The Best Backpacking Backpacks for Beginners

Once while on a five day trek through New Zealand's southern Fiordland National Park, I came across a boy named Benji from Belgium. Reflectively, Benji was definitely a boy at that time, although I'm sure that there has been enough years between then and now that he is most likely a man these days.


At that point in my life I was hitchhiking across all of New Zealand. I hadn't paid for a single bus or hostel in two months and was aiming at keeping it that way. "Bitch-on-a-budget" if you will.

What do Benji and hitchhiking have to do with backpacks, you're wondering?

Well, as a result of being nomadic and living out of my bag, every trip into the mountains I took (and there were many) saw me packing my entire life's belongings up and down mountains.

New Zealand to Peru, the Himalayas and home; Canada

My bag was everything. It held everything. It stacked, it packed, it clipped and tucked in all of the ways I ever needed it to. I had had that backpack for ten years or so by that chapter of my life, and because time and care was taken when purchasing it, that piece of equipment allowed me to trek about with an insane amount of gear.

My friend Benji on the other hand? When I came walking up behind him on the otherwise lonely trail, I was so surprised to witness what was in front of me.

Benji's backpacking bag was all wrong.

Not only was the actual design of the equipment inappropriate for the multi-day nature of his hike, the way he was wearing his gear was buggering up his experience entirely. Benji was on the trail with a front loading bag, as you'll see in the list below, this is my first priority when making backpack recommendations for both travel and backpacking. Benji is not my only friend who has made this mistake -- and let me be clear. I do believe that a front loading bag is always a mistake. I don't like them on planes, I don't like them on trains, I don't like on hills and I don't like them...I just don't like front loading bags, okay? See below for an explanation.

I wish I had a photo to share with you of Benji on that trail, but try and picture it. The shoulder straps were completely slackened, to the point that the part of the bag which should have been pressed up against his back was sitting at a 45 degree angle with his butt as the apex.

Benji had the buckle at his waist loose to the point that the clip sat just below his hip bones.

I couldn't help myself.

"Are you comfortable?" I asked him without any effort at a formal introduction.

"Ah. not at all" He frowned and replied with his Belgian accent.

We stopped and looked at one another, he tried to shrug his bag up and onto himself a bit further but to no avail, "My back is hurting quite a lot right here" he explained point first at his lumbar and then tracing (as best as he could) up towards his shoulder blades.

I smiled and laughed a bit, "yea, no doubt" I said and told him to drop his bag on the trail for a hot second.

Okay. Okay -- so let's talk about you, dear reader. I'm assuming you're getting ready for your ASCEND multi-day trekking tour or some other kind of back-packing excursion that is going to require you have all of your travel gear nice and compact and convenient to carry for long distances.

Backpacks are one piece of equipment that I would definitely recommend checking into a local outdoor store prior to committing to a purchase. Below you'll find a list of definitions, examples and information you'll need to consider when deciding on which backpack to choose for yourself.

What do I need to know about buying a backpacking backpack?

First things first,

Front Loading vs. Top Loading

Spoiler Alert: Do not bring a front loading bag on a backpacking trip.

A quick google search about "travel backpacks" and (nightmarishly) "backpacking gear", some sites will recommend to you a front loading backpack. Ultimately, what you choose to do when you're travelling from hostel to hotel or work-away or whatever, is up to you. You can purchase a front-loading for travel if you feel the easy access to your clothing takes precedence over comfortable carrying. If you know you won't be carrying your gear much but you will be needing easy access -- maybe this is the answer. But only when you are travelling.

I am begging you. Do not show up for a hike with a front loading backpack.

What you need, want and require is a top loading backpack. This is because you want your gear stacked up not out. When our gear stacks out, there is a pull on our entire body backwards. Suddenly your core is way over engaged, the waist strap (see below) becomes more and more redundant with each step you take. Trust me. This is not something to fuck around with when you are heading into the mountains.

I have a friend who made this mistake while hiking the Ananapurna Circuit in Nepal.

Waist Size & Torso Measurements:

Before heading into a store or confirming your online purchase you need to get a few body measurements dialled in.

Waist: Your waist is the region of your body that is right above your hip bones. This is where your waist strap will wrap around, you're going to want this one to be right because this strap and your waist bear about 80% of your packs weight. Straps typically range between the mid-20 inch and mid-40 inch range. Measure your waist size and write it down.

Unsure about how to measure you're waist? Click here for a nice little "how-to"

Torso: If you are a shorty, you don't wanna wind up with a bag that is built for a tall...y. A tall-y? That's going to be an uncomfortable adventure for you. There are adjustable back pieces which are touch bit heavier, and then there are ones that will be sized up with gorgeous support for your whole trip. So again, measure your torso, write it down.

Here's a "how-to" for measuring your torso for a backpack

Litre and Backpack Type

Weekend Backpacks: About 30 to 50 litres. Smallest size you'd want for a multi-day hike. Something like this will demand that you really exercise self-control when packing. If you do not anticipate much more than weekend hikes, a bag this size would work just fine for your Awakening your Power: Kundalini in the Mountains trip.

Multiday Backpacks: About 50 to 70 litres. These mid-size bags are honestly quite practical. They're nice for traveling, they're nice for mountain treks. I find that this size is pretty forgiving in the way that you can forego extra clothes and make up extra space for food and additional camping equipment.

Extended Trip Backpacks: 70+ litres. For those of us who are going on major travelling trips, and fully committing to multi-day backpacking. This is the size of bag that will allow you to pack all the necessary equipment and food you'll need for a 5+ day trek.

Pockets, Compartments and Daypacks

For the most part, bags are designed similarly. This isn't to say they are all the same -- no, no. In fact, it is the little details that set packs apart from one another.

I am a major proponent for getting the most bang out of your buck. And so, with that in mind, it is worth it to explore all the little nooks and crannies of your pack prior to purchasing.

A healthy amount of space for clipping and stashing can be the difference between space to pack-out rubbish away from your gear and smushing it in with your equipment.

Sleeping bag compartments exist at the base of bags. This is a really wonderful feature that is worth remembering when you're shopping. Your clothing will stay suspended up above the base compartment. If you are clever with a compress-sac for your sleeping bag you will likely be able to fit your hiking pillow and sleeping mattress as well.

Some backpacks (especially in the 70+ variety) come with a detachable day-pack. This is an amazing feature to have available to you. This way when you set up your tent and want to go scramble for a better view of your surroundings, you can bring all your necessary equipment and leave behind your base camp.

So, in conclusion, these are things to begin thinking about! Get those measurements, get familiar with the language. Google some different styles, consider your litre size -- and get out there and try on same backpacks!

You've got this! See you on the trail.


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Calgary, Alberta, Canada