Every beginner backpacker starts their journey by purchasing a pack. Choosing and sizing a pack can be challenging for experienced backpackers, it’s downright overwhelming for a beginner.
You have to deal with capacity, features, comfort, fit, etc. It seems like you need a Ph.D. in backpacking before you can even start. Don’t Worry! If you screw up it’s not the end of the world. Almost any pack can be adapted to your individual needs(that’s what makes backpacking fun).
After settling on pack size, style it’s time to deal with the nitty-gritty. Your next step is choosing all the little features that make backpacking easier. One of the first things you need to choose is whether you want a top-loading or front-loading backpack.
What’s the difference between a front-loading backpack and a top-loading backpack? What about panel-loading packs and side-loaders?
Should I Choose a Top Loading Pack or Front Loader?
Throughout the years, I’ve owned both styles of packs and used them extensively. There’s a time and place for both packs so you need to evaluate your needs.
Choosing between a top loader and front loader is easy. If you’re an offroad backpacker(on the trail) choose a top-loader. Front-loading packs are designed for adventure travelers heading from one hostel to the next.
You can use either style pack on the trail or while traveling. Just make sure your pack is extremely comfortable because you’ll likely carry it long distances. It’s all about finding the right fit and making sure shoulder/waist straps don’t dig into your body.
Top-Loading Pack vs Front-Loading Pack
Most of the packs you see at the store are top-loaders. This doesn’t mean top-loaders are better; they’re just easier to make and therefore cheaper to produce. With comparable products, the cheaper version will always be more popular.
- Top-Loaders: Top loading packs are the standard design. Go down to your local outdoor store and you’ll see dozens of designs. As the name implies, top-loading packs have one opening on the top. Most of the time there’s side pockets and the occasional side access zipper(kind of a hybrid setup).
- Front-Loaders(Panel Access): Some packs offer a zippered front panel that folds open, exposing the interior of the pack. It functions just like a suitcase, which allows you to reach items deep in the pack.
- Hybrid Designs: These packs offer the best features of both packs. You can jam the bag full from the top while having a separate access panel on the side. Definitely one of the best packs for adventure travel, but extra openings mean less water resistance(and you can’t use a bag liner).
Main Problem With Top Loaders
Personally, I prefer top loading packs over front loaders, but they do have one major problem. With a large top-loading pack you have to remain organized.
Getting down to the bottom of a large pack(bigger than 25Liters) will require a lot of digging. It’s not just a matter of opening up the compartment and seeing everything at once.
You have to pack everything vertically and think about what you’ll need throughout the day. Organize your pack so you don’t have to unload half your gear just to find that one little thing.
Most People Use Top-Loading Packs
The vast majority of people use top-loading packs. Does this mean that top-loading packs are better? No, Absolutely not. The reason most people choose top-loaders is because they’re cheaper and way more common. Very few packs on the market are front-loading(aka Panel-loading).
For extreme terrain, top-loading packs are a lifesaver. Although they’re not perfect, top-loaders are typically lighter, easier to carry and way more comfortable. Top loaders just fit your back better, especially on smaller people.
Make Sure You Get Lots of Pockets
Having lots of exterior pockets makes organizing your pack so much easier. You don’t have to dig around for lunch, rain gear, first-aid kit, etc. Although exterior pockets add weight it makes your life so much easier; everything is easy to reach.
Remember that on the trail you shouldn’t be digging around in your pack. If you properly pack your gear everything you could possibly need on the trail should be on top or in a pocket. You shouldn’t need to access the bottom of your pack.
Main Advantages of Top Loading Packs
- Better Fit(Especially on Smaller People): Since they don’t have a front access panel top loaders are usually thinner(width and depth) and more flexible. This makes them way easier on difficult terrain and while navigating through crowds. They just feel way more comfortable on extended trips.
- Better Support: These packs are designed specifically for use on the trail so they offer better support. They’re easier to adjust and way more comfortable when walking long distances. With a quality pack you can easily carry it for hours without any backpain. Front-loading packs are designed more for adventure travels heading from one hostel to the next.
- Lightweight: Since these are actually designed for hiking they typically weigh less than similarly priced front loaders. A few pounds off your pack makes a huge difference when you have to be on your feet all day. Whether you’re on the trail or looking for a hostel a top loader will always be more comfortable.
- Designed for Bad Weather: If you learn how to properly use a bag liner and raincover your gear shouldn’t get wet. All it takes is a cheap compactor bag (On Amazon) to completely waterproof your gear. There’s no way to get that level of protection with a front loader.
- More Durable(Less Likely to Fail): Adding a zipper to the main compartment of your pack adds a slight amount of risk. I once had a zipper fail on my front loader leaving me screwed miles out on the trail. Luckily I had a roll of duct tape in my pack so I rigged it up until the end of the trip. That’s the last time I used a front loader on backcountry hikes.
Top Loaders are Designed For Camping
I own both top and panel loading(aka front load) packs and I’m pretty much happy with both. Panel loaders provide better access when retrieving things, but that’s not really necessary on the trail. You’re better off using a hybrid top loader with front/side pockets and possibly zippered side access.
