Best walking and hiking backpacks to buy in 2023
Hunting for the perfect backpack for walking and hiking trips? Here's our expert backpack buying guide which explains what to look for while you choose – plus we test and review backpacks of all sizes.
A comfortable backpack makes a massive difference on a day or multi-day walk – but how do you make sure you've got the right one for you?
It's not easy to choose. Backpacks – along with hiking boots – are one of the most technical bits of kit a walker can buy, however finding a backpack that fits comfortably can reduce strain on your spine and legs, making the experience much more enjoyable.
Whether you’re searching for a day backpack for weekend walks, easy rambles or more challenging multi-day hikes, our team of walking experts have put a selection of the best walking backpacks available to the test.
To help you choose, our expert guide explains the essential features of a good backpack.
Best hiking backpacks reviewed in 2023
Tested and reviewed by Joe Pontin and Daniel Graham.
Osprey, Hikelite 26
Best lightweight backpacks
Unisex • 26 litres • 700g
This neat little pack comes in at the strikingly low weight. Yes, it has a back-to basics approach – but it still has some useful features, including a rigid wire frame, as well as good looks in a range of colours.
With a moderate payload, it’s very comfortable and airy in warm weather, thanks to the taut mesh panel and ventilated foam shoulder straps.
Without adjustable back length, the fit will suit those less than my 180cm height – I found find the narrow belt rode up well above my hips. No problem with a moderate load – but once over 5kg, that would start to get uncomfortable.
Other features: zipped top pocket for valuables; narrow webbing belt; stretchy side pockets; central pocket for wet weather gear; rain cover; side compression straps; buckle whistle. Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Simple, lightweight pack for undemanding walks and light to moderate payloads. Recommended for walkers under 170cm tall. JP.
Deuter, Trail 22 backpack
Men's 22 litres, women's 20 litres (Trail 20 SL) • 1060g
Designed for vigorous days out in the hills – but a good option for less energetic pursuits, too. Mesh fabric on the hip belt, shoulder straps and back makes the pack breathable, and its close-fitting nature, and flexible frame, allows loads to be distributed evenly through your body, improving comfort.
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The main compartment can be accessed via a draw-string opening at the top of the pack, or more conveniently from a two-way zip on the front. There is extra storage in the lid and room for a map in the zipped side pocket. Another elasticated pocket on the outside of the pack offers an ideal spot for a small water bottle.
Additional features – including a detachable rain cover, an SOS label and loops for attaching carabiners, a helmet and hiking poles – increase the adventure value of the Trail 22. The pack is also free of harmful PFC chemicals, reflecting Deuter’s ambition to become entirely PFC-free by summer 2020. DG.
The women’s version is the Trail 20 SL, which is two litres smaller than the men’s Trail 22 but includes all of the same features.
• Other features: Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Comfortable, well-featured pack ideal for fast walkers. DG.
Montane, Trailblazer 18
Best lightweight backpack
Unisex • 18 litres • 410g
The body-hugging design of this unisex pack contrasts sharply with the frames and mesh panels of most of the other packs on test, which are all about holding the pack away from the back and encouraging cooling air into the gaps.
Instead the Trailblazer clasps you close, like an affectionate koala on your back.
The back is soft and the wide hip pads and shoulder straps sprawl around you.
In hot weather, all that close contact on your back and shoulders means you’re going to sweat. But the design has the big advantage of keeping the load close even when you are in full motion. This comes into its own if you like moving fast.
The flaw, especially for trail runners, is the lack of compression straps. This means that if your pack is less than full, the contents are going to shift about inside; I ran with a full 2-litre water container jumping up and down in its sleeve, and the effect was not pleasing.
It's otherwise highly functional. There are big mesh pockets on the sleeves for easy-access water bottles. The main compartment is, as mentioned big enough for a large water container, should you wish to carry one here, and for waterproofs and other small essentials.
There are a couple of small internal pockets to keep valuables organised. The zipped side pockets are especially well designed – ingeniously, you can fish stuff out of them with one hand. A webbing belt spreads the load; it may be skinny, but a compact pack like this is not meant for a heavy load.
Other features: pole loops. Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Compact, stable storage for runners and speed walkers. JP.
