The Best Backpacking Backpack Review
Whats the best backpacking backpack out there? In search of the best, we took thirteen of the most popular and highest rated backpacks on the market and tested them side-by-side to find out. For over five months of in-the-field days, we tested versatile packs that an average person would use on trips of two to eight days, but that are also capable of going up to a twenty-two day unsupported trip, as proven several times by our field staff during testing. The backpacking backpacks we tested here are more load 'em up and charge type packs, not to be confused with ultralight frameless packs. We tested these packs everywhere from week-long hikes on the Pacific Northwest coast, to cold weather, high altitude mountaineering on Denali.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
There is a lot to consider when selecting the right backpacking backpack, whether it's your first bag or you're just adding to the quiver. In this review, we compared the best and most popular men's backpacking backpacks. These packs are the type of packs that most people will be drawn toward and will use for day-in and day-out backpacking. While the packs we chose to review could be used for travel, such as "backpacking" through Europe or Southeast Asia, and most are versatile enough for some general mountaineering applications, these packs aren't necessarily geared specifically for those activities.
Picking the Right Volume
We chose to review 55-75 liter packs; this is the volume most people will choose to carry on overnight trips from two to eight days, which is the length of excursion that makes up the bulk of most backpackers trips. While a lot depends on experience, comfort level, weather considerations, and objectives, most backpackers will have a little extra room in their 55-75L pack for 2-3 night trips; everything will fit just right for those 3-5 night trips and will work, but might be a little tight for 5-10 night trips.
If you tend to go on 2-3 night trips, this review is still highly relevant, as most of these pack models are available in slightly different capacities. Most models will often come in both larger and smaller sizes. For example, most pack manufacturers make an extremely similar pack in the 65-75L range with other similar 50, 70 and 85 liter sizes also being common. We have also tested and used many of the larger versions of these packs and find that different volume sized models perform very similarly and in most cases, the overall design, frame, shoulder straps and waist belts are the same. If you read our review of the Arc'teryx Altra 65, you can assume that the Altra 75 will perform in about the same capacity as the 65.
What Capacity Pack Should I Buy?
The question "What volume pack should I buy?" is mostly answered with another pair of questions: "How long do you typically go out for?" and "How light do you pack?". While the latter of these two questions is less quantifiable, we can give you some solid recommendations for what the majority of people use as a good place to start. 40-60L is a good volume for most people for 1-5 nights. For 2-7 night trips, we would recommend 50-75L packs. Lastly, for most people taking trips one week or longer, we would recommend 60-85L packs. We focused our review on 60-70L packs because those are the most popular overall volume and they tend to suit the most people for their needs.
Gone are the days of the eight pound behemoths that were the standard 25 years ago. Today, even full featured backpacking packs are much more comfortable than their heavier ancestors and often weigh in at a little over half of that. Even the heaviest pack in our review, the Deuter Air Contact 65 + 10, tips the scales at a little over six pounds, with most of the packs in our review weighing between three and a half and just over five pounds, with a few lighter options, like the 2 lb 8 oz Osprey Exos 58 or even some more heavily featured models like The North Face Banchee 65 or the REI Flash 65, weighing in at 3 lbs 10 oz.
A Note on Pack Weight
Everyone always wants to pack lighter, but trying to save a bunch of weight by purchasing say, a sub two pound frameless pack, while still trying to carry all of the stuff you would typically carry is not a good way to go about it. It's best to lighten your overall kit first by focusing on what you really need to bring and leaving behind things you don't, as well as lightening a few key pieces of gear if you haven't already (like shelter, sleeping bag and your clothing).
Once your kit (including food) is below approximately 25-30 lbs, then it's okay to start looking at a "ultra-light" frameless sub 1.5-2 pound pack. If you have a 10+ year old burly backpacking backpack, that likely weighs around seven or eight pounds, then its completely okay to buy a newer 3-6 pound pack that is obviously lighter, MUCH more comfortable, and outfitted with nicer features.
