How to choose a backpack for high-altitude trekking
Backpacks these days are marvels of engineering. But of course some are more marvellous than others. Especially when it comes to certain activities like trekking. We have all the info you need to select the best backpack for you for high-altitude trekking.
The best backpacks for high-altitude trekking
Frame Volume Weight Size Straps Organisation and accessibility Hydration pack Ventilation Fabric Padding Rain cover
The pros of backpack frames
They have shape even when empty, and this makes it easier to pack and unpack them. They help to distribute the weight of your gear more evenly. (This is the most important point.) They help to protect your gear from being crushed.
External frame backpacks
External frame backpacks are favoured by the military and those with a nostalgic bent.
These backpacks have a metal frame that sits between your back and the backpack (as shown below). The backpack therefore sits a little ways away from your body. This is great for ventilation . An external frame backpack has lots of pockets and places to attach items. These help with sorting your gear and smaller items can be accessed really easily. These backpacks can handle really heavy loads (which is why they're often favoured by the military). They sit high on your body , which makes walking in an upright position easier. The shoulder straps are harder to adjust than they are with internal frame backpacks. You therefore really need to ensure you get the right height frame for your body. They're often a little more affordable than internal frame backpacks. If you're bushwhacking, you stand a good chance of snagging branches .
Internal frame backpacks
Most high-altitude trekkers do well when they choose a backpack with an internal frame.
Internal frame backpacks sit flush against your back . You're thus likely to get a sweatier back than with an external frame. (But not all internal frame backpacks are created equal; as we discuss in the next point, you should look for an internal frame backpack with a good ventilation system in place.) Internal frame backpacks are better suited to rough terrain that requires scrambling, leaning, and so on, as your centre of gravity is closer to normal. When properly adjusted, internal frame backpacks also don't shift much, which is a big positive. They tend to have a bigger internal capacity than eternal frame backpacks. This means more can be stowed on the inside, and you have fewer items likely to catch onto foliage as you walk. Internal frame backpacks sit lower on your back than those with external frames. This means you have to learn forward a little if you want to transfer weight to your lower torso and legs. Finally, these backpacks are more compact and sleek than those with external frames, which makes them easier to travel with and stow.
The duration of your trek. The sort of trek you plan to do. For instance, do you need camping and cooking gear? Are you going into snowy terrain? Whether or not you'll have help carrying your belongings. We're talking here of sharing the load with fellow trekkers, or making use of the services of a porter.
A backpack of around 50 litres suits most high-altitude trekkers who don't need to carry camping and cooking equipment.
As a rule of thumb, a loaded backpack shouldn't exceed 20% of your body weight.
Plane luggage limitations
Fixed vs adjustable suspension
Measuring your torso length
It's your torso length that decides your backpack's height – not your height.
Measuring your hip circumference
You want most of your backpack's weight to rest on your hips, not your shoulders, as your legs contain your strongest muscles and should carry most of the burden.
Shoulder straps Sternum straps Compression straps Hip straps (or hip belt)
Straight straps. These aren't ideal for outdoor backpacks – they're more the domain of fashion backpacks. One-piece straps. These shoulder straps are connected by a bridge, making them 'one piece' of fabric. They can seem an attractive choice, as the bridge can serve as a grab handle. But you're limited in how high you can wear the backpack before the bridge rubs up against the base of your head. S-shaped straps (also called curved straps). These shoulder straps follow the contours of your body and are very ergonomic. These are what you'll mostly find on internal frame outdoor backpacks.
S-shaped shoulder straps are the most ergonomic and the best suited for trekking.
Hip belts that come with little pockets are a real bonus!
Organisation and accessibility
Main opening Compartments Pockets Attachment points Zips vs drawstrings
The more compartments you have, the more easily you can organise and access gear.
A front pocket. This is useful for holding something like a compressible dry jacket or a map. You get zipped front pockets as well as mesh pockets. Hip belt pockets. These are useful for holding small items like tissues, insect repellant and sucking sweets that you want to be able to access while walking. Side pockets. These are usually open pockets that work well for your water bottle(s) or a thermos. Look for flexible ones that make taking out your bottle and putting it away again easy.
Zips vs drawstrings
Remember that you may well have fat gloves on your hands, so anything too small or finicky could be a pain.
Built-in hydration packs
Don't go small
A hydration pack of 4 litres or more is ideal for high-altitude trekking. We don't recommend you go smaller than 3 litres.
Cleaning your hydration pack
If you're going on a long trek, consider packing a small bottle of fragrance-free washing liquid that you can use to clean your hydration pack in the evenings.
Why you still need a water bottle
Insulating your hydration pack
Firstly, purchase a hose insulation sleeve (like the one shown below). Secondly, position the hydration pack within the backpack so that it's as close to your body as possible. Your body heat will help to keep the water from freezing too quickly. Built-in hydration packs should be placed in the correct position already. Finally, pour hot water (not boiling!) into the hydration pack in the mornings. This will help to slow down the freezing process.
Mesh panelling vs a suspended-mesh back
Suspended-mesh backpacks allow for better airflow, so your sweaty back is able to dry more quickly.
Is it lightweight? Is it durable?
doesn't tear easily and is puncture-resistant doesn't crack in extreme cold is rot-resistant doesn't scuff at the sight of a rough surface polyester nylon pack cloth waxed canvas Cordura Dyneema X-Pac
We suggest you opt for nylon if you want a backpack that's lightweight, durable, and not too expensive.
Dyneema is marketed as the strongest fibre in the world, and is 15 times stronger than steel when compared by weight!
A note about polyurethane
Remember that what may be comfortable in the shop is not a good indication of what's going to be comfortable when loaded up and worn for many hours!
It's all in the foam
A rain cover should be elasticated or have a drawstring so that it can be made to fit the backpack snugly.