How to choose the perfect hiking pack
If you’ve ever been pack shopping at Bogong, you’ll know that we have quite a few options to choose from. Sifting through our pack adorned wall can be a laborious, even daunting task. Finding a well-fitting, ‘goldilocks moment’ bushwalking pack is definitely worth the effort. When it comes to bushwalking, I personally feel that your boots/shoes and your pack are the top priorities to get right.
If you think about it, your pack and your boots are probably your most used pieces of gear. Additionally, these items will likely be put under the most consistent stress over a bushwalking trip. In order to help with your own pack selection, I’ve broken up the process into some key factors.
First and foremost, fit is vital. On more than one occasion, I’ve met customers who were initially set on only one pack. After fitting multiple, they ended up getting a pack from a different brand, of a different size all because of fit. After all, an ill-fitting pack’s features and aesthetic appeal won’t make it any more comfortable.
When fitting a pack, its best to load it with weight. If you’re going to be load hauling, then get as close to the actual weight you’ll be using. Generally, around 15kg is a good simulation for general bushwalking.
In regard to women’s fit, different brands use different conventions for defining women’s sizing. Deuter and Lowe both have women’s ranges which are designed to better suit the average female body type. Specifically, women’s Deuter packs have an SL code whereas Lowe’s have the label ND. In comparison, Mont’s women’s size is the small in their overall size run.
Either way these sizes are still just guides, the only assured test of fit is giving the pack a try. The hallmarks of a well-fitting pack include the following indicators, in chronological order:
- Firstly, position your hip belt. The hip belt wings should sit directly on top of the pointy tip of the bone at the top of your pelvis. Now tension your hip belt so its firmly snug but not tight. You should have some webbing on either side of the buckle. If you max out the hip belt, it’s too large. If the padded hip belt wings don’t reach around your side, it’s too small.
- Once tensioned, the shoulder straps should trace around your shoulders anchoring between your shoulder blades. They shouldn’t be applying pressure, but they also shouldn’t be way above your shoulders. By adjusting the pack’s harness, you can find a sweet spot. If the pack’s adjustment doesn’t feel right, the pack might not be the length or size for you.
- The sternum strap shouldn’t have any slack, while not being too tight. This strap guides your shoulder straps into a comfortable position.
- When tensioned, the pack’s load lifters should be at a slight positive angle up to about 45 degrees. If everything else fits but the load lifters are at a negative angle, the pack is too short. If greater than 45 degrees, the pack might be too long.
- If everything is fitting well, go for a walk around, do some lunges, go up and down the stairs and test out the pack. If the load is carrying comfortably, then this pack might be for you. If the load doesn’t feel comfortable then try a different pack. Rinse, lather, repeat.
In order to find what sort of pack you need, it’s good to first reflect on your own end use scenario. Someone on a week-long trip through the Tasmanian wilderness will likely have a different pack to someone who does 3-4 day bushwalks on groomed trails. Consider your own application and more specifically what you will be doing most of the time.
If you only do expedition long treks in wilderness areas, you’ll want a large capacity robust pack. In comparison, if you do shorter trips with the occasional longer trip on groomed trails, you can probably justify getting a moderate capacity pack with lighter materials. Below are some pack specific factors which can help you decide the type of pack that will work for you.
Bushwalking packs are designed to haul a load. However, different packs are rated for different carrying capacities. For instance, a Wilderness Equipment Mountain Expedition will be able to carry 20+ kg comfortably for most people whereas an Exped Lightning will be better suited for a 10-15 kg load. This doesn’t mean that one pack is better than the other, rather it means that each pack is better for a certain purpose. A pack’s ability to transfer weight comes predominantly from its harness and frame.
Moreover, internal frame packs use a metal structure inside the backpiece which connects the pack’s load lifters, shoulder straps and hip belt. The hip belt is often connected to the frame in such a way that it will carry the load. Shoulder straps and load lifters guide the pack, holding it close against your back.
I should note that a more supportive harness and frame will usually result in a heavier pack. For instance, multiday packs such as Lowe Alpine's Cerro Torre and Mont’s Backcountry weigh around 3kg. For some users, this weight will push them towards using lighter tackle. I would strongly recommend to not save weight by choosing a potentially less supportive pack for multi-day use.
