“Heavy backpacks are designed to carry heavy loads. Unless you are planning a career as a high altitude porter, carrying gear for a family of four or heading off into the wilds for a three week trip with no resupply, then heavy packs are overkill. ”
– Cam Honan
There are six elements I look at when choosing a backpack:
The following article contains an overview of each models pro’s and con’s, FAQ’s and a look at my own personal backpack preferences.
External Frame Packs
These bad boys have pretty much gone the way of the dodo. Nonetheless, you occasionally still see the odd retro hiker lugging one around. I say good luck to them; at the very least they make for a good conversation starter with other backpackers (e.g. “What the *%#! are you carrying that for?”)
- Pro’s: Cheaper than internal frame models; great ventilation; good for carrying heavy loads on nice, even trails.
- Con’s: Heavy; not as stable in off-trail conditions; larger profile means it’s tougher to squeeze through tight gaps; the frame is prone to damage when traveling by public transport.
- Unless you have a thing for antiques, I wouldn’t recommend external frame packs; too many limitations.
Internal Frame Packs
What most backpackers carry. Many different designs, but basically they all have a suspension system incorporated within the main body of the pack.
Pro’s: A closer fit means more stability when traversing uneven or rugged terrain;usually have thicker, more comfortable shoulder straps than frameless models; greater inner storage space means you have less strapped to the outside of your pack, thus less chance of snagging gear on branches, bushes etc.
- Con’s: No ventilation between hiker’s back and pack; fancier, larger models tend to be on the expensive side; heavier than frameless packs.
- Buyer Beware: Large capacity (i.e. packs that weigh over 2 kg/4.4 lbs) internal frame packs can be deceptive. When you try one on in your local camping store, filled to the brim with 15 kg (33 lbs) of tents and sleeping bags, you may think to yourself, “Wow, this feels incredibly comfortable.” Don’t be fooled. After a long day on the trail, I guarantee you that 15 kg (33 lbs) will feel heavy no matter what you are carrying it in. Save your money, cut down your base weight (see Going Light) and invest in a smaller, lighter pack.
Basically a sack with shoulder straps. Most models have side pockets, but not all have compression straps and hip belts. Personally speaking I like to have both, as they provide a superior level of comfort and stability over a wider range of conditions.
- Pro’s: Simple; lightweight; ideal for smaller loads; inexpensive.
- Con’s: Minimum support if packed indiscriminately; uncomfortable if carrying heavy loads for extended periods.
- Weigh less than 0.7 kg (1.54 lbs).
- An unrolled or folded sleeping mat can provide a makeshift frame sheet.
- Well constructed frameless models are fine to carry heavier loads for shorter periods (e.g. the first couple of days of a long stretch without resupply), however will breakdown if constantly overloaded.
- I don’t recommend frameless packs made of silnylon, spinnaker or cuben fiber. These waterproof fabrics are good for lightweight shelters, but generally are not durable enough for extended use as backpacks (see What about Durability? below).
For loads under 12 kg (26.5 lbs), my preference is a frameless pack. The reasons are as follows:
- Simplicity: Frameless packs generally have simpler designs. Less zippers, less compartments, less straps, less that can break, rip or go wrong.
- Fit: With frameless packs it is the load itself which provides the structure. With a foam or inflatable mat acting as a makeshift frame sheet, ideally a frameless pack should mould to the contours of your back. In order for that to happen, particular attention must be paid to the manner in which your pack is filled (see Loading a Backpack in the Skills section). A heavy load packed indiscriminately into a frameless model, will be a lot more uncomfortable than it would be in a more forgiving internal or external frame backpack.
- Weight: Frameless packs are lighter, but not at the cost of durability. The one caveat to this point is if you consistently overload them, in which case they will eventually breakdown as a result of excessive strain.
- Cost: As an added bonus, frameless packs are generally cheaper (Note: Unless they are made of cuben fiber).
How Much Capacity do I Need?
Packs sporting a high tech suspension system, metal stays, a thickly padded hipbelt and a 80-90 litre capacity generally weigh in the vicinity of 2.5 to 3.5 kg (5.5 to 7.7 lbs). That’s a lot of weight. I carried one of these puppies for many years. My knees hurt just thinking about it.
- Unless you are planning a career as a high altitude porter, carrying gear for a family of four or heading off into the wilds for a three week trip with no resupply, then such heavy packs are overkill. There is simply no need to have a pack this heavy.
- If you have a moderately light base weight of around 8 kg / 17.6 lbs (very achievable for most backpackers), than a pack with a 65 litre capacity should be sufficient. If filled correctly, this will provide enough space for essential equipment plus at least four to five days food.
Do I Need a Pack Cover?
In a word, no. Pack covers have a tendency to get caught on branches and can sag in wet weather if not properly sized for your pack. Instead of a pack cover, try lining the inside of your backpack with a trash compactor bag. It’s lighter, more affordable and does exactly the same job. The only time I will cover the outside of my pack is if I’m wearing a poncho.
What about Durability?
For a combination of durability, performance and weight savings, my backpack fabric of choice since 2008 has been 210 Dyneema Ripstop.
I’m not a huge fan of packs made of cuben fiber. The tensile strength of this uber lightweight fabric makes it an ideal material for use as shelters, however, it isn’t particularly resistant against abrasion or puncture.
If you plan on hiking off-trail and/or in overgrown areas it is best to give Cuben Fiber backpacks a miss. That being said, if you hike almost exclusively on well maintained trails and are interested in saving a few ounces, you may consider a cuben fiber/polyester hybrid model. This combo is significantly more durable than the thinner Cuben fabrics, however, it should be noted that the weight saving comes at a price (i.e. Cuben packs are not cheap).
Five Tips for Improving the Longevity of Your Backpack
Irrespective of which fabric you choose, the durability of your pack is to a large extent contingent upon how you care for it. I’m not suggesting mollycoddling; just basic common sense precautions.
- Don’t regularly overload it.
- Establish the habit of alternating which side you put on and take off your backpack. By doing this, you avoid putting excessive strain on either the left or right shoulder strap.
- No matter how weary you may be, try not to ‘drop’ or ‘plop’ your pack down on abrasives surfaces.
- If hiking off-trail in overgrown terrain, try to put any items that are stored in external pockets inside the backpack. Overstuffed pockets can take a beating when bushwhacking.
- Don’t pack sharp items directly against the sides of your pack.
- Compartments: Useful for travel packs, not so great for hiking purposes. The more zippers and seams your pack has the more likely it is to leak in heavy rain.
- Side Pockets: Handy for water bottles, maps, gloves, beanie, etc.
- Compression Straps: Over the course of a multi-day backpacking trip, the volume and weight of your pack’s consumable items (e.g. food & fuel) will decrease significantly. That being the case, compression straps are useful for keeping your pack’s centre of gravity closer to your back once your pack begins to empty.
- Extension Collar: I am not a fan of big extension collars. If your pack always seems to be towering over your head, then chances are you need a bigger pack. The problems with “maxing” out a large extension collar are as follows: 1. They limit freedom of head movement and place undue strain on the neck; 2. Impede balance when traversing uneven or overgrown terrain, and; 3. The top-heavy nature of the load results in the hiker leaning unnaturally forward, which in turn places extra pressure on the lower back.