Searching for the best backpacking backpack? After a decade of testing close to 60 different models, our expert reviewers purchased 15 top packs of 2021 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 researching experience and help you find the best pack for your needs.Related: Best Backpacking Backpack for Women of 2021
Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2021
|Price||Check Price at REI|
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|$299.95 at REI|
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|$220.00 at REI|
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|Pros||Durable, lots of features, plenty of adjustments to dial in the perfect fit, supportive||Good balance between features and weight, comfortable suspension, inexpensive||Comfortable, handles heavy loads, dual zippered lid pockets for accessibility, large "U" zipper allows easy access||Well padded, slightly lighter than average, very durable, more torso height adjustment than most, stout suspension||Excellent pockets, good access, included rain cover|
|Cons||Heavy, attached hipbelt, water bottle pocket can be inconvenient||Less volume than packs of similar weight, attached lid||Average weight, supportive foam can feel stiff at first||Not quite as many pockets as other models, soft padding was less comfortable with super heavy loads, warmest pack in the review||Heavy, lumbar padding sometimes hard to situate, unsatisfying ventilation|
|Bottom Line||This highly adjustable pack may be one of the heaviest in the review but carries large loads in comfort||This is a comfortable pack for mid-range trips and medium loads||A excellent pack that handles loads well, while offering a respectable weight that even folks carrying modest loads can appreciate||A simple but versatile pack that offers plush padding, a stout suspension, and quality durability||This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pack is ready to fit whatever you can cram in|
|Rating Categories||Osprey Aether 65||Gregory Zulu 55||Gregory Baltoro 65||Deuter Aircontact L...||REI Co-op Traverse 70|
|Suspension And Comfort (45%)|
|Features And Ease Of Use (20%)|
|Specs||Osprey Aether 65||Gregory Zulu 55||Gregory Baltoro 65||Deuter Aircontact L...||REI Co-op Traverse 70|
|Measured Weight (pounds)||5.0 lbs||3.7 lbs||4.8 lbs||4.4 lbs||4.7 lbs|
|Volume (liters)||65 L||55 L||65 L||65 + 10 L||70 L|
|Access||Top, front +sleeping bag compartment||Top + front U-shaped access zipper + sleeping bag compartment||Top + front U-shaped access zipper + sleeping bag compartment||Top + sleeping bag compartment||Top + side|
|Materials||420HD nylon, DWR treatment||210D Honeycomb Cryptorip HD Nylon / 210D High Tenacity Nylon||210D Honeycomb Cryptorip HD / 210D High Tenacity Nylon||35% Polyester, 65% Nylon||Main body:200D recycled double ripstop nylon
Bottom: 420D recycled nylon oxford
|Sleeping bag Compartment||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
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 pounds while only weighing 3.0 pounds 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 nine compression straps. This thing has just about every feature you could ask for. 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 simple, 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 Bang for the Buck
REI Co-op Flash 55
The REI Flash 55 is an inexpensive, awesome, and well-designed backpack. It weighs in at a mere 2.6 pounds, and amazingly, 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 stash pockets between the side bottle pockets, and the front stash pocket is super handy and a 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 Co-op Flash 55
Best Lightweight Support for Long Distances
Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst
Barely tipping the scales at 3.0 pounds, 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.
We downright love this pack, but we'll ackwnoledge 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.
Read review: Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst
Best for Superior Comfort
Osprey Atmos 65 AG
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 sports incredible ventilation while weighing in at a respectable 4.5 pounds, so it's not surprising that it's 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 thoughfully 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 feels a bit 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 pounds or more, you should consider a different model — this pack doesn't handle heavy loads as well. 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 trying to adjust clothing layers.
Read review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG
Best for Carrying Heavy Loads
Osprey Aether 65
Osprey has always done a good job of marrying durability, adjustability, and large load comfort; the Aether 65L is the perfect example of that. With its Fit-on-the-Fly velcro adjustment system and quick sliding shoulder straps, we found it easy to dial in the perfect fit while out on the trail. This pack makes it easy to access your gear with a sleeping bag compartment, reinforced stretch shove-it back pocket, a large zipper to access the pack's interior, and a double-pocketed lid so that all the necessities are 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 so you can keep the weight close to your body, and these are also useful for strapping wet gear to the outside for drying out. 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 weights around 5.0 pounds, though it can comfortably carry ten times that, something that many lighter packs can't claim. 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 the positive side of this is that it aids in durability. 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 and can feel unnatural. Your pack swaying a little isn't the biggest problem by any means, but some other packs have features that prevent this.
Read review: Osprey Aether 65
Why You Should Trust Us
Our backpack review team consists of Ian Nicholson, Adam Paashaus, Ben Applebaum-Bauch, and Bennett Fisher. These gentlemen all have impressive outdoor resume and together have logged tens of thousands of backpacking miles.
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.
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.
Related: Buying Advice for Backpacking Packs
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-pound 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 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 so in the review.
After extensive testing with typical 25 to 45-pound 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 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, 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. 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 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 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+ 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 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 the 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.
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 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 hip belt pockets on the Granite Gear Blaze 60 and the ULA Catalyst 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. The Gregory Optic 58 has 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.
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 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 helps prevent excess water from soaking into the fabrics, 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 Gregory Baltoro 65, the Osprey Rook 65, the REI Traverse 70, and the Flash 55.
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 Gregory Optic 58, the REI Flash 55, and the Osprey Exos 58, followed closely by the Granite Gear Blaze 60 and the ULA Catalyst. 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 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 Osprey Aether 65 reign supreme. While it may only have four inches of verticle adjustment, it does have 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. We tried to consider 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.
— Ian Nicholson, Adam Paashaus, Ben Applebaum-Bauch, & Bennett Fisher