Regardless of the pack’s known weight, 20 kg will probably feel heavier in an ultralight pack than it will in a heavier, load hauling pack. Afterall, the way your pack feels is more important than how much it weighs.
Close Carry vs Suspended Frame
Most packs at Bogong will have one of two main frame designs: Close Carry or Suspended Frame. When fitted and tensioned properly, a close carry pack will sit directly against your back. In comparison, a suspended frame holds the pack away from your body with an arced frame and flexible trampoline back piece. For a multi-day bushwalking pack, close carry packs will be better suited as they hold weight closer to your centre of gravity. Consider how you normally hold a glass of water compared to holding it with an outstretched arm.
Carrying a heavy pack further away from you will likely reduce comfort and bring on fatigue sooner. When used with light to moderate weight, suspended frame packs are very comfortable as there is less sensation of the pack against you, providing comfort and breeze. This style of pack is ideal for guided bushwalks or for walks with lodge type accommodation like hut-to-hut walking or the Camino De Santiago. Some key options in this style are Deuter’s Futura and Lowe Alpine extensive Airzone ranges.
Determining your ideal pack volume can quickly turn into a “How long is a piece of string?” type conundrum. Generally, a good all-round pack size for general bushwalking using traditional gear is 65L. For extended trips, you may look to something more in the 75L-85L volume. If you use ultralight gear, you will likely get away with less volume in both situations. Additionally, if you pack like a spartan absent of creature comforts, you’ll reduce your needed volume.
Once you’ve determined the approximate volume you’ll need, the most logical way to test the size is to pack it! You can bring all of your gear in a duffle bag or you can try packing it at home (as long as your gear is dry and clean). If you find a pack that fits well but the volume isn’t quite right, don’t lose hope. Some brands make packs in range of different volumes. Have a look at our Bogong Hiking Pack Buying Guide to see the differences.
Pack Features/Packing Style
In addition to a pack’s volume, it’s worth evaluating the pack’s feature set. Most modern bushwalking packs lie on a spectrum between a simple, single compartment pack to feature heavy, multiple compartments/pockets and entry points pack.
When deciding between different, well-fitting packs, consider if you like the pack’s features and if you see yourself really using them. For instance, if you like the idea of having multiple compartments to organise your gear then this can help you filter your options down.
Another key feature is entry method. Most simple packs will only have a top entry like Mont’s Flyte or Wilderness Equipment's Breakout. Some have a top and bottom entry like Mont’s Escape. Some packs have a top, side and front entry like Exped’s Thunder range. There are also novel features like Lowe Alpine's Cerro Torre which includes a pack lid which can be converted into a daypack.
In addition to features, a pack’s main materials can be used to help make your final decision. In regard to materials, I would broadly categorise our packs into three categories: ultralight synthetic, synthetic and canvas. Synthetic packs make up the majority of our bushwalking pack section. Lowe Alpine, Deuter and Exped use synthetic materials on all of their pack components.
Heavier weight synthetic materials are a good all-round option for bushwalking, these materials are robust enough for general use whilst also being relatively light. Exped use ultralight materials in both their Lightning and Thunder ranges.
In a trade-off between weight and durability, these materials are designed to be as light as possible whilst still being functional. Packs made with ultralight materials will work fine for general bushwalking however they will probably have a much shorter lifespan than packs made with heavier synthetic materials or canvas. Our canvas packs are produced by Australian brands Mont and Wilderness Equipment.
These packs are at home on extended bushwalks in rough conditions. Both brands use corespun canvas which is actually a polyester fibre tightly wrapped in a cotton sheath. This construction makes for a very durable and long-lasting pack. Additionally, the natural properties of canvas mean that the material itself is more water resistant than an untreated synthetic fabric.
For most people, finding the right pack can be a lengthy task. I’ve listed the factors above to help you choose a pack once you’ve established a good fit. The fit is crucial and should really be your top priority. Beyond that, these factors aren’t listed in any real order of importance. Rather, it’s up to you to consider what you want in a pack and prioritise accordingly. By doing so, the process is not only easier to accomplish but more enjoyable as well!