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 backpacks for 2022, 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.
- Best Overall Backpacking Backpack: Osprey Atmos AG 65 / Aura AG 65
- Best Ultralight Backpacking Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest
- Most Comfortable Pack for Heavy Loads: Gregory Baltoro 75 / Deva 70
- Best Budget Backpacking Backpack: REI Co-op Trailbreak 60
Best Overall Backpacking Backpack
Weight: 4 lbs. 9.8 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D x 500D)
Capacities: 50, 65L
What we like: An incredible all-rounder with especially great ventilation.
What we don’t: Pricey and fairly heavy at over 4.5 pounds.
The Atmos AG (and women’s Aura AG) is our top backpacking backpack of the year, deftly balancing comfort, organization, and durability. The attention grabber is the “Anti-Gravity” suspended mesh backpanel, which replaces the protruding foam found on more traditional designs to maximize both ventilation and comfort. But that’s not all the Atmos has going for it: The pocket design is thoughtfully laid out with plenty of options to divvy up gear, the new Fit-on-the-Fly harness and hipbelt offer an easily customizable fit, and the premium materials hold up well to rough treatment. Overall, the Atmos is an extremely well-rounded backpack that works great for anything from quick overnight trips to extended jaunts into the backcountry.
With a revamp in the spring of 2022, the most recent Atmos tacks on two side zips for more convenient access to the main compartment, a torso length adjustment, and an integrated raincover. Osprey also modified the pack’s fabrics to prioritize sustainability (like a lot of gear manufacturers, they’ve moved to a PFC-free durable water repellent finish). Subsequently, the Atmos AG 65 also got a price bump (it’s up $30 with the recent update), which surprisingly makes it even pricier than the souped-up Aether below. But you won’t find a better balance of weight, carrying comfort, and features for everything from quick overnight missions to week-long backpacking trips, once more earning the Atmos AG 65 a spot at the top of our list... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Osprey Atmos AG 65 See the Women's Osprey Aura AG 65
Best Ultralight Backpacking Backpack
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.6 oz.
Fabric: Dyneema (50D & 150D)
Capacities: 40, 55, 70L
What we like: Impressively light but strong and can carry a full load.
What we don’t: Expensive and minimal organization.
A number of ultralight packs are designed for thru-hikers and minimalists, but our top pick is the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest. What sets the Southwest apart is its fully Dyneema construction, which offers incredible strength and water resistance at a very low weight. Ounce-counters won’t find a more streamlined yet hardwearing design, and compared to the Zpacks Arc Blast below (another popular UL pack), the thicker body fabric (5.0 oz/sqyd vs. 3.1 oz/sqyd) offers significantly more durability. Tack on a firm foam backpanel and aluminum stays, and the Southwest handles heavy loads with relative ease. For the whole enchilada at just a smidge over 2 pounds, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular UL packs on the trail. And Hyperlite offers a range of other options, with the primary difference being the external pocket fabric—the Windrider, for example, has mesh pockets and is a great choice for those who want to dry gear out on the go.
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 multi-day backpacking pack as well as a packrafting dry bag. To be clear, the design is undeniably basic, with only the main compartment and a few exterior pockets for organization (notably, the hipbelt pockets are now larger and phone-friendly). And because Dyneema isn’t particularly breathable, the Southwest isn’t our top pick for hot-weather hiking. But it’s still one of the most uncompromised options available, and there’s no denying the trail style you get with that premium Dyneema-white... Read in-depth review
See the Hyperlite 3400 Southwest
Most Comfortable Pack for Heavy Loads
Weight: 4 lbs. 15.7 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D & 420D)
Capacities: 65, 75L
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. With a fully mesh backpanel, the most recent version is the best-ventilated iteration yet, and the hip-hugging suspension and pivoting shoulder straps keep the pack stable when hiking over uneven terrain. We also appreciate the generous storage layout for shuttling multi-day loads, including nine exterior pockets, U-shaped front access to the main compartment, and massive hipbelt pockets (made even larger in the latest update) that easily swallow a large smartphone.
We recently tested the revamped Baltoro 75 while trekking in Patagonia, and the pack stayed true to its intentions as one of the most comfortable and feature-rich designs on the market. Along with the changes outlined above, the new version also includes a highly customizable hipbelt and shoulder straps (great for achieving a perfect fit), drops the built-in Sidekick daypack (not a big loss, in our eyes), and uses more recycled materials. But as before, the Baltoro’s biggest downside is its weight: The 75-liter model clocks in around 5 pounds, which is about twice the heft of the 70-liter Hyperlite Southwest mentioned above. In short, if you aim to keep things light and simple on a backpacking trip, this probably isn’t the pack for you. But if you plan to carry 50 pounds or more, the Baltoro will shoulder the load better than most—and chances are you won’t notice the extra pound or two... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Gregory Baltoro 75 See the Women's Gregory Deva 70
Best Budget Backpacking Backpack
Weight: 3 lbs. 13 oz.
