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The Best Backpacking Packs of 2018

The Best backpacking pack review
By Ian Nicholson ⋅ Review Editor
Monday November 19, 2018
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Searching for the best backpacking backpack? You've come to the right place! We carefully researched over 65 top products before buying our twelve favorites. We select a variety of models, from those that stand out for all-around comfort, minimal weight, or exceptional load-hauling prowess. Then our review team hits the trail, logging hundreds of individual user days in the mountains and coastlines of Patagonia, the High Sierra, and the Pacific Northwest. We focus on critical aspects that will help you get the most out of your time in the backcountry. We pull comfort ratings from a large test group to accurately compare each pack's performance across different body types. We load each pack with a wide range of gear to stress test the suspension system. We also weigh each and dissect each products' feature set, assessing the usefulness of pockets, access points, and adjustment systems. We hope this review helps you decipher which backpack best fits your needs. Whether you seek top-tier comfort, a lightweight and minimal pack, or a steal of a deal, we've got you covered. If you're looking for a women's specific pack, check out our women's backpacking backpacks review.


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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award  
Price $269.95 at Amazon
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$542.74 at Amazon
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$339.99 at Amazon
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$299.95 at REI
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$259.99 at Amazon
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Pros Exceptional comfort, especially the shoulder straps, full of useful features, many awesome pockets, excellent organization and ventilation, lightweight, adjustable hip beltComfortable padding, ergonomic shoulder strap design, robust suspension, extremely weather resistantLightweight, stout suspension, comfortable and nicely shaped shoulder straps, several features are removable to further reduce weight, handles heavier loads fantasticallyComfortable, handles heavy loads, mega-burly suspension, dual zippered lid pockets for accessibility, large "U" zipper allows easy access, great travel packPacked full of features, great pockets, comfortable and solid ergonomic design
Cons Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ pounds) loads, snow can get in the back panelExpensive, average weight, not as many places as other models to lash/strap oddly shaped items on externallyOn the more expensive side, poor access options, not many featuresAverage weight, supportive foam can feel stiff at firstSlightly on the heavier side, not the best for super heavy loads
Bottom Line The Atmos 65 AG is our favorite design and a mega comfortable pack as long as you aren't carrying too much weight.A fantastic all-around pack that's comfortable, and has robust suspension, rad features, and top-notch weather resistance.An extremely robust suspension and simple design give this model the best ratio of pack-weight to load capabilities of any model we tested.A excellent pack that handles loads well, while offering a respectable weight that even folks carrying modest loads can appreciate.An extremely comfortable and feature-rich design that handles heavy loads, while only being marginally heavier than average.
Rating Categories Osprey Atmos 65 AG Bora AR 63 Osprey Aether Pro 70 Gregory Baltoro 65 Aether AG 60
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Specs Osprey Atmos 65 AG Bora AR 63 Osprey Aether Pro 70 Gregory Baltoro 65 Aether AG 60
Measured Weight (pounds) 4.56 5 lbs 3.96 lbs 4.84 5.13 lbs
Volume (liters) 65 L 63 L 70 L 65 L 60 L
Access Top + sleeping bag compartment Top + side access zipper Top Top + Front U-shaped access zipper + sleeping bag compartment Top + side access zipper + sleeping bag compartment

Updated November 2018
The North Face updated their popular Banchee 65 and it's now our Top Pick for Travel thanks to its extensive feature set and solid suspension. It's also respectably lightweight, especially considering its generous pockets and stellar organizational features that usually incur a weight penalty. We also reexamine our past award winners. The Osprey Atmos 65 becomes the sole winner of our Editors' Choice award. It provides a host of sweet features and unique suspension that is pure backpacking bliss. Arc'teryx's new spin on their tried-and-true Bora line also lands very near the top of the pile for its exceptional comfort. It's by far the most weather resistant pack tested. At $180 the Osprey Volt 60 continues to dominate as the best value.

