Choosing the right backpack for your next trip is based on a number of external variables: location, climate, length of trip and the type of clothing, gear & supplies you are bringing with you (to name a few). Backpacks themselves come in all shapes and sizes so it’s also important to think about the design features.
- Pack size (litres/cubic inches) – Do you need a daypack for short trips or something larger for extended travel? I have seen experienced ultralight backpackers spend a week backcountry using a 30 litre pack. And I’ve been guilty a number of times over-packing on a short trip taking a larger pack then was necessary.
- Panel loading verses Top loading – Panel loading offers easier access to your gear which is ideal for urban trips while top loading backs are more durable for backcountry trips
- Internal frame – Keep your pack close to your back, minimize load shifting and keep it’s shape with aluminum stays. Smaller packs incorporate a thin rigid panel. External frame packs are fading out of the market despite their ability to carry heavier loads with a tradeoff of less pack space.
- Durable materials/fabrics – Newer lightweight strong fabrics cost more. Also, how it is stitched will help in its longevity. Cool looking packs at discount stores are usually poorly constructed and barely survive a year of use.
- Water resistant material – Helps keep the contents dry. Some packs have a waterproof coating which will wear out after prolonged use. The use of dry bags in your pack or rain covers will provide additional protection from the elements
- Hip belt – Either to support weight on larger packs or keep your smaller pack from shifting on your back
- Padded hip belt, shoulder strips and back padding – Padding makes your pack comfortable to wear as the straps are not digging into your shoulders or hips.
- Adjustable suspension – For carrying heavier items and for added comfort
- Compression straps – Cinch your pack tighter to keep your items closer to your back (pack frame)
- Multiple compartments – Organize your gear for efficient access and use. Conversely, too many compartments will have you trying to figure out where you put specific gear that you need this instant. I’ve experienced this with the pocket-rich MEC Ibex 65 & Deuter Freerider Pro 30.
- Hydration compatible – Room for a hydration reservoir will allow you to drink on the go without taking your pack off
- Lockable zippers – For urban trips to keep your valuables more secure. Not really needed in backcountry since a bear will just rip that pack open if you left a granola bar inside it.
- Gender – In the cases where a unisex pack won’t fit properly, some packs are designed to meet the needs of female body frames
- Brand name packs – Costs more though you usually know what you’re getting since most outdoor enthusiasts use Deuter, Osprey, North Face, Arc’teryx, MEC, Gregory, Asolo, Black Diamond and Jack Wolfskin backpacks to name a few. That doesn’t mean all other backpacks are inferior. Some of the above brands may have at one point produced a dud then worked hard to rebuild their reputation. If you find a good no-name pack that you field-tested on some far out adventure let me know, or write about it.
I’ve had the pleasure of using a variety of packs each with its own purpose. Below are the ones I’ve used and I swear by their durability and features. These are Deuter, MEC, Osprey and Asolo packs.
MEC Pod Sling Pack (7 Litres)
This is a great little pack for urban environments. It can also hold its own during backcountry day trips. This has been my go-to bag for walking around the cities I’ve been visiting. It’s very comfortable on my back as it has good breathable padding. I can put a rain jacket in there or my netbook, some granola bars as well as a water bottle in its dedicated holster. There’s even a smaller inner zippered pocket with a key clip to store items like loose change, identification or your smartphone. There’s also front pocket for your cell phone or digital camera. Comes in right or left handed versions. And when sitting down I can slide the pack under my arm to access the main pocket without taking it off.
Osprey Raptor (10 & 14 litres)
Predominantly a mountain biking pack, I used the 14 litre version during my cross Canada bike trip. Yet despite the ventilated back panel I found it was better not to wear it on my 100+ km daily rides as my back was sweating too much. It’s designed to be worn for up to three hours of continuous biking. I’ve also used this pack for lightweight weekend trips out of city, day bike trips with friends and the occasional jog to work. I brought the 10 litre version with me overseas to use when mountain biking on Mljet. The packs come with stretch mesh side pockets, a light weight breathable hip belt, BPA and PVC-free hydration reservoir and internal dividers to store your extra clothing, snacks and gear. And the reflective trim increases visibility in low light. This pack has the LidLock™ helmet clip where you can quickly attach your bike helmet to.
- More info on the 14 litre version is available on the Osprey web site.
- More info on the 10 litre version is available on the Osprey web site.
Deuter Futura 28 Daypack (28 litre)
This lightweight daypack is really comfortable on your back. The mesh back panel is supported by a powder-coated steel frame for superior back ventilation in hot climates. I’ve used this as my primary pack on a few multi-day trips while traveling the around Dalmatia. There’s a removable internal bag divider to help separate your clothing/gear or access your bag from the top of bottom. There’s also a small zippered pocket at the bottom of the pack that stores the hidden rain cover. And you can probably use that same rain cover pocket to store small sensitive items while traveling.
