Searching for the best backpacking pack for the coming season? After a decade of researching and testing close to 60 different models, our expert reviewers know what makes a great pack. For this 2021 update, we purchased 15 of the top backpacks for meticulous side-by-side comparison. We ventured all over with these packs on multiple extended trips, from sweaty Appalachian slogs to hot and dry Mojave crossings to alpine rambles. Each pack in our roundup has its strengths and weaknesses, and we help to decipher all the nuances to simplify your researching experience.Related: Best Backpacking Backpack for Women
Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2021
|Price||$269.95 at Backcountry|
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|$280 List||$199.00 at REI||$209.95 at Backcountry|
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|$360.00 at REI|
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|Pros||Light-weight, comfortable with heavy loads, perfect pocket combination||Light-weight, comfortable, supportive, functional feature set||Light-weight, comfortable, easily personalized, inexpensive||Light-weight, good value, great features||Spectacular suspension, comfortable padding, ergonomic shoulder strap design, extremely weather resistant|
|Cons||Tiny buckles hard to operate with gloves||No lid, back-panel lacks ventilation||lacks durabillity, not made for heavy loads||Poor support under heavy loads, fixed torso and waist belt||Expensive, heavier, few convenience features|
|Bottom Line||This super-light pack caries loads like a pro and has just about every feature you could ever want||This comfortable yet supportive pack has an extremely functional set of features and is one of the lightest in our test||The Features on the Flash 55 are some of the best and most versatile of all the packs in our test||This lightweight pack performs really well unless it gets overloaded with too much weight||Our testers were stoked on this pack's dreamy suspension and weather resistance|
|Rating Categories||Granite Gear Blaze 60||Catalyst||REI Co-op Flash 55||Gregory Optic 58L||Arc'teryx Bora AR 63|
|Suspension And Comfort (45%)|
|Features And Ease Of Use (20%)|
|Specs||Granite Gear Blaze...||Catalyst||REI Co-op Flash 55||Gregory Optic 58L||Arc'teryx Bora AR 63|
|Measured Weight (pounds)||3 lbs||3 lbs||2.6lbs||2.52lbs||5.00 lbs|
|Volume (liters)||60 L||75 L||55 L||58 L||63 L|
|Access||Top||Top||Top||Top||Top + side access zipper|
|Materials||100D robic nylon w/ DWR coating||400 Robic fabric||Main body: 100D ripstop nylon
Bottom: 420D nylon
|Main Body: 100d High Tenacity Nylon Bottom: 210D High Tenacity Nylon||Weatherproof N400r-AC squared fabric in areas exposed and a mix of N420p-HT and N630p-HT plain weave Nylon over the rest of the pack|
|Sleeping bag Compartment||No||No||No||No||No|
Best Overall Backpacking Backpack
Granite Gear Blaze 60
Thanks to its impressive design, the Granite Gear Blaze 60 is once again the best overall backpacking pack in our review. This pack is somehow able to comfortably support up to 50 lbs while only weighing three lbs itself. We also enjoyed the great set of features on this pack for their practicality and usability. There is a stretchy mesh stuff-it pocket, roomy hip pockets, removable top-lid, breathable back-panel, long front access zipper, and 9 compression straps. This thing has got just about everything. It's an impressive pack in both weight and weight-capacity. A light pack allows you to keep your base weight low, but since the Blaze has such a robust suspension, you're able to comfortably carry a few luxury items, winter/climbing gear, or extra food for a longer trail section.
While this pack does many things right, there is no perfect pack for everyone. Some of the buckles are on the small side, which makes them difficult to operate with gloves. Though this isn't a high-tech, revolutionary pack, part of its appeal is its simplistic yet functional design. Granite Gear keeps things basic, and by using some of the lightest and most durable fabrics available, they manage to keep the pack light and strong.
Read review: Granite Gear Blaze 60
Best for Superior Comfort
Osprey Atmos 65 AG
The Osprey Atmos 65 AG is one of the better all-around backpacking backpacks due to its excellent design and overall comfort. This pack, which has developed a cult-like following, is loaded with features and sports incredible ventilation while weighing in at a respectable 4 lbs 8 oz. What sets this pack apart the most, though, is Osprey's innovative anti-gravity (AG) suspension. This helps to spread the load more evenly across the hips and shoulders while also letting out excess heat that tends to build behind your back and under the hip belt. The plush, tapered, breathable foam shoulder straps are dreamy. For average trips with loads at or under 40 lbs, this is one of the more comfortable packs in our review. Every pocket is a good size and is situated in the right place. Moreover, the Atmos offers an excellent fit with efficient adjustability focused on ergonomics.
