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 2018 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.
The Atmos AG is our top backpacking pack for 2018 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 See the Women's Osprey Aura AG 65
Weight: 4 lbs. 14 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (200D & 420D)
Capacities: 35, 65, 70, 85L
What we like: Nice updates for 2018 yet still a comfortable and very functional pack.
What we don’t: Pushing 5 pounds.
REI’s house brand of packs consistently ramps up quality and features, year after year, while still hitting a really nice price point. Redesigned for 2018, the large capacity Traverse 70 is no exception. This well-designed pack has thoughtful features like a large J-shaped zipper for access to the main compartment, plenty of exterior pockets, and a rain cover. More, their UpLift compression strap system, which snugs your gear in close, helps take the strain off your lower back and hips. Considering the build quality, features, and comfort, the Traverse is a solid value at $249.
What did REI change on the new version? The lumbar support was redesigned to protrude a bit less (we like the firmness of the back support but it’s even more comfortable for 2018). In addition, the old pack had two awkwardly shaped oval pockets around back, but the new version has one large and very functional pocket with nice stretch to it. And REI improved the removable daypack in a big way (if you’ve used the sash-like design of the old model, you know what we are talking about). Despite those changes and lightening up the pack by just over an ounce, REI kept the core concept of the Traverse the same, which is a good thing.
See the REI Co-op Traverse 70 See the Women's REI Co-op Traverse 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. 15.4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D)
Capacities: 65, 75, 85, 95L
What we like: Heavy hauling comfort with a great feature set.
What we don’t: Pretty heavy and overkill for minimalists.
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 haul heavy loads with strong suspensions, firm but supportive padding, and excellent organization. Gregory modernized the design for 2018 by trimming a few ounces off the previous version, improving ventilation with mesh along the backpanel, and adding a large stretch shove-it pocket at the front. These changes address many of the complaints we had with the old Baltoro, improving one of our favorite packs for shouldering serious weight.
The new Baltoro is among the most comfortable and feature-rich designs out there, but it comes at a weight penalty. With its last two updates, Gregory has worked to make it more competitive, but the 75-liter model still comes in at around 5 pounds. If you aim to keep things light and simple on a backpacking trip, this probably isn’t the bag for you. But if you prioritize comfort and appreciate extras like a zippered access to the main compartment, an integrated rainfly, and ample exterior pockets, the Baltoro is a nice choice... Read in-depth review
See the Gregory Baltoro 75 See the Women's Gregory Deva 70
Weight: 2 lbs. 11.5 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D)
Capacities: 38, 48, 58L
What we like: A top ultralight design and now with a women’s-specific version.
What we don’t: Thin fabrics and lack of organization.
Osprey is a backpack powerhouse known for quality builds, excellent organization, and comfort. The Exos 58 was Osprey’s original take on an ultralight pack (also offered in 38 and 48 liter capacities), and is still one of our favorites in this category. The design has been lightly updated for 2018, including fine tuning the suspension and hipbelt, but the most important change is the release of a women’s-specific Eja version. Both models offer impressive carrying comfort and features for ounce counters and thru-hikers at well under 3 pounds.
What do you compromise by going with the ultralight Exos? Durability is the most significant—we’ve gotten multiple small tears in the 100-denier body of our pack, albeit from the granite and rough rocks of Washington’s Cascade Range. It’s also a little light on organization, although there are sufficient lash points and mesh pockets to keep most minimalists happy. But if you pack light on your adventures and are willing to take extra care with the thin fabrics, the Exos 58 is well worth a look. And for those who want to go even lighter, Osprey has released the all-new Levity (men’s) and Lumina (women’s) for 2018, which weigh less than 2 pounds.
See the Osprey Exos 58 See the Women's Osprey Eja 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. 3.4 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.
Osprey’s popular Aether pack is now the Aether AG. The most significant update is the 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 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 See the Women's Osprey Ariel AG 65
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: 3 lbs. 9 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D x 100D)
Capacities: 48, 58, 68L
What we like: Good combination of weight, price, and features.
What we don’t: Not as comfortable for heavy loads.
New for last year, the Gregory Paragon slots below the Baltoro above in weight and carrying comfort. But at 3 pounds 9 ounces and a reasonable $230, it’s an attractive option for overnight or weekend trips. You give up the large u-zip access to the main compartment, but the Paragon has a sculpted backpanel with great lumbar support, an integrated rainfly, and large hipbelt pockets. We would prefer three torso/waist size options instead of two—which is what you get with most packs in this price range—but our testers found it easy to adjust the fit between their 18 and 21-inch torso lengths.
What are the downsides of the Gregory Paragon? The foam padding on the shoulder straps and hipbelt on the pack feels cheaper and less comfortable than what you get with a pack like the slightly more expensive REI Traverse. In addition, the integrated daypack, which doubles as the hydration reservoir, has shoulder straps that are too thin to make it very useful for side trips. But the Paragon has the clear edge in weight, and we think hits a nice middle ground of carrying ability, features, and price... Read in-depth review
See the Gregory Paragon 58 See the Women's Gregory Maven 55
Weight: 2 lbs. 2 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
What we like: Very light but impressively functional.
What we don’t: Becomes less comfortable as you push the 35-pound limit.