Columbia, Unisex Essential Explorer, 20L
Unisex • 20 litres • 375g
This simple, ultralight pack from Oregon outdoor company Columbia goes right back to basics. There’s a smallish main compartment with a roll-down-and-clip enclosure, one external pocket just big enough for a lightweight rain jacket, some (rather comfortable) mesh straps and a narrow webbing belt.
With no frames and only a thin mesh lining sown to the back, you’ll feel any lumps in your pack pressing into your back, to you have to arrange the contents carefully. There’s an internal pocket for a hydration system, and a strip of webbing loops on the outside for attaching additional gear.
Other features: Buckle whistle. Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Essentials-only pack for light loads and short walks. Fit suits people of small to medium stature. JP.
Millican, Fraser The Rucksack (25L)
Unisex • 25 litres • 1050g
This is not a technical backpack. It’s appeal is all about low-key, old-school style, with some discreet modern embellishments for comfort. These include well-padded shoulder straps and a back lined with parallel mesh covered foam pads. A removable webbing belt and sternum strap improve comfort when your load is heavy.
Storage comprises one main compartment with a couple of small pockets and a sleeve for a hydration system. As it can only be accessed from the top, you may find yourself rooting in its shadowy depths for that lost pair of sunglasses.
But if you want to get organised, small zippered pockets for valuables are located in the main compartment and rather ingeniously in one of the bellows-style side pockets (both of which also fit water bottles).
It’s all a matter of taste of course but I like the retro style, inspired by the Alpine wanderers of the 50s. Yet the presence of a laptop sleeve and a leather for a cycling light hint at the target market : the outdoor-minded young commuter.
Still, if you want to buy one pack that will look good around town and provide for basic needs on occasional relaxed country walks, this is probably perfect for you.
VERDICT: Stylish low-tech backpack for easy rambles. JP.
Sometimes a 20-25 litre daypack just isn't big enough for all your countryside adventures. Time to invest in a 30- to 40-litre pack for picnics, trips to the beach or multi-day walks from inn to inn
WORDS: Pat Kinsella & Joe Pontin
Lowe Alpine, Men's Cholatse 32 / women's Cholatse ND30
Best technical backpack
Men's (32 litres) and women's (30) • 1.53kg
The all-new Cholatse (named after a Nepalese mountain) is a highly technical, four-season peak-ready pack, with dedicated fixtures for carrying serious alpine equipment: TipGrippers for trekking poles, a HeadLocker axe-attachment system and daisychain hoops for clipping other tools to.
The easy-to-adjust Air Contour back system keeps the pack from your back and prevents sweatiness, and the harness is highly breathable.
Shaped fins on the waist belt hug your hips like an enthusiastic tango dancer, and both feature good-size zipped pockets. The spacious main compartment – the pack offers an ample 32-litres of space for the men's version 30 for the women's – houses an envelope pocket for a water reservoir, a Velcro hook and an exit hole for the hose, and there are water-bottle pockets on each side of the pack.
The main compartment is accessible from a long side zipper, so you can reach whatever you need without popping the hood and disgorging all the contents. There’s a large outer pocket on the front, perfect for stashing wet gear. The hood has a generous zipped outer pocket, and an equally accommodating inner zipped pocket for valuables, with SOS signalling instructions printed on it.
Other features include adjustable sternum straps with a whistle, two compression straps, and an integrated rain cover in a dedicated pocket.
VERDICT: Comfortable and clever, with well-designed and generous storage areas. PK.
Buy now for men
Buy now for women
Vaude, Brenta 30
Best eco pack
Unisex • 30 litres • 1150g
This excellent pack ticks almost all the boxes. It’s extremely comfortable, with a lightweight frame, well-ventilated mesh back panel and wide belt to spread the load on your hips.
The back length is easily adjustable to help you get a perfect fit. It copes easily with heavier loads – 6kg felt much lighter in this pack than in some of the others tested. (Vaude recommend a maximum load of 8kg.)
The whole main compartment is easily accessible via a long zip. Oddly, only one side of the belt has a pocket.
The fabric is partly recycled, and free of harmful PFC chemicals.
All that really holds it back is the slightly dull appearance; the big front stretch pocket for example is very useful for waterproof gear … but looks a little ugly.
Other features: rain cover, compression straps, spacious top pocket, front pole loops. Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Excellent comfort, brilliant functionality, sound eco-credentials, adjustable… but style needs pepping up. JP.