With a weight of 4.5 lbs, this pack approaches a mass that starts to feels like it's overengineered. As more people get into backpacking, the average weight that hikers carry has decreased as the emphasis has turned toward simplicity. Furthermore, if you plan to consistently haul loads of 45 lbs or more, you should consider a different model — this pack doesn't handle heavy loads well. Finally, while most users have a good experience with the Amos 65 AG, some testers found the waistbelt confining and too hug-like, especially when trying to adjust layers.
Read review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG
Best for Long-Distance Hiking
Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst
Barely tipping the scales at 3 lbs, the ULA Catalyst is a pack for lightweight enthusiasts. Although this pack is incredibly light, it comfortably carries a hefty load for long stretches between resupplies. ULA packs are well known in the trail community and are loved for having the features thru-hikers want, like massive zippered hip belt pockets, a large stretchy mesh stuff-it pocket, and huge side water bottle pockets that can easily hold two tall one-liter bottles each. Heck, for an upcharge, they will even embroider your very own trail name! There are many customized options, including some fun color combinations, if you're so inclined. This is all great stuff, but when all is said and done, this pack scores so well in our review simply for being lightweight, capable, comfortable, feature-filled.
Even if we downright love this pack, it's not necessarily a perfect fit for everyone. If you are one who appreciates a trampoline-style suspension for breathability reasons, this model might not be for you. This pack also has no top-lid, but we found ample storage for on-the-go items. This pack gave the Blaze 60 a serious run for its money.
Read review: Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst
Best Bang for the Buck
REI Co-op Flash 55
Over the years, REI has produced many products with variable success. Some products are impressive, affordable options, while others have missed the mark completely. The Flash 55 is of the "inexpensive, awesome, and well designed" variety. The pack weighs in at a mere 2lb 10oz, and amazingly, it can comfortably handle up to 30 pounds. The Packmod system enables you to customize the pack for your needs by moving or eliminating virtually all of the external pockets and straps. We particularly loved this feature. There are two "extra" side stash-pockets between the side bottle pockets, and the front stash pocket is a super handy and unique use of space, essentially doubling the external storage capacity. The side bottle pockets are also the most easily accessible in the group. Since bottles go in vertically, there is no inference with arm swing, and because they are so close to the sides of the body, water bottles can easily be removed and replaced with one hand.
When you design a product to be lightweight, it's common for performance to suffer in another way, often ringing up at a higher cost while reducing durability and even support. The Flash 55 does a great job of keeping the price low, but the durability issue rings true. For example, we would advise against rubbing into any rocks, or you may end up with some holes (as we did). We also would have liked to have carried a little more than 30 pounds, but being able to do so would require a more robust suspension and add to the pack's baseline weight.
Read review: REI Flash 55
Best for Weather Resistance
Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
Arc'teryx doesn't pull any punches when it comes to performance. The shoulder straps incorporate a memory foam-type cushioning that strikes a perfect balance between cushy comfort and superb support. The features are well-thought-out and quite user-friendly. The pivoting waist belt might come across as gimmicky at first, but it is extremely efficient at transferring the weight from the shoulders to the hips, especially when the terrain is rough and steep.
The main drawbacks to this pack are that it is on the heavy side at five lbs, and its top-tier price tag may be way too much for many to swallow. With that said, we found that this was the most water-resistant model in our test. The Bora employs the proprietary AC² fabric that covers most of the pack, sealing some seams and integrating some watertight zippers. With this combination, our gear stayed dry during wet springtime hikes in the soggy rainforests of Olympic National Park.
Read review: Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
Why You Should Trust Us
Our lead backpack reviewers, Ian Nicholson, Adam Paashaus, and Ben Applebaum-Bauch, have tens of thousands of backpacking miles logged between them. Ian is a professional internationally licensed IFMGA/UIAGM mountain guide with over 3,000 days guiding in the Pacific Northwest, European Alps, and beyond. He has guided more than 1,000 clients and helped them select and fit packs for their adventures. When Ian is not guiding or climbing, he works in an outdoor gear shop, which allows him to stay up to date on innovative pack technology. Adam, also a long-time guide and outdoor instructor, travels full time with his wife and two daughters (ages 7 and 9), who recently became Long Trail end-to-enders. When Adam isn't thru-hiking with his family, you can find him trail running, rock climbing, planning his next trip, or scouting the next place to call home. Ben began his outdoor career as a backpacking trip leader, guiding participants on multi-week adventures along the most rugged and remote portions of the Appalachian Trail in New England. He has since trained dozens of guides to do the same with over 1,000 participants while ensuring that they all have the appropriate, properly-fitted gear for their adventures. He has subsequently embarked on thru-hikes of some of the iconic long trails of the U.S. including the Pacific Crest Trail, Long Trail, Colorado Trail, Oregon Coast Trail, and John Muir Trail.