Pack Fitting 101
For far more in depth tips, recommendations and advice on how to properly fit a backpacking backpack, be sure to check out our buying advice article. There are a few good fundamentals you should make yourself aware of before purchasing a pack. The first one is frame size; just because you are tall doesn't necessarily mean you should be in a longer or taller size pack. Most pack manufacturers give accurate recommendations as to which torso length should be fit with a corresponding size. How do you measure your frame size, you might ask? Measure from your C7 vertebrae (the highest vertebrae that pops up when you lean forward) down to the "pelvic girdle". The pelvic girdle is most easily found if the person being measured puts their hands on their hip bones (Iliac crest), with their thumbs pointing toward their backs; the line between their thumbs is the bottom end of the measurement.
The second fundamental is where the waist belt should sit on the user. While a lot of people might have an instinctual feel as to this location, many do not. Ideally, the top of the wearer's hips should fall anywhere from in line with the top of the waist belt, to anywhere around half way down. The third fundamental is that that once the straps are adjusted, you should ideally see the shoulder straps contouring up and over the wearer's shoulders with very little space or gaps. The load lifters (the upper straps) should be pulling the shoulder straps up at around 45 degrees, though anywhere from 35-60 degrees is acceptable.
Criteria for Evaluation
We tested these eleven backpacking backpacks and compared them in five different categories.
For our comfort category, we compared how comfortable and supportive each pack's frame, shoulder straps and hip belt were by field testing each pack for hours ..and days at a time. We compared these packs with standard 30-45 lb loads that most backpackers might carry for week-long trips, as well as a "load hauler" type loads where we compared each pack with 55-65 lbs for a little longer than our hips and shoulders would have liked.
We paid extra attention to how the waist belt and shoulder straps felt on each pack after wearing them for long days and with heavy loads. We took into account other feedback from OutdoorGearLab Editors, their friends, and climbing partners (thanks guys) and tested these packs in excess of three hundred days to help give us a broader and less single body type perspective when choosing the most comfortable pack.
In the end, after extensive testing with normal 30-40 lb loads, the new Osprey Atmos 65 AG was one of the most comfortable packs in our review; with its trampoline style suspension that spread out the load very evenly, our testers rarely got hot spots on their backs nor their hips, even after extended cross country travel in warmer conditions. For heavier loads, the Arc'teryx Altra 65, Gregory Baltoro 65 and the Osprey Xenith 75 tied for most comfortable product in this category. All three of these packs use high quality foam that achieve a nice balance of support and comfort. Our testers thought that the Altra's pivoting waist belt was the most comfortable in the review and did the best job of transferring weight from our pack to our hips. However, while the Altra's shoulder straps were good, after extended side-by-side testing, they just didn't feel as comfortable as the Xenith 75 or the Baltoro 65. The thinness and ergonomics just couldn't match that of the overall design of the Xenith and Baltoro, which we thought used nicer foam and better face fabric, while offering slightly better articulation and an overall superior design that our testers liked better.
Not far behind the Xenith 75 and the Baltoro was the Gregory Contour 60, The North Face Banchee 65, and Osprey Aether 60 and 70L. While these models weren't quite as comfortable as the two packs listed above, they weren't very far behind either. For medium and lighter weight loads of around 30-40 lbs, we noticed significantly less of a difference between packs, but once we crested 40 pounds, additional weight was exponentially challenging for packs to handle.
The fabric Osprey uses on the inside of the shoulder straps of the Osprey Xenith 75 and Osprey Aether 70 was incredible, while the feeling of the Atmos 65 AG was our favorite on bare skin; the shape and articulation of these packs was second to none. A lot of people ask about the heat moldable waist belt featured on the Aether among other models of Osprey packs. After extensive testing, there is very little, if any difference, between molding it in a convection oven, or just breaking it in the old fashion way (AKA using it). After side-by-side testing a molded waist belt and one that had been used for a three day trip, there was almost no difference that we were able to note.
