Hiking backpacks are essential for carrying heavy loads on your hike. You can use them to carry food, water, clothing, emergency supplies, and a first aid kit, among other things.
But with so many different types of hiking backpacks on the market, how do you know which one is right for you?
In this guide, we’ll look at the types of backpacks that you can buy, along with the features that make them unique.
What Are Hiking Backpacks Called?
Hiking backpacks are often known simply as “rucksacks”. The word comes to us from the German “der rücken”, which means “the back”. It’s a specific type of backpack that you use for hiking, camping, climbing, or anything else in the great outdoors. It’s usually more durable and practical, with features that you may need on a hike or camping trip.
They are also known simply as “hiking backpacks”, which is how we have referenced them throughout this guide.
What Are The 3 Types Of Backpacks?
There are three main types of backpacks: Internal frame backpacks, external frame backpacks, and frameless backpacks. They each have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Keep reading to learn more.
Internal Frame Backpacks
- Good For: Light to Heavy Loads
- Rigidity: Semi-Rigid
- Weight: Light to Mid-Weight
- Capacity: Over 40 Liters
Internal frame packs are constructed using an inner aluminum frame designed to transfer the weight to your midsection. It means that the weight of your essential hiking supplies is not pushed down through the shoulder straps.
It might sound a little unfair on your hips and abdomen, but they are supported by larger muscle groups and can take the strain.
An internal frame pack is quite rigid, but in some backpacks, you can remove the aluminum rods to reduce the rigidity.
External Frame Backpacks
- Good For: Carrying Heavy Loads
- Rigidity: Very Rigid
- Weight: Very Heavy
- Capacity: 50+ Liters
External frame packs are heavy-duty hiking backpacks designed for very heavy loads. They are definitely not as kind on the back, but as with internal frame packs, they use an aluminum frame to support the weight and ensure it is properly distributed.
The difference is that the frame is on the outside and the backpack is much sturdier, heavier, and more rigid. An external frame pack with a carrying capacity of 50 liters or so can weigh between 4 and 5 pounds, and that’s before you add any hiking gear.
The best thing about these heavy framed packs is that you can attach additional items to the frame as needed. If you have something that doesn’t fit inside the pack, just strap it to the outside using bungee cords or ropes.
- Good For: Light Loads
- Rigidity: Flexible
- Weight: Light
- Capacity: Up To 40 Liters
As the name suggests, frameless backpacks don’t have the aluminum frames found in external and internal frame packs. They are very flexible and can be used to store light to moderate hiking gear.
The downside is that there is no weight distribution, so you won’t get the same support that you get from frame backpacks. You may feel more weight pressing down through the shoulder straps and this can make for an uncomfortable hike if you have a long way to go and a lot of weight to carry.
Frameless hiking backpacks are great for short hikes though.
What is a Hydration Backpack?
Hydration backpacks are basically large water bottles that strap to your back.
They contain a water-filled bladder that sits inside a backpack. A tube is connected to the backpack and this basically serves as a giant straw, allowing you to sip and hydrate as needed.
Hydration backpacks are a great way to carry large quantities of water without the need for multiple water bottles. The weight is distributed evenly across your back and most packs contain at least 2 liters of fluid, more than enough to sustain you on a hike, bike ride, or run.
This backpack, for instance, contains 2 liters and is small enough to be worn by children. It’s very affordable and there are multiple colors and styles to choose from.
Pay close attention to the description and the sizes in particular. For instance, this hydration backpack is advertised as being “20l”. That would be enough water to sustain an entire family of hikers, but it would also likely cripple you before you had a chance to drink it all. However, that refers to the size of the backpack and not the capacity of the hydration bladder. The manufacturers are not tricking you, as “liters” are commonly used to reference storage space, it just means you should pay attention when buying hydration packs online.
If you’re running, cycling, or hiking in hot weather, or you just have some extra gear to carry, look for a hiking backpack that includes a hydration reservoir.
What Should I Look For When Buying A Hiking Backpack?
Whether you’re looking at frame backpacks or frameless backpacks, there are a few important considerations:
Hiking backpacks are often made from nylon and rated using something known as the Denier Fabric Rating. This rating system measures the weight of a nylon strand—the higher the number, the stronger the material.
Higher doesn’t always equal better though, as it will also increase the weight of the backpack.
The best hiking packs use higher rated fabric around areas prone to cuts and damage and may also use different materials for tear resistance.
Hiking backpacks should also be waterproof.
The capacity requirement depends on what you need to carry. If you’re carrying heavy loads and bulky gear, you’re going to need a bigger pack. If not, you can afford to get something that’s a little lighter, smaller, and more comfortable.
Some of the items you should carry include:
- Sleeping Bag
- First Aid Kit
- Water Bottle
- Hiking Poles/Trekking Poles
- Tent and Tent Poles
- Safety Equipment
- Extra Clothes
It’s not just about the volume, either. You should also think about external pockets and attachment points. Larger packs may include a sizeable main compartment, only to skimp on the side pockets. It’s great if you have some big and heavy items to carry, but not so great if you have lots of smaller items.
Size and Comfort
Does the backpack actually fit? Does it have padded shoulder straps, a sternum strap, waist strap, and other external straps?
You must also think about your torso length and hip measurements (for the hip belt) while making sure you get a backpack with an adjustable harness.
The Back Panel
The back panel of a backpack is very important when it comes to comfort and stability. After all, it’s going to be pressing against your spine. You want something built with ergonomics in mind, as well as something that is well ventilated.
There is a trade-off here though, as stronger, more supportive, and better ventilated back panels will increase the overall size of the backpack.
What Type Of Backpack Is Best For Hiking?
Some of the best hiking backpacks are made by Osprey, and there are options for different types of hikes and hikers. Gregory also produces some quality packs and you can find a few great but lesser-known brands on Amazon.
The backpack that is best for you will depend on what you’re carrying, what you need, how long your hikes are, and whether you have any issues carrying heavy loads.