Deal with the main downside of top loading packs by tossing everything you could possibly need in outside pockets. Compartmentalize your gear and separate the important from the unimportant. By not disturbing the gear in your pack you can better protect your most important gear.
Just think about it for a second. Once you get to camp and start pulling out your tent, sleep system, cooking supplies, and clothes there’s not much left in there. Your pack should be pretty much emptied so there’s really no difference in convenience.
Combined with the simple fact that it’s more comfortable, lighter and easier to stuff, campers are better off with a top loader. Just keep it light and simple on the trail; there’s no reason to overcomplicate matters.
Sometimes You Need to Dig in a Top Loader
Even experienced backpackers sometimes have to dig in their top loader. There’s just no way to know exactly what you’ll need on the trail. I’ve had several occasions where all of a sudden I need something that I haven’t used in years.
As much as you try to optimize your pack, and put the most important stuff on top, sometimes you need to dig down and access the bottom of your pack. Of course, this always seems to happen at the worst possible time(like at the start of a rainstorm). Make sure you get lots of exterior pockets so you don’t have to dig. Unless you’re an ultralight hiker, the convenience is well worth the slight increase in weight.
Front Loaders vs Panel Loaders
It doesn’t matter if you call it a Front loader or panel loaders, because it’s the exact same thing. Backpackers tend to refer to them as panel loaders and adventure travels call them front loaders. These packs are two different names for the same design.
Front Loaders (aka Panel Loaders) Are For Travelers
Front load packs are designed more for city/country backpackers heading from one hostel to the next. You get the comfort/functionality of a trail pack with ease-of-access like a suitcase.
The entire front of your bag opens up just like a suitcase. This makes it so much easier to pack and access your clothes/gear. You can pack/repack and organize your gear on the go.
If you plan on traveling through the cities and doing a little shopping this is the way to go. Need to make room for something or take something out? Just set down your pack, get in and get in seconds without disturbing the rest of your gear.
Just like a suitcase, panel-loading packs tend to have interior straps and compartments for organizing your gear. Its just like you have a suitcase strapped to your back.
Front Loaders are Designed for Travel
Most front load packs are designed for light travel, not for the backcountry. They just don’t have large enough compartments for use on the trail.
Look for TSA friendly packs and make sure it can be used as a carryon. Osprey’s Travel backpacks(On Amazon) are the perfect size for a carry on. Osprey’s 40-55 Liter packs are the perfect size for traveling abroad.
Look For Flight Friendly Designs
There are lots of different packs on the market, some are cheap and others expensive. Look for TSA friendly designs so you can easily store your pack in overhead or under-bus compartments.
What Makes a Pack TSA Friendly?
- Compact Designs: Whether or not a pack fits in the overhead compartment depends on the airline. Budget flights seriously limit overhead cargo storage as a way to price gouge passengers.
- Locking Compartments: Using a lock on your pack will keep people honest. They might deter the casual thief, but pros will just slice through the side of your pack or just take the entire bag.
- Compression Straps: With the combination of compression straps and compressible stuff sacks you can really shrink the overall size of your pack.
- Exterior Pockets: Look for exterior pockets so you can quickly access important gear. You shouldn’t have to dig through your pack for regularly used items.
- Stowable Straps/Belts: I really love how my osprey pack lets you stow the shoulder/waist belts on the inside of my pack(check out my favorite travel pack on Amazon). It’s such a simple feature that radically improves the stowability of your pack(basically a suitcase).
Main Advantages of Front Load Packs
- Designed For Travel: Most front load packs are designed specifically for travel. They’re typically TSA friendly and easy to compress down so you can toss it in cargo compartments.
- Easy Access: Being able to access the inside of your pack is by far the biggest advantage to front-load packs. You don’t have to dig through a pile of gear to get to the back of your pack. Just flip it open, grab something and shut it down; it’s that easy.
- Easier to Pack: Treat your front loader just like any old suitcase. Easily organize your clothes/gear without having to worry about what you’ll need for the day. Just toss everything in and hit the bricks.
- Tougher Design(aka Heavier): In general, front load packs tend to be a little sturdier, which is good and bad. These are designed like a suitcase with straps, so obviously they tend to be heavier. Since they’re not designed for hiking these packs are made out of tougher materials and feel less comfortable.
- Lockable: There’s no easy way to lock a top-load pack. You can always use one of those Exomesh Bag Protectors(On Amazon) that wrap around the outside of your bag, but they draw a lot of unwanted attention to your pack. With a front loader just use a regular old cable lock and you’re good to go.
Front Load Packs Are Less Comfortable
Front load packs are great for traveling abroad, but they aren’t nearly as comfortable as top-loaders. If you plan on spending a lot of time on your feet do yourself a favor and buy a top-loader.
Head down to your local outdoor store and try on a few packs. If this is your first time backpacking go to a smalle niche store or your local REI and ask for help. Remember that most employees don’t have enough technical experience to intelligently fit and recommend a pack. Ask around and trust your gut if the guy doesn’t seem all that knowledgable.
Finding a pack that fits right isn’t easy. Front load packs aren’t made for everybody. These packs tend to be uncomfortable on women and shorter men. They just don’t have enough give to properly fit a short torso.