How to choose a climbing backpack for your Kinabalu trip

Choosing the right backpack is all about choosing a back that fits your needs! So before reading on take a moment to think about what you need a back for, you don’t want a 7000 cubic inches (ci) monster back for your trip up to the peak!

Okay, let me show you backpacks that I used for my Kinabalu trip. So, which one do you think is suitable? You can get the answer at the end of this article. Read on.

My backpacks up on Mount Kinabalu

The first thing that you have to know before you start Googling for the best backpack for your trip is knowing the features of your Mount Kinabalu climb. Basically, it would be:

  1. A 3D2N trip up to the peak (the most is 4D3N, but sometimes climbers do it in 2D1N) is usual. It depends on your preferences.
  2. As the weather on Mount Kinabalu is mostly unpredictable and wet, it is good if you have a backpack that is slightly waterproof.
  3. It’s a climbing, hiking and trekking combined together.
  4. As it is not a ‘technical climb’, you would not need a backpack with special features and extra pockets.
  5. As an advice, have a budget in your mind, how much you are willing to spend for the backpack so you still have plenty of money to buy other items.

Knowing all the climbing features of Kinabalu will actually narrow down your options to a more specific features of your backpack. Too big will be a hindrance for the climb and too small can leave you shivering while at the peak because of not enough clothing.

First, let us learn about the anatomy of the backpack (so that you know which one is the best for you):

Loading access:

  1. Top-Loading: Top-loading packs have one big hole at the top. Pro: These are stronger and more moisture resistant than panel-loaders. Con: They require more careful packing than panel-loaders, both to balance the load and to make items easily accessible.
  2. Panel-Loading: These have a large U-shaped front zipper, allowing access to more of the pack. Pro: You can find things faster, and don’t have to pack as carefully. Con: You can’t pack this as fully as a top-loading model, and zippers can fail.
  3. Hybrid-Loader: The best of both worlds. Usually a top-loader with vertical side zippers.

Size (with image examples):

  1. 10 L (liter) ~ 625 ci (cubic inches) – my Body Glove backpack
  2. 20 L ~ 1250 ci – my Pierre Cardin backpack
  3. 30 L ~ 1875 ci – my Sony Wega backpack
  4. 40 L ~ 2500 ci
  5. 50 L ~ 3125 ci
10L 20L 30L
10L (~625ci) 20L (~1250ci) 30L (~1875ci)
40L 50L L=liter
ci=cubic inches
40L (~2500ci) 50L (~3125ci)  

(Anything bigger than 50L is NOT suitable for your trip up to Low’s Peak of Kinabalu, unless you are climbing up to Eastern Plateau of the mountain)

Internal or external frame?

  • Internals feature a narrow, towerlike profile and integrate their framework inside the pack, behind the shoulder harness. The frame usually consists of “stays,” or flat bars, about an inch wide and 1/8-inch thick. Stays are usually aluminum and are configured in a V-shape. Alternative frame materials (such as composites) and stay-alignments (parallel, X-shaped; U-shaped) are sometimes used. Stays are removable and can be shaped to conform to your torso.
  • Externals connect a packbag to a rigid frame made of aluminum tubing. Externals ruled the backcountry until internal-frame design was introduced in the late 1970s. Internals have surged in popularity, yet externals are still a great choice for transporting heavy loads along trails. With an external, the pack’s weight sits more squarely on your hips; with an internal, the back, shoulders and hips share the load.

10 smart features of current available backpack:

