Essential Tips: Choosing Your Next Pack

Hiking Backpack Options - Group in the MountainsEver felt intimidated by trying to figure out what gear you need for what sports? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. There’s so much specialized gear out there that it can be impossible to know where to start. But we can help – well, at least with backpacks. 

Unless you’re going for a quick walk around your neighborhood, you’re almost certainly going to need to carry some gear with you. And while most people probably have an old backpack in their closet, your old college book-bag probably won’t cut it for most activities. And having the right bag is more important than you think. Bags fit and sit differently on your back, which can make a huge difference: it’s nearly impossible to trail run without a hip strap, and forget about trying to carry your snowboard into the backcountry with a bag made for day hiking.

Here’s a quick and dirty guide to knowing what kind of bag you need for what sport, and why. Use this as a starting point for narrowing down your shopping – Peter Glenn alone shows more than 100 products when you search for the word “backpack.” Having the right bag will make your adventure more comfortable and certainly easier, which could make all the difference on whether you enjoy your day on the trails.

Day Hiking Bags

If you’re hiking for a day or less (read: not spending the night on the trail,) you’ll need a day pack. These bags are usually 25-30 liters or less in capacity and are designed to securely hold items you’ll need while hiking close to your back. These may look a lot like a normal backpack you’d use in school, but they’re quite different, as they’re designed to be lightweight and resist rips and tears, unlike your average high school book bag. A few features you should look for in a day pack include:

  • Adjustable hip and chest straps: Adjustable also means “adjustable up and down,” at least on the chest straps. You want your pack weight to sit mostly on your hips, not your shoulders, so it’s vital to have these two elements.
  • A bladder/hydration pocket: Brands like Camelbak and Osprey come with bladders, but not all packs do. You want to make sure it at least has a bladder pocket and small hole for the tube, so you can add your own bladder in. This will usually be referred to as “bladder compatible” or “hydration compatible.”
  • Quick drying/moisture wicking: This is not the time for a canvas backpack. Make sure the bag you pick has quick drying materials to help manage back sweat on the trail.
  • Other features you may find include clips for hiking poles, waterproof covers, or insulated pockets – be sure to evaluate the gear you use while hiking before buying to determine what features you need, and what features aren’t worth the extra spend.

Some good options for this include:

Osprey Atmos AG 65L Backpack Adjustable Straps

Backpacking Bags

 If you’re spending a light or more on the trail, you need a much bigger bag – you have to carry a tent and sleeping bag, after all. Most people use a bag around 40 to 55 liters for one or two nights and move up closer to 65-80 liters for longer excursions. They usually come in men’s and women’s styles, though taller women may prefer men’s backs, and smaller guys may find a women’s pack fits a bit better. In addition to all the features of a day pack, you want to ensure your backpacking back has:

  • A rigid frame: Without this, the contents of your bag will slouch and lose its shape. Consider you’ll be carrying at least 25 pounds (and maybe 50 or more,) you do not want this to happen. It’ll be like wearing a 50 pound sack that drags behind you.
  • Compression straps: The outside (and perhaps inside) of your bag should have compression straps so you can compact the size down to be as little as possible. This helps keep the weight of your bag centered on your back, rather than letting the bag flop around.
  • Adjustable straps: Nearly every bag is going to allow you to adjust the tightness of your straps, down to the most simple book bag. But a backpacking bag needs to have strap adjustments at the top, right above your shoulders. Adjustable straps above your shoulder help keep the weight of your pack from pulling on your shoulders. This may not make a lot of sense for someone who hasn’t worn a backpacking pack before, but it’s vital for long hikes.
  • Outer or side pockets: Okay, you don’t need this, technically. But as someone who spends a lot of time on the trails, I can tell you that its immeasurably helpful. Your backpacking bag will be heavy and annoying to keep taking on and off if you need to get something out. Side pockets for water bottles, a phone or sunscreen help you access items easily without stopping and taking off your back every time.
  • Other features you may want: To each his own, but a few other features you may want to consider on your pack include: straps/compartments for poles, bottom straps for holding a tent, a panel or side access zipper (so you don’t have to unpack when you need something on the bottom of your bag,) or a removable top compartment that you can detach if you’re doing a side hike once you arrive at camp.

