Your pack might be the most important piece of gear you select after your footwear. You have to lug it all day long and store your home inside and it better be up to the task so we researched and tested the top models on the market, year after year to help you parse the long feature set lists and complicated suspension technology names.
Every model is different; some use innovative technology to achieve a comfortable carry while maintaining air flow behind your back while others maintain a basic design and pared-down features to save weight. Some are designed to haul whatever you can throw in them while others are minimalistic and will help keep you fast and light. While comfort is critical, having the right set of pockets and features for your preference can also make all the difference between a pack you love, and a pack you deal with. Because so much of the selection is based on personal preference our guidelines are meant to help you narrow down your choices based on how you plan to use the pack, how long you need to use it for, and perhaps, most importantly, how to find the most comfortable pack for you.
We all go out into the woods for our own reasons and those reasons can dictate what style of backpacking we enjoy the most. By thinking about how you plan to adventure with your pack you can start to eliminate the models that aren't right for you and focus in on the features that matter the most to your style.
Do you prefer to hike slowly, take long lunch breaks, spend the afternoon swimming in an alpine lake? If your idea of an ideal trip doesn't involve pushing yourself to cover more miles and hike as close to dark as possible, then you tend to have the flexibility to pack a bit heavier, bringing luxury items like a pillow, six-pack of your favorite beverage, or maybe even a steak to grill over the campfire. A pack designed to comfortably carry heavy loads and have the capacity to fit more may be the right pick for your adventures. You may be less focused on having tons of pockets you can access without removing your pack.
Light and Fast
This style is the polar opposite of those who like to ramble on a slow journey. If you enjoy the physical challenge of covering great distances in a day then you are more likely to also be trying to keep your pack weight low and jettison anything you perceive as extraneous. Packs under 3 pounds are likely to pique your interest. You'll want something that doesn't add extra weight with extra zippers but you'll also appreciate easy access hip belt pockets and side pockets so you can get to your snacks essentials on the go.
The question of volume depends on the duration of your trip and how much stuff you like to bring. In our review, we chose to test a wide array of packs, ranging from 55-105 liters; these models can typically accommodate loads for 2-10 days of backcountry travel and meet the needs of a wide variety of adventurers. Some backpackers who bring more luxury items or dated gear may find they need a 70-liter pack for a short overnighter, while others who go with less and have lighter weight more modern gear can easily make a 60-liter pack work for a trip over a week-long.
Many backpack models come in multiple volumes. If you read a review of a pack that isn't quite the right volume, there's a good chance that the manufacturer does make a larger or smaller version of it. Our experience tells us that different sizes of the same model perform very similarly to each other 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 Bora AR 63, you can assume that the Bora AR 50 will perform in about the same fashion and the Osprey Xenith 88 will perform very similarly to the Xenith 105, etc.
Pack weight can sometimes be about tradeoffs. To state the obvious, the more a pack weighs, the more weight you are carrying on your back and, generally speaking, the faster your hips, back, and shoulders could get sore. However, many packs tend to be heavier because they include more features (e.g., pockets, cords, clips, etc.), offer additional comfort (e.g., with more padding, sturdier suspension, and frame), or both. You need to ask yourself what is more important to you: extra 'creature comfort' features or reducing the load on your back. With a couple of exceptions, most of the packs in our review weigh between 3 and 5 1/2 pounds.
A Note on Pack Weight
Backpacking materials technology has vastly improved over even just the past decade. Comparable packs that used to weigh 8 pounds can now weigh half that amount. If you are upgrading from an old school pack to a newer one of an equivalent volume and load rating you should be pleasantly surprised by the comfort and weight savings they bring.
However, if you made a New Year's resolution to cut down on your total pack weight, the pack itself is not the place to start. That is, don't carry the same amount of gear in a lighter pack just because you want to save a pound or two. Yes, your overall load will be lighter, but it sometimes means sacrificing padding or suspension or both that ultimately would make your trip more comfortable. For this reason, It's best to lighten the rest of your kit first, focusing on what you need to bring, leaving behind the things you don't, and if you haven't already, investing in a lightweight shelter, sleeping bag, and clothes is a far better place to start. The pack should be one of the last upgrades to your backcountry kit.