Fabric: Ripstop nylon
What we like: Wallet-friendly price and a nice feature set.
What we don’t: Limited carrying comfort and only offered in one torso size.
For value seekers or those just dipping their toes into backpacking, REI’s in-house collection is a really nice place to start. The Co-op’s branded gear doesn’t make many headlines in terms of performance or weight-savings, but the price is right and quality and features are serviceable for most casual users. Their entry-level Trailbreak pack nails the basics: you get simple foam padding along the backpanel and hipbelt, an internal steel frame for structure and support, and a 35-pound max load that can work well for many overnight and multi-day treks. And although it only comes in one size (note: there are dedicated men’s and women’s versions), the pack features an adjustable torso length, so you can share it, pass it down to your kids, or gift it if you eventually graduate to a more high-performance model. For just $149, it’s hard to go wrong with the Trailbreak.
What do you give up by choosing REI’s entry-level pack over the pricier options on this list? As the miles add up, you’ll likely notice its suspension system, back ventilation, and cushioning can’t match the premium feel of the packs above or even the brand’s own Traverse 70 below. Further, for $56 more, the Kelty Coyote is a much better option for hauling heavy loads. And while we love the versatility of the adjustable torso length, you’ll almost certainly get a better fit with a pack that comes in a variety of sizes (especially if you’re particularly large or small-framed). Despite these complaints, the Trailbreak is one of the more well-thought-out models we’ve seen at this price point, and is a solid choice for new backpackers or those who only get out a few times a year.
See the Men's REI Co-op Trailbreak 60 See the Women's REI Co-op Trailbreak 60
Best of the Rest
Weight: 3 lbs.
Fabric: Robic nylon (100D & 210D)
What we like: Excellent mix of carrying comfort, organization, and weight.
What we don’t: Durability and back ventilation can’t match the Atmos AG above.
The Blaze 60 is Granite Gear’s flagship piece, combining heavy-hauling credentials and functional organization at a 3-pound weight. We took the latest model on a difficult trek through the Grand Canyon and were pleased with its overall performance. The pack’s sturdy frame sheet and substantial padding on the hipbelt and shoulder straps carried a full load extremely well (it’s rated for 50 pounds), and the zippered opening to the main compartment made it easy to access our gear. Further, the oversized front and side exterior pockets are extremely functional (you can fit two standard water bottles in one side pocket). Most impressively, the Blaze pulls this off while undercutting most of the competition by a pound or more.
What’s not to like with the latest Blaze 60? The padded backpanel favors comfort and support over breathability, and we found it to be stiffer and warmer than a mesh-heavy design like the Atmos above. Moreover, it takes some practice (and patience) to get the shoulder straps and hipbelt adjusted. In particular, reaching behind the frame sheet to remove and reinsert the shoulder strap clips was a pain. But these are small nitpicks, and the Blaze’s well-rounded build makes it one of our favorite packs on the market... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Granite Gear Blaze 60 See the Women's Granite Gear Blaze 60
Weight: 2 lbs. 10.4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
Capacities: 48, 58L
What we like: Excellent carrying comfort for the weight.
What we don’t: Limited organization and pricier than some alternatives.
Replacing the Optic for 2022, Gregory’s new Focal (and women’s-specific Facet) highlights the brand’s premium ethos in an ultralight package. The pack drops weight with stripped-down features and simple organization, but comfort remains a priority: The body-hugging hipbelt, lightweight aluminum frame, and full mesh backpanel offer significantly more support than the streamlined suspension systems typically found on minimalist packs. You’ll still want to make sure the rest of your gear is appropriately pared down—especially if you’re opting for the 48-liter version—but the good news is there’s no shortage of ultralight tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and other UL gear to choose from.
The Focal goes head-to-head with Osprey’s Exos below, which is the long-standing favorite in this category. Both packs come in 48- and 58-liter versions (the Exos is also available in a 38L option) and check in around the same price (the Exos is $20 more for the 58L version). But the Focal is lighter by a few ounces, carries just as well, and features a simpler design that’s a bit easier to pack. To be sure, organization is minimal with both models—the Gregory has three stretch-mesh pockets and a lid in addition to the main compartment (accessed only via the top)—but we found it perfectly suitable for a recent multi-day trek in Patagonia. All told, for everything from quick weekend trips to ambitious thru-hikes, the Focal is a solid effort and a nice middle ground between standard packs and the more compromised cottage designs here... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Gregory Focal 58 See the Women's Gregory Facet 55
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 420D)
What we like: Light, customizable, and a great value.
