How to find the right expedition backpack for you
When it comes to finding the ONE backpack for you, you need to weigh many things. From the weight, functionality to personal taste, picking a backpack that ticks the right marks will ensure you get the best wilderness experience. Below are all the elements you should consider when selecting your next camping backpack.
Why do you need an expedition backpack?
The first thing you need to consider when on the market for an expedition backpack is why you need one. These knapsacks come in a variety of designs and capabilities. They are all built with the outdoorsy person in mind.
Will you be using this backpack for hiking, backpacking, camping, or regular day-to-day events? Are you after a backpack that allows you to pack heavy without ruining your comfort?
Knowing clearly what you need from your next backpack can help you weed out many tempting offers in the market.
What backpack type is best for you?
The next thing you should consider is the type of backpack that fits your need. Based on whether you’re going for a one-day hike, packing heavy or light, your ideal pack will fall into the ultralight, lightweight, heavy-duty, or expedition categories.
Ultralight and lightweight backpacks come in lighter materials than the heavy-duty counterpart. It will also come with fewer features like compartments, room, zips, straps, pockets, and more.
This is to make the pack lighter for the user. Therefore, outdoorsmen call ultralight backpacks daypacks, as they are more equipped for a day’s backpacking trip.
On the other hand, heavy-duty knapsacks come with many pockets, straps, comfort features, and heavy-duty materials. You get all the attributes you need to carry heavy items for days with little to no discomfort.
However, when going for a long professional guided trip, an expedition backpack is the preferred choice as you need to pack lots of food and gear. These backpacks come with more room, weight, and features found on heavy-duty packs.
So, which should you go for?
If you’re going on short trails and packing light in the long-run, then an ultralight backpack like the Zomake Small pack is the right call. Inversely, if you’re going on long trails, intend to go on one soon, or pack heavy, then heavy-duty packs are the best. Another great example is the TETON Sports 3400.
As a bonus, regardless of the backpack you choose, always pack according to your weight. This will significantly improve comfort and mobility in your journey.
So, if you’re an ultralight backpacker, then ensure that your backpack’s loaded weight is 10% of your body weight. However, this will typically rise to 20% if you’re petite, as your necessities will likely exceed the recommendation.
That said, if you’re a heavy backpacker, then your loaded knapsack weight should be about 20% of your total weight.
What overall backpack size should you buy?
After figuring out the expedition backpack category your needs fall into, the next thing is to consider comfort. One of the factors that determine comfort is fit.
You might do well with any backpack that swings across your shoulder or has a handle for a short distance. Mostly when packing light. However, as soon as you’re out hiking with a random pack, you will begin to experience discomfort.
Poor weight distribution will force your shoulder forward or backward. All these can lead to back pains, a ruined hiking experience, and other complications.
The remedy to this is to stick to a knapsack that fits your back in length and torso width. Always test your pack fit the moment you get it. If you’re purchasing one from a local store, go with your loads to fill it with.
Some stores might have loads to fill theirs with during tests. So, ask them and carry the backpack to have a feel of its fit across your back.
You might find adjustable backpacks that, at your first attempt, are bigger or smaller than your fit. However, you can play with their settings to get the right fit. The TETON Sports Ultralight is a good example.
This can come in handy when you’re packing heavier or lending your pack to someone with different proportions.
How much space do you need?
This, once again, depends on the load you will be carrying with your backpack and how long you’re staying.
Ultralight backpacks usually come with a volume of 20 – 35 liters of space. While lightweight packs have 40 – 50 liters. As for heavy-duty packs, you can find one with 50 – 80 liters. Expedition backpacks are the highest in the backpack world at 80 – 110 liters of space.
It’s always easy to think the more space, the better. However, that’s not true. The higher the volume your backpack has, the more materials it uses, and the more weight it possesses.
Also, it tempts you to fill up the room to the detriment of your backpacking experience. Hence, when you’re going on a day’s hike, an ultralight pack is your best option. These backpacks will provide you all the space you need to pack your few supplies, gear, and clothing.