Sierra Designs, Flex Capacitor 25L-40L
Best pack for versatility
Unisex • 25 to 40 litres • 1106g
Some like a technical looking pack, visibly bristling with features; others prefer their packs to look simple and uncluttered. If you are one of the latter move on now. But if you’re open to a multiplicity of buckles and straps, read on.
The big win with the unisex Flex Capacitor is its adjustable volume. When needed, the standard daypack volume of 25L can be easily increased by loosening a row of six compression straps along the front of the pack, freeing up an extra 15 litres of space in the main compartment. That delivers a much larger pack potentially big enough for multi-day hiking and all manner of other uses.
The harness pockets are great – two large ones on the belt and two useful stretch-mesh pockets on the shoulder straps, designed for water holders, but equally handy for sunglasses and so on.
In other respects the pack is less sophisticated. Back length is not adjustable (although Sierra Designs offer two torso sizes). But the big drawback is that the main compartment can only be accessed from the top, so if there's something you need at the bottom of the compartment, you'll have to pull everything else out to get to it.
Comfort is pretty decent. The weight rests on chunky pressure pads on the upper and lower back, allowing some (fairly limited) air movement between. The stiffened belt is the widest and one of best for load-bearing on test. Even so, the Flex Capacitor did not quite match the Brenta 30 or Orbit 26 packs on test for comfort.
Other features: Stretchy side pockets, small top pocket, pole loops. Hydration system compatible. No rain cover.
VERDICT: Modest comfort levels and uneven functionality, but versatility is the big gain with this pack. JP.
Gregory, Arrio 30
Unisex • 30 litres • 850g
This slimline unisex pack weighs only 850g, and features a ‘FreeSpan’ ventilated backpanel, comprised of mesh stretched taut across a concave frame, which keeps you cool and comfortable on the trail. The harness also features breathable shoulder straps, and an adjustable sternum strap with double sliders and an emergency whistle on the clip.
There are two large zippable outer pockets on the main compartment, both accessible from the sides; one goes right across the front of the pack and is ideal for stashing a map or gloves, while the other goes down the left side, and is deep enough to swallow a pair of binoculars. The webbing waist belt is thin, however, with no hip fins or pockets.
The main compartment is accessed via a V-shaped hood with one strap and catch – a simple system that works well and cuts down on the amount of belts and buckles flapping around. Inside there’s a water-bladder sleeve, with a plastic hook and a right-shoulder hose exit hole.
Other features include a water-bottle pocket on one side, external and internal zipped hood pockets, two sets of compression straps, large zipper pull-loops, fittings for attaching trekking poles and a rain cover (non attached).
VERDICT: Lightweight, with excellent access options, this is a highly capable cargo carrier for hikers and hillwalkers. PK.
Vango, Ozone 30
Best budget backpack
Unisex • 30 litres • 900g
A very reasonably priced bag, the 30-litre, unisex Ozone (also available in a 40-litre version) is loaded with features you’d expect on far pricier packs. The breathable harness has a 3D back, with mesh spanning a concave cross-shaped aluminium frame, which keeps the bulk of the bag away from your back, cutting down significantly on sweating and hotspots.
The sternum strap is easily adjusted and the clip features an emergency whistle. The waistband has good hip fins, both with decent-sized pockets. A big mesh sleeve pocket on the front comfortably accommodates wet gear, and there are forward-angled mesh pockets on either side, perfect for a stashing walking poles or water bottles you want to keep within reach without having to stop and take the pack off.
The mouth of the main compartment has a double closure system, which seems excessive, since the hood isn’t removable. Inside there’s a water-bladder sleeve, a Velcro hook and exit holes for the hose on both shoulders.
The hood has two zipped pockets, one external and one internal. Other features include twin lateral compression straps, a trekking pole carrying clip, an integrated high-vis rain cover with its own pocket, and oversized zip pulls. The weight is under a kilo, some 500g lighter than the Deuter and Lowe Alpine packs.
VERDICT: Great value, fully-featured and versatile pack for hill hiking and trail strolling. PK.