What we don’t: Comfort and ventilation fall short of more premium designs.
REI’s packs are reliably high on value, but they aren’t usually standouts in terms of performance. However, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the ultralight Flash 55, which features a competitively light weight (on par with the Gregory Focal above and Granite Gear Crown3 below) and a variety of thoughtful touches, including four large side pockets and a front dump pocket, seam taping on the lid for water protection, and a convenient roll-top closure. The Flash is also hallmarked by a range of customizable features (REI calls them “Packmod” accessories): Depending on the trip, you can add or remove the compression straps, two hipbelt pockets, and a shoulder strap pocket to shave off up to 7 ounces.
We took the Flash on an ambitious winter backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon and were overall very pleased with the level of comfort and organization despite the lightweight build. That said, the REI does fall a little short of some other packs in its weight class: The Focal 48 above (which also comes in a 58L version) has a more thoughtfully built suspension system, which translates to improved ventilation and greater comfort, especially with a heavier load (REI lists the Flash’s weight limit at 15-30 lbs., while the Focal 58’s is 35 lbs.). But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal among ultralight packs, making the Flash a wonderful option for weight- and budget-conscious thru-hikers and backpackers... Read in-depth review
See the Men's REI Co-op Flash 55 See the Women's REI Co-op Flash 55
Weight: 3 lbs. 9.3 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D, 210D, & 420D)
Capacities: 48, 58, 68L
What we like: Well-balanced design with a useful feature set.
What we don’t: Heavier but no more comfortable than the Blaze above.
It doesn’t get much more premium than Gregory’s Baltoro above, but a strong case can be made for a more affordable and lightweight design like the Paragon. At 3 pounds 9 ounces and a reasonable $250, the Paragon 58 is a great option for smaller loads (it comes in 48, 58, and 68-liter versions) and those looking to save. You don’t get the same level of padding or organization as the Baltoro, but the pack offers easy fit adjustments, plenty of mesh along the backpanel to help you stay cool, and a quality feel overall with sturdy zippers and supportive foam. And the Paragon doesn’t skimp on useful extras either, with features like a rain cover, large mesh front pocket, and a bear canister-friendly wide shape.
With an all-rounder design that finds a nice middle ground between stripped-down UL models and heavy comfort-first haulers, the Paragon goes head-to-head with a pack like the Osprey Atmos above. But while the Gregory gets the edge in weight (it’s almost 1 pound less) and price, the Osprey is the better pack when it comes to comfort, exterior storage, and ventilation. Further, the Atmos has a higher end feel and more durable construction with a thicker body fabric (210D x 500D vs. the Paragon’s 100D). But we do appreciate the Paragon’s full-length side zip, which offers better access to the main compartment. Finally, it’s also worth checking out Gregory’s Zulu 65 ($250), which offers top-notch ventilation but (in our experience) comes up short in terms of carrying comfort... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Gregory Paragon 58 See the Women's Gregory Maven 55
Weight: 2 lbs. 9 oz.
Fabric: Robic nylon (210D)
What we like: Simple yet functional organization, comfortable, and fairly durable.
What we don’t: Weighs a bit more than other ultralight options.
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 68-liter Circuit, which offers an excellent compromise of weight, durability, and functionality for the thru-hiking crowd. The design is undeniably minimalist but retains good organization with a very large front mesh pocket, zippered hipbelt compartments, and an internal secure stash. We’ve taken the Circuit on multi-day treks in Patagonia and up 14ers in Colorado, and have been impressed with how easy it is to load up, adjust, and even streamline as a day pack when needed.
Although the ULA Circuit doesn’t have that coveted Dyneema distinction, its 210-denier Robic nylon has proven to be very abrasion resistant, and is actually less prone to punctures than the Hyperlite and Zpacks designs (in our experience, Dyneema has a greater tendency to form small holes in between the fibers). What’s more, with a carbon fiber suspension, aluminum stay, and rigid foam backpanel, the Circuit is fully capable of utilizing its generous 68-liter capacity. Even loaded down with overnight gear, cooking equipment, climbing gear, extra layers, and multiple days of food, we’ve found the pack comfortable and form-fitting. To top it off, it’s a great value at just $280. If you’re willing to give up the water resistance, slight weight savings, and brand cachet of the Hyperlite, it’s likely you won’t be disappointed with the ULA.
