Gone are the days when backpacking consisted of strapping on a huge external frame and lumbering through the forest with an aching body. Trends in backpacks these days err towards minimalism and thoughtful, ergonomic design. Below are our favorite backpacking packs for the 2017 season, from ultralight bags for minimalists and thru-hikers to comfort-oriented options for weekend warriors and extended trips. For background information, see our backpack comparison table and buying advice below the picks. To complete your kit, we’ve also tested and written about backpacking tents and sleeping bags.
Weight: 4 lbs. 9 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 630D)
Capacities: 50, 65L
What we like: Close fit and fantastic back ventilation.
What we don’t: No zipper to the main compartment.
Women's: Osprey Aura AG 65
The Atmos AG is our top backpacking pack for 2017 by deftly balancing all of our priorities: comfort, organization, durability, and weight. The attention grabber is the suspended “Anti-Gravity” backpanel, but we like the Atmos because it’s a lot more than just an advancement in pack ventilation. We’ve found it easy to dial in a good fit, the pocket design is thoughtfully laid out (although we’d prefer zippered access to the main compartment), and it’s tough enough for rough treatment while staying under 5 pounds. Overall, the Atmos is an extremely well rounded design that works great for anything from quick overnight trips to extended jaunts into the backcountry.
As mentioned above, the most prominent feature on the Atmos AG is its mesh backpanel. Bucking the trend of protruding foam panels that contact your back in certain areas—back, lumbar, and hips—the Atmos AG has a single large ventilated panel that covers the entire back and hipbelt. The result is best-in-class ventilation, and the flexible mesh conforms to your back and waist very well. Impressively, the design manages to carry heavy gear comfortably—we’ve had it loaded with over 45 pounds on more than one occasion—although the mesh is a little less supportive than the foam on a pack like the Gregory Baltoro below. Those looking to shave weight certainly can do so with one of ultralight choices below, but it’s tough to beat the feature set and build quality of the Atmos AG... Read in-depth review
See the Osprey Atmos AG 65
Weight: 5 lbs. 1 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D & 300D)
Capacities: 65, 75, 85, 95L
What we like: Excellent carrying comfort.
What we don’t: Heavy and has average back ventilation.
Women's: Gregory Deva 60
Gregory has earned a reputation for comfort over the years, and their flagship men’s Baltoro and women’s Deva packs carry on the tradition. These bags are intended to carry heavy loads with strong suspensions, firm but supportive padding, and excellent organization. If not for the weight of the Baltoro, which creeps over 5 pounds in a medium, it would be a major contender for our top spot. But for those looking for a pack that can haul serious loads, including long-distance trekkers, those who like to pack in a little luxury, or in our case, to haul all the gear we’re testing, the Baltoro is a favorite.
Outside of a relatively heavy weight, we do have a few other nitpicks with the Baltoro 65. One is back ventilation, which is merely average and falls well short of the Atmos above. Additionally, we like the idea of the hydration sleeve that converts to a daypack, but it isn’t as comfortable as we’d prefer for use as a summit bag. On the other hand, the Baltoro has an important feature missing from the Atmos above: zippered access along the front of the pack to the main compartment. All in all, we really like the Baltoro: it’s our go-to pack for when we need to carry serious weight, and its durable construction is made to outlast the lightweight competition... Read in-depth review
See the Gregory Baltoro 65
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.7 oz.
Fabric: Robic nylon (100D)
What we like: Impressive durability, capacity, and comfort for the weight.
What we don’t: Foam back panel bunches up.
A number of ultralight packs are designed for thru-hikers and minimalists, but our top pick is the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60. Most impressive is how few tradeoffs there are in using this 2-pound 3-ounce bag (ours has a large frame and medium hipbelt). While brands like Hyperlite and ZPacks use Dyneema fabric (formerly cuben fiber) to cut weight, Gossamer Gear uses a light yet tough Robic nylon. Unlike our Dyneema packs, we’ve had no issues with punctures or wear from the Mariposa. It’s still smart to take extra care when bushwhacking or setting the pack down on rocks, but so far it’s the least compromised ultralight pack we’ve tested.
