Equipment can make or break your walking holiday. Good hiking equipment is essential if you want to trek cross country for multiple days in a row – AND enjoy yourself while doing it! A good backpack is without a doubt the first investment you should look into, before setting out on the trail. Having tried a variety of hiking backpacks myself in the past, here are 10 features the best trekking backpacks must have in my opinion!
10 features of a perfect trekking backpack
#1: A fully adjustable suspension system
Backs and upper bodies come in all shapes and sizes – curved or flat, broad or petite shoulders, long or short, defined hips or A-line – and good trekking backpacks can be adjusted to fit them all.
The first thing I look for in a hiking backpack is a fully adjustable suspension system. You want to be able to move the shoulder straps up or down, according to your back’s length and secure them with a highly resilient buckle. You want to be able to move your shoulder in- or outwards to adjust where they sit on your shoulders. You want a hip belt that sits on your hips and moves with your gait for ideal positioning. You want a sternum strap that can be moved and offers ultimate support for your shoulders.
The perfect trekking backpack fits your upper body like a glove and even if it is fully loaded, the weight disappears from your shoulders. It sounds mad, but having just completed a 12-day hike across the Outer Hebrides, I guarantee you, it is possible to forget that you are carrying a heavy backpack if it sits right!
#2: Quick access outer pockets
The next feature has to do with efficient packing. When I pack for a trekking adventure I organise my things into three categories: 1) things I need at night, like my tent, sleeping system, toiletries and spare sets of clothing; 2) things I might need during the day, like my stove, food and snacks, additional warm layers, spare camera batteries etc.; and 3) things I need quick access to throughout the day, like my rain gear, maps and guidebooks, camp shoes, first aid kit, sun lotion and toilet paper.
The ideal hiking backpack has plenty of outer pockets that can be used to stow away these items for quick access. The last thing you want to do, when it suddenly starts to rain, is to open up your entire pack and rummage for your waterproofs among all your other stuff. Every item in my pack has its place, so I prefer having multiple quick access outer pockets to split up my things accordingly.
The best way to pack your backpack in order to spare your back from any unnecessary strain is to put lightweight and less used items at the bottom, and heavy items, like your food, tent and water closer to your back.
With top-loading backpacks, I find it can be hard to efficiently use up all the space at the bottom of your backpack though. That’s why I like backpacks with a separate bottom compartment and its own access. That way, I can add a few lightweight items there, when space gets tight on top, and I can start packing my heavy items before stowing away things like my sleeping bag.
#4: External straps & loops
I generally try not to attach too many items to the outside of my backpack, because I find it harder to control my centre of gravity that way, which sets off my balance. However, I still want the option to hang my socks, t-shirts or towel out to dry when it is sunny or get rid of my waterproofs without having to open a zipper. I generally attach my reusable rubbish back to a side strap on my pack, before I stuff it into one of the flexible side pockets.
I like a backpack with many external straps and loops – even if I don’t use them a lot, I want to know that I would have the opportunity to do so, should an emergency arise.
#5: An easy-to-open system
Most hiking backpacks I’ve used in the past, have had a drawstring system on the main compartment and zippers everywhere else (quick access compartments and bottom compartment).
My current trekking backpack by Vaude is slightly different though since it uses a roll-top system. The access to the main compartment as well as the bottom compartment rolls down like a lunch bag, with the top edges connecting through a sewn-in magnet strip. The rolled up compartments are then closed with two high-quality plastic clips at the side.
This means not only, that the compartments are adjustable in size, but it is also a more water-resilient system than zippers. I also found it easier to open and close my backpack this way with cold hands, wearing gloves or when it is wet outside.
#6: An internal compartment for a hydration system
While I always carry a water bottle with me when I hike, my main source of water comes from a 3-litre hydration system which I store in the main compartment of my backpack.
Practical trekking backpacks should have a separate area for this within the main compartment – it makes me feel safer about not damaging the water bag and keeping condensation away from my other items. There should also be a small opening at the side of the backpack to allow for the tube to come out and reach over your shoulder.
#7: A spacious hip belt pocket
Remember when your phone was tiny and you could fit it into one of those tiny hip belts pocket on your backpack? Yeah, those days are over. I want my hiking backpack to have a spacious pocket attached to my hip belt. It should fit my phone at the very least, but ideally some other essential quick access items.
On some days, I would store my purse here, so I can pay for tickets or supplies without taking my pack off. Since the hip belt pocket is usually not protected by a backpack’s rain cover though, it is best to keep your purse elsewhere.