Finisterre, Drift waterproof roll-top backpack
Best eco backpack
Unisex • 30 litres
- Buy now from Finisterre (£135.00)
An environmentally conscious brand, born and based on the Cornish coast, Finisterre kit always has one foot in the water, and this excellent product is essentially a 30-litre drybag equipped with a sophisticated backpack harness and various other features.
Made entirely from PVC-free recycled materials, the Drift is 100% waterproof, so you can take it out in all weathers and any kind of adventure – including canoeing and packrafting escapades – without worrying about the contents. Simply roll the top over (at least three times) and the main compartment is sealed.
The fully adjustable harness is backed by a breathable foam board, to cut down on sweating. There’s only one belt on the shoulder straps, but you can move it up and down and choose whether to wear it around your waist or chest. The pack has mesh bottle pockets on both sides, with pullcord fasteners to keep the contents safe, and there’s a showerproof pocket on the front, with a sealed zip.
Although this is a pack begging to be taken on trail adventures, it’s also good for winter/wet-weather bike commuting, and there’s even a laptop sleeve inside, plus a zipped pocket for cables or valuables.
VERDICT: Wonderfully watertight pack for wet and wild days on the trails. PK.
Deuter, Trail Pro 36 (men) / 34 SL (women)
Men's 34 litres, women's 36 • 1490g
Renowned for robust construction and excellent design, Deuter packs are now free of the harmful PFC chemicals still used by many outdoor gear companies. Loaded with technical features, but retaining an uncluttered look, the 36-litre Trail Pro has a body-hugging design and an ‘activefit’ harness that moves with you, backed by an Air Contact system that keeps the pack off your body with parallel padded ridges, which continue from the breathable shoulder straps.
The wide waist belt boasts two substantial hip wings, each with good-sized pockets. The non-removable hood has zipped outer and inner pockets, plus alpine safety instructions.
The large compartment can also be opened from the front with a long U-shaped zip, enabling you to find deeply buried items easily. Inside is a sleeve for a hydration bladder, with Velcro hook and centrally located hose hole.
There’s only one water-bottle pocket, but on the opposite side is a long, zipped side pocket, which can take anything from a small tripod to a camera lens. A large mesh pocket on the front is ideal for wet gear. There are good-quality ice-axe and trekking-pole attachment hoops. Other features include easy-adjust sternum strap (no whistle), integrated raincover in a dedicated pocket, and harness hoops for hanging LED lights.
VERDICT: A dynamic, uncluttered pack that’s ready for anything. PK.
Buy now for men
Buy now for women
Osprey, Talon 36 (men)/ Tempest 34 (women)
Men 36 litres, women's 34 • 1100g
Made from recycled nylon and totally PFC-free, the new Talon 36 (and women-specific Tempest 34) is very versatile, ideal for a big hill days and overnight escapades. The injection-moulded back system, featuring foam ribs that allow plenty of airflow to your back without pushing the bag too far from your body, is exceptionally comfortable.
Behind this is an external water-bladder sleeve and clip. The waist belt has two large hip wings, each with a generously proportioned pocket. Excellent access to the spacious main compartment is gifted via an unusual reverse-zip bucket top. A front pocket made from robust mesh houses waterproofs, whether wet or dry. A stretch pocket on the harness will take a smartphone, and on each side of the pack there are deep pockets for water bottles.
This is a technical pack, and the ice axe and trekking pole attachments are intended for use. Other features include compression straps (integrated with the hip fins), easily adjustable sternum strap with emergency whistle in the buckle, zipped hood pocket, large inner mesh pocket and oversize zip pullers. On the downside, there’s no rain cover. 1.1kg (Talon 36).
VERDICT: A high-performing peak-bagging pack for alpine adventurers and hill walkers. PK.
Buy now for men
Buy now for women
Montane, Azote 30/32
Men's 32 litres, women's 30 • 925g
A new product, partly made from recycled fabric, the Azote is excellent for less technical walking adventures. A one-size-fits-all design, the ZephyrAD back system is fully adjustable. The harness is made with breathable mesh, backed by a foam frame to reduce contact with your lower back and minimise sweating.
Immediately behind this is an external sleeve for a hydration pack, with a hoop to keep it in place. The Click-and-Go system on the adjustable sternum strap means it can be operated one-handed (even when gloved) and the waist belt has comfortable hip fins, both with generously sized pockets.
