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15 Features to look for when buying a hiking pack

a pile of luggage sitting on top of a suitcase
(A selection of day packs from 25 litre to 45 litre.)

The two questions, “What size of pack do I need?” and “What features should I look for in a new hiking pack?”, come up time and again during discussions with our clients on our Mountain Skills Courses. Here I try to explain some of the more important features of day packs, (and one or two of the more frivolous ones.)

Size – This is possibly the most important consideration when choosing a hiking pack.  Pack size is measured in litres, and denotes the volume of the pack.  Mountain runners might get by with a small pack of around 8–10 litres, but a day pack that would carry the minimum you require for a day in the hills would more likely have to be around 25-30 litres capacity.  For longer trips, winter hiking, or possible overnight stops the size you will need might increase to as much as 45-50 litres to accommodate the extra gear.

Back System – The simplest of back systems will have two vertical ribs of foam to offer some padding and comfort, these might be held in place by a mesh material to give a degree of ventilation to your back. This system is ideal for smaller day packs and is a feature of lower priced options.

Many manufactures now offer a back ventilation system on their higher specification packs. This comprises a taught flexible mesh to support the pack on your back with a gap between this and the pack proper. This allows for good air flow between you and the pack and reduces the sweaty back issue that can mar your hiking in warm weather.

It has the disadvantage that the weight of the pack is now pushed out and away from your body and this can be an issue with larger packs as it can affect your centre of gravity and lead to discomfort. For this reason this system is rarely seen in larger, heavier load bearing packs.

Some of the larger day hiking packs now offer an adjustable back length, these take various forms but all allow you to adjust the pack to suit your own back length and are an important feature of larger models as this will make for a much more comfortable carry.

Try out several different packs before you buy, get the store staff to take out the filling and weight it with ropes or similar, then adjust the back length to get the most comfortable fit.


(Above left:   The ‘Air Zone’ ventilation back system)                 (Above right:   Hip belt pockets can store small items)

Hip Belt – These vary from a simple light padded belt on the smaller packs to a contoured and more heavily cushioned support belt in the larger models. Some are now designed specifically for women, with their more rounded hips. A useful feature of some hip belts is a little zipped pocket, this is great for small items like a snack bar or lip-balm. Hip belts are unnecessary in the smallest day packs, but become essential to spread the load between your shoulders and hips in the larger models.

Shoulder Straps – All shoulder straps have a degree of padding, some more than others, and some are mesh covered to improve ventilation and comfort. In some women specific packs the shoulder straps are shaped to fit the female form. When trying on the pack, fit the hip belt first and then adjust the shoulder straps.

Lid Pockets – If the pack you are considering has a lid (and some do not, instead having a simple zip closure), then it should have external and internal zipped pockets. These are very useful for frequently used items such as gloves, hats and maps.  Keep items you need to remain dry in the internal pocket under the lid, where they are less likely to get wet.


(Above left:   Deep mesh side pockets are a useful feature)                         (Above right:   Integral rain cover)

Mesh Side Pockets – A very useful feature found on almost all packs, placed low down on either side of the pack, they should be deep and of a stretchy material to hold in place items such as water bottles, extra snack food and gloves. They are also useful to hold the sharp ends of hiking poles firmly and safely.

Hydration System – Many packs now have an internal pouch next to the back to hold a platypus type water bladder; they also have a small outlet hole for the drinking tube to pass through. If you are a fan of this type of drinking system then a hydration pouch is essential.

Integral Rain Cover – This is an increasingly common feature of hiking packs, often placed in a small zipped pocket at the base of the pack. They can be quickly removed and pulled over the pack to help to keep the contents dry in rainy weather. They are not foolproof and should be used in conjunction with an internal pack liner to ensure your gear stays dry.

Chest Straps – These fasten across the chest and are designed to support and stabilise the load. They can be useful if you are hiking over complex or difficult terrain and where stability is essential. On the negative side, a chest strap can restrict breathing and become an irritation after a while, use sparingly.

The strap material should have a degree of stretch to accommodate an expanding chest when breathing heavily.  Some are also adjustable up and down the shoulder strap to allow you to find the best position on your chest.

Some chest straps now also incorporate a whistle; this is a mixed blessing if you are hiking with young persons who might insist on blowing it constantly!

(Above left: Chest strap complete with whistle)                                         (Above right: External map pocket)

Side Compression Straps – An important feature to allow you to cinch in a partly full pack and stabilise the load. Some models include a buckle for quick release and allow for the storage of hiking poles up the side of the pack, in conjunction with a mesh side pocket as above.

External Map Pockets – This is a feature of some packs and is useful for carrying maps and documents, though certainly not essential.

Walking Pole/Ice Axe Attachment points – You will find these at the bottom of the pack, usually on the rear facing panel. They can take several forms, but most often are a loop of strap material to secure the bottom of the pole. There is a corresponding attachment point higher up the pack to secure the shaft in place.

Most experienced hikers will use the outer mesh side pockets and compression straps to secure walking poles and axes as they are much more securely held here.

Some seasoned users will cut these loops off, as they never use them.

Separate Internal Compartments – These are a feature of the larger hiking packs. The bottom compartment is usually accessed via a zip, and is useful for storing waterproof clothing or a sleeping bag.  It is possible to zip out the divider to give one large compartment, which you would need to do if you are using a full size internal pack liner.

Elasticated Bungie Cord Attachments – Some packs have a criss-cross of cord on the back panel to secure a cycle helmet or to temporarily stow an item of clothing. Though not essential, this can be useful additional storage.

Price! – Larger day packs with a lot of the above features can cost upwards of €100.  But if you are working to a budget then it is possible to get a day pack with limited features from a supermarket for as little as €15.

This is not going to be the best option for carrying a lot of gear on a long day, but as a first pack for a young person or someone trying out hiking for the first time then it is perfectly suitable.

The more you are prepared to pay for your pack, the more feature rich it will be. Experience will show you which of the above you feel you really need on your pack, and which you do not.

Russell Mills owns and runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain skills training business in Dublin, Ireland

All the packs shown here are available from Basecamp Outdoor Store in Dublin and Kilkenny.