Properly Sizing and Fitting a Pack
The vast majority of packs fit according to your torso length. Correctly sizing a pack is vitally important to your comfort and the pack's function. If it is too large or too small, the weight will not be distributed across the right parts of your body and will almost certainly make hauling the weight around all day uncomfortable, to say the least.
Each pack frame size can accommodate a range of torso lengths. For example, a small may cover 16-19 inches, a medium would fit a torso length of 18-21 inches, and a large may best fit a torso of 20-23 inches. (This varies by manufacturer, so make sure you double-check before you buy).
To get an accurate measurement of your torso length, lean your head forward and feel for the knobby bone that sticks out at the base of your neck (this is your C7 vertebra and the top of the measurement). Then locate your pelvic girdle (aka iliac crest) To do this, put your hands on your hip bones with thumbs pointing toward your back; the imaginary line between the tips of your thumbs where it crosses your spine is the bottom end of the measurement.
Hip Belt Size and Fit
Your waist size will dictate your hip belt size. Manufacturers offer sizing charts for this.
Wearing a loaded pack, 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 straps you feel if you try to pat yourself on the back) should be pulling the shoulder straps up at around 45 degrees, though anywhere from 35-60 degrees is acceptable.
Testing a Pack
Once you have found a pack that has the features you are looking for and fits correctly, load it up. If you are able, we recommend packing it the way you would if you were going on a trip. Not only does this ensure that you have the right amount of weight in it, but that the weight distributes correctly. If you are in a store and didn't bring your whole kit, don't be afraid to ask if you can borrow a few pieces of gear to put in there.
Putting on a Pack
Once you have a fully loaded pack, getting it on your back is the next challenge. To begin with, make sure the shoulder and waist straps are loose. Stand with your feet should width apart, and your knees bent slightly. With the shoulder straps facing you, grab one with each hand. As you lift with your legs, slide one arm through one strap, then the second. Lean forward slightly so that you can first clip the hip belt and ensure that it is resting on your pelvis correctly. The correct position for a hip belt is typically higher than you wear your pants. The belt should wrap centered over the iliac crest - that bone you found when measuring your torso. Once that is cinched down, you can secure the shoulder and sternum straps and adjust the load lifters.
Pack Weight Distribution
The importance and benefit of a properly-fitted pack should become clear as soon as you have it on your back. You should feel about 60-80% of the pack weight on your hips, with the remainder spread across your shoulders and chest.
Pack Anatomy & Proper Adjustment
Knowing your way around your pack and its various features may not affect your initial purchasing decision, but it does improve your experience on the trail and allows you to use a pack comfortably and efficiently with different loads and types of gear. Knowing how to quickly strap your detachable daypack on, lash your skis or trekking poles to the side, or appropriately adjust the load lifters will make a difference on your adventure. Below is a simple chart of the parts of a pack, with the key adjustment points highlighted in red.
Load Lifter Straps: These straps connect the top of the shoulder straps to the top of the pack. When tightened correctly, they prevent the pack from leaning away from your back or shifting side to side with every step. They are important for avoiding shoulder pain. They should pull at or around a 45-degree angle.
Compression Straps: These tighten along the sides and occasionally also across the front of the pack. They should extend when a pack is full and cinch down when a pack is almost empty. These allow for the wearer to achieve a balanced pack even if it is not entirely loaded down. These are some of the main features that make a pack versatile enough for a day hike or a multi-day trip.
Hipbelt Stabilizer: This strap can be tightened around the hip belt, improving balance and comfort.
Modern packs almost always have internal frames. These carry closer to the body than old-school external frame packs, and they can provide support in a couple of different ways:
Aluminum Stays: These are thin support rods that run the length of the pack to give it shape and stiffness.
Framesheet: This is a thin, semi-rigid piece of material that lines the back of a pack, keeping the pack's shape and preventing objects from jabbing the wearer through the fabric. Some models have removable frame sheets while others have this piece integrated. Often packs will use both a frame sheet and aluminum stays to provide support.