Organization on the Mariposa is excellent. In addition to the large main compartment, the pack has a total of 7 external pockets of varying sizes, making it easy to distribute your gear. Comfort-wise, we’ve found the Mariposa has sufficient padding and plenty of support right up to its 35-pound maximum rating. If we were to change one thing, it would be the back panel: the removable foam padding is prone to bunching and we prefer to leave it behind. Otherwise, the Mariposa stands out as the most complete ultralight pack on the market and a great option for backpackers looking to cut weight... Read in-depth review
See the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
Weight: 4 lbs. 13 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D & 630D)
Capacities: 48, 70, 85L
What we like: Excellent balance of weight, comfort and value.
What we don’t: A (small) step down in overall quality.
Women's: REI Co-op Traverse 65
REI’s house brand of packs consistently ramps up quality and integrated technology, year after year, while still hitting a really nice price point. The Traverse 70 is no exception. While not as premium a hauler as the top 2 picks, the foam on the shoulder straps and hip pads is noticeably high quality, and the proprietary UpLift compression technology snugs your gear in close to keep the pack well connected to you. More, a smooth j-shaped zipper offers easy access to the main compartment.
The 70-liter volume will easily go on a multi-day quest, but it compresses down really well for smaller, weekend loads. Lastly, it’s super durable, and for the volume of gear it can hold, has a very respectable empty weight. The Traverse 70 is definitely worth a look for those that need a little extra space for their backcountry escapades.
See the REI Co-op Traverse 70
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D)
Capacities: 38, 48, 58L
What we like: Superlight, quality construction, comfy fit.
What we don’t: Thinner fabrics, fewer pockets.
Osprey is a backpack juggernaut thanks to its great reputation for quality builds, excellent organization, and comfort. The Exos 58 is Osprey’s take on a superlight pack (also offered in 38 and 48 liter capacities), and one of our favorites in this category. While it’s widely described as an ultralight—with the 2.5-pound weight to back it up—this isn’t your typical super compromised model that can only carry a sawed off toothbrush and some Crocs. This makes it very popular with thru-hikers, and we've found it comfortable loaded down with more than 30 pounds of gear.
You can thank an actual suspension for the reasonable carrying abilities, complete with a peripheral frame and single metal cross support. The layered mesh covering the shoulder straps and hipbelt, while looking and feeling like something that could be found on a sailboat, is actually quite comfortable and helps with breathability. If you’re into packing light on your adventures and are willing to take extra care with the thin 100-denier fabric, the Exos 58 is well worth a look.
See the Osprey Exos 58
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.3 oz.
Fabric: Dyneema (50D & 150D)
Capacities: 40, 55, 70L
What we like: Incredibly light and water resistant.
What we don’t: Minimal organization.
Dyneema Composite Fabrics—formerly Cuben Fiber until a recent name change—has arrived on the ultralight backpacking scene in a major way. This unique fabric is among the strongest in the world in terms of strength-to-weight ratio, resists moisture to an impressive degree, and is super lightweight. In outdoor gear, you’ll see Dyneema in ultralight backpacks and shelters with Maine-based Hyperlite Mountain Gear leading the charge. The company makes a number of backpack options depending on conditions and sizing, and we think the 3400 Southwest is their best all-rounder.
At 55 liters, the 3400 (for 3400 cubic inches) has the capacity to take on seriously long trips and has become a go-to pack for thru-hikers. In our hands, it has seen duty as an overnight and multiday backpacking pack as well as a packrafting dry bag. What stands out as most impressive is its ability to haul weight comfortably. Whereas most minimalist models are unable to handle a load, the aluminum stays and firm foam padding provide plenty of structure and support. To be clear, the design is undeniably basic, with only the main compartment and 3 exterior pockets for organization. But for those looking for a pack that can haul serious weight at only 2 pounds, the 3400 Southwest is top of the heap... Read in-depth review
See the Hyperlite 3400 Southwest
Weight: 5 lbs. 3 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D & 500D)
Capacities: 60, 70, 85L
What we like: Strong construction and feature-rich.
What we don’t: Most backpackers are still better off with the Atmos.
Women’s: Osprey Ariel AG 65
For 2017, Osprey’s popular Aether pack is now the Aether AG. The most significant update is the all-new suspended mesh backpanel, which shares a similar design to our top pick, the Atmos AG above. Unlike the Atmos, however, the Aether is more focused on the heavy hauling and light mountaineering crowd and retains a heat moldable foam hipbelt. This gives the pack added support if you have it loaded down with gear. It’s also the more feature-rich Osprey option with a J-shaped zipper to get into the main compartment and an innovative top lid that removes and converts into a complete daypack.
