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How to Choose Your Backpack for Mountaineering, Hiking and Trekking

What are the features of backpacks for mountaineering, trekking and hiking? In this article we will clarify the differences to help you to choose the right pack for each situation.
Photo: Lowe Alpine

A Few Important Tips Before Choosing Your Backpack

. Nowadays everyone is looking for lightweight gear, but we should be very clear that saving a few grams can sometimes put our lives in danger.

This is important to consider when choosing a backpack

  • First you need to know the kind of activity you plan to do (duration, how technical?, place, etc)
  • .
  • Then decide what equipment is essential, both technical and precautionary (e.g. always pack a warm and waterproof garment, whatever the season,)
  • Finally, choose the most suitable backpack that allows you to carry the gear for the activity in question.

It is usually a mistake to do this the other way around:

  • Choose a minimalist backpack to reduce weight, and carry only what fits, leaving out essential outdoor safety items.

The opposite case is not recommended either:

  • Fill the backpack with things you won’t need, because you have the extra space.

Lightweight vs Comfort—A Necessary Trade-off

. Similarly, making a backpack as light as possible is not the most appropriate solution. If you find a lightweight pack that affects the design of the lumbar belt, backrest and shoulder straps, it will be counter-productive: If a large-capacity pack is well-designed, however, the weight of the load will feel lighter. .

If a backpack is poorly designed or does not have a decent waist belt or shoulder straps, the load will feel heavier and more unbalanced than if you were carrying the same load in a heavier backpack with better features and design.

There’s no doubt that every gram counts, but what makes a backpack lightweight should be the reduced weight of the materials and design and not by making structural cuts. A pack without a back panel is lighter, but it will be torture on your back and will feel as if you carrying twice the weight of the load.

In summer, when hiking short routes with a small daypack, the load will be minimal, and some of the factors we mention will not be so important. But when it comes to hiking longer or multi-day routes, they cannot be overlooked.

It is essential that a backpack adapts to your body shape. This is even more important than other factors, such as weight. For this reason, some models are specifically designed for women, featuring displaced shoulder straps and a higher waistbelt for an ergonomic fit.

Lumbar belt, backrest, shoulder straps of a modern backpack. Great comfort

Parts of a Backpack—The Need for Weight Distribution

. Knowing about the different parts of a backpack will help understand why the weight of the load should not fall on the shoulder straps.

1. The Lumbar Belt—The Most Important Part of a Backpack

. Many people mistakenly think that the weight of a backpack rests on the shoulders. It doesn’t: at least 75 to 85 percent of the weight should fall on the waistbelt. If you're not getting that percentage of weight on the belt, either you have an inadequate backpack, or it needs be adjusted correctly.

One trick is to adjust the waistbelt after loosening the shoulder straps completely, so that the entire weight falls on the belt. Once you feel the belt support the weight, adjust the shoulder straps to take of some of the load from the waistbelt. If you had to tighten the waistbelt too much, to support the full weight of the pack, now is the time to loosen it slightly until you feel the indicated proportion of weight distributed between the shoulder straps and waistbelt.

This is why the design of the belt has to adapt very well to your anatomy, and why you should look for a design that does not skimp on its construction. A belt with poor support, or that does not fit as correctly, will cause greater fatigue, imbalance and insecurity, and your back will suffer unnecessarily.

As we said before, very small backpacks for both outdoor activities and trail running do not need a waistbelt because they are designed to carry just 2-3 kilos. For this reason, they should not be filled with a heavier load.

2. Shoulder Straps

. Shoulder straps should be anatomical to adapt to your body shape.

Thanks to the new designs, which use new high-density materials, superior comfort has been achieved with less volume than the older packs. In this way, the shoulder straps no longer impede athletic movements.

As a rule of thumb, the greater the capacity of a backpack (and the weight of the load), the more padded and bulkier it will be. Nowadays, however, their anatomical shape means quality pack designs achieve a much lower volume without losing out on cushioning and comfort.

3. Back Panel and Frame

. This is essential as soon as you need a large-capacity backpack.

It provides the correct amount of rigidity to the system so that the load stays in place and the backpack is stable. It also supports your back and protects it from sharp objects. Many models incorporate a rigid frame.

Gregory Alpinisto 50M backpack ultralight aluminum internal frame

One of the classic problems with backpacks in warm climates is overheating and sweat. The ventilated designs that quality brands have designed in recent times minimize this problem, as all quality packs feature ventilation channels and are made with sweat-absorbing materials.

The best ventilation is achieved with a space behind the backrest, such as Lowe Alpine's Airzone, which separates the back from the backpack, avoiding contact completely and allowing total air flow.

Lowe Alpine AirZone System

Pack Sizing

. Now that it is clear how important it is that the design of the lumbar belt, shoulder straps and backrest fit your anatomy perfectly, it is easy to understand why backpacks have sizes.