There’s a large sleeve pocket on the front, made from mesh so it can take wet gear, and two large side pockets for carrying bottles/flasks, both angled so you can actually reach them without taking the pack off, even if you don’t have Mr Tickle arms.
Two compression straps feature on each side, one of which goes across the side pocket to secure the contents in place. The removable hood also has an outer and an inner pocket, both with zips. It's a pretty lightweight 925g.
VERDICT: A modest but reliable performer for peak and park escapades alike. PK.
Buy now for men
Buy now for women
Jack Wolfskin, Crosstrail 30/32
Unisex • 30 or 32-litre volume* • 1180g
Thirty years after the Air Control System (ACS) launched, Jack Wolfskin has released a new generation of ACS-equipped packs, including the Crosstrail, made using an eco-dying process and with a recycled inner lining. The ACS uses mesh pulled taut across a lightweight concave steel frame to keep the pack away from your back, enabling airflow and preventing sweatiness.
The shoulder straps are breathable, the sternum straps adjust easily and there’s a safety whistle in the buckle. Both hip fins feature pockets, and one has a funky pop-out bottle/flask holster.
The main compartment is accessible from the front, via big U-shaped zip, so you can locate stuff easily.
A big mesh front pouch is ideal for wet-weather gear and a deep pocket on either side takes bottles, with compression to help secure the contents. The hood has two zip pockets (one inside, one outside), plus comprehensive SOS instructions printed on the inner. Inside there’s a sleeve for a hydration bladder, a Velcro hook and very well-hidden, unlabelled exit for the hydration hose.
The Crosstrail has hoops for attaching trekking poles, multifunctional attachment loops on the lid, and there is an integrated rain cover with its own pocket.
*The Crosstrail is available in two harness sizes – small to medium, with a 30-litre volume (30 ST) or medium to large, with and 32-litre volume (32 LT).
VERDICT: A tried and tested pack with some interesting innovative flourishes and eco-friendly adaptations. PK.
Fjällräven, Abisko Friluft 35
Unisex • 35 litres • 1550g
The rugged and retro good looks of this pack impress. But does it live up to its appearance? At more than a kilo and a half when empty, it’s a pretty substantial weight, but for that you get a generous capacity of 35 litres, and really solid construction, including a tough polycotton fabric.
The mesh back panel is well ventilated, and the belt is very wide and supportive, with large vents and a pair of zipped pockets.
Side pockets are well designed to keep water bottles secure, the top pocket is spacious and a big external zipped pocket is ideal for wet weather gear. All parts of the main compartment are easily accessible: the whole front panel can be unzipped.
Straps on the base can be used for attaching a tent or sleeping mat.
It’s a shame the back length is not adjustable. The pack was a decent fit on me, but I had to cinch all the straps pretty tight – I think anyone less than 175cm tall might find it too large.
Other features: rain cover, compression straps, pole loops, side pockets, buckle whistle. Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Pricey, but handsome, tough, spacious and moderately comfortable. Suitable for average height or taller. JP.
Salewa, Alp Trainer 35+3
Unisex • 35-38 litres • 1350g
A four-season unisex mountain pack, this is essentially a scaled-down expedition backpack. The concave ‘Dry Back’ system, which keeps contact with the body to an absolute minimum, is complimented by breathable shoulder straps and hip fins with large splits.
It works wonderfully at reducing sweatiness, but you can feel the harness when wearing anything less than a midlayer puffer (it’s not actually uncomfortable, but could become annoying on long days). The sternum strap is adjustable, but not quickly, and there’s no emergency whistle. The right hip fin has a single pocket for compass/GPS/phone and snacks.
There’s a double drawcord closure system for main compartment, with quick release, and the hood (which has outer and inner zipped pockets) is removable. Unusually for a daypack, the main compartment can be divided into upper and lower sections, with a zip giving access to the bottom.
Long zipped pockets on either side offer extra storage. Other features include an inner sleeve for a water bladder (with a Velcro fastener and right-shoulder portal for hydration hose) compression straps, pole/axe-carrying loops, integrated rain cover, outer bottle/flask pocket on each side and bungee cords on the front for wet-weather kit.
VERDICT: Boasting all the features of a full-sized backpacking bag – ideal for those who want a daypack capable of occasional overnight expeditions. PK.