Some good options for this include:

Bonus: These packs work well for rock climbers as they can easily carry several pairs of shoes, a helmet, extra layers, and several heavy ropes strapped to the outside.

Hiking Ski and Snowboard Backpack Options

Ski & Snowboard Packs

Skiing in bounds? Easy – most people will be fine just using a small hiking daypack. But if you’re doing a little backcountry skiing, you’ll need a bag made for winter sports. There are essentially two different options: large bags to carry all your winter-specific gear, like skins and avalanche tools, or smaller packs are essentially a slim hydration pack. 

If you want a larger pack, there are a few specifics you should aim to have. Of course, you’ll want it to be waterproof and/or DWR coated so your gear is protected from snow. You’ll also likely want padded/insulated compartments, to keep your hydration sleeve and/or electronics from freezing. You’ll also want easy access to your tools, like an avalanche probe or snow shovel. And don’t forget, if you’re a snowboarder, you’ll need a pack that can carry your board (unless you’re a split boarder.) A good winter pack should have pockets or straps meant for carrying your snowboard (usually vertically.) These same straps or pockets can often carry skis, instead, in case you prefer to snowshoe rather than skin your way up. Before you buy one, consider how much gear you usually carry. If you often shed several layers on the way up, you may need a back with a capacity closer to 40 or more liters.

Option: Dakine Heli Pro 20L Backpack

If you want a smaller pack, look for one that fits tightly to your back. The idea behind a small pack is that it fits very closely to your body so as not to add any extra bulk or throw you off balance. These packs often hold a small bladder, an extra lens or two, and not much else. They’re gear for in-bounds skiers who don’t need a larger daypack.

Small option: Kulkea Micro Pack

Trail Running

If you need a pack primarily for trail running or other high-impact activities, you’ll want a pack that fits more like vest than a backpack. These bags have large straps that huge your chest and usually connect above and below your breastbone, keeping the bag tight against your back even when you’re bouncing with each step. They’re almost always hydration-compatible and usually carry most items on large shoulder and chest straps, rather than across your back. If you’re running long distances or in warm weather, you’ll want to look for one with a mesh or breathable back to help you stay cooler on your core.

Some Options Include:

Mountain Biking Hydration Backpacks

Mountain Biking

Many low-key, beginner, and intermediate mountain bikers will find that a tight daypack or trail running vest-style pack will be sufficient. However, a second option has recently become popular with mountain bikers: hip packs. These packs are often hydration compatible and are often less cumbersome that a full pack, which is why they’re popular with bikers and other athletes who don’t need a ton of storage space but do need complete freedom of movement. And don’t worry – these aren’t the same old fanny packs that ruled the streets in the 80s. They’re high tech, convenient, and often have dedicated spaces for a spare tire or bike tools. These packs are also a great choice for people who tent to sweat a lot as they help your back stay a lot cooler. You’ll need a special lumbar hydration reservoir for these packs; most normal backpack bladders won’t fit.

Hip pack: Osprey Seral Lumbar Hydration Pack

Carry-On & Commuter Backpacks

While you certainly can use whatever bag you have for any purpose, travelers who commute with laptops, carry a bag to work, or often need a backpack for travel will do themselves a favor by purchasing a bag specially designed for those purposes. Commuter bags generally have padded pockets for laptops, tablets and phones, plus straps around those pockets to keep everything in place. They’re often sleek and minimalist in design, which does more than just ensure your bag looks professional enough for work meetings.

Having a basic design eliminates straps that can get hooked or caught while traveling (on bike handles, subway doors, passing pedestrians, and more.) Other features you’ll sometimes find on these bags are battery pack chargers with USB outputs and commuter-specific features, like places for your public transportation pass or clips for bike lights. These bags are often a bit less durable as they’re made for urban use, so it’s not recommended that you take these out on trails as they’re sometimes more prone to ripping or wearing out on the bottoms when set on rough rock.

Options Include:

No matter what pack you end up going with, you can always find a wide variety of options at Peter Glenn. Whether you're planning on a long hiking/camping trip or need an every day carry bag, we have you covered.