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Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2020

The Optic was a great pack to explore the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
Monday October 12, 2020
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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 update, we purchased 18 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 of 2020

Top 18 Product Ratings

Displaying 6 - 10 of 18

Best Overall Backpacking Backpack


Granite Gear Blaze 60


Editors' Choice Award

$269.95
at Backcountry
See It

84
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 8
  • Weight - 20% 9
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 9
  • Adjustability - 15% 8
Weight: 3 lbs | Volume: 60 liters
Super-light
Feature-packed
Comfortable
Small buckles are hard to operate with gloves

Thanks to its impressive design, the Granite Gear Blaze 60 is once again the best overall backpacking pack in our review. This pack somehow comfortably pulls off supporting up to fifty-pounds while only weighing a mere three pounds. We also enjoyed the great set of features on this pack for their practicality and usability. With a stretchy mesh stuff-it pocket, roomy hip pockets, removable top-lid, breathable back-panel, long front access zipper, 9 compression straps, this thing just about has everything. It's an impressive pack in both weight and weight-capacity. Being such a light pack allows you to keep your base weight low, but since it has such a robust suspension, it will allow you to comfortably carry a few extra 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 it difficult to operate with gloves. It's also no high-tech, revolutionary pack, but part of the appeal of this pack is its simplistic yet usable design. Granite Gear keeps things basic, and by using some of the lightest and most durable fabrics available, they are able to keep the pack light and strong.

Read review: Granite Gear Blaze 60

Best for Superior Comfort


Osprey Atmos 65 AG


Osprey Atmos AG 65
Top Pick Award

$269.94
at Amazon
See It

74
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 8
  • Weight - 20% 5
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 8
  • Adjustability - 15% 8
Weight: 4.56 lbs | Volume: 65 liters
Comfortable
Feature-laden
Awesome ventilation
Lighter than average
Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ lb) loads
Snow can get inside of the back panel

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 a cult-like following, is loaded with features, has incredible ventilation, and weighs in at a respectable 4 lbs 8 oz. However, what sets this pack apart the most is the 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 its efficient adjustability focused on ergonomics.

With a weight of 4.5lbs, this pack is starting to feel like its a bit overengineered. As more people get into backpacking, the average weight hikers carry has gone down and there is an emphasis on simplicity. Furthermore, if you plan to consistently haul loads of 45 pounds or more, you should consider a different model. This pack doesn't handle heavy loads well. Finally, while a large majority of users have a good experience with the Amos 65 AG, some testers found the waistbelt confining and too hug-like, especially when you are trying to adjust layers.

Read review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG

Best for Long-distance Hiking


Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst


Top Pick Award

$280 List
List Price
See It

78
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 8
  • Weight - 20% 9
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 8
  • Adjustability - 15% 5
Weight: 3 lbs | Volume: 60 liters
Super-light
Feature-packed
Comfortable
No lid
Back-panel doesn't breathe well

The ULA Catalyst is a pack for enthusiasts. It barely tips the scales at only three pounds, this pack is incredibly light, yet it comfortably carries a hefty load for long stretches between resupplies. ULA packs are well known by the trail community and are loved for having the features thru-hikers want — like massive zippered hip belt pockets, huge 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! They offer nine different color options and even do fun, customized color combinations. This is all great stuff, but when all is said and done, it scores so well in our review for simply being a lightweight, capable, comfortable, feature-filled pack.

Even if we downright love this pack, it isn't necessarily a perfect fit for everyone. If you are one who prioritizes a trampoline-style suspension for breathability purposes, it may not even be an option. This pack also has no top-lid, although we have 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


Best Buy Award

$199.00
at REI
See It

77
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 7
  • Weight - 20% 10
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 9
  • Adjustability - 15% 5
Weight: 2.6 lbs | Volume: 55 liters
Good value
Super light
Modular design
lacks durability
Max load of 30lb

Over the years, REI has produced many products that have varied considerably. Some products are impressive, more 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 carry 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 that are a super handy and a unique use of space, which basically double the external stash 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 placed back in with one hand.

