©istockphoto/da-kukA com­fort­able hik­ing back­pack will trans­form your hikes. A bad back­pack, how­ev­er, will great­ly lim­it your poten­tial. With all the options out there, it can be dif­fi­cult to know the dif­fer­ence between a good back­pack and a bad one. Among a huge vari­ety of shapes, styles, and sizes—how do you know which is best for you?

Back­pack Size
The first thing you need to con­sid­er is the size of the back­pack. Dif­fer­ent hik­ers have dif­fer­ent needs, and pick­ing a back­pack that is too small or large for your jour­ney means you will have to over­stuff it, or under­fill it. If you do this, the weight won’t be even­ly dis­trib­uted and the back­pack might put too much pres­sure on cer­tain parts of your back. This will become painful after an hour or so of hiking.

To com­bat this, write down every­thing you will need for your upcom­ing trek, or what you car­ry on your usu­al hikes. This should give you a good idea of how many liters your back­pack will need to be. Typ­i­cal back­pack sizes are small, medi­um, and large, and many have a range of adjusta­bil­i­ty in tor­so height and hip belt. You should con­sid­er the length of your tor­so, rather than your height when choos­ing a back­pack; if you are tall but you have a small tor­so, a medi­um back­pack will prob­a­bly fit best.

The ulti­mate goal is to find a back­pack that will have room for every­thing you need with­out being too big, cre­at­ing a poten­tial­ly over­weight pack.

Car­ry­ing Capacity
The next thing you need to con­sid­er is the car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of the back­pack and your end goals. For exam­ple, if you are trav­el­ing on planes or bus­es with the pack, you’ll want to make sure that it can fit in over­head compartments.

The length of your trip is the main thing to con­sid­er when it comes to car­ry­ing capac­i­ty. If you are plan­ning hik­ing trips that will last for more than one day, you will need an overnight back­pack with at least a 35-liter range. Mul­ti-day packs typ­i­cal­ly range around 45 liters up to 70 liters. This will have enough room for water, hik­ing gear and over­sight pro­vi­sions. How­ev­er, if you only plan hik­ing trips that last a few hours, a small­er back­pack will be just fine (15 liters or 22 liters are com­mon sizes for day hikes).

Sus­pen­sion
Once you have worked out the best size and vol­ume for your back­pack, you can start to think about the back­pack sus­pen­sion sys­tem. Hik­ing packs are fair­ly heavy, so it’s impor­tant to find a back­pack that spreads the weight around your body even­ly, with no pres­sure points. If you buy a bag that has no sus­pen­sion, your shoul­ders will car­ry all the weight and with­in a few hours, you will be in pain.

The ide­al hik­ing back­pack will come with a decent hip belt, chest or ster­num strap, and shoul­der straps. This secures the pack to your body so you don’t feel the weight as much. It also means you can move around freely with­out wor­ry­ing about your back­pack falling off or com­ing loose.

It is best to choose back­packs that have thick, padded shoul­der straps that will dig into your shoul­ders less, and the thick­ness of the straps will help to dis­trib­ute the weight even­ly across your shoulders.

Do your home­work and spend some time try­ing on packs before mak­ing your purchase.

©istockphoto/PeopleImages

©istockphoto/PeopleImagesWish you could quit your job, sell your belong­ings and thru-hike for months at a time? Yea. Me too. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the life of a trail sojourn­er just isn’t pos­si­ble for a lot of us. So, for the short-term adven­tur­er, there’s week­end thru-hik­ing. If you’re new to the game, or just haven’t picked up a back­pack in while, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Before You Go
Give your­self plen­ty of time for prepa­ra­tion. For a 1–2 nighter, get your act in gear a cou­ple of days ahead of time. To start, get your beta. Many thru-hik­ers are well estab­lished so find­ing the infor­ma­tion you need is usu­al­ly a mat­ter of a quick Inter­net search or talk­ing with a friend who’s recent­ly done it. Once you’ve learned about the hike, find a topo map to get a feel for the ter­rain. These are usu­al­ly easy to find at local your climb­ing shop or on the world-wide web.

Next, enlist a friend to help you shut­tle a car to your des­ti­na­tion and dri­ve you and your par­ty back to the trail­head. This step is option­al, but either way, you’ll need to coor­di­nate trans­porta­tion back home. After a cou­ple of nights on the trail, you prob­a­bly won’t be keen to wait on a ride, so hav­ing a car avail­able is a nice touch.

Lastly—pack. Again, give your­self time with this one. Scram­bling around the morn­ing of leaves more room for error and you may find your­self miss­ing a key piece of gear while on the trail. With your trail beta in mind and keep­ing an eye on the weath­er fore­cast, make informed deci­sions about what to bring and what to leave home. You’ll want to keep your pack as light pos­si­ble with­out for­get­ting any essentials.

Along the Trail
While doing your thru-hike, pay atten­tion to your body. Keep your­self hydrat­ed and your blood sug­ar lev­els sta­ble. When it comes to water, you’ll want 3–4 liters per day. Look out for water sources on the trail and near your camp­site to avoid car­ry­ing the extra weight. For trail snacks, shoot for a mix of quick­ly digestible carbs and longer-last­ing proteins.

Be sure to rest as you need, but stay aware of the time you’re devot­ing to breaks along the trail. Depend­ing on the length of your hike, pick a pre­de­ter­mined inter­val of time (1–2 hours) to walk before tak­ing breaks. Lim­it breaks to about 15 min­utes, with short­er breaks to grab some carbs. It’s easy to burn valu­able day­light by chill­ing on the trail, but you’ll thank your­self when you get to your camp­site with plen­ty of light and time to set up camp.

Make sure to also stay aware of your loca­tion by fre­quent­ly check­ing your map and stay­ing ori­ent­ed. Also, main­tain wildlife aware­ness. In bear coun­try espe­cial­ly, make lots of noise and keep your bear spray handy to avoid an unex­pect­ed encounter.

Back at the Park­ing Lot
You did it! Peel off your sweaty wool socks, tend to your blis­ters and bask in your suc­cess. Also, con­sid­er doing a trip debrief with your par­ty. Talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what you’ll improve on for next time.

Next, get back to civ­i­liza­tion and start unpack­ing. It’s hard to find the moti­va­tion when you’re tired but you’ll want to get your items aired out ASAP. Be sure to hang your tent and sleep­ing bag inside out to avoid a mildew prob­lem and throw your spork in the sink. OK—now you can get that burg­er and beer you’ve been think­ing about since mile 2.