The best backpacks for hiking are also light ones
Backpacks that work are functional and do not hinder your objectives. I have almost made decisions not to visit landmarks such as the amazing Sutherland Falls waterfall, the highest in NZ while hiking because the thought of having to go off track adding 1.5hrs more onto the end of an already long hike was too hard.
It was moments like these where I knew heavy backpacks had to go because opportunities like this should never be lost – sometimes you only get one chance to see these things!
Backpacks come in various sizes, styles and brands but the focus of this post is how to determine what size backpack is going to fit the purpose to avoid taking an oversized pack which usually weighs more and often gets overpacked with non-essentials.
While experienced hikers already know these things and have learned by trial and error, this is a heads up for those who are setting out on some of their first hikes. Keep in mind we are aiming to achieve the lightest option and that is not just about using a lightweight backpack. Packing light is achieved in a number of ways:
- by making a list of the necessities and sticking with it
- by choosing lightweight materials
- by being smart with food types
- by carrying only the water necessary
- by utilising gear for multi-purpose roles (e.g. pots for carrying food & cooking & cleaning, clothes instead of a sleeping bag, walking poles for tent poles)
- by splitting your pack and/or utilising transport, couriers, porters, support crew, buddies
A note on backpack capacities
Capacities are measured in the volume of Litres/Liters and this does not indicate the weight you will carry but more so the carrying capacity. This is useful when purchasing backpacks because they often have this capacity as part of the description or specifications which means nothing to most of us until we translate it as below.
So while you do not have to understand how many things you can fit in the pack a general guide is based on your hike duration:
- day (small) 20 ltr – 35 Ltr
- long day or overnight (med) 35 ltr – 55 Ltr
- weekend (med/large) 40 ltr – 55 Ltr
- 3 – 5 nights (large) 50 ltr – 75 Ltr
- expeditions (large/extra large) 75 ltr – 110 Ltr
When you purchase a backpack, given the above guide you will have a fair idea what capacity you will require. The above guide assumes you will be carrying all of your own gear for that duration so if you have special arrangements for porters, couriers, tour companies to carry some of your gear then you will need to get some advice of what kind of pack they recommend you should carry – for example, a Day pack.
So in this case where porters, couriers, tour companies carry your bulk gear – you would split your gear between that which you will carry for your daily needs and that which they will carry to your next destination stop.
You would seek advice from the company providing the service, how much they are able to carry for you. which will give you an idea of how much you will carry daily.
You will also ask them if you provide them with a carry bag or if they provide carry bags. From this, you are able to determine what type of bags you must purchase as you may need to purchase your Day Pack plus a Medium to Large Pack for them to transport on your behalf.
In the case of Everest Base Camp, you may carry a Day to Medium Pack and they may carry a 7kg-8kg duffle bag on your behalf – so this is merely demonstrating the types of pack sizes you may need to consider purchasing.
It is important when choosing backpacks, especially medium upwards, that you have them fitted or ensure they sit securely and appropriately for your height so the weight is distributed correctly across the hips and not too much weight pulling down on the shoulders, resting on the butt or swaying from side to side.
Big hiking backpacks can be lightweight backpacks
Sometimes big and/or heavy is necessary and sometimes it’s over the top so we’ll look at just 5 reasons you would carry a big backpack then discuss how to keep it light:
- life-sustaining – e.g. altitude, desert, wildlife
- long hike – with or without access to supplies along the way
- self-sufficient hiker
- over packer hiker
- packing for more than one
1) Life-sustaining is about safety and is about carrying the most essential survival gears in the backpack for some of the hiking challenges along your route. Here are some examples:
Altitude – When heading into areas of high altitude where shelter, warmth and sometimes oxygen may be required, in order to keep the weight down you are going to be looking at light materials for warmth and shelter without compromising your safety and additionally you may require oxygen for higher altitudes. There may be accessories such as crampons and climbing gear.
Desert – Equally extreme are areas of barren and desert lands where some hikes require ample water to be carried, shelter and protection from the heat of the day and the cold of the night.
Wildlife – Consider areas where your equipment must be sufficient to protect you and your supplies from wild animals. You may be required to carry special containers or bags which may not add much weight to your backpack but could add to the bulkiness.
Secure your food in animal-proof containers then having to store it away from yourself e.g. suspended by a rope in a tree, covered by rocks, submerged in water. Either way storage containers need to be robust to keep the cleverest of Houdinis out.
The rules remain the same regardless of your hiking trail challenges, do some research on your gear and consider: weight, functionality, robustness. Sometimes it comes down to paying extra money for the high technology equipment and fabrics which are lighter. Here are some examples of the lightweights you can achieve for essentials:
- One man tents ranging from 500g(17oz) to 1.7kg(60oz) for ultra-light all weather and extreme weather. This is an example of weight, functionality, robustness.
- Down Jackets for warmth in sub-zero temperatures range from 300g(10oz) upwards
- Oxygen requirements can be as light as 1oz(2gms) for a 50breath canister to 2.5kgs(88oz) upwards for prolonged hikes at higher altitudes with tanks and regulators.
- crampons can weigh as little as 100gm(3.5oz) or average around 350gm(12oz)
- Containers to secure food from wildlife can be bulky but are necessary. One great option to keep the weight down is to dual purpose a cooking pot or billy that has a very secure lid and store food in it while not cooking. There are stainless steel pots in varying sizes that average 150g(5oz) to 350g(12oz) which can be utilised for food and toiletries. This is another example of weight, functionality, robustness.