The primary downside of the Aether AG 70 is its weight. The new 2017 model actually has gained a few ounces, which puts the empty weight of a medium at a hefty 5 pounds 3 ounces—more than the Gregory Baltoro above. As a result, we think the majority of backpackers will find the Atmos is the better all-around design and a better value. But the Aether still has its place in Osprey’s lineup and on our list if you haul a lot of gear, like the extra features, and need a bomber pack... Read in-depth review
See the Osprey Aether AG 70
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
Fabric: Cuben Hybrid (2.92 oz/sqyd)
What we like: Incredibly lightweight; very water resistant.
What we don’t: Not very durable.
Weighing at least half a pound less than the next lightest pack on our list, the ZPacks Arc Blast takes the ultralight crown. The 55-liter model we tested comes in at an amazing 1 pound 8 ounces including optional extras like 2 hipbelt pockets. In terms of construction, the Arc Blast uses a similar water-resistant Dyneema (ZPacks calls it Cuben Hybrid) construction as the Hyperlite above but in an even more streamlined form. This accounts for the low weight but we’ve found it less durable for rough treatment and off-trail scrambling (we got a small puncture in the bottom of our Arc Blast setting it down on a rocky section of trail).
The “Arc” in the name comes from its unique tensioning system that pulls the middle of the bag away from your back, encouraging airflow and alleviating the need for a foam back panel. Combined with a carbon fiber frame, the pack has a solid structure and provides good support for loads up to about 30 pounds. We wouldn’t recommend carrying much more, however, as the padding is pretty minimal. All in all, the Arc Blast may not be durable or comfortable enough for regular weekend backpackers, but if you treat it with care, it’s an excellent option for serious thru-hikers and minimalist trekkers.
See the ZPacks Arc Blast 55L
Weight: 5 lbs. 0 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (420D)
Capacities: 50, 63L
What we like: Innovative and functional hipbelt design.
What we don’t: Very, very expensive.
Women’s: Arc’teryx Bora AR 61
Arc’teryx is known for innovation in outdoor gear, and for 2017 they’ve turned their attention from ski boots to backpacking packs. Building on the excellent rotating hipbelt design of their Altra pack, the Bora AR offers even more mobility and comfort. The RotoGlide, as Arc’teryx calls it, places the hipbelt along a track in the backpanel that allows it to move up and down as you lean forward on a climb. Simply put, nothing else on the market can match this level of customization. In addition, Arc’teryx uses a durable waterproof fabric along the top and front of the bag for fantastic weather resistance. For year-round backpacking in tough conditions and on and very rough trails, you won’t find a better option.
As expected from Arc’teryx, the biggest obstacle with the Bora AR is price. Our top-rated pack, the Osprey Atmos AG, is less than half the cost of the Bora and plenty comfortable for most backpacking trips. The Arc’teryx is a better prospect if you’ll be tackling challenging terrain in inclement weather where it’s defining features—the hipbelt and waterproof materials—truly shine. But it’s a relatively small subset of the market that will value the Bora AR, which pushes it down a few spots on our list.
See the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
Weight: 3 lbs. 1.6 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
Capacities: 35, 45, 55L
What we like: Very customizable fit and can haul a load up to 40 pounds.
What we don’t: Only a top loader; too many compression straps.
The Granite Gear Lutsen features an innovative fit system in a lightweight and functional design. Dubbed Re-Fit, the pack’s hipbelt and shoulder straps can be adjusted to your exact hip and torso lengths with a simple but precise Velcro system. This is a notable improvement over most backpacking packs, which lack clear sizing markers and only adjust between a few fixed points. The result is a close and customized fit.
Aside from the Re-Fit adjusters, the Lutsen is a very solid all-around pack. It’s competitively priced at $220, and despite weighing only 3 pounds 1 ounce, is capable of hauling a load up to 40 pounds. We would prefer another access point to the main compartment to reach items on the bottom, but the 7 exterior pockets make it easy to store things on the outside that you want close at hand. The Lutsen line is focused on overnight and lightweight weekend trips, and is offered in 35, 45, and 55-liter models... Read in-depth review
See the Granite Gear Lutsen 55
Weight: 3 lbs. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D)
Capacities: 35, 50, 65L
What we like: Light but carries weight comfortably.
What we don’t: No center access zipper.