Fjällräven, Abisko Hike 35
Unisex • 35 litres • 1400g
Made from a mix of recycled polyester and organic cotton, this is a beautiful-looking day-walking pack from a boutique Swedish brand.
You can access the main compartment without the undoing the lid via a full-length side zip – handy for locating elusive extra layers. While there’s no wet gear compartment, there is a generous front-of-pack pocket, with a full-length zip. The harness is backed by a padded air-mesh panel, which isn’t as airy as others on test, but does keep the pack profile low.
The sternum strap is easily adjusted, with a double slider, and there’s built-in whistle on the buckle. The waist belt, with pull-forward adjusters, has substantial hip fins, but neither features a pocket, which feels like omission. The Abisko has an internal sleeve for a water bladder (with a hook and hose exit), plus wide bottle pockets on each side, and compression straps that help secure the contents. Further pockets are found in the lid and inside the main compartment, for keeping small items safe.
There are reflective elements on the back of the pack for safety. A UN-blue raincover is included, but it’s not integrated into the pack, so can be lost.
VERDICT: A stylish pack for casual days strolling on coast and countryside trails. PK.
Craghoppers, 40L Duffle bag
Unisex • 40 litres • 880g
Made from recycled materials (roughly 14 bottles) this is really a travel bag that doubles as a daypack for holiday hikes. Specifically designed to comply with airline hand-luggage guidance and to fit into overhead lockers, it’s also very security conscious, with puncture resistant and lockable zips. The main compartment is accessed from the rear (the part adjacent to your back), so it can’t be opened while you’re wearing it.
Inside, the main compartment is really spacious, and there are various organiser pockets for stashing things you’ll want to find quickly. It can be worn as a cross-shoulder bag or a backpack, although a compression strap on the inside would have been a good addition, to keep things in place better. When not in use as a backpack the harness can be removed altogether via a couple of clips.
The downside is that the bag sits directly on your back when worn as a pack, which can get sweaty, and there are no options for a hydration bladder or for bottles to be carried on the outside. There are, however, two zipped external pockets.
This is great travel bag, but a more modest trail performer. Unisex. 880g.
VERDICT: Made-to-measure travel pack, capable of carrying a day’s supplies when you’re exploring your chosen destination. PK.
Jack Wolfskin, Orbit 26 Recco
Unisex • 26-litre volume • 1150g
This excellent hiker’s backpack is bristling with useful features. It feels lightweight and very comfortable, with a breathable mesh panel strung to the frame, and a wide, supportive belt. The back length is not adjustable, but the ‘small/medium’ size fitted me well (it’s recommended to a ‘small to medium’ length back, measuring 46-54cm; I’m 180cm tall). The overall shape is long and narrow, so it tucks in neatly behind you and keeps itself to itself.
There is easy access to all parts of the main compartment, which has an optional zipped bottom section useful for a waterproof jacket and trousers. It seems larger than the official 26-litre volume.
The fabric is mercifully free of harmful PFC chemicals, which is a win for the planet.
Serious hill walkers might be reassured to hear that it features Recco technology – a chip detectable by rescue services, including an overflying helicopter.
Other features: buckle whistle, rear hiking pole loops, rain cover, stretchy side pockets, compression straps. Hydration system compatible.
VERDICT: Outstanding, fully featured backpack for hikers, but check it fits. JP.
Kelty, Zyp 28
Best backpack for hot weather
Male / female versions • 28 litres • 1127g
A handsome looking pack with excellent ventilation when things warm up. An ingenious system leaves the small of your back open to fresh air. The weight rests on your upper back, shoulders and the wide belt, all well lined with mesh-covered foam pads for comfort.
Back length is easily adjustable for a good fit.
Comfort is good but inevitable slightly lessened by this minor transfer of load bearing away from the back towards the pads on lower back and shoulders. Nevertheless a substantial metal frame keeps everything stable, helping you lug pretty heavy loads – up to 8kg or so felt very doable.
The huge stretchy central pocket is great for stashing wet weather gear, and all parts of the main compartment are easily accessible.
Also features: Stretchy side pockets, compression straps, biggish belt pockets, pole loops. Hydration system compatible. No rain cover.
VERDICT: Cool in hot weather, adjustable fit, stylish; expensive. JP.