The Aircontact's shoulder straps and waist belt were very comfortable, but not quite as comfortable as the Xenith 75 and Baltoro 65. The Air Contact's padding was noticeably bulkier and hotter and the shoulder straps were not shaped quite as nice for most of our testers. If you feel like you carry more than 40-45 lbs on a regular basis, we would recommend the Xenith 75, Altra 65, or the Baltoro 65. If you're not going to commonly carry 40 or more pounds, we loved how the Osprey Atmos 65 AG and The North Face Banchee 65 felt as long as we didn't overload them. These packs felt good up to 40 lbs; above 50 lbs, the Xenith and Baltoro were superior.
The suspension category encompasses how well the frame transferred the load from the pack into the waist belt and to a lesser extent, onto our shoulder straps. The suspension is obviously tied in with a pack's overall comfort, but we specified unique criteria for each category. In addition, we compared the foam used and the articulation and how well the packs felt against our backs. The Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith and Arc'teryx Altra all performed fantastically, while the Xenith and the Baltoro just barely edged out the Altra and the Contour because of how nicely the frame transferred the load to the waist belt and our hips. With these two packs, very heavy loads were noticeably not as bad to carry and were both our Top Picks for extended trips and monster loads. That said, we did like how supportive and comfortable the foam on the Altra and the Aether were. The Osprey Atmos 65 AG, while super comfortable when carrying loads below 40 pounds, wasn't that awesome for loads above that when its Anti-Gravity trampoline-style suspension would feel mushy, less supportive, and just straight up did not feel as nice. The Deuter Air Contact was just a hair behind the Baltoro; it featured thick and comfortable padding and a supportive frame – some testers just thought it felt a little bulky.
Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System
Trampoline style or suspended suspension systems generally use a mesh back panel that is suspended over a more traditional frame. The advantages of this type of frame are that it allows more air to ventilate, making these backpacks cooler and less sweaty and more importantly, they tend to produce less hot spots on the users because the weight is spread out or "suspended" over a larger area of the wearer. More and more packs are using a similar design at least on the back panel portion of a pack. Our testers generally like the trampoline style suspension because of the aforementioned reasons; however, when it comes to very heavy loads, having the weight closer to your back and not having a gap will be more much comfortable. For example, the Gregory Baltoro 65 doesn't feature a true trampoline suspension system, but that's one reason it carries such massive loads so effectively. With all suspension style systems there comes a weight limit where the suspended mesh is pressed so tightly against the wearer that it either bottoms out or just plain causes a hot spot. The ventilation area that's so wonderful in summer can fill with snow during mountaineering or wintertime trips, making the pack much less pleasant to wear.
Ease of Use
Our ease of use category includes how easy a given backpack was to pack and an examination of the design of the main compartment and additional pockets. In regards to pockets, we compared the number and location of additional pockets, how useful the lid (or brain) of the pack was, and how easy it was to access the main compartment of the backpack. For each pocket we asked ourselves, "Did that pocket make my life easier, or is it not that useful and just adding weight to the pack?". We also looked at access points and evaluated whether they were truly useful or just for show. For the evaluation category, "Ease of Packing" we broke down the level of usefulness of each feature and evaluated them during real world use in the field. Our testers feel that if a pocket or access point didn't help, it was only adding weight. Lastly, we favored packs with a handful of straps for crampons, ice axes, sleeping pads or other items because we felt it added to the pack's overall versatility.
Overall Organizational Ability
For folks who like a lot of compartments and pockets for organization, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith 75, and The North Face Banchee 65 have by far the best and most usable pockets, while the Arc'teryx Altra 65 and Baltoro had the best access of any pack in our review. These packs provide great options for folks who really like a lot of organization or the ability to get inside their pack easily without having to take much out.
In the case of the Baltoro 65, which is on the heavier side of packs in our review at 5 lbs 3 oz, and the Banchee 65, one of the lighter packs in our review at 3 lbs 10 oz (around a pound lighter than average), our testers found their favorite collection of pockets with these two packs. The Deuter Air Contact has nearly as many pockets as either of the aforementioned packs, but we felt that they weren't as useful and neither were super easy to access. It's worth noting that the REI Flash 65 had nearly as many usable pockets and close to as many access featuring a "J" shaped opening; the cost is also only $200.