See the ULA Circuit 68
Weight: 4 lbs. 15 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D & 420D)
Capacities: 55, 65L
What we like: Great adjustability and a very comfortable pack for hauling heavy loads.
What we don’t: Most backpackers still are better off with the Atmos.
The Atmos AG above is Osprey’s leading backpacking pack, but for heavy hauling and light mountaineering, the Aether offers even more in the way of comfort and features. Updated last fall, the pack dropped the AntiGravity (AG) suspension system for a new AirScape backpanel, which is less elaborate but still has breathable foam and mesh to help keep you cool. And you get all kinds of adjustability, including a rip-and-stick system that easily tailors the fit of the shoulder straps and hipbelt, along with ample compression straps and attachment points for ice axes, tent poles, and more. Last but not least, the large J-shaped zipper at the front provides easy access to the main compartment.
The primary downside of the Aether 65 is its weight, which squeezes in just under 5 pounds. On top of that, organization is middling: you only get 5 external pockets (7 if you’re counting water bottle holders) and the hipbelt stashes are oddly placed and difficult-to-reach. For the majority of backpackers, we think the Atmos is the more practical all-around design 6 ounces less, and the Gregory Baltoro 75 above gets you more capacity at around the same weight (albeit for $60 more). But in terms of premium haulers the Aether has a lot to offer, and those lugging heavy loads will appreciate the durable, sturdy build. Keep in mind that Osprey also makes the beefed-up Aether Plus and stripped-down Aether Pro, which could be great alternatives depending on your needs... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Osprey Aether 65 See the Women's Osprey Ariel 65
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.7 oz.
Fabric: Robic nylon (100D & 200D)
What we like: Superlight with great organization and customization.
What we don’t: Foam backpanel bunches up and design is low and wide.
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa has long been a favorite of thru-hikers, and for good reason. What sets it apart is how few compromises there are with this 2-pound 0.7-ounce bag (ours is 2 lbs. 3 oz. with a large frame and medium hipbelt). You get a total of seven external pockets—more than the Hyperlite or ULA above—which make it easy to distribute and organize your gear. And while brands like Hyperlite and Zpacks use Dyneema to cut weight, the Gossamer Gear’s tough Robic nylon (similar to the ULA’s but thinner) keeps cost in check and does a great job resisting punctures (downside: you’ll have to add your own waterproofing in the form of a pack cover or dry bags inside). Finally, Gossamer Gear offers great customization: the standard pack comes in three sizes, and you can order your hipbelt separately to nail that perfect fit.
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 backpanel: the removable foam padding is prone to bunching and is such an annoyance that we prefer to leave it behind. We’ve also found that the pack rides low and wide, while a model like the Southwest has a bit more of a torpedo shape—some folks might not like the look as much, but for those carrying a bear canister, it’s a really functional design. There’s no shortage of good competition in the ultralight pack market, but the Gossamer Gear is nevertheless a strong contender, and especially for those who like to stay organized... Read in-depth review
See the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
Weight: 2 lbs. 13.4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 400D)
Capacities: 38, 48, 58L
What we like: A well-balanced ultralight design from pack-specialist Osprey.
What we don’t: Thin fabrics and fairly heavy for a UL pack.
Osprey is a backpack powerhouse known for quality builds, excellent organization, and comfort, as seen in industry-leading designs like the Atmos/Aura and Aether/Ariel above. First released over a decade ago, the Exos (and women’s Eja) was their original take on an ultralight pack, and is still a popular pick in this category. At 2 pounds 13.4 ounces for the 58-liter version, it can’t compete with streamlined haulers like the Hyperlite Southwest and Gossamer Gear Mariposa (both check in just under 2 lbs. 1 oz.), but the additional weight translates to a boost in organizational features and ventilation. And with a spring 2022 update, the most recent Exos tacks on a convenient torso-length adjustment and reintroduces hipbelt pockets to the design (surprisingly, these had been removed in the previous version).
If you’re accustomed to a traditional backpack but curious about dipping into the ultralight world, we think the Exos is one of the best places to start. With a robust suspension system and decent feature set, this pack is far from a true UL design (Osprey reserves that designation for their sub-2-lb. Levity), but it’s nevertheless significantly lighter and more streamlined than a pack like the Atmos above. And held up against the similarly intentioned Gregory Focal, the Exos is slightly heavier, tacks on a few more bells and whistles (including an adjustable torso length), and features a slightly more plush backpanel. You do trade off a bit of durability compared with burly traditional hauliers or pricier ultralight designs (which generally use Dyneema or burly Robic nylon), but we’ve been surprised with how well the Exos’ 100-denier body and base have held up. For a great combination of features and weight-savings, the Osprey is well-deserving of a spot on this list... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Osprey Exos 58 See the Women's Osprey Eja 58
Weight: 4 lbs. 8.3 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D)
Capacities: 60, 70L
What we like: A well-ventilated pack with great storage and comfort.