Of course, when we talk about sizes, we are not referring to the capacity and load volume of the backpack, but to the size of the backrest, shoulder straps and belt.

Size, normally, refers to the length of the back, but this proportionally affects the width and, more importantly, the length of the lumbar belt.

When choosing a backpack, the length of the waist strap is not usually an issue as it can be adjusted to fit most sizes. However, you should check that the padded lumbar belt section wraps around properly, or it will be unable to fulfil its function. If it is too small, you will probably be able to buckle the belt, but the padded section won’t be able to support the load.

Not all backpacks come in different sizes: packs under thirty liters rarely have sizes, unless they are very technical, while packs with a larger capacity sometimes feature adjustable back panels that adapt to different back lengths.

What are the main features of trekking and mountaineering backpacks

? These are the most popular and versatile packs for spring to autumn use.

Some are designed purely for hiking, but over a certain volume, the vast majority are very similar to those used for climbing and mountaineering in terms of features- ice-axe holders, water bottle holders, sleeping mat straps

However, a hiking pack will differ from the latter in shape: it is less technical, narrower, tubular and with a smaller base than the climbing packs. It is wider and more uniform which makes it easier to load and make use of the inner space.

Since this kind of pack would not normally be used with a harness, the lumbar belt does not need to be positioned as high as on a climbing pack and is therefore sized for comfort and load.

Most, if not all trekking packs feature internal and external pockets, side vents, and some have an inner hydration sleeve for your reservoir and tube exit port.

As for the weight, if you are looking for a lightweight pack, it is important that the reduced weight of the pack is achieved by lighter materials and design and not by structural cuts. Miracles do not exist: if a backpack is very light, has no structural cuts and is also resistant, there will be a price to pay for the latest, innovative materials and design.

If we could only choose one backpack accessory, it would be the rain cover. Because, while most backpacks resist water, they are not fully waterproof, especially at the seams. There is nothing worse than finding all your clothes, food and sleeping bag are wet at the worst moment. Some models have a built-in rain cover in a pocket, others do not.

Types of Backpacks According to Their Capacity

. The capacity depends on the activity and the material you need to carry.

1. Under Twenty Liters

. Their load capacity is very small, and except for specific activities, such as trail running, they are only used for activities such as summer hiking or short routes.
Deuter Speed Lite 20

Because of their small capacity, they will probably not have a waistbelt but may have a simple strap.

Packs under twenty liters are not recommended for mountaineering because you would not be able to fit in all your basic equipment and this may cause you to leave essential safety items at home.

The Daypack, is a backpack that combines urban use with short day trips in the mountains.

2. Twenty to Forty Liters

. Suitable for day trips, these are typically multi-purpose daypacks for mountaineering. The load usually includes warm clothing, some food and hydration and safety and technical items if necessary such as ice axe, poles (but not sleeping bag, cooking equipment, etc.).
Salewa Crest 36
. The belt is light, as the load is still fairly low.

3. Forty to Sixty-Five Liters

These are the most commonly used backpacks for mountaineering. The waistbelt is an important part of the design. Ideal for sleeping out or for multi-day treks using huts which do not require a thick sleeping bag.

Until just over a decade ago, multi-day treks which require all the gear, from a sleeping bag to cooking equipment, meant you would need a backpack with over 65L capacity. Nowadays, however, advanced materials mean clothing, stoves, tents, sleeping bags and so on weigh and occupy half the weight without losing out on performance. This means you can greatly reduce the volume of the backpack, and a 40-65L capacity pack is now the most popular.

Think of how much space three cotton T-shirts take up, compared to three technical shirts, or a modern trekking pant compared to the heavier pants of the past. A tent can occupy and weigh less than half; a stove including its case, with gas and accessories, weighs and occupies the same as just a gas cartridge with an older design.

These backpacks usually have side straps for adjustment and compression. This way, you can adapt the capacity to the load, to keep it balanced and in place. This means you can safely carry a backpack with half the load, using it as a daypack.

4. Over Sixty-Five Liters

These are the heavy-duty backpacks. They can have a capacity of up to 100L and are designed for long treks or base camp approach. The back panel, frame and lumbar belt are oversized, and allow the load to be carried comfortably and minimize the feeling of weight.
Vaude Skarvan 75+10 XL
As we mentioned, several years ago these sized packs were used for self-sufficient, multi-day treks, but nowadays, a backpack between 45-65 liters is big enough in most cases.

Do not forget to always keep in mind the general rule: choose the backpacks between 45-65 liters for hikes if everything you need fits; if not, consider a heavy duty one. Never leave behind essential items because of the volume of the backpack...and never carry more things than necessary because there is room.

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