Key features of this pack include a front pocket, interior valuables pocket, hiking pole loops & reflective loops.
Deuter Freerider Pro 30 (30 Litre)
The Freerider Pro has everything you need for snow sports and extended backcountry skiing. This is one of my favourite packs and wore it while skiing Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia. It’s made of ballistic nylon with a snow-shedding Hyperlon front that protects the pack from abrasions caused from attaching your ski’s or snowboard. A multitude of internal compartments are designed to hold avalanche gear (shovel, probe) and can also be used for storing regular gear items and clothing. Although the pack is heavier than others you can use it if you are traveling light. This was the only pack I took during my three week multi-county tour, taking it to Spain, France, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. I took it to the beach in hot Barcelona, exposed it to the rain in Paris and biked down the Swiss Alps in snowy Zermatt. It also made going through airports so much easier. The best thing about this pack is the large zippered opening at the back. This allows you to access items from your pack without having to unfasten your skis or take the pack off, since you can just spin it around your hip.
Other features include a fleece-lined goggle pocket at the top, a wet pocket, valuables pocket, removable padded anatomic hip belt, removable sitting mat, ski, snowboard and snow shoe attachments and helmet holder. It also has an internal sleeve making it compatible with hydration systems. The 28 litre version has less features (no rear access zipper) so check them both to see which one works for you.
The pack needs one suggested improvement. It currently uses an “X-Frame” which is a curved aluminum stay that allows for flexibility. Additional support comes from the removable sitting mat. I would prefer a little more rigidity since I find that a fully loaded pack throws off the contour of the pack with my back.
MEC Ibex 65 Backpack (65 litre)
Built tough this feature-rich pack is great in withstanding abuse on multi-day backpacking or mountaineering trips. This is one of the most popular packs offered at Mountain Equipment Co-op. Like the Deuter Freerider Pro there are enough pockets to organize everything you take with you and then some. I’ve used this pack hiking in Algonquin Provincial Park and during my mini-Balkan tour. I particularly like the two low profile zippered side pockets to store and retrieve items quickly (or store your fuel bottle if camping). My friend has the 80 litre version and likes the side zip access and adjustable waist and shoulder straps. Though he mentions that since there are a lot of pockets future versions could have labels assigned (imprinted) on them like pocket A, B, C & D so you can remember where you stored all your kit.
Some of the features of this pack include interchangeable shoulder straps and waistbelts which allow you to customize the fit, a backpad plate that can be slid up and down the stays allowing precise adjustment to your back. The main compartment has a stretch mesh pocket and hose exit port for a hydration system. It also has a large front pocket accessible via a full length side zipper or the outer spindrift collar.
The 630-denier Super pack nylon construction makes it slightly heavy; consider that the opportunity cost for a tough backpack.
What I would have liked to see in the Ibex is to have the floating lid be removable so it can be used as a hip or mini-day pack. That way I wouldn’t need another smaller pack if I want to go for a stroll somewhere.
Asolo Navigator 70 (70 litre)
My first travel pack was the Also Navigator 70. It’s a lot heavier than the Ibex 65 particularly due to the removable satellite day pack and toiletry kit. It’s more designed for multi-day travels in urban environments yet I took it with me during a week-long Algonquin hike, minus the detachable toiletry kit. If you fully load this pack just make sure the heavier items are closer to your body since the pack will protrude outwards away from your back affecting your centre of gravity. Place lighter items in the satellite pack. Or leave it empty since you’re bound to pick up souvenirs while traveling in some exotic land.
This pack features waist belt adjustment, built in rain-fly, lockable zippers, padded handles and is made of 450D Honeycomb rip-stop fabric. You can even hide the waist belt and shoulder harness via a zippered cover flap so that you have no loose straps when checking it in at the airport.
“I have yet to see one backpack that does it all”
I should also mention the discontinued MEC Brio Crag 30. It was my first pack that was built as rugged as any since it was made entirely of 1050-denier nylon. It was top loading with a narrow pack body. MEC currently makes 40, 60 and 70 litre versions.
I have yet to use any of the Gregory, North Face, Black Diamond, Arc’teryx and Jack Wolfskin packs.
With all the styles and design features on the market I have yet to see one backpack that does it all. If there was a manufacturer that marketed one then it would cannibalize their own product line. So as you choose your next adventure choose a pack to go with it.
For more detailed explanations on choosing a pack click on the below links to the MEC and/or REI websites.