However, when you plan on spending three or more days in the wilderness, you should focus on lightweight to heavy-duty knapsacks. This once again is entirely dependent on the number of gears and supplies you’re packing.
With the room these packs provide, you will bring your tarp, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, food, and every other thing you need.
Why padding matters a lot
Paddings are one of the cornerstones of comfort when it comes to backpacking. These foams help ease off the discomfort caused by the weight you bear. You can typically find them on the shoulders, torso-back, and hip of many backpacks.
These are the three main areas of your body that bear the weight of your knapsack. With that said, your padding length must be long enough to cover all these parts properly.
For your shoulder, it should stop 2 to 3 inches above your armpit for full support. And for your hip, the pad should be broad enough to cover your hip bones.
Failure to do this can lead to soreness, discomfort, and pain eventually. You will also experience this outcome if the padding is too small or too large. Another reason why It’s vital for you to test-run your pack the moment you get it.
Now, the quantity and length of your backpack’s padding isn’t the only determinant of comfort. The kind of foam used can also ruin your experience.
Usually, there are four prominent foam types in the backpack world – open-cell foam, closed-cell foam, dual-density foam, and EVA foam. Each of these foams has their benefits and drawbacks.
Open Cell foams come from inflated rubbers. They have an excellent feel for the sense of touch. However, due to their structure, they don’t withstand the pressure that much.
This means they will cave in if introduced to a good amount of weight, leaving your shoulder and back at the receiving end of your pack’s weight. They’re not a viable option for lightweight to expedition backpack use-case.
This area is where the closed-cell foams thrive. They’re not made of open-air cells like their open counterpart. Hence, they’re hard to compress. However, they’re not cozy to the sense of touch.
This makes them a commendable option for ultralight to lightweight use-case but not that of heavy-duty to expedition.
Dual-density foams try to offer the best of both worlds by combining both types of foams. Manufacturers place the open cell foams above the closed counterpart and seal it.
This gives you a great sense of comfort when packing light or heavy, making this foam an excellent option for ultralight to expedition use-case.
Another ultra-comfort competitor is the EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam. Also known as expanded rubber, it comes in various densities. However, It’s normally dense than most of its competitors.
Eva comes from high-density polymers. It’s durable, comfortable, and highly springy against pressure. This makes it a top contender for comfort padding in ultralight to expedition backpacks.
External frame versus internal frame
A backpack’s frame gives it the shape it possesses and provides load support. They’re usually made from aluminum and designed to be either internal or external.
External frames are squarish and placed between you and your backpack. They also shoot out at the bottom of your knapsack. This kind of frame design became prominent in the 1960s for its use-case. It’s a preferred option when carrying additional loads that are uneven, bulky, and heavy.
This makes the external frame backpacks the best option for the military, hunters, and others carrying a lot. When paired with a good waist belt, this type of frame design helps you hold the extras without pulling your shoulder down. However, they’re not a great pair with uneven trails.
External frames don’t cause discomfort due to their design. In reverse, most provide you with the needed air pocket between your back and backpack to keep you dry.
For internal frame backpacks, manufacturers embed them into your pack to give it structure even when filled to the brim. It also helps to distribute the weight across your body evenly, so you don’t develop back pain and discomfort on your backpacking trip.
This frame design exists in various profiles and materials. You can find one of fiberglass or aluminum. Those of fiberglass contort to the shape of your back to provide higher comfort. However, those of aluminum do their job to keep your load in place.
You can find internal frame packs with thin to sturdier frame profiles depending on what kind of backpack you want. Most heavy-duty expedition backpacks come with harder external or internal frames and paddings to provide the support and comfort you need. The TETON Sports 3400 and Mountaintop Internal Frame packs are good examples of sturdy internal frames.
In contrast, some ultralight knapsacks, like the Zomake Small pack, come frameless to keep things on the light side. Others, alongside lightweight backpacks, own lighter frames that are strong enough to withstand a weight of 35lb.
