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Searching for the best backpacking backpack? After a decade of testing close to 60 different models, our expert reviewers purchased 16 top packs available today for a meticulous side-by-side comparison. Our team of experts knows what makes a great pack. We've ventured all over the world with these packs on multiple extended trips, from sweaty Appalachian slogs to hot and dry Mojave crossings to alpine rambles. Each pack in our lineup has its strengths and weaknesses, and we help to decipher all the nuances to simplify your research experience and help you find the best backpack for your needs.
Editor's Note: We updated this article on October 5, 2022, to reflect the newest version of the Osprey Atmos AG 65 and to add two new packs to the lineup, the Gregory Focal 58 and Big Agnes Parkview 63.
Thanks to its impressive design, the Granite Gear Blaze 60 is once again the best overall backpacking backpack in our review. This pack is somehow able to comfortably support up to 50 pounds while only weighing 3.0 pounds itself. We enjoyed this pack's great set of features for their practicality and usability. There is a stretchy mesh front pocket, roomy hip belt pockets, a removable top lid, a breathable back panel, a long front access zipper, and nine compression straps to handle variable loads. This has just about every feature you could ask for and nothing you don't need. 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 can comfortably carry a few luxury items, winter/climbing gear, or extra food for a more extended trail section.
While this pack does many things right, there is no perfect pack for everyone. Some buckles on this pack are small and hard 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 simple, and by using some of the lightest and most durable fabrics available, they manage to keep the pack light and strong.
The REI Flash 55 is an inexpensive, lightweight, and well-designed backpacking backpack. It weighs a mere 2.6 pounds. And, it can comfortably carry loads up to 30 pounds. The Packmod system enables you to customize the pack for your needs by moving or eliminating virtually all external pockets and straps. We particularly loved this feature. There are two "extra" side pockets between the water bottle and front stretch pockets. These extra pockets are 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. Because they sit low on the pack, 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. Lightweight packs are often more expensive, less durable, and less supportive. The Flash 55 does a great job of keeping the price low, but the durability and support issues are still true. We would try to avoid rubbing into rocks with this pack, or you may end up with some holes (as we did). We've seen these packs last 1000s of miles, so durability isn't a huge issue, but don't go dragging it through any boulder fields. We also would have liked to have carried a little more than 30 pounds from time to time, but being able to do so would require a more robust suspension and add to the pack's baseline weight.
Barely tipping the scales at 2.8 pounds, the ULA Catalyst is an excellent 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 front pocket, and huge side water bottle pockets that can each hold two tall one-liter bottles. Heck, for an upcharge, they will even embroider your trail name on their packs. If you're so inclined, there are many customized options, including some fun color combinations. 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, and feature-filled.
We downright love this pack, but we'll acknowledge that it may not be a perfect fit for everyone. If you appreciate the breathability of a trampoline-style suspension, you will probably want to look elsewhere. This pack also has no top lid, but we still found ample storage for on-the-go items. This pack gave the Blaze 60 a serious run for its money.
We love the comfort and design offered by the Osprey Atmos 65 AG and consider it one of the best all-around backpacking backpacks. It's loaded with features and provides incredible back ventilation while weighing in at 4.5 pounds. It's not surprising that this pack has earned a cult-like following. What sets the Atmos 65 AG apart the most, though, is Osprey's innovative anti-gravity (AG) suspension, which helps spread the load more evenly across the hips and shoulders while also venting 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 pounds, this is one of the more comfortable packs in our review. Every pocket is a good size and thoughtfully placed. Moreover, the Atmos offers an excellent fit with efficient adjustability focused on ergonomics.
Still, at a weight of 4.5 lbs, this pack approaches a mass that starts to feel slightly over-engineered. If you plan to haul loads of 45 pounds or more consistently, you should consider a different model — this pack doesn't handle heavy loads as well as a pack that's close to 5 pounds probably should. Finally, while most users have a good experience with the Atmos 65 AG, some testers found the waistbelt confining and too hug-like, especially when adjusting clothing.
