How to Choose Your Hiking Backpack in 6 Points


March 21, 2024


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How to choose your hiking backpack

Choosing a hiking backpack is a crucial step whether you’re new to hiking or have already explored hundreds of trails. Your backpack is a precious companion: it will carry all your essentials and keep them dry and organized. It should also be a discreet companion, one that you can forget about on the trails, as comfort is your top priority here. How can you make the right choice when there are so many hiking and expedition backpacks available on the market? Which brand should you choose between Osprey, The North Face, or Vaude

Éric, a specialist from the Passionnés de Rando community, helps us figure it out! He shares his best advice and tips for choosing the right backpack and explains how to adjust it so it feels as light as a feather. Ready? Let’s go!

This article was written in collaboration with Passionnés de Rando

Passionés de Rando

In this article, you will learn about hiking backpacks and the key factors to consider to choose the right model:

  1. How Do You Plan to Use Your Hiking Backpack?
  2. Choosing the Right Backpack Size
  3. What Materials Should You Choose for Your Hiking Backpack?
  4. Essentials to Pack in Your Hiking Backpack
  5. The Cost of a Hiking Backpack
  6. How to Adjust Your Backpack
  7. FAQ

How Do You Plan to Use Your Hiking Backpack?

What do a few hours of hiking and a multi-day nature trip have in common? Both require the use of a good hiking backpack. More specifically, a backpack that’s tailored to your practice. The first question to ask yourself is: how do you like to hike? The answer will quickly direct you to either a hiking or an expedition backpack

Choosing your backpack is a significant step. If you’re not properly equipped, even a short hike can turn into a nightmare. Look after your back and protect your shoulders by choosing wisely. According to Éric, buying a backpack is a major expense, and it’s important not to be overly focused on the price. The specialist believes that comfort and sturdiness should come first, even if it means spending a little extra to get a model that really suits you. If your budget is tight, consider buying second-hand. Browse through the selection on reSAIL: you might just find the model of your dreams – and save big too! 

Éric points out that there are no real technical differences (straps, buckles, etc.) between a hiking backpack and an expedition backpack. There are two main differences: 

  • Volume, 
  • Configuration.

Hiking Backpacks

Hiking backpacks are designed primarily for day hikes that do not require you to carry a lot of equipment. Their straps are thinner, they have less padding, and their sternum strap is not as substantial.  

If you know your hikes will never last more than a day, a hiking backpack will work just fine. However, if you’re planning to fit a few backpacking trips into your calendar, you might want to consider getting an expedition backpack (as well).

Expedition Backpacks

Expedition backpacks are designed similarly to hiking backpacks, but they have wider straps, thicker padding, and more adjustment options. You could almost say they are an “evolution” of hiking backpacks. They provide more comfort and more volume to pack your tent, food, and everything else you will need on your backpacking trip. A good expedition backpack helps you organize your belongings more efficiently and attach a few items on the outside. It can also include extra features not typically found on hiking backpacks, like a rainfly cover.

Choosing the Right Backpack Size

choose the right size for a backpack

Which hiking backpack should you choose among the many models available? When it comes to hiking and expedition backpacks, size matters.

What we’re really talking about here is a backpack’s volume. The bigger it is, the more equipment you can bring (food, clothing, hydration, etc.). Most hiking bags range from 10 litres to 30-35 litres. Meanwhile, expedition backpacks can hold up to 60-65 litres (some models even go beyond 100 litres). Avoid loading a hiking or expedition backpack beyond its capacity: you will lose in comfort and risk damaging it.  

Make sure your bag is the right size for your build and height. The ideal approach: head to a store and try out several models, loading them slightly (ask our in-store specialists). 

When making your choice, also be mindful of the back panel height: 

  • You shouldn’t feel any pressure points on your shoulders, 
  • If there’s too much space between your shoulders and the straps, it means the bag is too large (and it will be harder to adjust properly).

What Volume for Which Activity?