Women’s: The North Face Banchee 65
Cutting weight from a backpack usually compromises comfort and usability, but the Banchee bucks that trend with a fully featured design at well under 4 pounds. Its exterior organization is our favorite design on this list, with 8 properly sized pockets that make it really easy to distribute the gear you want close at hand. Another typical sacrifice in appeasing gram counters is carrying comfort, but the cushioned padding and capable aluminum frame can haul a load over 40 pounds nearly as well as the top rated Baltoro.
Its natural competitor is the REI Traverse, which has the same list price and similar pocket design. The Traverse is more feature-rich, and we particularly like the main compartment access zipper (the Banchee is only a top loader), but the Banchee is over a pound lighter and has better back ventilation. It’s a tough call between them, and while we give the edge overall to the Traverse, both are excellent options at competitive prices.
See The North Face Banchee 65
Weight: 2 lbs. 9 oz.
Fabric: Robic nylon (210D)
What we like: Large capacity and fairly durable for the weight.
What we don’t: Weighs more than the ultralight options above.
Utah-based ULA Equipment has gone from a relative unknown to a darling of the PCT and AT in only a few short years. Leading the charge is their Circuit 68-liter pack, which offers an excellent compromise of weight, durability, and functionality for the thru-hiking crowd. The design is streamlined but retains good organization with a very large front mesh pocket and zippered hipbelt compartments. The Circuit is similarly comfortable as the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 above, but as with the Mariposa it is recommended that you keep your pack weight under 35 pounds.
The ULA Circuit is differentiated from the other ultralight packs on this list by its durable build. The 210-denier Robic nylon is abrasion resistant and much less prone to punctures than the Dyneema Hyperlite and ZPacks designs above. The Mariposa 60 also uses Robic nylon, but it’s a lower denier and as a result a little less tough. That being said, we’ve found the Mariposa to be plenty durable and it gets the edge over the Circuit due to the significant 8-ounce weight savings. But if you’re willing to compromise a little on weight, the Circuit is an impressive high-capacity, sub-3-pound backpack option.
See the ULA Circuit 68
Weight: 3 lbs. 13 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D)
Capacities: 40, 50, 65L
What we like: Quick adjustments in the field for comfort.
What we don’t: Could use more pockets/organization.
Women's: Deuter ACT Lite 45+10 SL
The ACT Lite comes from Deuter’s entry-level line of packs, but it’s an outstanding value for what you get. A very customizable suspension system has shoulder straps that adjust up and down quickly and easily to accommodate various torso sizes, so this pack is only offered in one size (this is a great feature for dialing in fit or if you anticipate ever sharing the pack with friends or family). The downside is that some might find it difficult to get the perfect fit, but the single pack design keeps costs down, which in turn means the overall quality of the materials stacks up well with competition that retails for $20 or more.
A unique system on the back panel on the ACT Lite keeps air flowing in hot weather, and the bottom compartment has a zippered divider that is handy to separate a sleeping bag or wet, sweaty clothes from the rest of the pack. Deuter gets the “+10” in the volume rating from the floating lid on that pack that will expand or contract as needed. It’s down a few organization pockets for our liking, but the quality of construction makes it a solid budget option.
See the Deuter ACT Lite 50+10
Weight: 3 lbs. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 420D)
What we like: Innovative compression system that really works.
What we don’t: Heavy for its lightweight intentions.
Women’s: REI Co-op Flash 60
The prior versions of the REI Flash backpack were too flimsy and compromised to make our list, but a nifty compression system has finally made the Flash 65 a worthy competitor. Dubbed UpLift, a series of straps along the bottom of the pack pull the load in and up, which improves carrying comfort substantially. True, weight has also increased over the old Flash 62 (up about 10 ounces) but the pack is far more useful to the average weekend backpacker, and a change to the padding on the hipbelt has also made it more comfortable.
The increase in weight has decreased its appeal to ultralight seekers, however. Those folks will be much happier with the Hyperlite above or one of Granite Gear’s minimalist options. We do think the extra weight has been smartly distributed, including a large J-zipper to access the main compartment. The Flash 65 is no longer a value-priced ultralight option, but it still has a strong appeal for those wanting to cut weight without giving up too many features.
See the REI Co-op Flash 65
Weight: 4 lbs. 13 oz.
Fabric: Polyester (420D)
Capacities: 65, 80L
What we like: Cheap and surprisingly comfortable.