Editors Choice for the Best Overall Backpacking Pack


Osprey Atmos 65 AG


Osprey Atmos AG 65
Editors' Choice Award

$269.95
at Amazon
See It

Weight: 4.56 lbs | Volume: 65 liters
Comfortable
Feature-laden
Lots of awesome pockets and excellent organization
Awesome ventilation
Lighter than average
Sweet adjustable hip belt
Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ lb) loads
Snow can get inside of the back panel

The Atmos 65 AG is the best all-around backpacking pack due to its stellar design and overall comfort. It's stacked with functional features, ventilates fantastically and still manages to be lighter than average, weighing in at a respectable 4 lbs 8 oz. What sets the Atmos apart is its luxurious AG suspension, which spreads the pack load evenly across your body. The pack seems light and the tapered foam shoulder straps are simply dreamy. For trips when you can keep your gear under 40 lbs, this is the most comfortable pack in our review. Every pocket is the right size and in the right place and the Atmos offers excellent fit, ergonomics, and adjustability.

While this is the best all-around pack, it doesn't handle loads above 45 pounds well. Consider a different model if you consistently carry that much or more. The Anti-Gravity suspension can also fill with snow during winter trips.

Read review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG

Best Bang for the Buck


Osprey Volt 60


Best Buy Award

$180 List
See It

Weight: 3.88 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 an affordable pack that doesn't skimp on performance, get the Volt 60. It is the least expensive in our review, yet is comparable in performance to many more expensive models. We are wholly impressed by how capable and comfortable this model is with loads under 45 lbs. While simple, the Volt includes all the essential features that most backpackers are looking for, such as two zipped lid pockets, dual entry water bottle pockets, a stretchy beavertail pocket, and a lower zippered access point (AKA sleeping bag compartment), among other common features. The Volt only comes in one frame size, but the vertical adjustment is greater than nearly any model we tested. The Volt also features an adjustable girth waist belt. All this, and it still weighs an impressive 3 lbs 14 oz on our scale. Aspects that propel this model over the rest are the ergonomic and plush shoulder straps, high-quality foam padding and waist belt, and comfortable fabrics.

The Volt doesn't have the pizazz that other packs offer, like extra pockets and pouches, nor does it have the burliest of suspensions, but it does excel in simple functionality. Unless you are regularly carrying overloads over 45 lbs, this pack will work for you. This is the best pack for the money, though the Deuter Air Lite 65 + 10 comes close, offering a larger volume and more robust suspension. But it is heavier overall (not to mention is $40 more).

Read review: Osprey Volt 60

Top Pick for Weather Resistace


Arc'teryx Bora AR 63


Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
Top Pick Award

$542.74
at Amazon
See It

Weight: 5 lbs | Volume: 63 liters
Supportive
Pivoting waist belt
Comfortable
An innovative and effective adjustment system
Best lid pockets
Excellent features
Average weight
Expensive

The re-release of Arc'teryx's iconic Bora series was highly anticipated and for good reason. Arc'teryx didn't pull any punches when it came to performance and this pack BARELY missed out on our Editors Choice award. The shoulder straps use a therapeutic-mattress-feeling foam that strikes a dreamy balance of cushy comfort and excellent support. The features are well thought-out and incredibly user-friendly. While the pivoting waist belt might appear gimmicky at first glance, it extremely efficient at transferring the weight from our back to our hips, especially in rougher or steeper terrain.

The primary drawback to this pack is its slightly above average weight (five pounds) and its review-high price tag. Still, the tradeoff is getting the most water resistant model reviewed. The Bora employs a proprietary AC² fabric that covers most of the pack, sealing some seams, and integrating some watertight zippers. This combination kept our gear dry during wet springtime hikes in the soggy rain forests of Olympic National Park.