What we don’t: Hanging mesh backpanel can be polarizing.
Deuter doesn’t get a lot of attention this side of the Atlantic, but the German pack manufacturer is known for high-quality designs that hold court with premium offerings from brands like Osprey and Gregory. We recently took their Futura Air Trek to southern Patagonia for testing and came away impressed by its overall performance on multi-day objectives. Storage was seemingly endless—including both top and front access, handy zippered compartments at each side, and nicely sized pockets at the hips and lid—and the expandable collar was helpful for accommodating a full load or cinching things down as the trip went on. In terms of suspension, the pack offers a really nice mix of padding and breathability: We have nothing but praise when it comes to comfort (it handled a 40-lb. load with ease), and the hanging mesh backpanel kept us cool and comfortable even when temperatures reached 70+ degrees Fahrenheit.
At $250, the Deuter Futura Air Trek 50+10 is a bit more affordable than chart-toppers like the Osprey Atmos AG 65 ($300) and Gregory Baltoro 65 ($320). That said, you do get a bit less capacity without any significant weight savings over the 4-pound-10-ounce Atmos. What’s more, while we appreciated the breathability and comfort of the hanging mesh backpanel, it can be a polarizing design: On our women’s 45+10 SL model in particular, there was a notable 2 inches of space between the pack body and our back. But we have very few gripes about the Futura Air Trek, and Deuter’s long-standing experience in the pack-making business makes it yet another quality choice for backpackers looking for a great mix of comfort, organization, and breathability.
See the Deuter Futura Air Trek 50+10 See the Deuter Futura Air Trek 45+10 SL
Weight: 2 lbs. 9.3 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
What we like: Versatile lightweight build.
What we don’t: Fixed torso length offers less fit customization than the Blaze above.
More than any other model, the 60-liter Crown has put Granite Gear solidly on the ultralight map. Now in its third iteration—fourth if you include the old Vapor Trail—the Crown3 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. Further, we love the fit system on the hipbelt, which can be adjusted to your exact waist measurement with Granite Gear’s updated Re-Fit system. As long as you keep your pack weight under the recommended 35 pounds, the Crown3 is a winner.
The recently updated Crown is the most comfortable yet, featuring a new compression-molded PE frame sheet and molded foam backpanel. Granite Gear also gives you the option of adding on an aluminum stay for loads over 35 pounds, which makes the pack versatile for longer trips and heavier loads. But if you’ll be routinely pushing the Crown3’s weight limit, it may be worth choosing a more comfort-oriented design like the Granite Gear Blaze above (rated to 50 lbs.). Further, while the Crown3 has a fixed torso length (offered in two sizes for women and three for men) the Blaze features an adjustable design so you can really dial in your fit. But for over 6 ounces less, the Crown3 is undeniably an excellent ultralight build and one of the better values on the market at $220. And a final note for true ULers: you can remove the frame sheet and top lid to trim weight even further.
See the Men's Granite Gear Crown3 60 See the Women's Granite Gear Crown3 60
Weight: 1 lb. 4.3 oz.
Fabric: Dyneema (3.1 oz/sqyd)
What we like: Incredibly lightweight and water resistant.
What we don’t: Not very durable and doesn’t carry loads as well as the other UL packs here.
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 two hipbelt pockets. In terms of construction, the Arc Blast uses a similar water-resistant Dyneema build as the Hyperlite above but in an even more streamlined form (3.1 oz/sqyd vs. the Southwest’s 5.0 oz/sqyd). This accounts for the low weight but we have found the Zpacks to be less durable for rough treatment and off-trail scrambling (we got a small puncture in the bottom of our pack after putting it down on a particularly rocky section of trail).
The “Arc” in the name comes from the pack’s unique tensioning system that pulls the middle of the bag away from your back, encouraging airflow and alleviating the need for a foam backpanel. Breathability is one of Dyneema’s shortcomings, so this is a helpful design for hot-weather hikers. 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 (the Southwest and Circuit above are better for thru-hikers carrying heavier loads). 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 hikers and minimalist trekkers.
See the Zpacks Arc Blast 55L
Weight: 2 lbs. 6 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
Capacity: 15, 30, 45L
What we like: Great feature set for moving quickly.
