A good backpack is imperative to a good day out in the mountains. And your needs will vary depending on whether you are on a day trip, or are on a longer multi day trek.
When out hill walking and trekking you will need to bring everything that you will need with you, and in alignment with the hill walking code of leave no trace, you are going to have to bring it back out with you as well! This will mean packing water, food, tents, clothing, first aid kits, torches, maps, compass and a myriad of other equipment, which can add up to a hefty weight. This means that comfort and support are going to be incredibly important in order for you to have an enjoyable hill walking experience.
There are a veritable plethora of backpacks available to the would be hiker, and these vary in style, size and weight. Starting with the smallest first, there are a number of small day packs and waist pouches that may come in handy for a short trek or hike. Whilst technically they may not constitute a back pack, they can come in very handy, and are so small and light weight that you will forget you are wearing them, which means you are free to enjoy the hills without carrying a large burden. When you select a waist pouch, make sure the pouch is located at the base of the spine in the curve of your back, which is also very importantly close to your centre of gravity. The limited space means you will probably only get to carry a water bottle and a few other basics, and any more equipment will negate the effectiveness of the pouch and force you to go to the next level of day pack.
Most day packs are about 15 to 35 litres in size, with shoulder straps and usually one main compartment. Whilst they are great for a day trip, they are not big enough if you are intending to overnight. If you are looking for a day pack that will cater for a heavier load, look for one with a waist and chest strap. This will increase the overall support and stability of the day pack, and allow you to increase your load without putting undue strain on your body,
Your next step up would be something mid size, usually between 35 to 70 litres. A pack of this size will hold enough equipment for a few days, but not much more than that (ie Perfect for the Wicklow Way). You can also use them for a day walk if you have an exceptional amount of equipment. Usually packs of this size will have a lumbar pad to protect and support the base of the spine, with a wide hip belt to take some of the load from the shoulders and redirect it to the waist. This will save your back!
Anything over 60 litres would constitute an expedition pack, and a pack of this size can keep you going for anything from a few days of hill walking, and right up to a few weeks of serious trekking. These packs with also have a lumbar pad to protect and support the base of the spine, and a wide hip belt to take some of the load from the shoulders and redirect it to your waist, and importantly close to your centre of gravity.
When purchasing a mid size or expedition pack you should look for some of the following features:
Look for a hip belt that goes full circle under the lumbar pad and that it has soft and broad padding to avoid pressure points that could become painful whilst out hiking. A high friction fabric will also stop heavier loads from sliding down below your waist.
Generally the broader the shoulder harness the more comfortable it is, with good padding imperative to stop the shoulder straps from digging into your shoulders as you strain up the mountains. The chest strap should stop your shoulders from being pulled back, which will help with weight distribution and overall stability. You don't want to get half way through your hike and discover you can't continue because your shoulders are too sore. You wouldn't be the most popular member in your hillwalking club!
In larger backpacks a sturdy frame structure gives better support. Nowadays most backpacks have internal frames hidden in the fabric sheaths that consist of a combination of tough but lightweight materials.
Inner and outer pockets allow for a better separation of your provisions, gear and other pack contents. Outer pockets are mostly used for items that have to be available while out hiking. Outer pockets should not be over filled as this will shift your centre of gravity away from your body, and cause undue strain on your back.
Many backpacks are not completely waterproof, and they usually have a built in splash cover, which you can use to cover your entire back pack if it rains, effectively placing your backpack in a waterproof sack. This feature is very handy during rain, during river crossings and to keep your backpack protected from moisture (dew) overnight. Dont worry if your backpack doesn't have one built in, as you can buy these separately.
Most backpacks have exterior straps that allow you to fix equipment to the outside of the pack. These can come in handy for anything from hiking poles, Ice axes, crampons and any other extraneous equipment you have brought along! Hopefully you won't need these in Ireland.
With any back pack it is makes good sense to invest in a hydration pack/ water bladder. Some packs come with them already fitted, and most of them have a small compartment where you can put them, with room for the drinking tube and valve. These hydration packs are extremely handy, as you can drink whilst walking, and do not have to stop to remove a water bottle. As a result you will be far less likely to experience dehydration, as you will tend to sip water more regularly, as opposed to guzzling it every hour or so.
In conclusion, it is important that you select the right pack for you, and for the type of hike you are going to embark on. Don't let the wrong backpack slow you down. And remember, a day trip to the mountains will require a different pack then for a multi day trek. Happy hiking, and remember, leave no trace behind.