Read review: Arc'teryx Bora AR 63

Top Pick for Heavy Loads


Gregory Baltoro 65


Weight: 4.84 lbs | Volume: 65 liters
Comfortable
Carries heavy loads well
Dual zippered lid pockets are awesome
U-shaped opening provides easy access
Average weight
Supportive foam can feel stiff initially

The new and improved Gregory Baltoro 65 is as comfortable as ever. It offers improved features and usability while somehow weighing eight ounces less than the previous model. The Baltoro carries monster loads (more than 60 lbs) as well as nearly any pack on the planet and offers a plethora of rad features. At 4 lbs 14 ounces, it's weight is now in line with many other models that offer a similar level of suspension and comfort. Its new pocket layout is also nearly perfect. Few, if any of our testers would change anything. Its lid is user-friendly, and this model even includes a rain cover. If we could give out several Editors' Choice awards, this model would surely get one.

While its weight is reasonable for the support it provides, it's not an impressively light pack, and its foam padding takes a minute to soften. But folks who are are constantly carrying heavy loads and are sick of sore shoulders and achy backs, this extremely well-designed pack deserves a look.

Read review: Gregory Baltoro 65

Best Lightweight Model


Osprey Exos 58


Osprey Exos 58
Top Pick Award

$193.86
(12% off)
at Amazon
See It

Weight: 2.5 lbs | Volume: 58 liters
Lightest backpacking backpack in the review
One of the lightest framed packs available
Comfortable for loads under 40 lbs
Great pockets and features
Average durability
Not a ton of extra features
Not very adjustable

The Osprey Exos 58 is the lightest pack in this review by over a pound. Despite its low weight, it remains comfortable for moderate loads up to 35 or 40 pounds. This is what's special about the Exos — it blurs the line between traditional backpacking packs and ultralight models. It's nearly as light as many frameless, minimal, ultra-lightweight packs, yet the Exos still has most of the features you'd expect in a traditional backpacking pack, including a frame. Most ultralight packs are only 0.5-1 lbs lighter, and they rarely have more than one or two pockets, let alone a lid.

True to light-weight trends, it's not overly durable or adjustable, and it doesn't offer many features. Overall, it's a great stepping stone for people who want to get into "ultralight" backpacking who can't get their load down to the 20 to 30 lbs necessary to make a sub-2-pound frameless pack comfortable. Or, it's for people who already pack on the light end, but want a more suspension, comfort, and features that most frameless packs don't provide. If you like the idea of a lighter weight pack, but want a few more features and a slightly more substantial frame, consider the The North Face Banchee 65, Osprey Volt 60, or Gregory Paragon 68.

Read review: Osprey Exos 58

Best Features and Top Pick for Travel


The North Face Banchee 65


Top Pick Award

$179.21
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

Weight: 3.63 lbs | Volume: 65 liters
Lightweight
Comfortable to carry for long periods of time
Fantastic suspension
Useful and well thought out pockets
Hip belt adjustment
Compression straps
External lid pocket isn't easy to search through

The North Face Banchee 65 is a high-performing and versatile pack that deserves recognition. It somehow manages to combine one of our testing team's favorite pocket designs and a solid suspension on one of the lighter models in our review. There are no other packs this light that can handle loads as comfortably or that have as many well-thought-out organizational features. These attributes make the Banchee 65 the best crossover model for people who want a pack they can take out onto the trail and traveling. It's the perfect model to take to far-flung destinations where having a pack that's WAY more comfortable to carry than traditional luggage is a significant advantage. This model's toughness will help it survive the journey, and its array of pockets will help you stay as organized as possible on your adventures.

This bag will do for travelers who are not tied to more traditional suitcase or duffle bag designs. Those who like the ability to unzip their bag and see everything at once should check out the Thule Versant. The Versant is still a very close contender for the best backpacking pack for travel.