  1. Generously padded hipbelts (unlike the thin cloth waistbelts found on Sixties-era backpacks) represent a major advancement in pack design and greatly enhance your ability to carry tonnage up the mountain.
  2. Most consist of various grades of foam: open-cell foam for cushioning, closed-cell or molded foam for firmness. The hipbelt should straddle your “iliac crest” – the 2 prominent bones on the front of your hips. This is the area where your pelvic girdle begins to flare out, providing the hipbelt with a stable, fortified foundation.
  3. Some internal packs place a thin but stiff sheet of plastic between you and the packbag. Often this is a material known as HDPE, or high-density polyethylene. This adds stiffness to the frame without adding much weight. Plus, it prevents objects in your pack from poking you in the back.
  4. Internals sometimes include some type of mesh or foam panel that rests near the middle of your back. This is an attempt to separate the pack from your back and encourage some air flow between the two. It offers modest help. Here is a trail-tested truth: Count on having a sweaty back if you tote an internal.
  5. This involves the shoulder straps (padded and contoured), load-lifting straps, a sternum strap and belt-stabilizer straps. So-called ladder suspensions typically allow you to reposition the shoulder harness in 1-inch (or, preferably, smaller) increments. The more fine-tuning a pack permits, the better the fit.
  6. Common materials are packcloth (a sturdy grade of nylon) and Cordura, a burly fabric with a brushed finished. Both resist abrasion and are coated for water resistance. Cordura is tougher and a bit heavier. Ballistics nylon, a strong, lightweight material, has popped up in newer pack designs and seems to work well. Internals usually offer an “extendable collar” or “spindrift collar” – additional nylon with a drawstring closure that allows the main compartment to stretch higher and hold extra gear.
  7. Many internals allow you to detach the “floating lid” pocket from the pack and convert it into a fanny pack or daypack. That’s a handy feature for your second phase of your climb up to Low’s Peak.
  8. Water-bottle holders/hydration pockets: Externals offer plenty of side pockets where you can stash a water bottle. Internals rarely do, although several now offer elasticized mesh “holsters” on the side where you can keep small bottles handy. Hydration systems (water reservoirs, or bladders, connected to a long sipping hose) have boomed in popularity. Many high-end packs now offer such systems.
  9. Lash points allow you to attach even more gear to your pack if you feel the need. Climbers should look for hiking pole loops and daisy chains (a series of small loops where you can dangle gear, such as carabiners). A so-called shovel pocket holds items tight against the back of your pack; it’s a good place to stash wet things. All of these extras, of course, add weight to a pack.
  10. Some of the backpack manufacturer have also designed a backpack that is suitable for women’s back. For example, Deuter have actually made their SL system a special backpack “from women for women”.

Deuter SL for women

(Image courtesy of Rock Creek Outfitters. Click to enlarge.)

Enough with all those technical things. So, what would be the best for you? I have some little tips from my experiences…

I used 30L backpack {C}, waterproof with panel loading access for several of my 3D2N climbing trip to Kinabalu. I once used a 10L Body Glove backpack {A}, but find it a bit too small. With 30L I could lug more foods (as it is expensive at Laban Rata), medicines and first aid kit for the group I escorted. My 30L has an internal frame, nice padded hipbelt and sternum strap which I actually got it as a gift when I bought my 29 inches Sony Wega television 6 years ago. It also has double mesh side pockets for my water bottles. As the backpack does not have a detachable pack, I also brought separate lumbar/waist pack {D} for the second phase of the climb.

I never use my 20L {B} as it is my computer backpack. It has a notebook/laptop compartment, which I usually use during my travel back to Peninsular Malaysia by plane.

But that’s just my choice. I don’t know about you. If you think that you are going to do more activities other than climbing here in Sabah, you might want a bigger backpack (which you can actually keep it at Kinabalu Park while you are climbing up the mountain) and another smaller 10-20L backpack just for the climb.

Recommendation: You can choose from numerous number of available brand (or Made-in-China-without-a-brand), as long as it has all the features that you are looking for, value for money and durable. I personally would recommend that you check out Chitika eMiniMalls which have a lot of choices. Feel free to use their search button if you want something else. Deuter, The North Face, Gregory Alpinisto, Eagle Creek, Arc’teryx – to name a few recognizable brand around.

9 thoughts on “How to choose a climbing backpack for your Kinabalu trip

  1. This is one useful info Dr. I’ll save it for my future climb. You know la, all Sabahan wants to climb Kinabalu at least once in their lifetime kan..

  2. Me bought it at Jusco 40% dicount…. No lah, not all Sabahan want to climb Mount Kinabalu.. Me…. Only will go up if there’s a heli of lift, know my limitation. Half way through hangkang 😉

  3. Yes, maybe you are correct. Not all Sabahan want to climb Mount K. Anyway, if you train yourself enough, sure can sampai the peak punyalah!

  4. Hi, im planning to climb Mt. KK in July this year. Thanks for the tips on choosing the bag. There’s just one more thing i like to ask. How about the clothes you wear? Is it sufficient if we just wear windbreaker? Do we need to wear those thick ‘marshmallows’ like winter jacket? How about wearing jeans? Some of my friends said that wearing jeans will made it ‘heavier’ for us and harder to climb but i don’t wna be wearing a tracksuit and freeze up there. Pls advice. Thanks

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