More than any other model, the 60-liter Crown has put Granite Gear solidly on the ultralight map. Now in its second iteration—third if you include the old Vapor Trail—the Crown2 is one of the most complete and versatile options available. To start, you get plenty of functional features: Granite Gear’s signature (and elaborate) compression straps, plenty of mesh pockets along the front and sides, and a roll-top closure for securing the load. More, we love the fit system on the hipbelt, which can be adjusted to your exact waist measurement with a simple but precise Velcro system. As long as you keep your pack weight under the recommended 35 pounds, the Crown2 is a winner.
If you’ll be pushing the Crown2’s weight limit on occasion, however, it may be worth choosing a more comfort-oriented design. The polypropylene frame sheet and thin padding on the shoulder straps and hipbelt just can’t handle a typical full load of gear. But the Crown2 is undeniably an excellent ultralight design and one of the better values on the market at $200. And a final note for true ULers: you can remove the backpanel and top lid to trim weight even further.
See the Granite Gear Crown2 60 See the Women's Granite Gear Crown2 60
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.
Arc’teryx is known for innovation in outdoor gear, and last year they 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 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 See the Women's Arc'teryx Bora AR 61
Weight: 4 lbs. 11.2 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (400D)
What we like: Premium build quality and fantastic carrying comfort.
What we don’t: No hipbelt pockets; minimal back ventilation.
Mystery Ranch is relatively new to the backpacking scene, but the brand can trace the roots of its founder, Dana Gleason, to the legendary Dana Designs packs of the 1990s. From the current lineup, we prefer the versatile Stein 62, which is built to handle rough use and comes loaded with creative design touches. In particular, the floating lid is one of our favorites with its two massive pockets and easy conversion into a functional daypack. And we love the Stein’s build quality overall—everything from the foam to the zippers has a premium, long-lasting feel.
One of the Stein’s main competitors is the Osprey Aether above. Both packs offer excellent carrying comfort, durability, and most of the bells and whistles you could want in a deluxe hauler. However, two useful items missing on the Stein are hipbelt pockets and a large mesh shove-it pocket on the back. The Aether also has better back ventilation with its suspended mesh panel. Finally, given its impressive hauling abilities, we’d like to see a larger capacity version from Mystery Ranch like the 70 and 85-liter Aether models. But if those nitpicks aren’t deal breakers for you, the Stein 62 is a wonderfully built pack that’s made to last.
See the Mystery Ranch Stein 62
Weight: 3 lbs. 14 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D)
Capacities: 60, 75L
What we like: Great value for the build quality and comfort.
What we don’t: Harder to get an ideal fit with only 1 size.
The Aircontact Lite (previously the ACT Lite) is Deuter’s entry-level line, but it’s an outstanding value for what you get. The pack was redesigned for 2018 with premium 3D airmesh along the backpanel and a sleeker look overall, but its core components remain. Most notably, the “+ 10” in the name refers to the expandable top portion of the main compartment. This allows you to compress the load if you’re packing light and only need 50 liters, or you can extend it to store a typical multi-day trip’s worth of gear. Throw in the Aircontact’s streamlined but functional organization and high quality materials, and you have a very compelling backpack design.
The main downside of keeping price in check is that the Aircontact Lite only comes in one size. Deuter does include a highly customizable suspension system with shoulder straps that adjust up and down quickly, but it still can be difficult to get the perfect fit. The elaborate fit system also seems to add a little weight—the Paragon above has similar durability and features but saves you about 6 ounces. Nonetheless, the Aircontact Lite offers the quality we expect from the Deuter brand at a wallet-friendly $200 price.
See the Deuter Aircontact Lite 50+10 See the Women's Deuter Aircontact Lite 45+10 SL
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.
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. 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 See the Women's 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. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 420D)
Capacity: 45, 65L
What we like: Innovative compression system that really works.
What we don’t: Heavy for its lightweight intentions.
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 See the Women's REI Co-op Flash 60
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.
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 See the Women's Kelty Coyote 60
|Osprey Atmos AG 65||$270||4 lb. 9 oz.||Nylon (100D x 630D)||50, 65L||Top||8 exterior|
|REI Co-op Traverse 70||$249||4 lb. 14 oz.||Nylon (200D & 420D)||35, 70L||Top, front||11 exterior|
|Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60||$260||2 lb. 0.7 oz.||Robic nylon (100D)||60L||Top||7 exterior|
|Gregory Baltoro 75||$330||4 lb. 15.4 oz.||Nylon (210D)||65, 75, 85L||Top, front||10 exterior|
|Osprey Exos 58||$220||2 lb. 11.5 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|
|Gregory Paragon 58||$230||3 lb. 9 oz.||Nylon (210D x 100D)||48, 58, 68L||Top||6 exterior|
|Granite Gear Crown2 60||$200||2 lb. 2 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||60L||Top||4 exterior|
|Arc'teryx Bora AR 63||$549||5 lb. 0 oz.||Nylon (420D)||50, 63L||Top, side||6 exterior|
|Mystery Ranch Stein 62||$299||4 lb. 11.2 oz.||Nylon (400D)||62L||Top, side||6 exterior|
|Deuter Aircontact Lite 50+10||$200||3 lb. 14 oz.||Nylon (210D)||60, 75L||Top||4 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|
|REI Co-op Flash 65||$199||3 lb. 10 oz.||Nylon (100D & 420D)||45, 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 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, REI Traverse 70, and Gregory Paragon 58 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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