When you have a product that is designed to be lightweight, it's common for the product to suffer in some way, often ringing up at a higher cost as well as having reduced 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 suggest avoiding rubbing against any rocks, or it's possible you may end up with some holes (as we did). We also would have liked to be able to carry a little more than 30 pounds, but being able to do so would require a more robust suspension, adding to its overall weight.

Read review: REI Flash 55

Best for Weather Resistance


Arc'teryx Bora AR 63


77
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 9
  • Weight - 20% 5
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 7
  • Adjustability - 15% 8
Weight: 5 lbs | Volume: 63 liters
Supportive
Pivoting waist belt
Comfortable
An innovative and effective adjustment system
Great lid pockets
Excellent features
Heavy weight
Expensive

Arc'teryx doesn't pull any punches when it comes to performance. The shoulder straps use a therapeutic-mattress-feeling foam that strikes a perfect balance between cushy comfort and superb support. The features are well-thought-out and quite user-friendly. While the pivoting waist belt might come across as gimmicky at first, it is extremely efficient at transferring the weight from the shoulders to the hips, especially in rough and steep terrain.

The main drawbacks of this pack is that it is on the heavy side at five pounds, and its top-of-the-review price tag is way too much for many to swallow. But with that being said, we found the tradeoff being that this was the most water-resistant model in our test. The Bora employs the proprietary AC² fabric which covers most of the pack, sealing some seams, and integrating some watertight zippers. With this combination, our gear was kept dry during wet springtime hikes in the soggy rainforests of Olympic National Park.

Read review: Arc'teryx Bora AR 63

Best for Heavy Loads and Extended Trips


Osprey Xenith 105


Osprey Xenith 105
Top Pick Award

$300.00
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 8
  • Weight - 20% 4
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 9
  • Adjustability - 15% 6
Weight: 5.4 lbs | Volume: 105 liters
Comfortable
Carries heavier loads ultra-well
Superb external twin zippered pockets
Functional and easy to use zippered mesh pockets
Sweet lid-turned-day pack
Stiff foam
Difficult to search for items in lid pockets
Easy to fill up even if you don't have too

If you are someone who often goes on extended technical outings or trips that require you to carry a lot of gear, the Osprey Xenith 105 would be the best pack for you. The Xenith is tester Ian Nicholson's favorite pack for Denali expeditions, where he is out for 22-days at a time in the arctic cold carrying heavy loads. This pack hits on an excellent combination of robust suspension, above-average padding, ergonomics, and a collection of great features.

The drawbacks mainly have to do with the unavoidable realities of any pack of this size. Any pack of this size is going to be heavy, and this was one of the heaviest in our review. Additionally, when searching for something in this pack, its enormous size makes it challenging to find gear deep down if you haven't thought to keep whatever you are looking for readily accessible. This also wouldn't be our recommendation to any new backpackers, as some may find it tempting to fill it up.

Read review: Osprey Xenith 105

Best Fully Featured Affordable Pack


Osprey Volt 60


Best Buy Award

$158.40
(21% off)
at Amazon
See It

73
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 7
  • Weight - 20% 6
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 7
  • Adjustability - 15% 10
Weight: 4.3 lbs | Volume: 60 liters
Super value
Fits a broad range of people
Simple design
Streamlined features
Not supportive enough for 45+ lb loads

If you want a reasonably priced pack that doesn't withhold on performance, take a good look at the Osprey Volt 60. It is an affordable pack that is still comparable in functionality to pricier models. We are wholly impressed by the capability and comfort of this backpack when loaded under 45 pounds. While the Volt 60 is a simple model, it includes all the essential features that most travelers are looking for, including two zippered lid pockets, dual entry water bottle pockets, a stretchy beavertail pocket, and a lower zippered access point (AKA sleeping bag compartment). Even with everything it offers, it still weighs in at just over four pounds. Factors that propel this model above the rest are the ergonomic shoulder harness, high-quality foam padding in the shoulder straps and waist belt, and the comfortable fabrics used.