We researched over 40 of the top backpacking backpacks on the market and selected 15 contenders for hands-on testing. We loaded them up with various gear and took to the trail on a series of adventures ranging from volcano mountaineering trips to alpine rock approaches and thru-hikes. We tested how each pack handled small and large loads alike and figured out the maximum comfortable carrying capacity for each.
Related: How We Tested Backpacking Packs
Analysis and Test Results
There are several factors to consider when shopping for a new backpacking backpack. Whether you're shopping for your first pack or upgrading from an old model, it's important to consider the types of activities you plan to use it for. The packs we've selected are ideal for typical backcountry trips, but most of them are versatile enough to handle general mountaineering or world travel type "backpacking." Backpacking backpacks can be far more comfortable to use than a traditional suitcase or duffel bag in rough terrain or areas with few paved roads. We directly compared the best and most popular packs to evaluate the pros and cons of each and help narrow down the right one for you.
Backpacks (and outdoor gear in general) can be quite expensive, but the right gear is often well worth the investment. If you have ever trekked up into the mountains with a poorly-fitting pack, there is no doubt you understand the benefits that a quality pack can provide. We didn't just focus on the high-end expedition models, but we also tested a range of excellent wallet-friendly designs, such as the excellent REI Flash 55. Our favorite pack, the Granite Gear Blaze 60, offers outstanding performance at an average price.
Suspension and Comfort
We assessed each model's shoulder straps, waist belts, back panels, and suspension while focusing on support, anatomical conformation, and comfort.
The waist belt and shoulder straps are crucial factors to consider when picking a backpack. They have the most significant impact on a pack's comfort (or lack thereof). The majority of issues that bother new backpackers relate to these two areas. To test the selected models, we took them on multiple extended trips loaded with weights in the 25 to 55 lb range.
Padded hip belts and shoulder straps are worth very little without a good suspension to go along with them. The system of compression straps, stays, and its internal structure controls how effectively the weight is transferred to the shoulder straps and waistbelt. The frame is what ensures the load from the pack body is supported by the waist belt and your hips. We also note how well each pack transfers the weight to the front of the shoulder straps rather than the top, so your shoulders don't get crushed.
Each person's body is different, so our test included a wide range of users, including OutdoorGearLab editors, friends, and our climbing and backpacking partners to gather a wide variety of data. When a pack seems to fit a specific body type, we mention so in the review.
After extensive testing with typical 25-45 lb loads, the ULA Catalyst and the Osprey Atmos 65 AG proved to be incredibly comfortable. All of our testers agreed that the Granite Gear Blaze 60's suspension is robust, while the pack is super light (3 lbs) for the amount of weight it can carry.
The Osprey Atmos 65 AG provides a snug ride with its trampoline-style suspension that spreads the load evenly across the body. We rarely got hot spots on our backs or hips, even after extended travel in warmer conditions. One reason for the lack of hot spots is the heavily-tapered padding in the straps and waist belt, which provide the thickest cushioning where you want it the most, like on top of your shoulders. At the same time, thinner padding in less important areas reduces chafing.
The Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 comes with dreamy foam that is both soft and supportive, reminiscent of a therapeutic mattress for your shoulders. Because of this conforming foam, the load is well-distributed across the padding while carrying full loads.
At loads above 45 lbs, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG becomes less comfortable. The best performing contenders for big loads are the Gregory Baltoro 65, Granite Gear Blaze 60, and Arc'teryx Bora AR 63. These packs use high-quality foam that strikes a perfect balance between support and comfort. All of the shoulder straps offer top-notch ergonomics and slightly stiffer padding. While this rigid padding is marginally less cushy, it's what you need when you're lugging a heavy load. Each pack mentioned above offers subtle advantages that will help transfer the load to your hips and keep you moving towards camp in relative comfort. These advantages include a supportive suspension, foam stiffness, and well-designed shoulder straps and waist belts. The combination lands all of them in the load-hauler category.