What we don’t: Limiting capacity and minimalist suspension.
Arc’teryx has long been our go-to for lightweight ski and climbing packs, but the Aerios marks their entry into the ultralight backpacking world. We’re big fans of the fastpacking-inspired design, which merges the features of a backpacking pack and a running vest. On the front, you get two stretchy mesh pockets (great for storing soft flasks) in addition to zippered pockets on both the shoulder straps and the hipbelt, allowing great on-the-go access to the essentials. From behind, the Aerios has all of the hallmarks of an ultralight pack, including a cavernous main compartment with roll-top closure, generous dump pockets, and an exterior bungee and daisy chain. There’s no shortage of competition, but Arc’teryx’s new UL pack looks very promising.
We recently tested the smaller Aerios 30 on several day hikes in Patagonia and were blown away by the thoughtful design and high-quality finishes. Many thru-hikers will add fanny packs or other front storage to their setups, but the Aerios comes ready to go and requires no further customization. In fact, after experiencing the merits of the body-hugging suspension and convenient on-the-go access, we found it hard to transition back to a standard pack. It’s true that the 45-liter design is limited for overnight trips, but fastpackers and true ounce-counters will have no issue keeping their load to a workable size. Unfortunately, those carrying larger loads on unsupported thru-hikes or multi-day missions will likely need to step up to a higher-capacity design like the ULA or Gossamer Gear above.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Aerios 45 See the Women's Arc'teryx Aerios 45
Weight: 6 lbs. 6.4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (500D)
What we like: Premium build quality, super tough, and fantastic carrying comfort.
What we don’t: Extremely heavy and no included hipbelt pockets.
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 heavy-hauling Glacier, which is built to handle rough, expedition-level 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 Glacier’s build quality overall—everything from the foam to the zippers has a premium, long-lasting feel.
One of the Glacier’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 Glacier are hipbelt pockets and a large mesh shove-it pocket on the back. The Aether also has better back ventilation, although it can't match the material quality or toughness of the Glacier. Finally, given its impressive hauling abilities, we’d like to see a larger-capacity version from Mystery Ranch. But if those nitpicks aren’t deal breakers for you, the Glacier is a wonderfully built pack that’s made to last.
See the Men's Mystery Ranch Glacier See the Women's Mystery Ranch Glacier
Weight: 4 lbs. 4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (300D)
Capacities: 32, 60L
What we like: Durable materials and a lid that converts into a day pack.
What we don’t: Cheap padding and limited access to the main compartment.
Last year, REI gave their large-capacity Traverse pack a complete revamp. The latest version has a number of thoughtful features, including a top lid that converts into a day pack (it disconnects from the main bag extremely quickly), large and easy-to-access zippered hipbelt pockets, and an included rain cover. REI’s Packmod compression straps and daisy chain system allow you to customize your external organization, and the pack also includes dedicated attachments for trekking poles and ice axes. Finally, the Traverse 60 drops 10 ounces off the previous 70-liter version but retains great durability, with burly 300-denier recycled ripstop nylon throughout.
But unfortunately, that’s all the praise we have for the new Traverse, which feels like a step back from the previous generation. Despite REI’s move to sustainable, bluesign-approved materials, the pack has a surprisingly budget feel: there’s no front access to the main compartment (the older model had a large, J-shaped zipper), and the raised foam padding on the backpanel feels like a true throwback to packs of yesteryear. The result is less ventilation than more modern designs and compromised carrying comfort (unlike the Baltoro or Aether above, this is not the kind of pack you want to overload). Added up, the 2021 Traverse 60 is a fairly disappointing update to a much-loved pack, and for $229 we don’t think it’s worth the savings... Read in-depth review
See the Men's REI Co-op Traverse 60 See the Women's REI Co-op Traverse 60
Weight: 4 lbs. 14 oz.
Fabric: Polyester (420D)
Capacities: 65, 85, 105L
What we like: Affordable and family-friendly high-capacity design.
What we don’t: Only offered in one size, so it’s hard to dial in the fit.
Kelty generally targets the entry-level end of the camping and backpacking spectrum, but we appreciate the reasonable prices and sturdy builds. The Coyote is their long-running multi-day offering, available in capacities ranging from 65 all the way up to 105 liters. The middle-tier 85-liter model is a great option for family trips or times when you need to haul bulky gear. Organization is a strong suit with lots of exterior pockets—the large zippered storage along the sides is reminiscent of an external frame design—and it’s plenty tough with a 420-denier polyester pack body. At $205, the Kelty easily undercuts high-capacity alternatives like Gregory’s Baltoro 75 ($350).