Top Lid Pocket
There aren't a lot of universal features that every pack has, but one thing that nearly every pack sports is a zippered top lid pocket (some folks call the lid the "brain" of the pack). This exceptionally common feature is one of the best places to store small items that the users might want, like sunglasses, sunblock and bug spray, among other things wanted close at hand. Many packs featured a separate smaller pocket on the underside of the lid, offering a secondary place to store small items. Our testers generally liked this feature, as its a great place to put those items you want access to, but don't need as frequently.
Of all the packs we tested, our favorite top-lid pockets belonged to the Arc'terx Altra 65 and Gregory Baltoro 65; they were just straight-up the most usable. They both featured two pockets on the very top of the pack that made finding items easier and said items were also less likely to fall out while we rooted around. The rest of the packs we tested featured zippers on the front or back of the pack. None of these packs were as easy to get into as the Altra and the Baltoro, but not all are created equal. We liked the super large zippered lid pockets of the Atmos 65 AG and the Banchee 65 the best because they featured nearly the same volume as the Altra and a longer than average zipper that made access good, but not great (or at least as good as the Altra 65).
Pack access is part of our "Ease of Use" category and refers to how easily we could access certain larger items without having to unpack the whole pack. While this is an obviously useful feature for anyone using a backpack, its level of importance depends on the user. Ease of access is an especially useful feature for folks using their backpack for travel, where they might otherwise use a suitcase or a duffel bag, to go "backpacking" through certain regions. No one likely disagrees on having more or easier access in principle, but on the other side of the argument, access zippers add weight that aren't physically essential, but rather convenient. This is a delicate balance that anyone purchasing a pack must weigh; consider your tendencies before thinking to yourself "I want more access". Do you need it because of how or what you pack? Or do you think you want it because it just sounds nice?
All the packs we tested were top loading, and many had side access zippers, sleeping bag compartments, or entire panels that opened to allow access. Among all the packs we tested, we loved the Arc'teryx Altra and Gregory Baltoro the most for its huge "U" shaped opening that travels nearly the entire length of the back of the pack. It opened almost as large as a suitcase and makes an excellent pack for anyone "backpacking" through Europe, Southeast Asia, or anywhere else where access is the most important. The REI Flash 65, with its "J" shaped zipper, had very good access and above average for our review, but not quite as good as either of these two packs.
While not a must have, most of our backpacking testers appreciated having at least one zippered pocket on the hip belt that was big enough for a small point-and-shoot camera or a handful of snacks like gels, cliff bars, or a small bag of nuts. The North Face Banchee 65, along with the Osprey Volt 75, Xenith 75, and Atmos 65 AG all had some of our favorite hip belt pockets in the review.
All the packs in this review have a place for a hydration bladder and just about any brand and model will fit in any backpack hydration sleeve. Rather than use the same brand bladder as the pack, we recommend reading our Hydration Bladder Review and picking the best reservoir for your needs and budget. One super cool bonus feature among packs we tested was the Gregory Baltoro came with a removable and fairly functional hydration pack that doubled as its hydration sleeve when used inside the pack.
The lightest pack in our review was the Osprey Exos 58. At 2 lbs 8 ounces, it straddles the line between a backpacking pack and an ultra-light minimalist pack. For a lighter but still rugged, and more featured pack, we like The North Face Banchee 65 or the REI Flash 65 (both 3 lbs 10 oz) and would certainly consider the Osprey Volt 75 (3 lbs 12 oz), or the Gregory Z65 (4 lbs 3 oz). They all hit a nice balance of being lightweight, but still comfortable and fairly full featured.
Among the full-featured packs, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG (4 lbs 6 oz), Osprey Aether 60 (4 lbs 11 ounces) and the Arc'teryx Altra 65 (4 lbs 13 oz) remain lighter than average and give up very little in the way of comfort, load hauling ability, and features.
