Hiking packs buying guide

No matter what pack you require, from a simple daypack to a super technical alpine pack, you’ll find that the manufacturers use plenty of technical terms and phrases to describe various parts of the pack. Below you’ll find a guide outlining some of the key features that go into constructing a pack.

Harness System

The most important part of a pack is the harness system. This system transfers the load away from the shoulders to the hips, and the better it is at doing this the more comfortable and stable your pack. Brands achieve this by using pre-shaped, custom moulded and articulated hip belts. Some brands offer different harness sizes providing a fit for all shapes and sizes, while others use an adjustable back. Shoulder straps also vary from pack to pack, using different foam densities, pre-shaping, reinforcing and mesh for strength and comfort.

A light pack with a poor harness system is never a substitute for a good, load-balancing harness. A great pack is one that fits you well. To get the best fit we recommend visiting one of our shops where our trained staff will be able to help.

Top Loader v Panel Loader

Top loaders are commonly used for backpacking or trekking where the ability to carry a load comfortably for a long period of time is important. They help to maintain the shape and comfort of the pack while on the move, and some feature a roll-top seal for enhanced weather protection.

Panel loaders are often used to carry and store your gear when travelling as they allow you to get to all of your kit quickly and easily. Their straps can be folded away to prevent damage, while grab handles are ideal for hauling the bag off buses, trains or baggage carousels

Waterproof Packs

Whilst packs are made using waterproof fabrics the amount of seams and zips makes it impossible to call them totally waterproof. We recommend using a liner and/or a waterproof cover to guarantee dry kit.


The size of your pack is generally dictated by the weight and amount of kit that you are carrying and the activity, for example climbers need a pack that is as small and light as possible, while backpackers need a pack with as big a capacity as they can carry.

If you’re at all unsure about which is the right pack for you, visit your nearest Snow+Rock store where you’ll receive expert advice from our trained staff.

Pack Features

View the following pack features by clicking the numbers on the diagram below.

  1. Top lid including zipped pocket

    The top lids are detachable on some packs, enabling you to use them as a hip belt for days when you’re sightseeing or staying in and around camp.

  2. Side Compression Straps

    Compressing a partly loaded pack helps to reduce bulk and ensures that the load inside the pack and the pack itself remain stable.

  3. External Storage Points

    Many packs feature external gear loops where you can safely store ice axes and walking poles without taking up valuable space.

  4. Load lifter straps

    Load lifter straps ensure that the pack doesn’t wobble about on your back as you walk. They should be taut when the straps form a nice arc over your shoulder. Over-tightening will cause the shoulder straps to bend, resulting in an uncomfortable fit around the shoulders. If they’re too loose, the pack will wobble from left to right as you walk.

  5. Adjustable shoulder straps

    Shoulder straps come in a variety of shapes for different packs and can be adjusted using the buckle below the padding. They should be tight enough to keep the pack in contact with your back, but not so tight that they dig into your arms.

  6. Air Vent Back Systems

    Air vent back systems allow air to flow freely between the pack and your back by minimizing the contact. Many packs now feature this type of system so that you can avoid the damp and uncomfortable feeling you get when the pack rests against your back for any length of time.

  7. Adjustable chest strap

    This strap is often overlooked, but is important when making sure that the weight of the pack stays in the right place when you’re walking.

  8. Adjustable back system

    Each brand does this slightly differently. Make sure that you choose a pack with the correct back length, before using the individual back adjustment systems to achieve precisely the correct fit. Find our pack sizing guide here

  9. Adjustable hip belt

    Most hip belts are pre-formed, but in selected stores we offer a custom-moulding service for some Osprey pack hip belts. This guarantees a superb fit. Contact our stores for more details.

  10. Lumbar pad

    This pad is the area which touches your back when wearing your pack.

Additional Features to watch out for on selected packs:

  • Side Pockets

    These pockets add useful volume to your pack and allow quick and easy access to essentials. A stretch mesh is often used in their construction to maintain a low profile look.

  • Hip Belt Pockets

    The most versatile and useful of the pack pockets, they are ideal for keeping your valuables, energy bars, phone or camera within easy reach.

  • Hydration Compatibility

    Many packs now feature a specific sleeve and exit port that can accommodate a hydration reservoir.

  • Haul Loops

    Provide a safe and practical way to lift your alpine pack up after you when climbing. The loops are strengthened for durability and performance.

  • Women’s Specific Packs

    Women’s specific packs feature specially designed shoulder straps, harnesses and hip belts for optimum pack carrying comfort and performance.

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