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The Most Important Backpacking Backpack Features

Most Important backpacking backpack features

What makes a great multi-day backpack? Which features and capabilities are the most important to look for when purchasing a new backpack? While the weight of a backpack is stressed by many as its most important attribute, we wanted to understand what backpackers want in terms of functional capabilities independent of backpack weight.

We put that question to 402 backpackers to find out the most important features a pack “must-have” before they’d buy it. We also asked them which features they wouldn’t want on a backpack, “can’t-haves”, that would cause them to avoid purchasing it.

Backpack FeatureMUST HAVECAN'T HAVE
Adjustable/interchangeable length hip belt81.34%1.74%
Side water bottle pockets76.37%1.49%
Load lifters66.42%1.49%
Rear stretch pocket61.44%2.49%
Hip belt pockets56.28%2.99%
Ventilated back42.79%2.24%
Adjustable length torso36.57%12.69%
Top lid23.63%24.13%
Floating lid12.19%33.33%
Trekking pole holders11.69%21.64%

The results provide valuable insights into backpackers’ pack preferences, what they view as vital features on backpacks and the features they strongly object to that would prevent a backpack purchase.

Results

There were 402 participants in this survey.

  • 81.34% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without an adjustable length hip belt or one with interchangeable hip belt sizes. However, less than 2% would refuse to purchase a backpack that had them.
  • 76.37% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without side water bottle pockets. However, less than 2% would refuse to purchase a backpack that had them.
  • 66.42% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without load lifters. However, less than 2% would refuse to purchase a backpack that had them.
  • 61.44% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without a rear stretch pocket. However, less than 3% would refuse to purchase a backpack that had them.
  • 56.28% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without hip belt pockets. However, less than 3% would refuse to purchase a backpack that had them.
  • 42.79% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without back ventilation. However, less than 3% would refuse to purchase a backpack that had it.
  • 36.57% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack that does not have an adjustable torso length, while 12.69% said they would not buy a pack that had one.
  • 23.63% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without a top lid pocket, while 24.13% they would not purchase a backpack that had one.
  • 12.19% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without a floating lid, while 33.33% would not buy a pack that had one.
  • 11.69% said they would not purchase a multi-day backpack without trekking pole holders, while 21.64% would not purchase a pack that had them.

Discussion

What do these results indicate?

Must-Have Backpack Features

Over 50% the backpackers we surveyed agree that the following features are must-haves when buying a new multi-day backpack:

  • adjustable length or interchangeable length hip belts
  • side water bottle pockets
  • load lifters
  • rear stretch pocket
  • hip belt pockets

Adjustable Length or Interchangeable Hip Belts: Backpackers strongly prefer hip belts that are adjustable in length or available in different sizes independent of a pack’s torso length. While being able to choose different length hip belts for the same backpack has been the norm among cottage manufacturers like Gossamer Gear and Six Moon Designs for over a decade, backpack manufacturers that sell through brick and mortar or online stores have avoided it because it creates inventory headaches for their resellers.

That is changing as major manufacturers like Granite Gear introduce adjustable-sized belts that consumers can shorten or lengthen themselves, much like the current generation of adjustable torso-length backpacks. Check out Granite Gear’s new Crown 2 backpack which has an adjustable length hip belt, or the Lutsen model packs they introduced last year. Osprey Packs also taken a few steps on this direction with the adjustable Fit-on-the-Fly hip belt on the Volt, Viva, and Atmos AG backpacks.  I believe we’ll see a lot more mainstream manufacturers offering adjustable length hip belts in the next few years.

Side Water Bottle Pockets: Backpackers prefer packs with side water bottle pockets, which can also be used to store gear.

Load lifters: Load lifters are also considered a multi-day backpack essential and provide another way to fine tune the fit of a backpack. It makes sense that a majority of backpackers want them on a multi-day backpack.

Rear stretch pocket: Having a rear stretch pocket that you can put wet gear or stuff layers into is also a must-have for backpackers, something over 61% of our survey respondents agreed on.

Hip belt pockets: More than half of our respondents also considered hip belt pockets a must-have. I would have thought that this number would have been higher, but that’s why we run these surveys. To measure preferences.

Can’t-Have Backpack Features

We structured this survey to capture the “can’t-have” features in order to understand what features backpackers don’t want when they purchase a pack. We found that the most objectionable pack features were a top lid, a floating lid, and trekking pole holders. I’ll leave it to you to speculate why this is.