Read the review: The North Face Banchee 65

Top Pick for Extended Trips


Osprey Xenith 105


Osprey Xenith 105
Top Pick Award

$294.10
(26% off)
at Amazon
See It

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
Foam is on the stiffer side
Difficult to search for items in lid pockets
Easy to fill up even if you don't have too

If you frequently go on 5 to 25-day outings or trips that require you to carry a lot of gear, the Osprey Xenith 105 is the pack for you. It comes in 75, 85, and 105-liter options and the Xenith is tester Ian Nicholson's favorite pack for Denali expeditions, a 22-day mountaineering trip with arctic cold weather and HEAVY loads. The Xenith series also ranks as a favorite among many NOLS instructors and other expedition guides for month plus adventures. It hits the mega sweet spot of a robust suspension, above average padding and ergonomics and sweet features. It includes one of our review team's favorite assortments of pockets. The Xenith 105 is surprisingly lightweight for a pack that carries so fantastically, and that offers such a large volume. It is only marginally heavier than a majority of packs in our review.

While the Xenith is one of the best load hauling packs we have ever tested, it is an extremely close call as to which pack could carry monster loads better: the Baltoro or the Xenith. In the end, they are both impressive load hauling machines. But, the Xenith edged out the Baltoro 65 for long trips where you just plain need a lot of stuff. Love the idea of the Xenith 105 but think that it's too much volume? The Xenith 75 and 85 have a nearly identical set of features with only subtle differences in the frames and padding.

Read review: Osprey Xenith 105


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.

Analysis and Test Results


There are several factors to consider when shopping for a new backpacking backpack, whether it's going to be your first pack, you're updating an older model, or you're simply adding to the quiver. The most important of which are where and how are you going to use the pack. The packs we selected are models meant for your typical backcountry camping trips. Most of them are versatile enough for general mountaineering and to a lesser extent light-to-heavy-duty expeditions. However, these packs aren't geared specifically for these activities.

Nearly all the contenders we reviewed can also be used for travel, particularly for wear-your-suitcase adventures like backpacking through Europe or Southeast Asia. Backpacking packs can be far easier to use than a more traditional suitcase in rough terrain or areas with few paved roads. So we consider both traveling and classic backpack applications in this review. While we select a best overall model for travel, we still demanded that it offers solid performance while out on the trail. In this review, we directly compare the best and most popular men's packs, breaking down their pros and cons to find the right one for you.


Value


Some of these packs cost $550. That's pricey, but we also review a range of excellent wallet-friendly designs. Our fleet includes a decent number of packs that fall between the $180 and $240 range. At $180, the Osprey Volt offers a serious level of value for the price point and is the winner of our Best Buy Award. The Deuter Air Contact Lite is a close second place for our best budget buy award at $220. It gives you more volume and a heartier suspension than the Volt but is heavier and costs more. Our favorite pack, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG offers a well-above-average performance at an average price, and The North Face Banchee 65 boasts an excellent performance to price ratio.

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.

Comfort


We compared how comfortable, conforming, and supportive each models' shoulder straps are. We analyzed their shape, ergonomics, and the quality of their padding. We also studied each model's back panel and waist-belt.

The waist belt and shoulder straps are crucial factors. Those are the most common trouble zones after a long day on the trail or with monster loads. To test them, we used a 30-45 lb load, which is a pretty common weight for a 2-6 day trip. We also loaded each contender up with 55-60 lbs to simulate longer trips.

The Thule Versant's shoulder straps are narrower and slimmer than most. While not our favorite  they are only marginally less comfortable than other more comfort-focused models  even after hours of carrying heavier loads. This is likely due to their excellent ergonomics  breathability and comfortable materials.
The Thule Versant's shoulder straps are narrower and slimmer than most. While not our favorite, they are only marginally less comfortable than other more comfort-focused models, even after hours of carrying heavier loads. This is likely due to their excellent ergonomics, breathability and comfortable materials.

Each person is different, so we collected comfort experiences from a wide range of users, including other OutdoorGearLab Editors, their friends, and our climbing and backpacking partners. We used well over 300 user days worth of input to give us a broad perspective on what it takes to choose a comfortable pack across body types.