#8: A detachable small backpack
After I’ve pitched my tent and am eager to explore my surroundings, I have little desire to haul my entire backpack around with me, just to have my waterproofs, camera and water on me. Of course, I could use a tote bag, but that just adds unnecessary weight to my pack for an item I wouldn’t need for anything else.
I love that my current hiking backpack has a detachable top compartment that can be turned into a small day bag with the click of two plastic clips. It allows me to carry my essentials with me when I explore beyond my camp or when going on day trips, without having to carry an extra bag with me.
# 9: A flexible water bottle pocket at the side
I never even knew I needed this until I had it – a pocket for your water bottle that is flexible enough so you can take your bottle out and stow it away again without having to take your backpack off.
On my Vaude hiking backpack, this pocket has a drawstring which secures the bottle in the pocket and it doesn’t fall out no matter how I move.
#10: An integrated rain cover
Finally, this is something I’ve never actually had but always envied in other people’s backpacks: an integrated rain cover. The cover usually sits in a separate pocket at the bottom of the pack and means that there is just one item less to pack and remember.
If you have to buy a separate rain cover, make sure that it properly covers your whole backpack – mine even has cut-outs to fit over the hip belt, so that it stays in place when I carry it.
Great women’s backpacks for long-distance hikes
Vaude Skarvan 65L
For multiple-day treks with camping, I currently hike with a 65L backpack by Vaude. The Vaude Skarvan 65+10 was launched in 2018 and contains most of the features I mentioned above. It has an adjustable suspension system, a few quick access pockets, lots of straps and loops, the lid is detachable and turned into a small backpack, there is a separate access to the bottom compartment and all compartments are easy to open and close, there is a flexible pocket for my water bottle at the side and a spacious pocket on my hip belt. It only lacks the integrated rain cover and a separate compartment for my hydration system, but those are compromises I’m willing to make.
My first outing with this backpack was the West Island Way on Bute, and I also walked the Hebridean Way with this backpack in 12 days. Both times, I was surprised by how comfortable it felt to carry, even when it was heavy to lift off the ground at first. The weight is incredibly well distributed and the straps were not rubbing at all!
I can highly recommend this backpack for treks where you need a full kit including camping equipment, water and food. It costs £240 and it worth every penny!
Fjallraven Abisko 65L
I tested the Fjallraven Abisko 65L last year when I was hiking the Kungsleden in Sweden. It costs £200, so it is a bit cheaper than my current backpack – however, it also differs in a few other details.
First of all, it was a very convenient front compartment, which is great to store away your waterproofs, camp shoes and additional warm layers for quick access. It also has an additional zipper that enables you to open the main compartment from the front, without undoing the drawstring system at the top. Both are features I absolutely loved! The suspension system was fully adjustable and probably one of the best I have ever tried.
However, the pocket on the hip belt is smaller and there is no flexible side pocket for your drinking bottle – since I did not have my hydration system with me on that trip, that meant I could only drink when I took off my backpack, or someone was there to help me take out my bottle and stow it away again. These might sound like small details, but when you’re on a multi-day trek, you will notice that every time you have to stop to take off your backpack to get your bottle, your sun lotion, your phone – you name it – it costs time. Those stops add up in the end.
I would still recommend this backpack, if you were looking for a comfortable trekking backpack, that is a bit more budget-friendly.
Deuter Futura Pro 40L
Whenever I go on treks where I don’t have to camp, I still rely on my trusted Deuter Futura which has a volume of 40 litres. It can hold everything I need for a multi-day trek, when I stay in hostels, B&Bs or other accommodation that provides a bed and sheets.
I bought this backpack years ago on a trip to Canada, but I take it as a good sign, that the model is still available – of course, it has been updated to be up to speed with other comparable medium-sized backpacks out there. The Deuter Futura Pro, as it is called now, has most of the features I love in a good hiking backpack. There are two hip belt pockets, it’s compatible with hydration systems, the bottom compartment can be separated from the main compartment and has its own access, there are loads of external straps and loops and an integrated rain cover. The suspension system does not have as many adjustment options as the large backpacks, but there is a great ventilation system and the hip belts are fully flexible with your movements.
I’m still fully satisfied with my old Deuter, which has endured many hikes and never failed me. It’s £150 pound – an investment for a lifetime!
Now you know what to look out for in a good trekking backpack to bring on multi-day hikes, and my personally-tested favourites out there.
What backpack features are important to you when you go hiking, and what are your favourite trekking backpacks?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: The Vaude backpack was gifted to me by Vaude. All opinions are my own.