How to find the perfect backpack – a buyer's guide
How big a pack do I need?
Backpack-makers tend to measure the volume of their packs in litres. This usually appears in the backpack's name: for example, Osprey's Hikelite 26 contains 26 litres of space.
What are the best backpacks for day walks?
Most walkers plan to tramp for a day or less, and need only a small to medium sized backpack – often called a daypack.
The ideal daypack might have a volume of between 18L and 35L, depending on your needs. If all you are carrying is a rain jacket, a water bottle and a spot of lunch, 18 litres will probably do it.
Many day-walkers would probably prefer the flexibility of a slightly larger pack with a litre-rating in the mid-20s.
Those of us who tend to lug a bit more around – the picnickers, beach lovers, Munro-baggers, bothy-lovers or winter hikers – might prefer something around 30 or even 40 litres (scroll down to see our reviews of bigger packs).
Best backpacks for multi-day hikes
Multi-day hikers split into two camps. If you are travelling from inn to B&B, you may get by with a backpack volume between 35 litres and 45 litres. That should be enough space for all the normal day walking gear, plus a change of clothes and a wash bag, a book and whatever other essentials you might need.
But backpackers who plan to camp will usually need 60L or more for a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tent and stove, as well as extra food.
Of course – it depends on your gear. Minimal backpackers happy to invest in often expensive ultralight gear might squeeze everything into a 50L pack; but if you are improvising with standard (and more affordable) gear, you'll need a 65L or even 70L pack.
Should you opt for a larger pack?
Whether you are shopping for a daypack or an overnight backpack, it can pay to err on the side of generosity when it comes to volume. You want to fit all your essentials; and there are often extra things to add that you might not have thought of. You don't want to end up relying on extra bags for overflow. Worst case scenario, you'll end up looking like the mule in Buckaroo.
If you do opt for a larger pack, you'll need to be disciplined when you pack – try not to cram your pack with stuff you don't really need, just because you have the extra space.
If the thought of opting for a larger volume backpack, only to end up with a half-load, puts you off, remember that most packs include compression straps, which can be tightened to keep your pack neat-looking, compact and stable on your back.
How comfortable is the pack?
Comfort is the single most important consideration, and covers many elements of the pack's design. Daypacks may be relatively small, but by the time you have added water, flask, food and other essentials, you may end up carrying a significant weight. A heavy payload is the real test of a pack’s comfort. After a long day on the trail, that weight can really start to stiffen your shoulders and press down on your hips. Your pack really does feel twice as heavy as it did when you set out.
Here's what to look for as you try to figure out how comfortable the packs in your shopping trolley might be.
Does it fit?
Packs are adjustable, but there are limits. It may be for stating the obvious, but our shapes vary. The different lengths of human backs is probably the hardest challenge for pack designers. So a pack that feels comfortable on me may dig into your hips or chafe on your neck. The solution is to try before you buy, or if you are buying online, always be prepared to return a pack that doesn’t fit, even if you heart was sold on it.
Some packs have backs of fixed length; others are adjustable. You may be lucky and find that a fixed length pack fits you perfectly. After all, even fixed length packs can be adjusted in various ways – at the waist and over the shoulders – to improve fit. But adjustable backs make it more likely you will achieve a good fit.
Check out the belt and harness
Look for foam padding on the shoulder straps and belt – it tends to soften the load. Belts move much of the burden on to your hips, taking the strain off your shoulders. Useful even in relatively small daypacks, they are a crucial part of a large backpack.
Fit is important – the belt ought to sit at the top of your hip bones; make sure the pack can be adjusted so the belt does not fasten below your hips or high over your stomach (more on this below). A wide belt spreads the load more effectively, but may get sweaty in hot weather.
What kind of frame?
Frames, usually at least part made of metal, hold the load more rigidly in place, and help transfer more of the burden to your waist via the harness and belt, which takes the pressure off your shoulders. They can also be used to improve ventilation. On the other hand, they tend to add weight – though some frames are much heavier than others.
Is ventilation good?
In warm weather, or on strenuous uphill hikes, a pack can get very hot and sweaty, especially where it touches your back. Pack-makers deploy various tactics to keep your back feeling cooler and drier. Mesh fabric absorbs moisture and allows some cooling air to move over your skin. Strategic foam pads reduce the surface area in direct contact with your back. The most sophisticated packs often feature mesh membranes held taut in a frame; these create a cavity between your back and the load, which allows more air to move over your back.