Perimeter Frame: These packs have a minimal amount of aluminum tubing contouring around the outside of the pack on the backside. This feature can also help achieve an airflow design that sits the pack off of the back to prevent sweat from pooling on the back. this style tends to have less support for heavier loads and force the weight farther from your back.
Styles of Packs
There are many styles of packs beyond models for backpacking. For many activities, you will most likely want a sport-specific model: a ski pack for skiing or a climbing pack for climbing. Your needed gear-carrying capacity will dictate your choice. Here we detail different styles, what makes them unique, and why you may or may not want one of these particular packs.
Backpacking packs are designed to carry large loads (30-50 pounds) for multiple days and usually range between 50-80 liters in capacity. If you plan to hike long distances with smaller loads, see below for ultralight packs. Packs for backpacking are designed with an internal frame and usually offer a suspension with many adjustment points to most comfortably carry whatever weight you are toting. The primary adjustment points are the hip belt, shoulder straps, sternum strap, compression straps, and load lifters. Often, a pack for backpacking comes with separate compartments for certain types of gear, such as sleeping bag compartments or straps to lash a sleeping pad to the outside. These packs almost always feature hydration bladder compatibility and usually also offer water bottle slots on the sides so that you can choose your favored water carrying method.
These packs will often be too heavy and too large to cross-over into other activities well, but for multi-day trips with a lot of gear, they will offer the needed capacity, support, and comfort.
Ultralight backpacking is for those experienced hikers that want to reduce weight and carry only the bare essentials. If you are considering an ultralight pack, you should first consider your pack load, starting with your base weight (the weight of your kit minus food and water). If your base weight is over 30 pounds and you don't want to reduce it, stick with a traditional backpacking pack. If your base weight is in the 20-pound range, that's a lightweight load that could be well-supported by a lighter traditional pack or some UL packs. At a 10-15 pound base weight, an ultralight pack is very appropriate.
Ultralight packs tend to be smaller. Instead of 60 or 65-liter packs, 40-50 liter packs are much more common. They will typically have a streamlined, lightweight design without many frills or unnecessary features, including only the most useful ones. Ultralight models tend to offer fewer organizational options and will require more thoughtful and creative packing. Be aware that minimalist packs usually use thinner, less durable materials than more substantial designs, so your ultralight pack will not last as long as a traditional backpack; however, the saved strain on your shoulders is probably worth it. Like most packs, ultralight models come in multiple sizes and a few even offer customization
Though women /can/ wear unisex packs or appropriately sized men's packs, many models come in versions designed for women. As noted in our Review of Women's Packs, these products tend to offer smaller torso lengths and narrower shoulder widths than men's packs, as well as curved waist belts.
Daypacks can be incredibly versatile. They tend to have a capacity of 30 liters or less and can function for many activities, including day-hikes, bike rides, fishing, and climbing. Some daypacks come with features tailored to specific activities, such as trekking pole attachments for hikers or helmet attachments for bikers, but almost any small pack can be easily converted to use for any sport.
Most offer hydration pouch compatibility, and many newer models include back panel ventilation. With some exceptions, typically for larger packs, daypacks often come in only one size. We put a selection of these little numbers to the test in our daypack review, which you can read for more details on what makes the perfect small pack.
Almost all new packs feature some variation of hydration compatibility. At the very least, a hole for a hose is incorporated just in case you want to carry a bladder. However, there are also packs designed specifically for hydration. They look like small daypacks (offered in only one size) with an integrated bladder and hose system for drinking mid-activity. Some hydration packs have room to store and carry other items, while others only offer a minimal carry method for water.
In our experience, a hydration pack is ideal for a biker who may not want to take their hands off the bars or for runners, trail runners, and hikers on the go who don't need to carry many other items. Take a look at our hydration pack review to learn more.
Affectionately known as "bullet packs" after one of the most popular models, the Black Diamond Bullet, climbing daypacks are useful for long, multi-pitch rock routes that require food, water, and extra layers. They are simple, burly, and practical.