About this Survey

This survey was conducted on the SectionHiker.com website which has over 300,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking gear.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general backpacking population based on the size of the survey results where n=402 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant.

There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: backpackers who read SectionHiker.com might not be representative of all backpackers, backpacker who read Internet content might not be representative of all backpackers, backpackers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all backpackers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.

The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the very strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers who are interested in learning about the popularity of different backpack features and the reasons that their peers use to select the backpacks that they buy.

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11 comments

  1. It would be nice to have water pocket holders that are accessible and actually work, even while the pack is loaded out.

    To drop your pack to get a drink is ridiculous.

    Thank you for sharing the concerns of many….it seems like I may not be alone.

  2. I think it would be interesting to find out what kind of hiking the 2%, who didn’t like bells and whistles, did.

  3. IMHO, the most important features of a pack are fit, fit, and fit! The pack must fit me, fit the load I put into it, and be comfortable for me hiking all day on the trail with the load in it. All else is negotiable, although I prefer minimal bells and whistles to keep the weight down.

    For me specifically–the weight cannot rest on my shoulders, which are hypersensitive to pressure. That means effective load lifters, a comfortable and supportive hip belt, and excellent weight transfer to said hipbelt. For me, the only function of shoulder straps is to keep the pack from falling off my back. Obviously, others will have different requirements (YMMV!).

    Pack fit is as important and as individual as shoe fit, IMHO.

  4. I suspect the hip belt issue is a little ambiguous. The answers here also do not square well with “on the ground” data about the extreme popularity of the Osprey packs that have fixed belts (cf. the surveys by Appalachian Trials wrt the AT). My guess is that as we think about a pack in the abstract, like in answering this survey question, of course we want the belt to be adjustable because we want it to fit us. But if I go to a brick and mortar store and try it on and it just so happens that the belt feels great as is, then even though it is not adjustable I no longer care because it fits me now (with a few exceptions, like those who use one pack for summer and winter with more clothes on and still need adjustability …). The true core value is fit, as grannyhiker says, and that can be achieved in more than one way. Having said that, I strongly agree that any backpack without the ability to fit “disproportionate” people because of fixed belt size is alienating lots of customers.

    • I think you’ve confused ‘expressed need’ with ‘product availability.’ Many of the people, including AT thru-hikers who buy Osprey Packs, buy them because their the largest manufacturer of multi-day backpacks (like 70% market share) and that’s all they’re aware of. Osprey achieved that market-share by offering adjustable-length torso sizes, ironically.

      While I agree that this survey gave respondents a choice that is not available on the majority of backpacks today, namely adjustable or interchangeable hip-belts, it doesn’t negate the fact that they recognize the need for the feature. Overwhelmingly so, it would seem. If I were a backpack manufacturer, I’d be planning to offer an adjustable-length hip belt. The demand is obviously there.

  5. Interesting results! I was surprised at the high percentage of must-haves for the hip belt – especially since so few packs have them these days. I wonder if people read that question to mean just the strap/buckle tightening adjustment, rather than the length/adjustability of the padded portion itself? Also surprised at the low percentage of adjustable torso length fans. Maybe a couple generations of folks that have gotten used to the cost-saving-weight-saving-sku-minimizing models over the last several years. Great survey, thanks for sharing the results with us.

    • I’m a lot less concerned about people having misinterpreted the question. For one, it was worded carefully to prevent such confusion. Also, the survey captured additional data that I haven’t published that leads me to believe that people answered the question with the right intent. But I also intend to run future surveys to ask these questions a slightly different way to further validate those results. Appreciate your insightful thoughts though!

  6. I used to be very picky about my pack and how the pockets were arranged and what straps and suspension it had, but ever since I started going UL it has mattered less and less. Last year I sewed my own frameless pack that was based on a Gossamer Gear G4, and it was basically just a tube with some mesh pockets and a hip belt. I thought I would hate it, but it ended up being fine, my only real gripe was not being able to reach my water bottles (I ended up putting a clip on my water bottle and attaching it to the should straps).

    Anyways, if you can lower your pack down to the 10-20 lbs range, most of the fit and comfort issues sort of just disappear.

  7. I’m curious how readers would have responded to a separate compartment for a sleeping bag. Seems to be a common feature on many non-lightweight packs. I cut the divider out out my Osprey Volt 60, but am stuck with the zipper.

  8. Good survey… being a novice made me re-think what I really needed in a backpack…

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