What we don’t: Not as good for heavy loads.
Women's: Kelty Coyote 60
Kelty generally targets the entry-level end of the camping and backpacking spectrum, but we appreciate the reasonable prices and sturdy builds. The Coyote 65 is a great backpacking pack for first-timers, weekend trips, and just about anyone else who wants to keep the tab under $200.
The signature feature here is the “Perfect Fit” system: instead of making the pack in a few different sizes, an on-body adjustment system allows you to dial in fit around your waist, torso, and shoulders (this even means that you can share the pack or lend it to a friend). You’ll find that the padding, pockets, and adjustments aren’t as high-end as the pricier packs above, and it isn’t ideal for carrying ultra-heavy loads or covering tons of miles. But it’s a versatile budget pack that may surprise you with its comfort.
See the Kelty Coyote 65
|Osprey Atmos AG 65||$260||4 lb. 9 oz.||Nylon (100D x 630D)||50, 65L||Top||8 exterior|
|Gregory Baltoro 65||$299||5 lb. 1 oz.||Nylon (210D & 300D)||65, 75, 85L||Top, front||8 exterior|
|Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60||$260||2 lb. 0.7 oz.||Robic nylon (100D)||60L||Top||7 exterior|
|REI Co-op Traverse 70||$239||4 lb. 13 oz.||Nylon (210D & 630D)||48, 70, 85L||Top, front||9 exterior|
|Osprey Exos 58||$220||2 lb. 10 oz.||Nylon (100D)||38, 48, 58L||Top||7 exterior|
|Hyperlite 3400 Southwest||$340||2 lb. 0.3 oz.||Dyneema (50D & 150D)||40, 55, 70L||Top||3 exterior|
|Osprey Aether AG 70||$310||5 lb. 3.4 oz.||Nylon (210D & 500D)||60, 70, 85L||Top, front||7 exterior|
|ZPacks Arc Blast 55L||$325||1 lb. 5 oz.||Cuben (2.92 oz/sqyd)||55L||Top||3 exterior|
|Arc'teryx Bora AR 63||$549||5 lb. 0 oz.||Nylon (420D)||50, 63L||Top, side||6 exterior|
|Granite Gear Lutsen 55||$220||3 lb. 1.6 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||35, 45, 55L||Top||7 exterior|
|The North Face Banchee 65||$239||3 lb. 10 oz.||Nylon (210D)||35, 50, 65L||Top||8 exterior|
|ULA Circuit 68||$235||2 lb. 9 oz.||Robic nylon (210D)||68L||Top||5 exterior|
|Deuter ACT Lite 50+10||$189||3 lb. 13 oz.||Nylon (210D)||40, 50, 65L||Top||6 exterior|
|REI Co-op Flash 65||$199||3 lb. 10 oz.||Nylon (100D & 420D)||65L||Top, front||6 exterior|
|Kelty Coyote 65||$180||4 lb. 13 oz.||Polyester (420D)||65, 80L||Top, front||7 exterior|
- Recommended Capacity
- Backpack Weight and Load Range
- Padding and Support
- Backpack Organizational Features
- Water Protection
- Ultralight Backpacking Packs
- Pack Sizing: Know Your Torso Measurement
Rules about how big of a pack you need are not hard and fast. Multiple factors come in to play such as how many nights your trip is and what time of year you are backpacking (bulkier gear is needed for cold weather). One point should stand out, however. Make sure to match your pack's capacity to your type of gear you'll be bringing. Do you have dated gear that doesn't compress well, or do you like to bring along a few extras? Then make sure to get a correspondingly cavernous pack. Sizing down to a lightweight modern tent and down sleeping bag will allow for more flexibility in size options.
The majority of backpackers take short trips, usually in the 1-3 day range, and for those uses, a pack in the 50-70 liter range is most popular. At around 50 liters, you’ll need to keep your packed weight low, stick to the essentials, and be sure to use the aforementioned compressible gear. While at 60 liters and more, you have enough space to take on a few additional items—great for parents with kids in tow. Within each of the ranges we have listed below, you can follow those general guidelines: minimalist to bulky (or a lot of) gear.
