What kind of bag is right for you?

Picking your hiking backpack

Picking out a good hiking backpack should be as important as choosing your boots. The right one will fit comfortably and help you carry even the heaviest loads with relative ease by distributing weight evenly. A low-quality or ill-fitting backpack can give you back pains, may not fit everything you need and generally make your hike unpleasant. Here are a few tips to make sure you pick out the best backpack for your needs:

Consider what you are using the bag for
Sure, you're probably using your hiking backpack for, well, hiking. But really consider what kind of activities you'll be engaging in. Do you just need a light bag for water, snacks and a spare pair of socks while you go on short hikes? Will you be walking or running? Are you going to be on the trail for days at a time? Will you be on a scrambling trek or climbing rock faces? All of these will dictate the size and shape of the bag you pick for yourself.

Panel loader versus top loader
While this does depend, in part, on what activity you'll be engaging in, whether you want a front or top loading bag also largely depends on your preference. For example, if you're going to need to get gear or supplies out of your bag or you like to keep your belongings organized, a front load backpack may be up your alley. Because the zipper is U-shaped, the front panel completely opens up, which means you can have access to everything from the top to the bottom of your bag. On the other hand, top loaders have a little more flexibility in terms of space. Many come with an extendable top lid that gives you a bit more space, which is handy for climbers who need to bring a lot of gear that they'll end up using for the climb and don't want an over-large bag. 

Different types of backpacks
Once you have a good idea of what you are going to be using your backpack for, it's time to explore your options. Here are a few basic types of bags

  • Day pack: These are mostly standard backpacks, similar to those you might have used in school. If you're just planning on day trips, one of these should be more than enough for you. A bag that holds about 30 liters should be enough space, but also keep an eye out for one with side pockets and compartments, which can make organizing your gear easier.
  • Multi-day backpack: If you're going to be camping overnight, you'll want something a little bigger to carry the supplies you'll need. Generally, between 35 and 40 liters should be adequate. Though they are handy for all backpacks, you'll especially want a hip belt to distribute weight when you start looking at bigger bags. Keep security in mind, as well. If you're spending the night somewhere, you may need room for a portable safe for your valuables.
  • Hydration packs: These are bags especially designed to hold water. If you're a biker or will be using trekking poles, having a backpack that allows you to take a drink without using your hands will be convenient. That said, you may not need to buy a bag specially designed to hold water – many newer bags can hold a hydration reservoir. However, if you don't need much space, these specialty bags may be a good option. 

Pairing activities with the right bag
If you know you'll be engaging in a particular activity most of the time, here's a guide to pick up the best bag for you:

  • Climbing or scrambling: You'll need a fair amount of space to carry your climbing gear, so look for a bag that can hold at least 40 liters. Top load bags are great for this kind of equipment. The backpack should also have a narrow profile so it stays out of your way as you climb. Because climbing gear tends to be fairly heavy, look for a bag with a padded back and hip straps. You'll also need some specialized features, like an ice ax loop and a daisy chain.
  • Trail running: Picking a small, narrow bag is the best way to keep it from bouncing all over the place. Hydration packs tend to be a good choice, as they are just enough to carry water and a couple other essentials without weighing you down. Consider a lumbar or waist pack, as keeping your back clear may be more comfortable. 
  • Skiing: There are specially made bags for ski touring that allow you to attach your skis for easy transport. Look for one with a narrow profile along with sternum and hip straps.

There are also a few other considerations you may want to make. For example, there are bags especially designed for women, as they feature more contoured shoulder straps and a narrower design. Messenger bags are also popular among cyclists. 

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