While the Volt doesn't go above and beyond with additional features, nor does it have the burliest suspension, it does excel in pure functionality. We did find the weight rides higher in this pack than with most modern internal frame backpacking packs. It only comes in one frame size, but the vertical adjustment is large enough to accommodate most people. We strongly recommend considering this pack if you are looking for a low-cost option unless you are regularly carrying loads over 45 pounds.

Read review: Osprey Volt 60


There are many factors consider when purchasing a backpacking pack. We looked researched over 65 models and bought the best and pitted them head-to-head. We report our findings here. Photo: Dan Whitmore (wearing an Osprey Aether) and Professor David Collingwood take in the Luna Creek Cirque in the Northern Picket Range  one of the most remote locations in the Lower-48.
There are many factors consider when purchasing a backpacking pack. We looked researched over 65 models and bought the best and pitted them head-to-head. We report our findings here. Photo: Dan Whitmore (wearing an Osprey Aether) and Professor David Collingwood take in the Luna Creek Cirque in the Northern Picket Range, one of the most remote locations in the Lower-48.

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 having spent 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 keep 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 be sure to find him trail running, rock climbing, planning the 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 endeavored 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 forty of the top backpacking backpacks on the market and selected eighteen of the top contenders for hands-on testing. We loaded them up with a variety of gear and took to the trail on a series of adventures ranging from volcano climbing trips to alpine rock approaches and thru-hikes. We tested how each pack handles small and large loads alike and figured out maximum comfortable carrying capacities for each.

Related: How We Tested Backpacking Packs

This pack has a nice wide opening that allows us to see what we stashed inside.
We assess each element that contributes to a pack's suspension  including the shoulder straps  waist belt  load lifters  and frame.
The lid of this pack is difficult to access.

Analysis and Test Results


There are several factors to consider when shopping for a new backpacking backpack. Whether you are shopping for your first pack, or you are upgrading from an old model, or you're simply adding to the quiver, it's important to keep in mind the types of activities in which you plan to use it. The packs we've selected are models meant for typical backcountry trips, however, most of them are versatile enough for general mountaineering or even world travel type "backpacking." Backpacking packs can be far more comfortable to use than a more traditional suitcase or duffel bag in rough terrain or areas with few paved roads. We directly compare the best and most popular packs, evaluating the pros and cons of each to help narrow down the right one for you.


Value


Backpacks and outdoor gear in general can be quite expensive, but the right gear is well worth the investment. If you have ever trekked up into the mountains with an poor-fitting pack, there is no doubt you can appreciate the value that a quality pack can have. 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 REI flash 55. Also in this price range is the Osprey Volt 60 which, is a close second place for our best budget buy award. The Volt gives you more volume and a heartier suspension when compared to the Flash 55, but it is heavier. Our favorite pack, the Granite Gear Blaze 60, offers well-above-average performance at an average price.

Comfort is the most important factor when selecting your pack. You won't care about pocket design if your back hurts. Photo: Michael and John Yarnall Backpack testing on Eiley-Wiley Ridge with Luna Peak and the Northern Pickets in the background.
Comfort is the most important factor when selecting your pack. You won't care about pocket design if your back hurts. Photo: Michael and John Yarnall Backpack testing on Eiley-Wiley Ridge with Luna Peak and the Northern Pickets in the background.

Suspension and Comfort


We compared each model's shoulder straps, waist belts, backpanels and suspension with a focus on support, anatomical conformation, and comfort.

Adjusting the torso length on the Blaze 60 is intuitive and anyone can do it without a struggle.
Adjusting the torso length on the Blaze 60 is intuitive and anyone can do it without a struggle.

The waist belt and shoulder straps are crucial factors to consider when picking a backpack. They make the most significant contribution to a pack's comfort or lack thereof. This is clearly why 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-pound range.

Padded hip belts and shoulder straps are worth very little without a good suspension to go along with them, as they work together. The system of straps, stays, and its internal structure controls how effectively the weight will be supported. The frame is what helps transfer the load from the pack body to the waist belt and hips. We also note how well each pack shifts 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 get a wide variety of user data. When a pack fits 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 turned out to be incredibly comfortable. All of our testers agreed that the suspension on the Granite Gear Blaze 60 is incredibly strong, while the pack — weighing only 3lbs — is super light for the amount of weight it can actually carry.