The hip belt tends to be one of the main contributors to a comfortable pack, especially a well-loaded one. Some are light and relatively soft, while others swivel and/or are well-padded and rigid to carry heavy loads. Some packs, like the Granite Gear Blaze 60, allow the foam padding of the waistbelt to extend out to fit larger waist sizes.
Not every pack is made to carry more than 40 or 50 lbs. Some, like the REI Flash 55, are made for lighter loads of 30 lbs or less. While that may seem low, with a carefully planned system, a 30 lb pack can include more than enough amenities.
Although the Osprey Atmos 65 performs well when carrying loads below 40 lbs, it isn't great for loads above that, as its anti-gravity trampoline-style suspension feels mushy and less supportive under heavy loads. The ULA Catalyst and the Granite Gear Blaze 60 both feature fairly robust suspensions for a decent carrying capacity while weighing only 3 lbs each—an impressive feat.
Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System
Trampoline-style or suspended suspension systems feature a mesh back panel that is tensioned (like a trampoline) instead of a more traditional, single or double-stay or "Y" shaped frame. These allow airflow between your back and the pack's load, reducing back sweat. More importantly, the weight is distributed more evenly, which tends to produce fewer hot spots.
We like trampoline-style suspension systems for breathability and weight distribution. However, when it comes to massive loads, not many trampoline-style harnesses can handle 45+ lbs. Trampoline suspensions also position the load further away from your back, increasing leverage, reducing balance, and making for a less comfortable overall carrying experience as the weight increases.
Features and Ease of Use
This metric evaluates how easy it is to pack and retrieve items from these backpacks, paying particular attention to the design of the main compartment, pockets, lid, straps, and other unique attributes. Additionally, we compared the number and location of extra pockets and how useful our testers found them. We also determined how helpful the pack's top lid is for providing easy access to a handful of items and whether those items stayed organized.
We looked at each pocket and asked ourselves: Does this pocket make my life easier and keep me more organized? Or is it just adding weight to the pack? We also looked at access points and evaluated whether they seem useful for retrieving items or if they're impractical to zip shut when the pack is full and are thus just for show.
We considered how useful any other additional features are and evaluated them in the field during real-world testing. We concluded that we generally favor packs with a handful of straps for crampons, ice axes, sleeping pads, flip-flops, or other items because it adds to the pack's overall versatility. Extra points were awarded for features that can be removed or customized for a more personalized user experience.
Overall Organizational Ability
For those who like an assortment of compartments and pockets for organization, the Granite Gear Blaze 60 and ULA Catalyst have particularly handy pocket designs. These models offer a similar setup and exhibit our favorite overall organizational and pocket layout. They provide great hip belt pockets, big water bottle side pockets, and a stretchy mesh stuff-it pocket that is excellent for wet clothes or carrying oddly shaped items like fuel bottles, a trowel, camp shoes, or a frisbee.
The Gregory Zulu 55 and Gregory Baltoro 65 offer excellent gear access. These models are great options for folks who like a lot of organization or the ability to get to your items quickly without having to remove anything.
Top Lid Pocket
Every pack, other than the ULA Catalyst, has a top lid with a zippered pocket, and many of them can be removed and left at home to reduce weight. The top lid is one of the best places to store small items that require quick and easy access, such as sunglasses, sunblock, or bug spray. Many models also have a separate small pocket on the underside of the lid, offering a secondary place to keep small items that don't need to be accessed as frequently, like car keys.
Our favorite top lid design is the REI Flash 55. Even though it wasn't huge or filled with pockets, the whole top lid is made with a seam-sealed waterproof (non-submergible) construction, allowing it to keep your things dry in light rain. It also unclips, giving you the ability to leave it at home for streamlined trips to the trail.
Most of the packs have zippers on the front or back of the lid, which means that it's not as easy to get inside of them. However, not all side-zippered lid pockets are the same. The sizable zippered lid pockets of the Osprey Atmos 65 AG are next level. They have nearly the same volume as the Gregory Baltoro 65 and have a longer zipper that wraps around the sides slightly.
How you access the primary compartment is part of our Ease of Use metric and measures how easily we could grab a few items without unpacking the entire bag. The value placed on this metric depends on the user and the volume of the pack. However, as pack volume increases, access takes on greater importance.