How heavy is your empty pack?
Some packs weigh much more than others when empty. If you want to keep the load light, bear that in mind. But remember that a really comfortable pack may weigh more when empty, but actually feel much lighter, because the load is spread so well over your body.
Are the external pockets well designed?
What kind of pockets are on the outside of your pack? A stretchy or otherwise easy-access large central pocket is essential for wet-weather gear.
Side pockets are ideal for water bottles, but check the bottles be easily secured in these pockets – or they will they fall out (see our favourite hiking water bottles if you need a new one!).
Finally, many packs now include zip pockets on the belt, which can be very useful for the bits and pieces you want to have handy on the move – sunglasses, snacks, suntan lotion and so on. The bigger these belt pockets the better!
Finally, one day someone will design a pack with a really large top pocket – the one that forms the ‘lid’. Invariably these are a bit too small for the many thing you might want to keep there.
How easy is it to get in the main compartment?
When you want to dig something out of your pack, is there a way to access the main storage pocket – the ‘sack’ in rucksack – other than going in from the top?
The best packs have one or more additional openings in the main compartment, so if you’re trying to get something out of the bottom, you don’t have to remove all the gear above it first.
Other useful features
Does the pack have a rain cover?
Hardly any daypacks claim to be waterproof. Before you buy, check your pack include a free rain cover – a removable waterproof cover, usually tucked into a pocket.
But to be really sure of keeping contents dry, keep the pack contents in waterproof dry bags – or the budget option, plastic bags or refuse sacks.
Is the pack hydration system compatible?
The easiest way to keep drinking water on the trail is to use what is grandly called a hydration system: invariably a flexible plastic bottle or ‘bladder’ (bought separately) that is stowed in a special sleeve inside your pack, with a drinking tube that hooks on to your harness. This means that a drink of water is always to hand - and saves you having to take off your pack and dig out a water bottle every time you want a drink.
If you want to use one, check that the pack is ‘hydration system compatible’ – it will need a sleeve inside the pack for the bottle, a perforation where the tube exits the pack, and some kind of attachment on the harness for the tube. Most modern backpacks include these features.
Check for hiking pole loops
Even if you like walking with hiking poles, you may not want to use them all the time. When you think they’ll be out of action for long periods, they are best attached to the back of your pack. Most walking packs now have fixings for them; how easy to use are they?
look out for packs that also have fixings for poles on the shoulder harness, where they can be easily attached and removed when you need them, without stopping and removing your pack. This is a much more convenient place to stash them when you know you might need them again in a few minutes.
Is there a whistle?
When you are walking in remote areas, especially in hills, safety is crucial.
In the event of an accident, does your pack have a built-in whistle to alert nearby rescue services? Many now include a buckle with a built-in whistle on the harness.
What about ice axe loops?
If you plan winter walks on snowy peaks, an ice axe is an essential piece of safety kit. If you slip, an ice axe is the best way to stop yourself sliding down the slope. Many packs include external loops for carrying an ice axe.
Does it look good?
There's no doubt about it – looks are important. And not just in a superficial way. Choose a pack you think looks great and you're more likely to use it until the end of its natural life. That's a good way you keep your carbon footprint as small as possible.
Choosing a pack with the right look can really add to your perception of its versatility – and value for money. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but some would rather not sport a technical-looking hiker’s pack on the bus. So if you are only buying one pack, shop for one you are happy to take anywhere.
And go for one a colour and style you think you'll still appreciate in a year or more.
Many fabrics used by outdoor companies contain harmful chemicals called PFCs. If a fabric is PFC-free, the maker will likely say so pretty clearly in the product specifications.
It’s also worth looking out for fabrics made from recycled polyester, which has a lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester.
Look out for the Bluesign logo – this is a sign that the materials have been produced in a more 'sustainable, resource- saving' way.
• Words by Joe Pontin, BBC Countryfile Magazine features editor
For rainy days, take a look at our guides to the best waterproof backpacks, or keep your tech safe with one of our favourite camera backpacks. You can also see our round-up of the best backpack rain covers for extra protection against the elements.