CampingOutdoor Activities

What to Look for in a Backcountry Backpack

Backpakers wearing backpacks

Are you interested in really getting out into the wild? Maybe you have friends who have gone backcountry hunting or camping before, or maybe you will be traveling to the perfect location where you can camp out. No matter what the circumstance, you need a good backcountry backpack.

Choosing a backpack for this purpose isn’t like choosing a backpack for work, school or everyday activities. You need a special pack that’s designed for the rigors of the trail. Even if you’re new to backpacking, you still need to get the right pack. Here are some things to think about and what to look for.

Size Matters for a Backcountry Backpack

nice senior woman, hiking in fall, autumn on the ridge of the Nagelfluh chain near Oberstaufen, Allgaeu Area, Bavaria, Germany, Hochgrats summit in the background
Image from Getty

When it comes to backpacks, size does matter. Bigger isn’t always better, though. You need the right size for your purposes. The right size backpack for an overnight trip is different than the pack you’ll wear for a week-long expedition.

Here are some guidelines when it comes to the size of pack you should use:

  • Overnight Backpacks and Daypacks: Less than 35 liters
  • 2 to 3-Day Backpacks: 35 to 50 liters
  • Multiple-Day Backpacks: 50 to 75 liters

Obviously, the bigger the backpack you choose to carry, the heavier it will be. This means you really need to think about your personal fitness and how the backpack fits on you.

The fit of a backpack is very important for how easily you’ll be able to carry. You need to get a pack that has straps and belts that fit you. If your pack’s belt is too large you’ll not be able to carry the pack correctly. Most of the pack’s weight should rest on your hips.

You also need to ensure the shoulder harness straps fit your body correctly. You need to be able to have the pack fit right on your back and this means having the right amonut of adjustment in the shoulder harness so that you can get that.

There are packs designed specifically for women. These packs also work very well for men with smaller frames. Don’t let the fact that a pack is a female pack deter you from buying it. It’s important to have a pack that fits your frame properly.

If a particular product offers a sizing chart of some kind (not all do), then use that sizing chart or measurements to determine if it’s right for you. Otherwise, check out the reviews for that specific product.

Features of a Backcountry Backpack Matter, Too

Young girl traveler on a walking route, active lifestyle, hiking and travel concept. Women looking at lake in winter
Image from Getty

Size is only one thing. The various features of your backpack are arguably more important. You need to have a backpack that’s designed with the features you actually need. Generally, the more features, the more expensive a backpack will be, but at the very least, you should try to get something that has at least some good features.

Frame

Frames are either external or internal. External frame packs offer the ability to carry heavier loads and the ability to strap more to the outside of your pack. They also offer better ventilation between you and the pack. They’re also often a little less expensive.

Internal frame packs are generally smaller, sleeker and more low profile. They’re also usually lighter weight and easier to transport in a car or airplane. They’re often more comfortable and don’t throw off your balance or mobility like an external frame pack can.

The choice is up to you. I’m not here to tell you which is better. I will say that packs with internal frames have become more popular than packs with external frames. Internal frame packs are typically more advanced.

Ventilation

Ventilation is important for any type of pack. You should look for mesh panels, perforated materials and other special features that work to provide air or space between you and the pack itself.

When backpacking you’re going to be moving a lot. You’ll get sweaty and dirty and the more ventilation you have, generally the better. Ventilation shouldn’t impact the performance of the pack, but it should dramatically change how comfortable the pack is.

Pack Opening

The opening of the pack is another important feature where you’ll have to make a determination. Generally, backpacks fall into two different categories. There’s top-loading packs and panel-access packs. However, some have both.

Top-loading packs are exactly what they sound like. They feature a large opening at the top of the pack, Usually, this opening is a roll-top or has some kind of cover to keep your things dry and safe. Panel-access packs provide a zippered panel. This panel folds away, opening the pack. This makes it easy to access everything, whereas with an open-top pack you’ll have to rummage around or dig for what you need.

Again, this is a personal preference thing. I like open-top packs because of the security, but plenty of people find panel packs to be preferable or a pack with both to be far superior.

Pockets

Backpacks should have plenty of pockets for you to stow items. These can include elasticized pouches or pockets, shovel and tool pockets, zippered or snap-closure pockets, and more. A pack may also have a pocket for a sleeping bag. This can be an important thing for backcountry camping.

Padding

When it comes to the padding on your backpack, you want something that provides cushioning where it matters. This includes the hip belt and other points of contact. Really anywhere that the weight will be pressured onto your body could use some padding.

Attachment Points

In addition to pockets, you should look for attachment points. These are hooks and straps that allow you to add things to the exterior of the pack. The more of them you have, the easier it will be to add things to your pack.

Hydration

Not all backcountry backpacks will have hydration pouches. That’s okay. If they don’t, you may be able to add one. Otherwise, a good, old-fashioned water bottle is the way to go.

If you want a hydration pack, then you need to ensure that you can easily get a bladder or reservoir for your pack. This shouldn’t be an issue in most cases, though they are usually sold separately from the pack.

Rain Cover

Some bags are designed and built to be waterproof or water-resistant. If your bag is water-resistant or not waterproof at all, you’ll need to have some kind of rain cover. These often come with the pack. However, sometimes you’ll have to buy a rain pack.

Summer Vs. Winter

The young couple going to the mountain
Image from Getty

The season you’ll be out in the backcountry matters. While most packs are designed for all-weather, it’s important to note that some backpacks are more winter-ready. Generally, in the winter you want something that’s more waterproof and durable.

The simple fact of the matter is that winter is usually a little more harsh on gear than summer. It’s cold, the weather is harsher, and there’s a bigger chance of you slipping or having an accident. If your pack isn’t up for the challenge, then neither will you be.

I’d advocate for a sturdy and waterproof backpack anyway, but if you plan on being out in the cold in the backcountry, look for packs with thick ripstop fabric, reinforced seams, and either fully waterproof construction or at least a killer rain cover.

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What backpack do you use? Leave a comment below to tell us and don’t forget to say why!

What to Look for in a Backcountry Backpack

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