You’ve come to the end of a hard day’s hiking. Your feet are swollen, your legs tired and all you want to do is shrug off your backpack, pitch tent and get some food inside you.
Sliding off your backpack brings instantaneous relief. Then an ache runs the whole length of your body.
That’s ‘hiker’s back’. It’s the deep, gnawing ache you never forget. And it’s normal. In most cases, a good night’s sleep and a little stretching will leave you feeling refreshed and ready for the next leg of your trek.
But with a little prep, you can take the pain out of your back and put the pleasure into your hiking.
Jake and I have used many backpacks over the years. We’ve built up a pretty good understanding of what you need to look for when choosing the right one for your travels. And your back.
Ready to dance on air as you skip merrily over harsh, unforgiving terrain? Better yet, are you ready to slip off your rucksack with a feeling of, ‘Oooh, that feels good.’ Rather than, ‘Arghh! My spine feels like a herd of cows has stampeded over it.’?
Your first question:
James, how long will we be hiking for?
I’m using a figure of 3 – 5 days. Why? Because if you’re day hiking you can get by with a small rucksack, maybe even a daysac, as your packing list will be small. Unless you feel you need to carry every possible response to every possible scenario, in which case… you’re going to need a bigger rucksack!
Planning long-distance hikes is a great way to get you focused on efficiency. Keeping the weight down whilst acknowledging the potential for being whipped raw by storms, or lashed by brutal winds, will force you to assess exactly what goes into your packing list.
Update: we’ve created a new post to help you size your backpack here – what size backpack do I need for backpacking? You’re going to need at least 65 litres of capacity in your backpack (the Osprey Atmos 65 reviewed by Jake is a brilliant example). Sure, it’s possible to get away with less… if you want to hike in your underwear because your hiking pants were soaked in a storm the night before and you don’t have a change of dry clothing.
I’m rigid on this figure. Why? Because you not only do you need the best backpack for your hike, but you also need one into which you can pack all your gear.
No equipment should be dangling from loops or strapped to the exterior of your rucksack. Apart from your trekking poles, you spent so much time agonising over before hitting that ‘Buy now’ button.
Even your tent needs to be packed inside your rucksack. Why? Well, what happens if you’re caught in a deluge of rain and your tent is exposed to Mother Nature’s tears? It will get wet, inside and out (I’ve yet to buy a tent that comes with a waterproof packing bag).
The last task you want before bedding down is to have to dry out the inside of your tent before getting some rest.
Choose a rucksack with a minimum 65 litre capacity.
All your equipment must go inside your backpack.
Ensure you have enough space to carry essential spares such as dry clothing.
Picture this: you enter Aladdin’s cave of backpacks. You travel the aisles and the sight of so many labels touting so many features makes you feel dizzy. In seconds your mind is a storm of confusion, you came with the intention of buying a backpack and now you’re tripping over thoughts like, ‘Which size cup holder do I need on my backpack? Grande, or Regular?’
Take a deep breath, and remember why you came to the outdoor gear store. You need a rucksack that will hold all your gear. You might need it to be waterproof and have an adjustable back system (more on those points soon), but there’s no requirement for a GoPro mount on the lid.
In the same vein, ask yourself if you need or want that small stowage pouch on the waistband. I dislike them. Okay, let me be honest and say that having once lost a compass when one of these pouches on my last rucksack was torn, I hate pouches on waistbands.
Boil your requirements down to the essentials and do not allow yourself to be ‘upgraded’ with accessories you don’t need or want.
Choose the minimum of accessories – the basics count, nothing more.
The eternal debate that’s raged since the dawn of hiking time: does my backpack need to be waterproof?
Many waterproof rucksacks are created using a thin layer of waterproof material on the inside of the compartments. If the coating was on the exterior of the ruck it would soon be worn off by a combination of wear and weather. At this point, your backpack would become a huge sponge attached to your back.
As would all your gear inside your backpack.
Personally, I don’t like the feel of pulling a wet sleeping bag around me.
Yes, it is possible to treat your backpack to keep it waterproof. The problem is that it’s not an easy task and is more trouble than you can imagine. And if you get it wrong you’ll probably only find out once you’re out hiking and the rain starts to seep into your main compartment, soaking your dry gear.
My preferred option is to use a non-waterproof backpack and line it with dry bags into which all my gear is packed. This is a trick I learned many years ago during my service in the Army because, believe it or not, none of the military-issued packs were waterproof (a fact you discovered after the first rainfall of the day!)
Dry bags are inexpensive, rugged, and come in a range of sizes. They can be sealed – no more soggy underwear!
The waterproofing in most backpacks will eventually peel off and is hard to repair.
Don’t buy a waterproof backpack.
Use dry bags to keep Mr. H2O away from your gear.
Waistband and Fastening System
I won’t go on and on about this: choose a wide, well-padded waistband (aka hip strap) that supports the weight of your backpack when pulled tight. Don’t choose a backpack that has little pockets and storage compartments on the waistband – they’re a waste of space and easily ripped open (I never did find my car keys. I’m a fool!)
The buckle, or fastening system, on the waistband should be of the quick-release type. If you fall in a river or find yourself hanging off the side of a cliff, the first you want to do is ditch some of the weight you’re carrying (which you naturally do in a life-or-death situation) A buckle that requires two hands to fasten or loosen, is to be avoided.
Do buy a backpack with a quick-release buckle on the waistband.
Don’t buy a backpack with those horrible little pouches on the waistband. Or anywhere. Yuck!
Adjustable vs Fixed Back System
There’s a raging debate about the merits of adjustable vs fixed-back systems. To be honest, I’m not going to tell you which direction to go. If you feel the need to buy a rucksack with an adjustable back, go for it.
In all my years, I’ve only ever used standard packs that do not have an adjustable back system. And the only time I’ve ever suffered is when one of the metal supports in my Berghaus rucksack snapped and stabbed me the in back! Ouch.
One consideration to bear in mind: buying a backpack with an adjustable back system will be the more expensive of your two options.
Do you really need an adjustable back system?
If yes, expect to pay a higher price than if you were buying a standard backpack.