Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Super comfortable, awesome suspension, easy to pack.
Cons: Expensive, doesn't come with ice axe loops.
Best Uses: Backpacking, mountaineering, extended trips.
The Arc'teryx Altra 65 is our Editors' Choice backpack because it is supremely comfortable, light, has great organizational ability and it is easy to pack and retrieve deeply buried items. That said, it is by far the most expensive pack we tested and is $100-200 more expensive than other packs in this review. Yes, the Altra 65 is the best, but other packs are great as well. If you want the most bang for your buck, check out our Best Buy winner, the Osprey Aether 60. Or we recommend the Gregory Baltoro 65, which was the second highest scoring backpack, just as comfortable as the Altra, and $100 cheaper. Finally, if you are looking for a lighter pack more suitable for mountaineering and ski mountaineering, we recommend the Gregory Z 65.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
All our testers loved the pivoting waist belt that carries heavy loads more efficiently than the competition, especially on uneven or steep terrain. The Altra has the perfect blend of convenience and access without being too heavy. It has two pockets on the top of the lid and one underneath as well as a large kangaroo pocket on the front and two water bottle/snow picket/whatever stretch pockets on the sides. We were pleasantly surprised how durable this pack was despite being made of lightweight material.
This is the most comfortable pack in the review along with the Gregory Baltoro 65 and 75. The Altra just edged out the Osprey Aether 65 and 75 and the Deuter Aircontact. The Altra's pivoting hip seems may seem gimmicky at first, but even our most skeptical testers where impressed by how effectively this feature transmits weight and helped the pack to "flow" with you. We love the foam used in the hip belt that is much denser than that in the shoulder straps. While the Altra had the nicest hip belt, the Gregory Baltoro edged it our for shoulder strap comfort. The foam in the Altra's shoulder straps was a little soft, but not too soft. The Altra also had the second best lumbar support after the Gregory Baltoro. The frame in the Altra isn't heavy but was super effective.
For organization and ease of packing it was a close call between the Baltoro and the Altra. Both models were our top choices in this category but with its sheer volume of pockets the Gregory Baltoro just edged out the Altra. With the Altra one of our favorite features was its dual-top pocketed lid – it was our favorite lid in this review. The twin zipped pockets are great for helping to find easily lost items that you want handy, like sun glasses, sun block, camera etc. Not only were there two pockets to use but because the zipper was on top you could more easily rout through them. We also found ourselves using the back, large zippered Kangaroo pocket all the time. The Altra also had a unique U-shaped zipper that ran down the front of the pack to allow for easy access of deeply buried items. I am not someone who needs water bottle pockets but having at least one is nice and I did find myself using them. The water bottle pocket on the other side was nice, too. We found ourselves using it to help secure tent poles, pickets and other items. While it is small, we liked the piece of plastic that makes space for your head and allows you to look up more comfortably while wearing the pack.
When we first got the Altra we liked how light it was but thought the material wouldn't be that tough. However, after 15 days of guiding and bush-whacking Washington's North Cascades, the pack didn't even look slightly worn. Unbelievable.
There were only a few small things we didn't like about this pack. It doesn't come with ice axe loops or one of Arc'teryx's specialized products like the "Axe keeper with Dongle" (yes that is the product name). Sure, you can buy it separately for $15 but when you are spending $375 on a pack, you would like stuff like that to be included. The pivoting hip belt does come off if the straps aren't tightened all the way when the pack gets knocked over on the ground. Snow makes it slightly more challenging to get the hip belt re-attached but not super difficult.
This pack is best for backpacking trips and trekking, it will work great for general mountaineering but is a little wide if you are planning to do a lot of routes where you have to climb technical terrain with it on and fully loaded. It is also a descent option for extended ski touring trips but won't move with you as well as packs the the Gregory Z pack.
The Arcteryx Altra 75 is the nearly identical to the 65, just bigger and a few ounces heavier. We like the size of the 65 better. But if you are going on a longer trip and need the extra space, the 75 might be the best option.
Tangential Note: Dream Backpacking Gear List
The Altra pack is one of many items featured in our Dream Backpacking Gear List. Check it out to see other top-tier "dream" backpacking items.
— Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: September 2, 2013
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