Here are Éric’s recommendations: 

  • For a day hike, aim for a volume of 30 to 35 litres at most. If you’re only carrying a few items and mostly hike during the summer, a 20-litre hiking backpack will work just fine.
  • For winter day hikes, it’s better to have “too much” space than not enough. You’ll want a slightly larger volume to easily fit a tuque, a mid-layer, a shell jacket, etc. A 35-litre hiking backpack is perfect if you hike all year round. 
  • If what you need is an expedition backpack, go for a volume of 60 to 65 litres. Of course, it all depends on your practice: Will you be bringing your tent or sleeping in a refuge? Will you be gone for two days or much longer? Are you going to be in full autonomy? Will you be carrying your food supplies and camping cooking essentials? All of this will impact your choice, hence the importance of asking yourself the right questions before heading to the checkout (talk to our in-store consultants!) 
  • Ultralight backpacks are generally more expensive and sometimes less durable. Because they cater to specific needs (especially those of “fast packing” enthusiasts), they won’t be suitable for everyone.

What Materials Should You Choose for Your Hiking Backpack?

Materials to consider for a backapck

Choosing the right hiking backpack involves paying close attention to several little details. Éric from Passionnés de Rando prioritizes comfort above everything else. With a properly adjusted backpack, you won’t feel the weight as much, even if you wear it for long hours. Here, everything relies on adjustments and padding. According to Éric, if a 30-litre backpack feels heavy, then there is a problem. In general, the heavier the backpack, the more important the level of comfort becomes.

As for the materials, most hiking and expedition backpacks are made of nylon. The higher the denier measurement (400 or above), the higher the quality. Be mindful, though: when the denier is high, the material tends to be stiffer. Choosing the appropriate fabric quality level ultimately depends on its intended usage (hike duration, humidity level, etc.). Some backpacks are completely waterproof (even without a rain cover) with features like sealed seams. Consult our in-store specialists to find the perfect model for your needs!

Attachments and Straps

There are different shapes, widths, and thicknesses available for straps. The more weight a backpack is designed to carry, the more crucial comfort becomes (more on padding later). 

As Éric points out, the attachments on the outside of a backpack are also very important. They let you attach gear and save space in your bag, and you can also use them to hang damp clothes to dry, and to carry a tent, sleeping bag or camping mat…  


The padding on a hiking backpack should be thick and comfortable, especially around the hips (make sure it’s the right width). Shoulder straps should ideally be wide and well padded, and their padding should not end too low. For maximum comfort, focus on backpacks with full padding along the straps.

Minimalist hiking backpacks are less padded, so they tend to be less comfortable. However, they are lighter. It’s all a matter of preference!


Many hikers want a backpack with lots of compartments. Why? Simply to avoid having to flip it over to grab something hidden at the bottom. The goal is to be able to find what you’re looking for (first-aid kit, tuque, pair of mittens…) as quickly as possible, especially in an emergency. 

That’s where pockets come into play. Side pockets, top pockets, belt pockets… If you appreciate the convenience of pockets, many backpack models have just what you need. All you have to do is create an organization system that works for you, and you’ll be able to find everything easily. Éric points out that this is all a question of taste, preference, and experience. For example, some hikers prefer to have fewer pockets but use multiple different-coloured dry bags and arrange them in the main compartment according to their own particular logic.

Ventilation and Rain Cover

If your excursions take you far out on the trails during the wetter seasons, you must make sure that the contents of your backpack can stay dry in the rain. As mentioned earlier, some backpacks are waterproof (they are basically dry bags), while others come with a waterproof cover (or “rainfly”) that can be placed on top when necessary. 

Naturally, the rainfly must be 100% waterproof. It needs to keep the bag dry, and not just its contents, because a wet bag is also a heavier bag. 

For added protection, you can put your electronics and other water-sensitive items in dry bags inside your backpack. Keep in mind that moisture can “get in” through the back of your backpack (which is not protected by the waterproof rain cover).  

Last but not least, remember that the more waterproof a material is, the less breathable it becomes!

Essentials to Pack in Your Hiking Backpack

essentials to pack in your Hiking Backpack

Choosing the right hiking backpack is an essential first step for all your outdoor adventures. Next, let’s have a look at some of the essentials to pack inside so you can make the most of the hours you spend outside.