- Overnight: 35-55 liters
- Weekend (2-3 nights): 45-70 liters
- Extended trips (over 3 days): 60+ liters
Looking beyond how much space your gear takes up in a pack, it’s also important to ballpark the total weight. If your gear is older or you prefer a comfort-oriented (read: heavier) setup, it’s a good idea to get a pack that can handle the extra weight. Alternatively, if you’re into minimalism and ultralight gear, you can get away with a corresponding lightweight pack. In looking at backpacks, relevant considerations for hauling ability are the pack’s frame, suspension and padding. One quick reference point is the pack’s empty weight, which is provided for nearly every model sold.
A heavier pack is logically most often capable of hauling more weight. It will have a beefy frame, tough fabrics and thick padding. There are some exceptions, and backpacks overall are becoming lighter—take for example the Gregory Baltoro, which dropped a lot of weight between models (about 9 ounces to get down to 5 lbs.), but is still adept at comfortably handling a heavy load. Below is a basic guideline in matching pack weight and hauling ability. Note, some manufacturers also provide load ratings for their packs, which is another helpful reference point.
- 2-3 lb. pack weight = 15-35 pounds of gear
- 3-5 lb. pack weight = 30-50 pounds of gear
- 5+ lb. pack weight = 40-70 pounds of gear
The thickness and quality of the padding found in the backpanel, and particularly the shoulder straps and hipbelts, is an important consideration in choosing a pack. A properly set up pack will place most of the weight on your hips, with the shoulder straps taking a light amount of weight and keeping the pack tucked in close to your back. The foam and the fabric that covers it do add weight, so manufacturers are always trying to find the right balance weight and comfort. All non-ultralight overnight, weekend and extended travel packs feature foam padding to increase comfort. We prefer foam that errs towards firm support rather than being soft and compressible. Excessively soft padding might feel great when first trying on a pack, but it doesn’t offer the long-term support needed for hauling heavier loads. Packs like the Gregory Baltoro and Arc'teryx Bora AR are great examples of effective use of this type of high quality, firm padding.
Very lightweight gear sometimes goes without even a whiff of foam in the hipbelt and/or shoulder straps, so it’s an absolute necessity to keep your loaded weight to a minimum. Some ultralight packs do a decent job of balancing these needs, including the Osprey Exos 58, which uses a creative mesh design surrounding thin foam for a good balance of weight and support. Nevertheless, we don’t recommend packing much more than 30 pounds in an ultralight pack—and it’s often better to keep it closer to 25.
When you’re playing the part of a moving van, carrying all your possessions in one place, organization is of utmost importance. This is where the old external framed packs had a distinct advantage – pockets and organization galore. It’s not to say internal framed packs aren’t improving, however, with numerous access points and creative packaging.
Main Compartment Access
Nearly every backpacking pack out there will have an opening at the top that is secured in a cinch cord or roll-top manner, referred to as a top-loader. Additional access to the bottom or middle of the pack via a u-shaped zipper can be a big help, keeping you from having to shovel through a once-meticulously organized pack to find some elusive item. These extra zippers add a little weight, but are often worth it. In cases like the Gregory Baltoro, the u-shaped opening is so wide that you can pack and remove items much like a travel suitcase.
A top lid with zippered pockets is a great spot for some lighter weight items that you might need on quick notice, like a headlamp. External floating pockets are becoming popular to stuff gear like a rain jacket or insulated midlayer. Hipbelt pockets are another recent adoption for putting quick access items like lip balm, a camera or lifesavers (an excellent energy booster on the trail). And finally, don’t forget about exterior attachment points or loops for an ice axe or trekking pole.
Compression straps along the sides of the pack not only pull the weight of the pack closer to your back, but are also a great spot to store taller items like tent poles. Make sure the pack you’re looking at has these side compression straps towards both the top and bottom to aid in load stability. Granite Gear and REI do a great job of incorporating creative compression strap systems to keep the weight of the pack snug against you. The new UpLift design from REI on their Flash 65 and Traverse 70 packs is notable in that it pulls the pack’s load into a focused area along your lower back—exactly the place you want to be carrying the majority of the weight.
Back panel and hipbelt ventilation is a biggie for some (this author included). Finding an internal framed pack that breathes well can be a challenge, primarily because the point of the pack is to hug and conform to your body, moving with you as you walk. A typical pack will have offsetting foam and mesh panels that try to encourage airflow, but what that usually results in is sweat art on your back that traces where the foam panels are contacting you. The new Anti-Gravity system from Osprey, with its full-length mesh that even includes the hipbelt, is an impressive design that offers best in class ventilation. We loved the design, although there are a few sacrifices in choosing this type of pack (see our in-depth review of the Atmos AG).