Ranging from 12-20 liters in capacity and coming in only one size, these little packs differ from traditional daypacks because they are designed to be low-profile, extra durable, and have features tailored to climbers such as attached daisy-chains and straps for attaching a rope. They also forgo stretchy mesh pockets and bungees on the exterior because they are likely to get snagged and torn during a climb. Incredibly useful for toting necessities when you leave the deck, these spare packs eliminate excessive features like laptop sleeves and water bottle pockets, and many even cut out hydration compatibility in favor of simplicity. Refer to our Review of Climbing Daypacks to see which models we like best.
Mountaineering & Alpine Climbing Packs
Mountaineers, ice climbers, and alpine climbers will need a larger pack than a climbing daypack when they head out to climb, and they will also require special attachments specific to alpine and cold-weather equipment. These models offer ice tool/ice ax attachments, crampon attachments, and range from 25-55 liters in capacity.
Alpine packs function for both hiking and climbing, and in general, sacrifice hiking comfort for simplicity while climbing. They typically also offer multi-use or minimalist features that help minimize unnecessary carried weight, such as removable lids, waist belts, and frame sheets that double as bivy pads. This arrangement enables a climber to use a single pack both to haul their overnight gear but also slim down for a summit push the following day. For more specific details on how to choose the right pack for alpine climbing and which ones we love, read our Review of Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing Packs.
There are many kinds of packs aimed at skiers and snowboarders. Most of them are for riders heading into the backcountry and include storage for shovels and probes. They also usually include ski or board carries for when the approach requires a boot pack. They range in size from small 20 liter side-country daypacks that have just enough room for avalanche gear and a water bottle to 40-liter packs with enough capacity for overnight equipment.
Some ski packs are highly specialized that also incorporate avalanche airbag technology to improve a skier or boarder's chances of survival, which you can learn more about in our review of avalanche airbag packs. These provide storage for your gear as well as a deployable airbag or Avalung tube. Because of this potentially lifesaving feature, avalanche packs are more substantial and have less additional carrying capacity than regular ski packs. Because of the added bulk, these types of packs do not cross over well for other activities like hiking or climbing, but they are certainly worth it for the regular backcountry rider.
Often, people will take a typical pack for backpacking with them for long-term travel, but there are some smart market offerings for travelers that can make the hassles of going from place to place just a little easier. These travel-specific designs have features such as detachable daypacks that can clip to the front of the pack for easy kangaroo-style carrying, padded carry handles, lockable zippers, and covers that zip up to protect shoulder straps from airport luggage escalators. We discuss models with these features in our Review of Travel Packs. Alternatively, our carry-on luggage review also highlights some pieces of wheeled luggage that convert to backpacks for easy carrying once you hit the streets.
Some of these pieces of convertible luggage also have detachable daypacks, so you don't have to drag your whole clunky bag with you everywhere. These types of specialized travel bags don't cross over very well into outdoor activities, but they can be ideal for the world traveler that is going the distance.
Laptop Packs & Messenger Bags
Laptop packs have padded sleeves where you can safely and comfortably store and carry your computer whether you are walking around campus, commuting by bike to work, or freelancing from a coffee shop. Typically offered in one-size-fits-all in varying capacities, laptop bags usually feature other briefcase-style organizational details such as pen holders, coin pockets, and key clips. They also lean towards a more professional styling versus a techy, outdoorsy aesthetic, so you can still look chic when heading to the office or a business meeting.
When it comes down to choosing either a pack or a messenger bag for your laptop, we suggest a backpack because it is more stable, more comfortable to carry, and has a larger capacity for other belongings than a messenger-style bag. Messenger bags are better when you require quick and easy access to your belongings. You can check out our Messenger Bag Review and Laptop Pack Review for more details on these styles.
After taking into account the primary considerations of capacity, style, and fit, you should be well on your way to the perfect pack (or packs) for your daily activities and adventures. Don't forget to educate yourself on the possible adjustments and functions of your new pack so that you can make the most of it, and enjoy!