The Osprey Atmos 65 AG provides a snug ride with its trampoline-style suspension, which spreads the load evenly across the body. We rarely got hot spots on our backs and 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, minimal padding zones reduce chafing.

The shoulder straps of the Aether are well articulated  nicely padded  and feature a pleasant face fabric. These features are more comfortable than average  and the pack is soft enough to wear shirtless or with only a tank top.
The shoulder straps of the Aether are well articulated, nicely padded, and feature a pleasant face fabric. These features are more comfortable than average, and the pack is soft enough to wear shirtless or with only a tank top.

The Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 comes with dreamy foam that is both soft and supportive reminiscent of a therapeutic mattress, but for your shoulders. Because of this conforming foam, the load is well-distributed across the padding for carrying full loads.

On trips that require more than 45 pounds far fewer backpacks remain comfortable. In this photo Tester  Ian Nicholson is wearing one of his favorites for heavy loads  the Osprey Xenith 105.
On trips that require more than 45 pounds far fewer backpacks remain comfortable. In this photo Tester, Ian Nicholson is wearing one of his favorites for heavy loads, the Osprey Xenith 105.

At loads above 45 pounds, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG becomes less comfortable. The best performing contenders for big loads are the Gregory Baltoro 65, Granite Gear Blaze 60, Arc'teryx Bora AR 63, and the Osprey Xenith 105. These packs all use high-quality foam that strikes a perfect balance of support and comfort. All of the shoulder straps offer top-notch ergonomics and slightly stiffer than average padding. While this rigid padding is marginally less cush, it is what you want 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 comfort. These include a supportive suspension, foam stiffness, shoulder strap shape, and waist belt shape, the combination of which lands them in the load-hauler category.

A properly fitted pack will carry most of the wight with the hip belt.
A properly fitted pack will carry most of the wight with the hip belt.

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 will allow the foam padding of the waistbelt to extend out to fit larger waist sizes.

Many people wonder if the heat-moldable waist belt featured on the Osprey Aether Pro 70 is worth prioritizing for. After side-by-side testing, we found little (if any) difference between molding it in the oven or just breaking it in the old fashioned way — in the field. When hauling camping and climbing gear to basecamp, these would be good options to handle the burden as they all have a beefy suspension.

While the suspension is closely tied to comfort  they are fundamentally different. Comfort is how a pack feels against your body whereas suspension is how effectively a pack transfers load from the pack to your hips and protects your shoulders and spine from the weight of your pack.
While the suspension is closely tied to comfort, they are fundamentally different. Comfort is how a pack feels against your body whereas suspension is how effectively a pack transfers load from the pack to your hips and protects your shoulders and spine from the weight of your pack.


Not every pack is made to carry 40 or 50lbs. Some, like the REI Flash 55, are made for lighter loads of 30lbs or less. While that may seem low, with a carefully planned system, a 30 pounds limit can be more than enough.

While the Osprey Atmos 65 performs well when carrying loads below 40 pounds, 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, and weigh only 3 pounds each — an impressive feat, to say the least.

This is the Atmos 65's AG  or Anti-Gravity  frame. It's an example of a trampoline  or suspended  suspension. Your back presses against a mesh back panel  which is suspended over a more traditional frame. This tends to produce fewer hot spots since weight is distributed over a larger area. It also allows air to flow  making these packs cooler and less sweaty. Unfortunately  they don't handle loads over 45 pounds well. The suspension starts to collapse.
This is the Atmos 65's AG, or Anti-Gravity, frame. It's an example of a trampoline, or suspended, suspension. Your back presses against a mesh back panel, which is suspended over a more traditional frame. This tends to produce fewer hot spots since weight is distributed over a larger area. It also allows air to flow, making these packs cooler and less sweaty. Unfortunately, they don't handle loads over 45 pounds well. The suspension starts to collapse.

Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System


Trampoline-style or suspended suspension systems feature a mesh back panel that is tensioned (like a trampoline) instead of the more traditional, single or double stay or "Y" shaped frame. These allow more airflow, reducing back sweat. More importantly, the weight distributes evenly and 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 are rated for 45+lbs, and having the weight set further off your back increases leverage and makes for a less comfortable overall carrying experience as the weight increases.

On extended trips  you likely will have a lot of gear; a few features to stay organized can be nice  as long as they don't add too much weight. After a long day of backpacking pack testing and over 5 000ft of vertical gain  we were rewarded with an amazing camp and fantastic views of the Southern Pickets.
On extended trips, you likely will have a lot of gear; a few features to stay organized can be nice, as long as they don't add too much weight. After a long day of backpacking pack testing and over 5,000ft of vertical gain, we were rewarded with an amazing camp and fantastic views of the Southern Pickets.

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 top-lid of the pack is at providing easy access to a handful of items and whether those items stayed organized.

Having two straps for a sleeping pad or other oddly shaped items is a small but excellent feature to have. We particularly like how long the Osprey Atmos's straps are and find that they are able to fit pretty much any sleeping pad (something that can't be said about the majority of backpacking packs).
Having two straps for a sleeping pad or other oddly shaped items is a small but excellent feature to have. We particularly like how long the Osprey Atmos's straps are and find that they are able to fit pretty much any sleeping pad (something that can't be said about the majority of backpacking packs).

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 are useful for retrieving items or if they are impractical to zip shut when the pack is full and are just for show.


We break down how useful any other additional features are and evaluate them in-the-field for real-world testing. We 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 for those features that can be removed or customized for a more personal user experience.

Comparing the buckles on two waist belts. The upper uses a redirected strap which is much easier to pull on  while the lower is the traditional "push and pull."
Comparing the buckles on two waist belts. The upper uses a redirected strap which is much easier to pull on, while the lower is the traditional "push and pull."

Overall Organizational Ability


For those who like an assortment of compartments and pockets for organization, Granite Gear Blaze 60, and ULA Catalyst have handy pocket designs. These models offer a similar setup and have our favorite overall organizational and pocket layout. All of these packs provide great hip belt pockets, big water bottle side pockets, and a stretchy mesh stuff-it pocket, excellent for drying out clothes or carrying oddly shaped items like fuel bottles, trowel, camp shoes, or a frisbee.

The Gregory Zulu 55 and Gregory Baltoro 65 offer excellent gear access. These models provide great options for folks who like a lot of organization or the ability to get to your items quickly without having to remove anything. The Osprey Xenith 105 offers decent access via a zippered side panel, but it's not nearly as useful as the other two.

Our testers love the dual zippered lid pockets on the Baltoro 65. It's easily our review teams' favorite lid design. These pockets not only help users to stay organized but  because of their upward orientation  they are both easy to access and search through.
Our testers love the dual zippered lid pockets on the Baltoro 65. It's easily our review teams' favorite lid design. These pockets not only help users to stay organized but, because of their upward orientation, they are both easy to access and search through.

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, and 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.

Nice wide opening on the top lid  but not a whole lot is keeping stuff from falling out.
Nice wide opening on the top lid, but not a whole lot is keeping stuff from falling out.

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, making it possible to keep your things dry in light rain. It also unclips so it can be left at home for streamlined trips to the trail.

The Osprey Aether 60 AG's lid boasts a relatively common design with a zipper on the side. The Aether is better than normal because the zipper wraps around slightly to each side  making it easier to search for small gear. But we don't like it quite as much as the Gregory or Arc'teryx models.
The Osprey Aether 60 AG's lid boasts a relatively common design with a zipper on the side. The Aether is better than normal because the zipper wraps around slightly to each side, making it easier to search for small gear. But we don't like it quite as much as the Gregory or Arc'teryx models.

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, Osprey Aether AG 60, and the Osprey Xenith 105 are the next level. They have nearly the same volume as the Gregory Baltoro 65 and have a longer than average zipper that wraps slightly around the sides.