Hydration and Nutrition

No matter how long you plan to stay in the great outdoors, it’s crucial to keep yourself hydrated. From flexible water reservoirs to water bottles, there are plenty of options available to ensure that you stay hydrated during your fast-paced adventures. 

For day hikes, bring along a few snacks to keep your energy up, whether it’s power bars or a sandwich for lunch… If you’re backpacking for several days and need to be self-sufficient, pack some cooking supplies so you can whip up tasty meals in the wild. 


Here are some handy tools to bring on the trails, whether you’re setting off for a few hours in the woods or taking on a challenging multi-day hike:

A First Aid Kit

Whatever the duration of your outdoor adventure, it’s always a good idea to bring a small personal first aid kit packed with everything you need to deal with minor injuries. Plasters, antiseptic wipes, adhesive tape… Always keep first aid essentials handy in case of injury! 

Hiking Poles and Ice Cleats

When embarking on multi-day hikes that put your body to the test, a reliable pair of hiking poles is crucial, especially when navigating uneven or tricky terrain. Poles can reduce the load on your lower limbs and back by as much as 30%, and they provide you with two additional points of support. Why go without them? 

If you enjoy winter hiking, remember to also pack a pair of ice cleats so you can keep moving forward on icy trails. If you’re going to walk through fresh snow or venture off trail, don’t forget your snowshoes either!

The Cost of a Hiking Backpack

Given the wide range of hiking backpacks available on the market, choosing the right one can be a bit daunting. What kind of hikes are you after? What are your favourite spots? How much gear will you be carrying? Once you’ve figured all that out, set a budget for yourself. And don’t worry, there are options for every wallet!

As you can imagine, a backpack designed for day hikes doesn’t have the same price tag as one designed for long expeditions. Price is often a good indicator of comfort and durability (although this is not always true, according to Éric).

If you need a backpack for short hikes that last no longer than one day, Éric says you can expect to find very good quality gear for $100-$150. For an expedition backpack, however, you will often have to pay double or more. For $250-$300, you can get your hands on a basic model that will last for many years. The more expensive models provide more comfort and volume, but they are primarily designed for hikers who undertake longer challenges over several days or even weeks. Always choose according to your needs!

The technologies and features also play a major role in the price of a backpack. The adjustment options, number of pockets, easy access features and choice of materials all add up to the cost.

How to Adjust Your Backpack

Now that you know how to choose the right backpack, it’s time to learn how to properly adjust it. The goal is simple: you want your backpack to stay comfortable through every last kilometre. 

Above all, Éric from Passionnés de Rando recommends carefully checking the size before making a purchase. A size will be indicated on the model you choose. Make sure the backpack is adapted to the length and width of your back and to the width of your hips. And don’t forget that you can adjust the height of the back panel on some models. Our in-store consultants are there to help you find the right size. 

To pack your bag properly, place heavy items close to your back. For your tent and sleeping bag, it’s up to you. In general, it’s best to place the sleeping bag inside the backpack for protection.  

Simple Steps to Adjust Your Hiking Backpack

Depending on the backpack you choose, you will have more or less adjustment options. Be sure to keep adjusting yours during your hikes; your comfort and overall experience depend on it! 

The steps are quite simple. Just do the adjustments in this order: 

  • Hips first,
  • Shoulders, 
  • Torso, 
  • Load lifters last.  

Most of the weight should rest on your hips. Reduce the weight on your shoulders by leaning forward. Place the hip belt over your iliac crest and tighten it. As you stand up, you should feel the weight on your hips. Adjust the shoulder straps, taking care not to add too much tension. Keep a slight gap between the straps and your shoulders. 

Once that’s done, buckle the sternum strap and tighten it slightly until you feel a bit of tension. Finally, pull on the load lifters (the small straps connecting the shoulder straps to the top of the backpack) to distribute the weight. Avoid overtightening them; you don’t want to create pressure points. 

Remember to readjust your backpack every time you wear it. Get into the habit of making small adjustments again after taking a break and even as you walk to slightly change the weight distribution. For example, if you tighten the shoulder straps, you will reduce the load on your hips.

Which backpack for a 3- to 5-day trek?

How to pack gear in a hiking backpack?

What is the difference between a hiking backpack and an expedition backpack?

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