Many items that we store in our backpacks are vulnerable to moisture—including a camera, phone, and down sleeping bag—so we place a high priority on water protection. The good news is that most backpacks offer decent water resistance with hard-face nylon, but sustained rainfall will penetrate the fabric. For heavy rain, some packs include a built-in waterproof cover that stores inside the pack (from our list, the Gregory Baltoro 65 and REI Traverse 70 have this feature). Alternatively, you can purchase a separate rain cover, and we like Osprey’s UltraLight Raincover best: it weighs just over 3 ounces, packs down small, and fits snugly around a decent range of pack sizes.
There are also a number of highly water resistant backpacks on the market. Bags made with Dyneema (previously known as Cuben Fiber) naturally are waterproof, which is a key benefit to the ultralight fabric. We’ve used the 100% Dyneema Hyperlite Windrider as a dry bag (see our in-depth review) and it didn’t let us down. Among nylon and polyester designs, Arc’teryx uses a waterproof material for a good portion of their Bora AR backpack, although it’s not fully waterproof like a Dyneema bag.
While it sounds well and good—reducing weight to move easier and faster—going to an ultralight pack is not without compromise. First off, know that you are forgoing most luxury items. You’ll see simplified organization, reduced padding, and a more basic frame—some even go without metal stays (metal rods that give the pack a rigid structure) completely. The pack’s fabric will also be thinner in the quest to cut weight (you'll see this referenced as a lower "denier" or "D" in our comparison table), making it more vulnerable to tearing when cutting through brush or squeezing between rocks. And because it’s the piece of gear that will be hauling the rest of your stuff, commit to moving your entire setup to ultralight status. If not, the extra weight will overwhelm the pack’s suspension, making for some miserable trekking.
If you’re getting a negative impression from our thoughts on ultralight packs, don’t! They’ve become a mainstay for thru-hikers and lightweight backpackers, and have numerous tangible benefits. Most importantly, there’s reduced stress on all your joints by hauling less weight, so you can cover more miles with less effort (and less pain). And improvements in pack materials and suspensions are making many of the compromises above a non-issue.
Standout ultralight packs that made our list include the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60, ZPacks Arc Blast 55L, Hyperlite 3400 Southwest, and ULA Circuit 68. The ZPacks and Hyperlite are made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics (previously known as Cuben Fiber), which is an extremely lightweight but strong fabric—it resists tears far better than an ultralight nylon. More, smart use of padding and support makes the ZPacks and particularly the Hyperlite handle weight surprisingly well. The final benefit is that the Dyneema fabric is highly resistant to water, which means you don’t have to worry about bringing a rain cover. Done right, an ultralight pack is a deserved replacement to your old faithful traditional pack.
The number one factor in sizing a backpack is your torso measurement. No matter the adjustability of a pack, if you get one that doesn’t fit your torso, you’ll find yourself perpetually adjusting and tweaking a pack that will never fit. Trust us, spend the 10 seconds and get yourself measured.
What you need: A flexible cloth tape measure and another human. Please don’t try to get the measurement yourself. Even if you have Cirque du Soleil levels of flexibility, you won’t get your size right.
What to do: Start by putting your chin to your chest and have your helper locate the C7 vertebrae near the base of the neck. It’s the largest vertebrae in the neck and sticks out the most, so it should easy to find. Next, rest your hands on the top of your hips in the same way your parents used to do when you failed to clean your room – with your thumbs along your back. That top part of your hips is your iliac crest, the ideal place for a hipbelt to rest and do its job of carrying most of the pack’s weight. Have your new friend then measure from the C7 vertebrae to the spot on your spine where your thumbs would meet. Voila, you have your torso measurement. If you're more of a visual learner, REI put together an informative video and article on how to get your torso and hip size.
If you’re having trouble finding a pack that fits both your torso and waist measurements, pick one with replaceable hipbelts. You can then choose the size of pack you need based on your torso measurement and swap out the hipbelts. A number of the packs we recommend have these replaceable pieces (REI Traverse, Osprey Aether AG, and Gregory Baltoro). Alternatively, a pack like the Granite Gear Lutsen (see our review of the pack) offers precise adjustments for both the torso and hipbelt to really dial in the fit.
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