Side panel access can make it easy to grab on-the-go items like a rain jacket.
Side panel access can make it easy to grab on-the-go items like a rain jacket.

Pack Access


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 becomes of 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, but will nonetheless pay a weight penalty for having it. Also, in general, many side access panels are a pain in the neck to close back up when the pack is fully loaded.

Weight Penalty — All 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 several trips between using their side access panel.

The Baltoro has one of the best access points in our review. Not only is it the largest  but it is also well-designed and allows us access to a large portion of the pack. It offers a big enough opening that we can take items out (like a tent) without having to unpack our entire pack.
The Baltoro has one of the best access points in our review. Not only is it the largest, but it is also well-designed and allows us access to a large portion of the pack. It offers a big enough opening that we can take items out (like a tent) without having to unpack our entire pack.

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 are surprisingly nice once you step out onto the trail. They provide easy access to a camera  snacks  etc. while barely forcing you to break stride. The Aether 60 AG's zippered pockets shown here are among our favorite in the review.
Hip belt pockets are surprisingly nice once you step out onto the trail. They provide easy access to a camera, snacks, etc. while barely forcing you to break stride. The Aether 60 AG's zippered pockets shown here are among our favorite in the review.

Hip belt pockets


These days, it seems 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 phones don't fit well. However, they are fine for stuffing snacks that can form around the contours of the waist belt.

This pack had excellent hip belt pockets. Plenty large for a large phone  small camera  tons of snacks or a map and compass.
This pack had excellent hip belt pockets. Plenty large for a large phone, small camera, tons of snacks or a map and compass.

Weather-Resistance


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 garden hose tests. This pack uses Arc'teryx's AC² fabric, which is exceptionally weather-resistant, bordering on waterproof. The Arc'teryx models even have taped seams near exposed areas like the back kangaroo-style pocket, which also sports a water-resistant zipper, because this location will likely see the most moisture while on the move.

The Baltoro 65 comes with a fairly functional hydration pack that doubles as a bladder sleeve inside the pack. Here we show a shell jacket and 70 oz Platypus bladder for size reference. This separate pack is designed to be taken on a summit push or day-hike from camp but is just as suitable for use around town.
The Baltoro 65 comes with a fairly functional hydration pack that doubles as a bladder sleeve inside the pack. Here we show a shell jacket and 70 oz Platypus bladder for size reference. This separate pack is designed to be taken on a summit push or day-hike from camp but is just as suitable for use around town.

Hydration


Almost all of the packs in this review have a location to store a hydration bladder where it will remain upright. The models with this feature should work with just about any brand's 2-3 liter hydration bladder.

Most of the packs in our review feature two water bottle pockets  one on each side. A handful of models from Osprey and Gregory tweak the common design to point the water bottle forward  making it much easier to access and stow water bottles. Most of these packs also have another opening near the top of this pocket to securely hold oblong shaped items outside the pack  like tent poles or a snow picket.
Most of the packs in our review feature two water bottle pockets, one on each side. A handful of models from Osprey and Gregory tweak the common design to point the water bottle forward, making it much easier to access and stow water bottles. Most of these packs also have another opening near the top of this pocket to securely hold oblong shaped items outside the pack, like tent poles or a snow picket.

Weight is obviously important in any person-power activity and your gear and pack weight add up. That's why you should be wary of opting for a bigger volume than you need because it can be surprisingly hard to NOT fill your pack with unnecessary items.
Weight is obviously important in any person-power activity and your gear and pack weight add up. That's why you should be wary of opting for a bigger volume than you need because it can be surprisingly hard to NOT fill your pack with unnecessary items.

Pack Weight


Over the last decade, many hikers have made a concerted effort at carrying less weight than there predecessors. Many pack makers have seen the 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, Greggory Optic 58, and REI Flash 55. all check-in at around three pounds and thus approach the line between backpacking packs and an ultra-light minimalist packs. The big difference here is that these models are more comfortable for people who don't have their pack weight down below 20 pounds.

These lighter packs are excellent options for folks who want to go super light but want a comfortable and supportive pack with a frame and more robust padding for certain 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 for long-distance trail hikers and section hikers alike.