Do you need a suspension system?
A suspension system is a group of backpack features that makes it comfortable at your back and improve your mobility.
This suspension system consists of frames, straps, load lifters, back panels, hip belts, and harnesses. When properly designed, they allow you to hike, run, and tackle rugged terrain without continuously battling against the load.
This system comes in handy when you’re packing heavy for a multi-day trip. With it, you get the weight from your backpack evenly distributed across your body.
However, you don’t need a full suspension system when packing light for a day’s backpacking trip. Backpacks like the Zomake Small and the Outdoormaster hiking pack are meant for a day’s hike. So, they don’t usually come with a complete suspension system.
Why is a ventilation system needed?
When you’re on a challenging trail like Drakensburg “dragon mountain” South Africa or Kalalau trail, Hawaii. or rather, hiking through one of the warmest tracks like Jud Wiebe, Colorado, you’re likely to develop a sweaty back without a ventilation system.
This system consists of a mesh and the contortion of your pack’s back. This creates an air pocket and barrier between you and the bag. This way, you’re less likely to sweat. Even when you do, it evaporates quickly.
Besides the ventilation system’s effectiveness, you should know that it might add to the force pulling you back based on how concave the back is. This is likely to happen when the cavity is large, and you’re fully packed.
Inversely, such a backpack will limit the number of loads you can carry and their shape. To get the best ventilation, it’s best to go for one with just enough air pocket to get the job done. Many packs on our list did just that, like the TETON sports 4300 and Mountaintop internal frame packs.
Do you need a hydration system?
This is a matter of personal preference. Some outdoorsmen prefer to head out with their water bottles attached to the hip or side pockets. That way, they can easily retrieve it, gauge their water intake, and know when to seek out a water source for a refill.
Others enjoy the benefits of a dedicated hydration compartment (reservoir and hose), while some go for both worlds’ benefits.
Having a backpack that has a dedicated hydration system means zero condensed items in your pack. It also means easily keeping yourself hydrated with little to no effort on your side. However, being stored in your knapsack, you can’t know what is left and are likely to run out of water at the wrong time.
A simple fix for this is to bring bottles of water with you. Then you can use them as a supplement when your primary hydration source empties.
Moving on, the volume of your hydration system is also essential. A 3ltr hydration system can last you six hours if you drink a liter per two hours. But, it will also impact the overall weight of your loaded pack.
So, when buying a hydration system, consider all these and settle for one you can shoulder its weight and still get enough water out of it. Also, ensure it has an ergonomically placed slit for your water tubes, like the TETON Sports Grand, to cross to your shoulder. This allows seamless drinking while hiking.
What is the best material for an expedition backpack?
A pack’s material plays a crucial role in your outdoor experience. Inferior abrasion-resisting materials can come undone in the middle of the jungle- the same for inferior durability and waterproofing.
Hence, you need a backpack material that can allow you to hike light while keeping your loads safe from the weather and nature around you. Currently, there are lots of fabrics out there. However, cotton canvas, Cordura, Polyester, Nylon, and DCF (Dyneema composite fiber) are the most used for outdoor backpacks.
Cotton Canvas is a heavy cotton material synthesized to diminish its weight and improve its durability and waterproofing. It’s one of the least expensive backpack fabrics. But It isn’t suitable for more significant abuse from you, your loads, and nature. This makes it more suitable for warm weather conditions and lightweight backpacks.
Cordura fabric is a 6,6 nylon formular from Invista. This is one of the highly tough members of the nylon family. It’s air-treated and comes 15% more resistant to tear, 20% abrasion-resistant, and 15% stronger than the regular nylon. Thanks to its durability and lightweightness, you can find this fabric on several high-end expedition backpacks.
Nylon fabric has been the dominant alpha for quality backpacks since 1970. It hasn’t dropped from this position. Nylon is more durable, lighter, waterproof, and rot-resistant than Cotton Canvas. It’s equally more durable than polyester. However, It’s a bit more costly than the latter.