Hip belt causes the entire pack to sway while walking
Osprey has always done a good job of marrying durability, adjustability, and large load comfort, and the Osprey Aether 65 is the perfect example. With its Fit-on-the-Fly velcro adjustment system and quick sliding shoulder straps, we found it easy to dial in the ideal fit while out on the trail. This backpacking backpack makes it easy to access your gear with a sleeping bag compartment, reinforced stretch "shove-it" front pocket, a large zipper to access the pack's interior, and a double-pocketed lid that keeps all the necessities just a zip away. The back panel and shoulder straps are firm and supportive, remaining comfortable with loads up to 50 pounds. There are multiple compression straps to keep the weight close to your body. These straps are also useful for strapping wet gear outside your pack. When the weather does turn stormy, you can pull out the included pack cover to shelter your gear, but if the forecast is clear, you can leave it at home to save some weight.
The biggest downside of this pack is its substantial heft. This pack weighs around 5 pounds. Though it can comfortably handle loads many lighter packs couldn't dream of carrying, there is no denying this pack is heavy. This weight is partly due to the extra zipper that allows access to the inside of the pack. If this is a feature that doesn't fit your backpacking style, you'd be better off choosing a different pack to save some weight. The high-quality and reinforced materials also add some extra weight, but these heavier materials are more durable. Another gripe we have with this pack is that the attached hip belt doesn't absorb the movement of your hips while you walk, which causes the pack to sway from side to side when carrying heavy loads. Your pack swaying a little isn't the biggest problem, but it does feel unnatural, and other packs have features that prevent this.
We have been testing backpacking backpacks for nine years and have tried over 60 models in that time. We have spent well at least 200 hours testing backpacks in that time. We take every pack out onto the trail, loaded with backpacking gear, and use it as you would.
We tested models in this review with a focus on the following:
Suspension and Comfort: 45%
Features and Ease of Use: 20%
For suspension and comfort, we assess how the suspension system affects how comfortable the backpack is fully loaded. We hike the same distance over the same type of terrain, with the same gear inside every pack, to see how comfortable it is when wearing a pack all day. We assess how well the weight is distributed between the hips, back, and shoulders by loosening and tightening the shoulder straps, hip belt, and load lifter straps.
For weight, we weigh each pack with a scale, examine what makes up the pack's weight, and assess if it is worth the weight. For features and ease of use, we look at every feature on a pack to see if those features are useable as intended and if they make the pack better. For adjustability, we measure the pack's fit details. We look to see if the torso length is adjustable and how much adjustability is built into the waist belt and shoulder straps. We also research how many different sizes each pack comes in.
Sam is a backpacker, trail runner, and mountain biker based in Colorado. He has backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Colorado Trail 3 times, and the Grand Enchantment Trail, along with countless shorter backpacking trips. On top of the nearly 10,0000 miles logged while backpacking, he has bikepacked more miles than he can begin to count in the American Southwest and beyond. With all this carrying gear on his back and his bike, Sam is quite the expert on backpacks.
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.
Bennett joins the ranks as a former gear shop employee, graduate in outdoor product development, and a current thru-hiker. He has logged over 6,000 miles of backpacking, including the entire Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. His next journey starts in just a couple of months, where he will attempt to complete the Triple Crown of Backpacking by thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail.
Our team researched over 60 of the top backpacking backpacks on the market and selected 15 of the best 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 long thru-hikes. We tested how each pack handled small and large loads alike and figured out the maximum comfortable carrying capacity for each.
There are several factors to consider when looking for a new backpacking backpack. Whether you're searching for your first pack or upgrading from an old model, it's essential 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 top-rated 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, either. 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 frame design when testing suspension. We considered how supportive each backpack is, how well it conforms to different body shapes, and hows comfortable it is. 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 from 25 to 55 pounds.
Padded hip belts and shoulder straps are worth very little without a good suspension to go along with them. A pack's suspension is its frame system. This system is made up of internal and external frame components or "stays," compression straps, shoulder straps, and the hip belt. Suspension dictates how effectively the weight of a backpack is dispersed throughout the pack onto 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 GearLab 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 that in the review.
After extensive testing with typical 25 to 45-pound loads, the ULA Catalyst and Osprey Atmos 65 AG, and Gregory Focal 58 proved to be the most comfortable. All of our testers agreed that the Granite Gear Blaze 60 has a robust suspension, while the pack is super light (3.0 pounds), considering 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. At loads above 45 pounds, however, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG becomes less comfortable.
