5 Features I Look for in a Backpack

In 2011 I struck out on my own from Neel Gap with a nearly 30 lb pack. My dad, who had driven me to GA, was heading back to “the real world” and snapped a rather embarrassing picture in which I looked like a seriously incompetent 13 year old. Thirteen years old, I was not. Incompetent, that was up for debate.

No, not 13. Yes, probably unprepared for two months in the woods.

No, not 13. Yes, probably unprepared for two months in the woods.

The only research I’d done for the AT was to read every fictional book about it that I could get my hands on. I have an aversion to non-fiction, so I didn’t read any accounts from previous thru-hikers, no gear reviews or handbooks, nothing actually helpful at all. My gear was based on what my fellow camp counselors recommended. Being camp counselors, they believed in carrying lots of extra fuel (I think my tank held 20 ounces), peanut butter for every meal and the largest backpack available on the market. Luckily I already owned a pack; no 85 liter mountaineering pack for me! (The food and fuel mistakes were more or less worked out over the next 500 miles.) I got my first pack when I was 16, a Gregory Deva 50. Eight years later, I filled this pack to the bursting point and set off on my first jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. Since then I’ve learned a lot about living in the outdoors, and some of the most important lessons have been about packs.

Since I refuse to slog through 10 pages of detail about one piece of gear only to decide at the end of 3 hours to go with something else entirely (my patience runs out after sentence 5), I’ve compiled a list of Basic Backpack Essentials. As long as my pack has these five features, I’m pretty much good to go until it falls apart (or comes out in a prettier color).

1) Hip Belt Pockets

These have proven to be the number one, absolutely most important item on my pack.
I won my current day pack in a drawing years ago, so I’m disinclined to buy a new one (free stuff usually wins out in my mind). However, it doesn’t have hip belt pockets! In the winter or on rainy days, this isn’t an issue- all my essentials can fit in my pockets. However, in the summer when I hike in tanks and pocket-less shorts, I frequently find myself frustrated just five minutes into my hike.

Without hip belt pockets, my cell phone has to go in a water bottle pocket, necessitating the removal of my whole pack any time I want to snap a picture or switch up my current podcast. Jake’s dog treats have to go inside the lid, again necessitating the pack’s removal to give him one (which he earns every five minutes or so in my estimation). My Chapstick, sunglasses and every little piece of trash I pick up along the hike all have to go in the lid. Removing my pack to access the lid this often is simply unacceptable. With hip belt pockets, all these issues are solved. My cell, Chapstick and sunglasses easily fit into one pocket, while Jake’s treats, a small bag for microtrash and some Jolly Ranchers (my favorite long-lasting trail treat) fit in the other. Why any company would dispense with this most essential backpack feature is beyond me.

2) Loose Water Bottle Pockets

The struggle is real and nearly constant.

The struggle is real and nearly constant.

I haven’t actually found a backpack that really meets this requirement, but it’s probably user error. My arms are weirdly long (in middle school, finding shorts that were finger-tip length was a completely unfair expectation), so it’s usually impossible for me to reach my water bottle pockets. The closest I’ve gotten to this water-retrieving paradise is my current pack, a Boreas Buttermilk (not a brand I’d heard of, but it was going cheap). These water bottle pockets are roomier than my old Gregory’s pockets, and with just the right distortion and near-dislocation of shoulders, I can get water bottles out and maneuver them back in. It’s a lifesaver! Taking my pack off to drink water every 15 minutes is out of the question, leaving me dehydrated and angry (not ideal).

Here some people might rally behind the bladder camp, but I can’t get on board. If the tube’s not frozen on a cold, snowy day, then the water is body temperature, because of, well your body temperature on a hot day. Gross. Also, they grow mold if you put anything other than water in them, and expecting me not to pack out a box of wine when I have exactly enough room for one in my bladder and only five miles of downhill to the shelter is absurd. They are nearly impossible to clean, and it’s way too hard to fill up a bladder at most watering holes. Nope, having tried over and over again, I just can’t get excited about bladders. (Plus- who wants to drink out of something called a bladder?!)

3) A Brain or a Large Front Pocket

My new, aforementioned Buttermilk pack does have one major flaw that I never thought about before- no large, zippered outer pocket. It’s got a tight open pocket on the front, one very small zippered pocket just above that and the large inner space. I didn’t think I’d mind not having a brain (the pocket that sits on top of most packs) or a large front pocket, but I was wrong. Having both on a pack is unnecessary, but I miss the organization and accessibility that one provides. To have lunch, get some sunscreen, grab a snack, retrieve Jake’s water bowl, down a quick a summit treat (there’s a definite food theme to my every day hiking needs), I have to get into my entire pack. This usually entails digging around to find the bag I want. In the large pocket, things I need right away have a tendency to make their way to the bottom of my pack, probably on purpose. My belongings are strangely spiteful, but with a large outer pocket of some sort, I never had this problem! Next time I’m pack shopping, this will be top of my needs list (along with the color pink).

4) A Chest Strap Whistle

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 3.02.58 PM

I debated including this little feature, because it was not one I ever thought about until recently. When I hiked in 2011, I was always around other people, usually my best trail friend, Enzed, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t see any wildlife until after my two month hike was over (we were loud). However, I now hike more frequently alone with Jake in Colorado where mountain lions have been spotted within miles of my back door and the bears wander through suburbs like locals. No, I’m not worried about our little black bears, but the thought of accidentally sneaking up on one in the rain still sets my teeth on edge. A chest strap whistle hasn’t actually saved my life yet, but it’s been exceptional for my ease of mind, and it’s a feature that’s naturally included in so many packs, I figured I’d throw it out there, too.

5) A Solid Frame

This is more of a day pack feature that’s proven completely necessary for my husband (I was never tempted by a pack without a back frame). Dan, my hubs, was getting pretty excited about the ultra light craze (again, not something that has ever entered my radar- I like my comforts way too much) and bought a 30 liter day pack with no back frame. It has a stiff foam panel, but when weighed down with gear it’s not sturdy at all. Coincidentally, a good friend of ours has the exact same pack. She figured the reason the back panel wasn’t providing support was because she never filled her pack to its full capacity. However, when nearly empty and when filled to the brim, they both disapprove of the lack of a back frame. I’m sticking with my original conviction, made even more powerful by their mistakes- back frames are essential!

A good backpack can make or break a hike. My mental stability, already delicately balanced, would fall apart in the first mile if I didn’t have easy access to all the little things. However, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive list suited for every hiker. Some people’s arms are perfectly normal and suited for water bottle access, but maybe they can’t live without a loop on the side of their pack to hold their umbrella. What every day, under-appreciated features can you not live without?

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

What Do You Think?