Our lead tester going fast and light in Vermont.
Our lead tester going fast and light in Vermont.

You pack can truly make-or-break even the most well-planned backcountry adventure. If your rain jacket is a little to big or small it is only a small inconvenience. If your pack doesn't fit well it will make your shoulders  hips  and back sore  possibly to the point of wrecking your trip.
You pack can truly make-or-break even the most well-planned backcountry adventure. If your rain jacket is a little to big or small it is only a small inconvenience. If your pack doesn't fit well it will make your shoulders, hips, and back sore, possibly to the point of wrecking your trip.

Adjustability and Fit


To judge each backpack's adjustability and fit, we consider its overall ergonomics in addition to how adjustable each model is. We also look at the range of torso lengths available. More sizes mean it could work for a wider 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. It is worth seeking out a pack from one of these manufacturers, like Gregory or ULA, if this would be helpful for your body type.

The Volt and the Aircontact Lite 65+10 have the most vertical adjustment of any model in our review. The huge vertical adjustment range helps dial in your fit and makes it an excellent option for younger backpackers who are still growing.
The Volt and the Aircontact Lite 65+10 have the most vertical adjustment of any model in our review. The huge vertical adjustment range helps dial in your fit and makes it an excellent option for younger backpackers who are still growing.

The Deuter Aircontact Lite 65 + 10 and the Osprey Volt 60 have by far the most vertical adjustment of any pack in our review. Both of these models can move their shoulder straps up or down nearly 10 inches. This not only helps fit a wide range of users but also lets it genuinely tailor to its wearer. It also makes them an excellent choice for rapidly growing children, teenagers, and camp or youth program uses.

We really liked the unique "GridLock" system on Arc'teryx's Bora packs. It allows you to adjust the shoulder straps both vertically and horizontally. It looks like flimsy plastic  but in our experience  it's an absolutely bomber design. The shoulder strap never came prematurely undone.
We really liked the unique "GridLock" system on Arc'teryx's Bora packs. It allows you to adjust the shoulder straps both vertically and horizontally. It looks like flimsy plastic, but in our experience, it's an absolutely bomber design. The shoulder strap never came prematurely undone.

When it comes to straight-up vertical adjustment, the Osprey Volt 60 and Deuter Aircontact Lite 65 + 10 have the 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, Osprey Atmos 65 AG, Osprey Xenith 105, and Osprey Aether 70 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 took into consideration each pack's overall ergonomics in our fit metric.

Most packs are available in multiple frame sizes and you can further adjust all the models we tested to fine-tune the fit. The Xenith shown here features the most common adjustment style: the shoulder straps are attached to a Velcro-covered flap that can be slid up or down behind the back panel. This gives the user roughly 4 inches of adjustment. We gave extra points to packs with adjustable girth waist belts or the ability to adjust the shoulder straps both vertically and horizontally.
Most packs are available in multiple frame sizes and you can further adjust all the models we tested to fine-tune the fit. The Xenith shown here features the most common adjustment style: the shoulder straps are attached to a Velcro-covered flap that can be slid up or down behind the back panel. This gives the user roughly 4 inches of adjustment. We gave extra points to packs with adjustable girth waist belts or the ability to adjust the shoulder straps both vertically and horizontally.

Rain Covers


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 to keep excess water from soaking into the fabrics, which also weighs down your pack. The backpacks in this review are not waterproof; however, 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, Osprey Volt 60, REI Traverse 70, and Flash 55

The rain cover included with the Baltoro 65. While small  we appreciated this feature  which could be left behind when the weather allowed.
The rain cover included with the Baltoro 65. While small, we appreciated this feature, which could be left behind when the weather allowed.

Conclusion


Though traveling from points A to B on a backcountry trip is conceptually simple enough, choosing the right backpack that will 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 will help you narrow down your options.

Cross-country travel in the High Sierra above 11 000 feet
Cross-country travel in the High Sierra above 11,000 feet

Adam Paashaus, Ben Applebaum-Bauch and Ian Nicholson