The best performing contenders for heavier loads are the Osprey Aether 65, the Gregory Baltoro 65, and the Granite Gear Blaze 60. 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 because it won't compress. 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 are well-padded yet rigid to carry heavy loads. Some packs, like the Granite Gear Blaze 60, Gregory Baltoro 65, and Osprey Aether 65, allow the foam padding of the waistbelt to extend out to fit larger waist sizes.
Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System
Trampoline-style or suspended suspension systems feature a tensioned mesh back panel (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, producing fewer hot spots. The Osprey Atmos AG 65, Gregory Focal 58, and Mountain Hardwear PCT 70 all have trampoline-style suspension.
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+ pounds. 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 well the pack's top lid provides access to small 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 any other additional features' usefulness 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 the ULA Catalyst have particularly convenient pocket designs. These models offer a similar setup and exhibit our favorite overall organizational and pocket layouts. They provide excellent 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.
For folks who love to stay super organized, the Gregory Zulu 55 and Baltoro 65 offer excellent gear access and 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. The Mystery Ranch Sphinx also has an excellent wide-mouth top lid opening.
Most packs have zippers on the front or back of the lid, which means that it's not as easy to get inside 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. The Gregory Baltoro 65 Also has a very wide opening zipper on its lid.
How you access the primary compartment on the backpacking pack 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 pack's volume. As pack volume increases, access takes on greater importance.
While ease of access is an important consideration, it's not as important as weight. Don't select a pack solely for an elongated zippered access panel, especially if you will rarely use it. That massive zipper will add a lot of weight to the backpack. Also, many side access panels are a pain to close when the pack is fully loaded.
Weight Penalty — All additional pack features come with a weight penalty. Consider your priorities before saying "I want lots of access". We hear that often only to witness folks go on several trips without using their side access panel.
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
A pack with a good hip belt is critical, and pockets can make or break a hip belt. We especially love the hip belt pockets on the Granite Gear Blaze 60, Gregory Baltoro 65, Gregory Focal 58, and the ULA Catalyst for their unrivaled size and ease of access.
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.
Rain covers are a practical addition to any backpacking pack. If the rain is falling for days at a time, unless you've 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 helps prevent excess water from soaking into the pack fabric, which will weigh down your pack. Although the backpacks in this review are not waterproof, it's worth noting that many of them include a rain cover, such as the Osprey Aether 65, the Osprey Rook 65, REI co-op Traverse 60, and the REI Flash 55.
Over the last decade, many hikers have made a concerted effort to carry less weight than their predecessors. Camping gear has gotten much lighter, and this helps more backpackers go lighter, too. 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 REI Flash 55, ULA Catalyst, Gregory Focal 58, and the Osprey Exos 58, followed closely by the Granite Gear Blaze 60. All of these packs weigh in at 3.0 pounds or less and ride the line between backpacking backpacks and ultralight minimalist packs. The big difference here is that these models are more comfortable for people without a base pack weight 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 to carry more weight. This also helps with longer food carries or that first day of a week-long backpacking trip when those seven days worth of food are heavy no matter what the rest of your gear weighs. Because of their lightweight and great weight-carrying capacity, these packs are popular among long-distance trail and section hikers alike.
Adjustability and Fit
To judge each backpack's adjustability and fit, we considered its overall ergonomics and how adjustable each model was. We also looked at the range of torso lengths available. More sizes mean it could work for a broader range of users.
Mix and Match Sizing — There aren't too many pack manufacturers who will let you swap out waist belts and shoulder strap sizes to tailor your fit. For example, you may want a large frame and a medium waist belt. If this would be helpful for your body type, it is worth seeking out a pack from a manufacturer like Gregory, Osprey, REI, or ULA.
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 is also an excellent choice for rapidly growing children, teenagers, or youth program uses.
Regarding 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 Osprey Aether 65 reign supreme. While it may only have four inches of verticle adjustment, it also has adjustable shoulder straps and waist belt padding that helps dial in the perfect fit while on the trail. The Gregory Baltoro 65 and the Osprey Atmos 65 AG also have a respectable amount of adjustment. They also feature roughly four inches of vertical adjustment and are available in a variety of sizes. The REI Co-op Traverse 60 comes in a useful extra size: large torso with a small waistbelt, which we thought was useful for all those tall, skinny folks out there. We considered each pack's overall ergonomics in our fit metric.
Traveling from point A to point 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.
Sam Schild, Ian Nicholson, Adam Paashaus, Ben Applebaum-Bauch, & Bennett Fisher
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