You can find a Nylon pack in various colors, toughness, and design- the most prominent being the ripstop pattern. As the name suggests, this interwoven nylon fabric prevents a tear from continuing.
Nylon works well with coating; hence, manufacturers can improve its ability. This makes it one of the best materials for packs from ultralightweight to expedition packs. However, unaided UV rays and prolonged saturation can weaken nylon.
Polyester is a hydrophobic (zero water absorption) material with higher resistance to UV rays. This makes it a great outdoor material. However, It’s less durable than nylon.
This fabric is less expensive than nylon, more recipient to dying, and recyclable. Thanks to all these, polyester makes an excellent fabric for ultralight to lightweight packs for adults and kids.
The top contender is Dyneema (DCF). This material is an extensively long chain of polyethylene widely used in the medical and industrial spheres. It’s 15x stronger than steel per weight with high abrasion, tear, chemical, and UV resistance.
This fabric is highly durable and immune to deformation. When used for high loads, it’s able to retain its form with no stretch. Therefore, it’s used both in defense for bulletproof vests.
Dyneema is also hydrophobic and exists in various densities. However, unlike polyester, it’s costly compared to nylon and doesn’t do well with dyes.
Due to its smooth and impenetrable nature, the traditional coloring method doesn’t work. Hence, you can only find a Dyneema pack in a white or black hue. That said, Dyneema fabric is suitable for lightweight expedition backpacks.
All these fabrics come in different densities and resistance. The measurement for resistance and durability is denier (D). the higher the number next to the D, the harder the fabric is to wear and tear.
What’s the best material for zippers and buckles?
Zippers and buckles are a part of the materials you should observe keenly. They can impact the comfort and functionality of your backpack.
Polyethylene and polyacetal resins are the best materials for zippers. They create durable zippers that can withstand harsh external and internal abuse for a long time. High-end backpacks might come with YKK grade zippers, known for their extreme durability, as seen in the Madingtop 65 pack.
For buckles, you will get a backpack with either metal or plastic buckles. Metal buckles are more durable than plastic buckles. However, they’re weightier, contributing to the overall weight of your pack. Contrarily, plastic fasteners are lighter. Some are very durable.
If you get a backpack with plastic buckles, test it before actual usage. Evaluate its structural integrity and overall toughness. This way, you advert sudden surprises on the trail.
Why color matters
What we see moves us. It can alter how we interact with an object. You should put this into consideration when selecting your next dream backpack. This way, it won’t lose its luster quickly.
That aside, the color of your backpack can keep you safe by blending with your surrounding. This is why you should have a couple of pack colors that will blend with the different topographies you visit year-round. The Mountaintop Internal Frame expedition pack and the Zomake Small day pack have over 11 distinct colors to choose from. You can always find one you like that fits different terrains.
Budget matters too
Don’t make the mistake of hunting for a backpack without having a price range. That will leave you confused and likely to dig deep into your pocket.
The best way to get the best deal out of your budget is to have one set. Then using our detail guide, search for a backpack that provides the most value for the price. You’re likely to find a hidden gem.
With that said, setting a high budget for your backpack is never a waste. In reverse, it’s the best decision.
Most of the premium features we have listed here are only present in high-end knapsacks. These features will improve your backpacking or hiking experience significantly.
However, they’re not always a must. It all depends on what outdoor activity you have in mind and the loads you’re bringing along. You can always find a backpack within $100 to provide all you need for most trails and occasions.
Conclusion: What is the best expedition backpack for your needs?
There are many great hiking packs on our list today for various use-cases. However, only a few were able to stand out from the crowd. The TETON Sports ultralight, Madingtop MOLLE backpack, and the TETON Sports Scout 4300 are the topmost.
Our best pick is the TETON Sports Scout 4300. This is because it hits the sweet spot in comfort, budget, durability, and every other key factor determining a superb hiking experience. Our second and third runner-ups are the Madingtop MOLLE Hiking backpack and TETON Sports Ultralight, respectively.