Choosing a Backpack for SOTA

I’m often asked the question of what backpack I use for SOTA activations.  I gladly answer the question, but will also encourage the individual to conduct their own research into what will work best for them.  Also, much like the topic of hiking boots (to be added later), I recommend you visit an outdoor specialty store and speak to their sales staff who can help size you for the correct fitting pack.

A little more fine print.  The information I’m providing in this blog post is going to be general in nature.  While I’ve been hiking/backpacking for over 30 years and have owned and used many different styles of packs, I encourage you to do your own research and again….I encourage you to try on many, many different packs before making your purchase. 

For this example, I’m going to discuss ideas for backpack selection for the typical SOTA or Summits On The Air activation.  This does not include the addition of camping and the need to carry a sleeping bag, tent, food etc. 

Internal or External?

Backpacks have changed significantly over the years.  Today there are essentially two main types of packs.  External frame packs and internal frame packs.   As you might guess, the supporting structure of the pack (frame) is on the outside for an external frame pack and inside for internal.  The picture below is an external frame pack made by Kelty.  External frame packs are still sold today, however the selection is limited compared to internal frame packs. 

Here’s an example of a typical internal frame pack style.

Deciding between an internal or external frame backpack might be as simple as looking in the corner of your basement to your old camping gear.  What ever you have already on hand, will certainly do the job.   However, if you don’t currently own a pack and need to purchase something, then I would recommend you go with the internal frame option. 

Does Size Matter?

Again as I mentioned at the top of the article, I’m talking about single day SOTA activations and not overnight or multi-day backpacking/SOTA activations where additional camping equipment would need to be considered.

Backpack size categories are usually referenced as day packs, weekend (1-3 days), multi-day (2-4 days) and extended (week+).

When I set out for multi-day backpacking adventures (with or without ham radio) I’m carrying a much larger pack with a capacity of some 75-80 liters and an empty weight of almost 5 pounds.  As you can imagine, a pack of this size is overkill for a typical single SOTA activation.

A pack around the 40-50 liter range would probably serve you well in most situations.  But of course, this really depends on the type of radio gear and batteries you are packing.  Smaller QRP rigs like the Elecraft KX3 and Yaesu FT-817 are small and compact.  Portable rigs like the Yaesu FT-897 will obviously require more space.

Seasonal Considerations

If you’re a four season SOTA activator like I am, then you may need to carefully think about pack size selection or simply purchase and use two different packs. 

Dressing in layers in the winter months is certainly recommended.  However, even at cold temperatures you may perspire.  This will especially be true along the areas of your body touching the back of the pack and shoulder straps.  Packing additional dry, warm weather clothing is a must if you expect to stay warm on the summit.

Internal Frame Loading Types

Internal frame packs are divided into two common categories consisting of top loading and panel loading.   There are also hybrid models that feature both top loading functionality along with panel loading features.   So what’s the difference?

Most top loading internal frame packs (shown above) require all items placed inside the pack to enter and exit through the top.  Other than the top pouch/cover, there is very little organization. 

However, panel loading packs will generally feature one large main compartment and one or more zippered pockets (shown below).  These additional pockets can help  better organize gear and accessories.  The pack shown below may very well become a favorite for SOTA activations with some of the features available (more about this later). 


Other Important Features to Consider

Just as important as the packs ability to carry and protect your gear.  Today’s modern backpacks do offer features to help make them more comfortable and more versatile.


Many packs will offer adjustable torso settings and some do not.  This is why it is important, really important to visit your local outdoor specialty store and have an associate measure and fit you appropriately.  

Hip/Waist Belt

Some packs in the small day-pack category do not provide a padded hip/waist belt.   I recommend the use of a padded hip/waist belt.  This will help alleviate some of the weight off the shoulders and place it on the hips.  It also helps provide stability for the pack to keep it from sliding and moving around.

Exterior Attachment Points

Depending on the type of gear you plan to carry on a typical SOTA activation, and the pack style you choose…it might be of benefit for the pack to feature attachment points on the exterior of the pack.   The ability to lash antenna masts, snow shoes etc. could be of benefit.

Hydration Compatibility

This was a key consideration in the next pack I purchased.  Many packs feature an internal pouch/pocket/compartment that is designed to hold a hydration reservoir of some type along with a tubing port to route the hose up and out of the pack. 


Some packs do include a somewhat built-in raincover or provide an external raincover that can be used.  The built-in raincovers are typically concealed in a small pouch on the pack and be be quickly retrieved and slipped over the pack.  A raincover will just help protect your valuable gear from getting soaked should you find yourself in an afternoon storm.

The SOTA Pack???

The pack I referenced earlier and said it “may very well become a favorite for SOTA activations with some of the features available” is the Kelty Redwing 50.  This pack is an internal frame, panel loading and falls into the daypack category of packs.  While it may not be suitable for an overnight camping trip, I feel it may work well for SOTA activations.

Unlike a top-loader, the Kelty Redwing 50 has a large internal main compartment and five additional pockets to help organize and protect your gear.  On the exterior (next to the two side pockets) an open slot or pouch would certainly work well for short antenna mast sections and other similar longer items.  The side pouch features a Velcro closure which allows longer items to pass through to the mesh water bottle pockets on each side.


The Pros

In my opinion, this pack is the perfect size for my SOTA activations.  Inside the main compartment I have plenty of room to pack my KX3 (inside my Zagg Aluminum box)  along with my Buddipole 4S4P battery pack and other smaller Buddipole antenna accessories.  I also have additional room in this roomy main compartment for extra clothing for cold weather activations.

The smaller compartments on the sides and back of the pack are also perfect to store The Ten Essentials along with other items which have normally just floated around inside the main compartment of my older top-loading pack.

Finally, in the smaller front pocket I can keep pens, paper and it is also roomy enough for my iPad.  This pack is also hydration compatible and my Nalgene bladder and tube fits and functions beautifully.

The pack fits really well and is comfortable to carry for long periods.  I really like the waist belt adjustment straps.

The Cons

There is no major adjustment for this pack. I took the time to visit REI (where I purchased the pack) and was properly measured.  My torso size is 20” and this pack fits torso sizes from 17.5 to 21 inches.  Since I’m almost 46 years old, I am pretty sure I’m done growing any taller and hopefully this pack and my enjoyment of SOTA will assist me from growing any wider.  The good news for me is the pack fits like it was made custom just for me.  Your mileage may vary.

Also, I really wish this pack had a built-in raincover.  While it doesn’t, Kelty does make one that fits the pack nicely.

In closing, I really enjoyed writing this how to article.  I realize the only connection to amateur radio is through SOTA, but I have been wanting to write this article since it is a common question I’m asked. 

Also, just as a reminder.  I mentioned earlier that the best pack for your use might just be the one you already have.  I truly mean this.  The intent of this article is not to get you to rush out and purchase a new pack and certainly it is not intended to direct you automatically to the Kelty Redwing 50.  It’s purpose is to help educate you on a few of the points and features of backpacks available today.  I hope this helps you.

Until next time,

73 de KD0BIK

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2 Responses to Choosing a Backpack for SOTA

  1. Jerry,
    A 20% off coupon from REI arrived the other day, so I felt compelled to take a look at the Redwing pack. I decided to buy it, based on the practical design and the intense peer pressure from you. Smilie: :-)

    Thanks for the pointer to a nice pack.

    73, Bob K0NR

    • Bob,

      Beware that I’m working on a article on a new pair of hiking boots I also purchased a few weeks ago. I’ll apologize for the intense peer pressure in advance.


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