What You Should Know About Backpacking Backpacks

Five Backpacking Backpacks on Ground

As the name suggests, when it comes to backpacking, the backpack itself is at the core. Backpacks are what you use to store and transport all of your gear with you during the trip. They become a sort of extension of yourself, resulting in a need to not only have the best backpack for your trip, but to have it packed right as well.

There are several factors to be considered when determining the backpack you’ll be needing for your journey. This guide will walk you through the three main backpack types, their uses, and how to properly pack each one.

Best Backpacking Backpacks on The Market

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Daypack

Size

Less than 40 liters

Woman with White Daypack

Holds

  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Camera/Phone
  • Change of Clothes
  • Small Tools

Daypacks are intended for single-day hikes, or even bike rides and runs. When used for backpacking, they provide you a way to carry a limited amount of gear to ensure that you safely complete your hike.

These packs are almost always frameless, and feature a soft back for added comfort. Higher quality daypacks have hip belts that prevent the pack from bumping you with each step, but these aren’t required.

While there are specially designed daypacks that look and operate more like multi-day backpacks in a smaller package, non-backpacking packs such as an Under Armour backpack can be used instead, as long as you still pack it in a strategic way.

Woman Wearing Daypack

Daypacks are popular for those that prefer to do ultralight backpacking, where minimal weight and size is emphasized for faster and more efficient hiking. While daypacks are meant to be used for a day hike, ultralight backpackers can often use the pack for a multi-day trip, or as a simple travel backpack.

Loading a Daypack

A daypack is the easiest style of backpack to load, but there are still some strategies you can follow for optimal loading. Keep heavier items on the bottom, with a soft layer underneath from clothing if you are carrying a phone, camera, or any fragile device. Keep food items in separate pouches, and make sure to balance water bottles evenly on each side of the pack, whether they are inside or in external pockets.

Internal Frame

Size 

40-65 liters

Man Wearing Backpack

Holds

  • Several Changes of Clothes
  • Tools
  • Trinkets
  • Water

Internal frame backpacks are designed to hold bigger loads, generally over 15 pounds, making them one of the more common hiking backpacks. The frame is used to give the bag better stability, durability, and weight distribution, while also allowing it to retain its shape when loaded. Internal frame backpacks are also great when used as camping backpacks, and fishing backpacks for fly fishing.

The frame itself can be made from any number of materials, including aluminum, plastic frame sheets, and more. When fit properly, this pack will hug the contours of your back when being worn, keeping the load close to your back, while also facilitating more of the load to the hip area, which is much better for your body over a long distance.

Man Packing Backpack

Higher-quality internal frame backpacks have a mesh-like backing that allows your back to breathe more efficiently when worn for a long period of time. While these packs are set up for better weight distribution, proper loading is crucial to ensure a comfortable fit.

Loading an Internal Frame Pack

A properly loaded pack will make for a more comfortable and efficient trip, reducing the load on your body while making items organized and accessible. Keep bedding and extra clothing at the bottom, as you won’t need these items until the end of the day.

Place heavy items such as less-used tools and food bags low and towards the back of the bag for better weight balance on your spine. Tent poles can be strapped in each side. Place jackets and raingear in your sidepockets, as they won’t be needed often as well.

Use the top lid and external pockets for snacks, maps, bug spray, and other small items you might need in a moment’s notice.

External Frame

Size 

65-95 liters

External Frame Backpack on White Background

Holds

  • Large tent
  • Extra meals and water
  • Sleeping items
  • Camp chair
  • Mountain gear
  • Winter items
  • Several Changes of Clothes

External frame backpacks are the largest type of backpacking backpack, and are quite similar to military backpacks. They can hold a large amount of gear, and have a higher center of gravity that allows for more comfortable walking over an extended period.

Like the name says, the frame of an external backpack reside on the outside, giving the pack extra sturdiness and space told hold a wide range of items. Due to their size and position, external backing backpacks are best used for walking trails only, as the center of gravity and pack position is not conducive to climbing or skiing.

Man with External Frame Backpack

External packs extend higher behind your head, but they are also positioned further from your back, giving you optimal air circulation, and the ability to walk more upright.

External packs obviously have more room for extra items, but their build and design also allows them to accommodate bigger items in general. This gives you the ability to carry items such as chairs, stoves, and winter gear that wouldn’t otherwise fit in a smaller pack. More space means more of the same gear as well, resulting in the ability to take on longer trips due to increased storage of resources like food and water.

Loading an External Frame Pack

Sleeping bags are often stored on the outside of an external backpack, so make sure that it has a waterproof stuffsack that protects it. Place heavier gear like tent poles higher up on the frame, but still towards the back, as it’s better for your spine.

Full Packed External Frame Backpack

Use as many pockets as you can to store smaller gear items that you use often. Use clips and carabiners to disperse water bottles and heavier items throughout the bag and frame, keeping an appropriate balance, but be sure nothing is where it can get snagged by branches. Pack items on the inside in the order you’ll use them that day, with the items being used first on top.

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