For short treks into the backcountry with kids in tow, the Coyote is well-equipped, but it can’t match the carrying comfort and build quality of a more premium option. Most notably, the pack is only made in a single size, which makes it hard to dial in a close and comfortable fit. Combined with cheaper foam in the hipbelt and shoulder straps, and the Coyote falls short on extended and high-mileage trips. These compromises push it to the bottom of our rankings, but the Kelty fills an important niche for those looking to maximize capacity and value.
See the Men's Kelty Coyote 85 See the Women's Kelty Coyote 60
|Osprey Atmos AG 65||$300||4 lb. 9.8 oz.||Nylon (210D x 500D)||50, 65L||Top||8 exterior|
|Hyperlite 3400 Southwest||$355||2 lb. 0.6 oz.||Dyneema (50D & 150D)||40, 55, 70L||Top||5 exterior|
|Gregory Baltoro 75||$350||4 lb. 15.7 oz.||Nylon (210D & 420D)||65, 75L||Top, front||10 exterior|
|REI Co-op Trailbreak 60||$149||3 lb. 13 oz.||Ripstop nylon||60L||Top||6 exterior|
|Granite Gear Blaze 60||$270||3 lbs.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||60L||Top, front||6 exterior|
|Gregory Focal 58||$240||2 lb. 10.4 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||48, 58L||Top||6 exterior|
|REI Co-op Flash 55||$199||2 lb. 10 oz.||Nylon (100D & 420D)||55L||Top||9 exterior|
|Gregory Paragon 58||$250||3 lb. 9.3 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||48, 58, 68L||Top, side||6 exterior|
|ULA Circuit 68||$280||2 lb. 9 oz.||Robic nylon (210D)||68L||Top||5 exterior|
|Osprey Aether 65||$290||4 lb. 15 oz.||Nylon (210D & 420D)||55, 65L||Top, front||7 exterior|
|Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60||$285||2 lb. 0.7 oz.||Robic (100D & 200D)||60L||Top||7 exterior|
|Osprey Exos 58||$260||2 lb. 13.4 oz.||Nylon (100D & 400D)||38, 48, 58L||Top||6 exterior|
|Deuter Futura Air Trek 50+10||$250||4 lb. 8.3 oz.||Nylon (210D)||60, 70L||Top, front||8 exterior|
|Granite Gear Crown3 60||$220||2 lb. 9.3 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||60L||Top||6 exterior|
|Zpacks Arc Blast 55L||$375||1 lb. 4.3 oz.||Dyneema (3.1 oz/sqyd)||55L||Top||3 exterior|
|Arc'teryx Aerios 45||$250||2 lb. 6 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||15, 30, 45L||Top||6 exterior|
|Mystery Ranch Glacier||$375||6 lb. 6.4 oz.||Nylon (500D)||70L||Top, side||4 exterior|
|REI Co-op Traverse 60||$229||4 lb. 4 oz.||Nylon (300D)||32, 60L||Top||10 exterior|
|Kelty Coyote 85||$205||4 lb. 14 oz.||Polyester (420D)||65, 85, 105L||Top, front||7 exterior|
- Recommended Capacity
- Backpack Weight and Load Range
- Ultralight Backpacking Packs
- Padding and Support
- Backpack Organizational Features
- Water Protection
- Backpack Sizing and Fit
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. With a pack like the Osprey Atmos AG 50/Aura AG 50, 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, 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
Each year we see more and more ultralight backpacking packs on the trail, and for good reason. These packs have a fully functional less-is-more mentality, cutting roughly 2 to 3 pounds off the weight of a standard backpacking pack and featuring bare-bones organization (the majority have one main compartment, hipbelt pockets, and a few external dump pockets). In addition to streamlined storage, they shed pounds with thin yet premium materials (Dyneema and Robic nylon are common) and minimalist suspension systems that generally include an aluminum stay and foam backpanel. If you’re interested in lightening your load and don’t mind a simplified design, an ultralight backpacking pack could be a good option.
We’re big fans of ultralight packs and have used them with success for years, but they do come with one major caveat: you cannot overload your pack. With such streamlined suspensions and thin fabrics, UL packs simply aren’t built to handle loads over 30 to 40 pounds. If you’re a thru-hiker or lightweight enthusiast with a base weight (this refers to your entire gear kit, minus consumables) of about 15 pounds or under, this should be no problem. On the other hand, if you’re just making the transition over to ultralight gear, we recommend that your pack be the last thing you swap. Get yourself a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and pad, and cooking gear first, and then consider putting it all together with a UL pack.