While ease of access is an important consideration, it is trumped by weight concerns. Don't select a pack solely for an elongated zippered access panel, especially if you will rarely use it since you will still pay a weight penalty for having it. Also, in general, many side access panels are a pain in the neck to close when the pack is fully loaded.
All the backpacking backpacks in our review are top-loading, and many have a separate sleeping bag compartment with bottom access zipper. These openings enable access to a part of the pack that is hard to get at from the top without unloading it all on the ground first.
Hip belt pockets
These days, it seems a pack with a good hip belt is critical. We especially love the Granite Gear Blaze 60 and the ULA Catalyst's hip belt pockets for their unrivaled size and ease of access. It's also worth noting that the Gregory Baltoro 65 features a single weather-resistant pocket, which is particularly helpful for folks who want their smartphone easily accessible for taking photos. This weather-resistant accessory is in addition to a secondary mesh zippered pocket. Both the The North Face Griffin 65 and the Gregory Optic 58 have stretchy hip belt pockets, but they are on the smaller side, and most phones don't fit well. However, they are fine for stuffing snacks that can conform around the contours of the waist belt.
All of the models are reasonably weather-resistant, but the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 stands out as almost waterproof. It consistently kept our gear drier during spring hikes in Washington's Olympic rainforest and in our garden hose tests. This pack uses Arc'teryx's AC² fabric, which is exceptionally weather-resistant, bordering on waterproof. Arc'teryx even taped the seams on exposed areas like the back kangaroo-style pocket (which also sports a water-resistant zipper) because this location will likely see the most moisture when you're on the move.
Almost all of the packs in this review have a location to store a hydration bladder where it should stay upright. You can expect the models with this feature to work with just about any brand's 2-3 liter hydration bladder.
Over the last decade, many hikers have made a concerted effort to carry less weight than their predecessors. Many pack makers have noticed this trend and offer a wide range of packs from "ultralight" to "load haulers."
The lightest packs in our review, by a pretty significant margin, are the Granite Gear Blaze 60, ULA Catalyst, Gregory Optic 58, and REI Flash 55. All check in at around three lbs and ride the line between backpacking backpacks and ultralight minimalist packs. The big difference here is that these models are more comfortable for people who don't have their pack weight shaved down below 20 pounds.
These lighter packs are excellent options for folks who want to go super light but still need a comfortable and supportive pack with a frame and more robust padding for trips when you need more weight or after leaving town with a fresh resupply. Because of their lightweight and great weight carrying capacity, these packs are popular among long-distance trail hikers and section hikers alike.
Adjustability and Fit
To judge each backpack's adjustability and fit, we considered its overall ergonomics in addition to how adjustable each model was. We also looked at the range of torso lengths available. More sizes mean it could work for a wider range of users.
The Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10 has by far the most vertical adjustment of any pack in our review. You can move this model's shoulder straps up or down nearly 10 inches, helping it fit a wide range of users and be genuinely tailored to its wearer. Deuter's adjustment system also means it's an excellent choice for rapidly growing children, teenagers, or youth program uses.
When it comes to straight-up vertical adjustment, the Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10 has an advantage. However, when it comes to tailor-like fitting, the adjustment options of the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 reign supreme. While it doesn't have as much vertical adjustment range, we love that we can adjust the shoulder straps side to side (width-wise), as well as up and down. The Gregory Baltoro 65 and Osprey Atmos 65 AG also have a respectable amount of adjustment. They feature roughly four inches of vertical adjustment and are available in a variety of sizes. We also tried to consider each pack's overall ergonomics in our fit metric.
Rain covers are a practical addition to any backpacking pack. If the rain is falling for multiple days at a time, unless you have lined your pack with a trash bag or packed your gear in dry bags, your stuff is going to get wet. A pack cover can only do so much to lessen this reality, but it is helpful at preventing excess water from soaking into the fabrics, which will weigh down your pack. Although the backpacks in this review are not waterproof, the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 does come quite close. It's worth noting that many of the packs in this review include a rain cover, including the Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Rook 65, REI Traverse 70, and Flash 55.
Traveling from point A to B on a backcountry trip seems simple enough, but choosing the right backpacking backpack to get you and all of your gear to the end in the best shape possible is a bit trickier. We hope that our testing and reviews help you narrow down the choices so you can select the best option out there.
— Adam Paashaus, Ben Applebaum-Bauch and Ian Nicholson