lightweight travelers who want to minimize the weight of their gear.

Excellent quality: Osprey packs are a popular brand of backpacks and outdoor gear that are known for their high quality materials and durability. They are designed to withstand outdoor activities and feature comfortable and adjustable straps. Their packs offer plenty of storage space with a variety of pockets and compartments to help keep your gear organized. You can find their packs in a range of sizes from backpacking packs to day packs to travel packs. Lastly, Osprey offers a lifetime warranty on all of their packs, called the "All Mighty Guarantee". 

Potential drawbacks of these packs are that they are relatively expensive compared to other brands and they can be heavier which could be an issue for lightweight backpackers.

Most functional: Mystery Ranch backpacks are a great choice for those who are looking for a rugged and functional backpack for their outdoor adventures. These packs are made with high quality materials are designed to withstand the harshness of outdoor activities and extreme conditions. Mystery Ranch packs are designed with a focus on functionality, offering ample storage space and a variety of pockets and compartments to help keep your gear organized. They also feature well-padded shoulder straps and a well-ventilated back panel and offer a limited lifetime warranty on their backpacks.

These packs are on the pricier side of the spectrum and can have complex straps and adjustments, which may make it difficult for some users to get the perfect fit.

Budget friendly: Kelty is a well-known brand that offers a variety of durable backpacks for different outdoor activities. Kelty packs are made with high quality materials and are designed to get you through every adventure for years to come. Comfort is at the forefront of the pack design and they feature adjustable straps and a super well-padded back panel. There is ample storage space with lots of pockets and easy to access compartments so you can get to your gear quickly. These packs are generally more affordable than other brands, making them more budget friendly option without sacrificing quality.

A drawback is that they only offer a limited warranty.

Best budget friendly: REI Co-op brand backpacks are a great choice for those who are looking for high-quality, comfortable, and sustainable backpacks for their outdoor adventures without breaking the bank. These packs are made with high quality materials and are designed to be durable and long lasting. REI backpacks are designed with comfort in mind and feature well-padded shoulder straps and a well-ventilated back panel. REI is committed to sustainability and uses environmentally friendly materials and practices in their production. The satisfaction guarantee and membership in the REI Co-op community are additional benefits that make these backpacks a top choice and gives customers peace of mind.

shopping for the right backpack for your hiking needs
Finding the best pack for hiking and backpacking is important for a comfortable and successful trip and hopefully this guide will be a helpful resource for you in your search. By carefully considering the quality of the materials, fit, design, and signs of wear and tear, you can find a pack that will allow you to fully enjoy your outdoor adventures. So, take the time to find the right pack that meets your needs and get ready to explore the great outdoors with confidence and ease.

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artist chuck black

 

 I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.


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