Adjustability and Fit
A pack's overall ergonomics, the more adjustable a pack is, and the more sizes it is offered in typically translates to a better fitting pack. A handful of pack manufacturers offer the option to swap out shoulder straps and waist belts for different sizes (for example, if you want a medium frame and a small waist belt), something that many stores and websites offer for free. The Deuter Air Contact and the Osprey Volt 75 has the most vertical adjustability for the yoke's (shoulder straps) positioning, not only helping it to fit a wide range of people, but also making them a good choice for quickly growing children. Despite this feature, our testers didn't think the either pack had the best overall fit.
Our testers did really like the adjustment of the Arc'teryx Altra. While it didn't have quite as much range, we loved how you could adjust the shoulder straps independently side to side (width-wise), as well as up and down. The North Face Banchee 65, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Atmos, Xenith, and Osprey Aether 70 all had a respectable amount of adjustment. Our testers greatly appreciated each of the packs' overall ergonomics and gave all of these packs high scores in the "fit" metric.
None of these backpacks are waterproof. Using a trash compactor bag or garbage bag will get you through in a pinch. But if you are planning on a lot of time in the rain, consider a pack cover designed and fitted for your pack.
Here are a few options:
Ask an Expert: Tricia Hurst
Tricia has worked for the US Forest Service in many capacities over the last 10 years in California, Utah and Wyoming. For many summer seasons she has worked as a backcountry trail crew member and wilderness ranger.
What are the most important things that you look for when buying a new backpack?
The most important thing is fit. Try all brands and styles to find the right fit for you. Then I look at how light the backpack is and compare that to how durable it seems. And then I'll consider its volume.
What special or specific features do you like in your backpacks?
I use a Camelbak or other similar hydration system because I find I stay much better hydrated when I can drink whenever I want. So I look to see if the pack is hydration system compatible. Another thing I like is to have waist belt pockets so I can keep a few things handy when I have the pack on my back. A quick access pouch on the outside is also good so I can stash a jacket if I get too warm, etc.
What do you do if you need a little more space to carry things?
I'll usually extend the lid as far up as it will go and put things between the pack and lid, securing it by strapping the lid down. I'll use the straps on the pack or other straps to secure things to the outside of the pack. I also keep a few small carabineers around to clip small light things on the outside.
What's your strategy for packing your gear in your backpack?
I put my sleeping bag on the very bottom, usually because it's the bulkiest item. Then I go with the heaviest things towards the center of my pack, not too high. Filling up all the little nooks and crannies is important to save on space. I make sure to keep snacks and clothing layers I'll need throughout the day near the top for easy access.
Do you like lots of straps, buckles and pockets, or a more simple design?
I generally like a more simple design but not too streamlined. I like a few straps to help cinch things up and to strap extra things on if I need to. I also like at least one outside pocket for things I need to easily access throughout the day. Although comfort is important, I like a light pack and I don't need excessive padding or size adjusters all over.
What types of accessories do you use with your backpack and what do you consider when buying them?
If I'm backpacking I usually use a Camelbak, so I like to have a hole for the tube to come out and something handy to hold the bottom of the tube near my shoulder. I also use a rain cover for the pack.
Do you prefer a really large pack to make sure you have room for everything, or do you prefer trying to save weight and go light?
I always prefer to go light. The more you backpack, the more you realize things that you are ok going without, making everything lighter and simpler on the trail.
What do you think are the most important things to forgo (or not) when trying to lighten up the weight of your backpack (or general gear)? And what about for durability?
I forgo extra clothing. I only bring the very essentials to stay warm and dry, which is usually one extra set of clothing. Food is very important, but also heavy. So I try to be super accurate about how much I'll eat so as not to have too much extra.
Where are your favorite places that you've been backpacking?
The Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, the Highline trail in the Uintas in Utah, and Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah.
Do you have any tips for what to bring or not to bring to save space or weight?
Forgo deodorant, maybe even a hairbrush. Bring mini everything and try to be creative about things that can have multiple purposes. Crocs make good river crossing and camp shoes. Although most people I know use extra clothing, I bring a small, compressible pillow; it's worth it to me. I bring an extra absorbent hand towel for drying off after creek bathing. I prefer a Steripen to water filter, which saves a lot of weight and space, but that also depends on the water sources you'll be encountering. A few freeze dried or dehydrated dinners save weight.
— Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
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