2) Long Hike – this doesn’t imply instant large backpack. If you are doing a long hike with access to shops and supplies along the way or a support crew for an event or guided walk then your backpack size will be reduced. If you are doing a long hike with limited access to provisions along the way then you will be planning for a self-sufficient hike.
3) Self-sufficient hike – if you are doing a long hike independently then you may need to carry everything from start to finish in a larger backpack. This may include all of your food and a great deal of your water – it depends on the territory.
You may have access to some supplies along the way which may mean you set out with a large backpack but the load is reduced at certain points along the way. It is necessary to plan in advance for these scenarios especially if you are setting out light and doubling your load at the halfway mark – you definitely need to set out with a backpack designed to carry your largest determined load along the route.
4) Over packer hiker – My first backpacking experiences were way over the top with preparation and its not as if I was hiking solo although we were hiking in remote areas at times, there was always a ranger doing a roll call at the end of the day to make sure everyone had made it to the hut for the night. I have visions of Reece Witherspoon in the movie ‘Wild’ – if you ever saw this movie then it is the opposite to what we are trying to achieve here and a prime example of over packing.
5) Packing for more than one – While hiking in the mountains one day we watched a family of 5 navigate their way down a very steep escarpment, our group moved over for them as we were climbing and more than happy to rest a while – the young children all of 8yrs & 10yrs old were zig-zagging their way down with backpacks, followed close behind by Mum with her backpack and then Dad with a larger backpack and a baby strapped to him in a front pack.
We were so impressed at their confidence and agility – this was a conditioned outdoor hiking family and this was one example for when large backpacks are necessary. It was late in the afternoon so they were obviously going down to the valley to camp overnight so they would have been carrying their tent, sleeping gear, cooking gear, food and everything else a family of 5 needs to camp in the valleys at the bottom of the mountains. However, they had spread the load across the family, and this enabled the parents especially to carry less weight by teaching their children to carry some of the load.
Medium size backpacks – the middle of the road in backpacks
Often a popular choice is the medium size backpack as it is the size that is versatile for most day walks, overnight walks and weekend walks. If this is the type of hiking you do mostly then one size fits all purposes.
This is also the size pack you may be recommended to take on expedition hikes with guided walk companies who carry the bulk of your gear by porter, vehicle, mule, helicopter or you may utilise couriers. While this may be larger than a day pack it is sometimes necessary to carry extra gear for any weather changes or meals that may not be provided until the next meetup point with your bulk gear.
The medium range packs vary significantly slotted between the very small day packs to the large backpacks so there is enough room to carry the basics and some equipment to cater for some specific needs:
- special purpose hikes such as photography equipment, bird watching camera and binoculars
- terrain specific such as torches and ropes for caving or crampons and pick for ice
- water filter and sterilizing equipment for much-needed water along the route
Once you have the size sorted you only need to ensure the design is going to suit the purpose. Decide if you want sections that open right up, top loading, multi-pockets, a section for a water bladder
Small light backpacks – day packs
I just love carrying a day pack when hiking – it’s almost like a treat for all of those times when I couldn’t. I know exactly what’s in my pack and where it is, I don’t have to unpack half my pack to find anything. The pack is so light I can swing it around in front while still walking to take out what I need. This is what we should expect from a day pack!
There are a couple of different types:
the water bladder only pack
this is a narrow pack designed to carry a water bladder with enough space to carry small items such as light raincoat, head-lamp, some snack foods, wallet. Typically you would only be walking for a short duration such as 4hours or if a longer duration you would have access to meals and other provisions along the way.
These packs are popular for trail walking events where hydration is essential for long durations, hot or dry climates and where checkpoints are set up along the way for meals and other provisions.
the small day pack
Alternatively, if you need a little more space than a bladder pack then choose a small day pack. You can expect to have enough space to carry wet weather gear, enough food for a meal plus snacks, enough water for the duration of your hike and some other small essentials such as sunscreen, insect repellent, toiletries, basic first aid items, maps.
This is the size pack you can also take for guided walks where you don’t need to carry special gear for ice walking, caving and climbing.
No backpack for Hiking?
Here is an option that you see many people take on the hiking trails. If you’re only walking for a few hours then you can do fine without a backpack and utilise pockets for snacks and a bottle of water. If it’s not freezing then it doesn’t matter if you get wet in the rain as it’s a short hike.
Alternatively, you could wear a hip bag, fanny bag, bum bag – a different name for the same thing – or a drawstring bag, shoulder bag, diagonal bag.
Carry bags such as recycling shopping bags are an option according to my daughter who rocked up to join me on a volcanic walk with her life-sustaining supplies in a shopping bag – not my choice as I like to keep my hands free but it works for some. In this case, we went straight to the hire shop to get her a backpack because I had visions of myself having to carry her gear after the first climb.
If you are not a regular hiker and are just testing the experience then hiking hire shops, especially in well-known hiking areas, are great options.
When you are hiking in groups or meeting up with other people at the end of each day, check out their gear and don’t be shy to ask if you could try their backpack on to test it for comfort and stability – this is where you pick up some great information on what works well, tried, tested and experienced – take notes and photos.
Ask yourself, have you chosen the best backpack for hiking over the trail you plan to walk? Does it fit your purpose without overburdening you with unnecessary baggage?