Looking at the picks above, you’ll notice that most ultralight packs are made by non-mainstream brands like Gossamer Gear, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, ULA, and Zpacks. This cottage industry was built by thru-hikers who weren’t satisfied with the heavy gear being made by traditional backpacking brands. It’s now grown into a full-fledged market, popular amongst thru-hikers and recreational hikers alike. We’ve been impressed with the build quality, level of customization, and customer service provided by all of these brands, with the only downsides being wait time (many packs are made to order) and slightly higher price tags. And recently, even household names like REI Co-op and Gregory have thrown their hat into the ring with designs like the Flash and Focal/Facet, giving backpackers more ultralight options than ever. For a detailed look at the market, see our article on the best ultralight backpacks.
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/Deva and Osprey Aether/Ariel 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/Eja 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/Deva or Osprey Aether/Ariel, 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 tighten a pack from front to back and pull the load close to your body, helping to keep you balanced on the trail. Make sure the pack you’re looking at has these side compression straps at both the top and bottom to aid in load stability, and give them a good cinch each time you put your pack on. These straps are also useful for storing taller items (such as tent poles) along the side of your pack. When used for this purpose we especially like a system like REI's Packmod—seen on the Traverse 60 and Flash 55 packs—which allows you to move the straps to your preferred height via a series of daisy chains (or remove them altogether). And while some compression straps secure tight with a simple plastic cinch, we prefer those with buckles for their ease of use, especially when attaching larger items like a sleeping pad.
Backpanel and hipbelt ventilation is a biggie for some, especially if you tend to run warm or plan on hiking in the heat of the summer. But finding an internal framed pack that breathes well can be a challenge, primarily because the point of a pack is to hug and conform to your body, moving with you as you walk. Most packs have offsetting foam and mesh panels that do a passible job encouraging airflow, but you’ll likely still get sweat art on your back that traces where the foam panels contact your body. On the other hand, designs such as Osprey’s Anti-Gravity (seen on the Atmos/Aura) or Gregory’s FreeFloat (on the Focal/Facet, for example) feature a fully suspended mesh backpanel and hipbelt that cradle the body while still allowing for great airflow. For the most part we love this design and recommend it for those who want to prioritize ventilation, but it does cut a bit into the main compartment’s capacity and won’t hold up to especially heavy loads.
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 and a durable water repellant (DWR) coating, although expect sustained rainfall to penetrate the fabric. There are also a number of waterproof backpacks on the market, including those made with Dyneema. In fact, we’ve used the 100% Dyneema Hyperlite Windrider as a dry bag (see our in-depth review) and it didn’t let us down.
If you don’t have a waterproof backpack (chances are you won’t), it’s a good idea take a few extra precautions to make sure your gear stays dry. Some packs include a built-in waterproof cover that stows away inside the pack (the Gregory Baltoro/Deva, REI Traverse, and Gregory Paragon/Maven, for example). You can also purchase one separately—REI Co-op's Duck's Back Raincover gets the job done—but keep in mind that they aren’t foolproof and can be hard to trust in windy conditions. Another strategy is to protect items from the inside, either by lining the entire pack body with a waterproof bag or using an assortment waterproof stuff sacks or dry bags. You can even make do with garbage bags: when guiding in British Columbia’s wet costal range, we used a trash compactor bag to line our backpack and always had dry gear.
One of the most important factors to enjoyment on the trail comes in sizing and fitting your pack correctly. Packs generally come in a men’s and women’s version and are offered in one to three sizes. These sizes vary most in terms of torso and hip measurements, and are most often differentiated by their torso length. For example, the Osprey Atmos comes in sizes small/medium and large/extra-large, with the former built to fit those with torso lengths of 17 to 20.5 inches. If your hip measurement is not proportional to your torso, it’s a good idea to opt for a pack with a customizable hipbelt or a hipbelt with a large range of adjustment. A number of the packs we recommend include customizable hipbelts, including the Gregory Baltoro/Deva and many ultralight designs.
To get your torso length, measure the distance from your C7 vertebrae to your iliac crest. Your C7 vertebrae is the largest vertebrae in the neck and sticks out the most, so it should be easy to find. Moving down, your iliac crest can be located by putting your hands on top of your hips (thumbs at back). Measure from the neck to where your thumbs would meet at the back of your spine (you’ll probably need another person to help you), and voila—your torso measurement.
And once you dial in your size, there is still a lot of potential for adjustment, both before you put your pack on and once it’s loaded. In most cases, you can tweak the torso length by a good margin, and the majority of packs allow you to adjust the height of the hipbelt too. For a deeper dive, see our Backpack Fit and Sizing Guide here.
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