After extensive testing with "average" 30-40 lb loads, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG scored at the top for comfort, with the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 close behind. All of our testers agreed, the Atmos provides a cozy ride with its trampoline-style suspension that spreads the load evenly across our body. We rarely got hot spots on our backs or hips, even after extended cross-country travel in warmer conditions. It has heavily-tapered padding, which provides the thickest cushioning where you want it the most, like on-top-of and near your shoulders, and less where you may not need it. Minimal padding zones allow your body to breath and minimize the chance of chafing. While the feeling of the Atmos 65 AG is our favorite on bare skin, the face fabric on the inside of the Osprey Aether Pro 70 is also incredible.

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 Bora AR 63 is also notably comfortable, complete with dreamy foam that is soft yet supportive. It's like a therapeutic mattress for your shoulders. Because of this conforming foam, the load is well-distributed across the padding. But the straps aren't so soft that they bottom out. For lighter pack weights, we like the low profile and slimmer shoulder straps of the The North Face Banchee 65. Despite the Banchee being thinner than all the other models in our review, it proves to be exceptionally comfortable thanks to its impressive ergonomics.

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 Atmos loses a lot of its prowess and becomes less comfortable. The best performing contenders for big loads are the Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Aether Pro 70, Arc'teryx Bora AR, and the Osprey Xenith 105. These packs use high-quality foam that achieves a solid balance of support and comfort. All the shoulder straps on these packs offer top-notch ergonomics and slightly stiffer than average padding. This more rigid padding is marginally less cush but is unquestionably what you want when your pack is heavy. Each model offers subtle advantages. These include foam stiffness, shoulder strap shape, and waist belt shape, which allow them to fall into our load-hauler category. Check out their individual reviews for more detail.

While we notice a bigger difference between the comfort level of waist belts than shoulder straps  that isn't to say that a good shoulder strap design isn't EXTREMELY important. All of our testers appreciate packs with ergonomic shapes like those on the Osprey Aether Pro  which are incredibly comfortable after hours on the trail.
While we notice a bigger difference between the comfort level of waist belts than shoulder straps, that isn't to say that a good shoulder strap design isn't EXTREMELY important. All of our testers appreciate packs with ergonomic shapes like those on the Osprey Aether Pro, which are incredibly comfortable after hours on the trail.

Different body types are better suited to different designs, and we noted a more significant difference between waist belts than shoulder straps. We don't notice the distinctions with lighter weight loads of around 30-35 lbs. But, once we crest 40-45 pounds, the differences between models really stand out. Our favorite waist belts are on the Osprey Xenith, Aether Pro 70 and Gregory Baltoro. For the heaviest of loads (60+ lbs), we appreciate the Baltoro's robust and customizable lumbar pad, which makes a difference in providing the much-needed support for carrying weights of this magnitude.

A lot of people ask about the heat moldable waist belt featured on the Osprey Aether. After extensive side-by-side testing, we found little, if any, difference between molding it in a convection oven or just breaking it in the old fashion way (AKA using it).

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.

Suspension


A pack's suspension controls how effectively it supports your back and how well the frame transfers the load from the pack to the waist belt. We also noted how well each backpacking backpack shifts the load to the front of the shoulder straps rather than the top, so your shoulders don't feel crushed.


The Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Aether Pro 70, Osprey Xenith and Arc'teryx Bora AR all feature the most substantial suspensions in the test. These packs carry large loads well. While all these models are particularly close contenders, the Baltoro, Aether Pro, and Xenithbarely edge out the Bora because of how nicely their frames transfer weight to the waist belt and our hips.

A robust suspension helps a pack feel solid on flat trails but really helps the pack move with us on difficult cross-country terrain  like when bushwhacking through tallus fields. Comparing packs in the North Cascades  WA.
A robust suspension helps a pack feel solid on flat trails but really helps the pack move with us on difficult cross-country terrain, like when bushwhacking through tallus fields. Comparing packs in the North Cascades, WA.

As a result of their load hauling prowess, the Xenith and Baltoro, are our Top Picks for extended trips and monster loads. Osprey beefs up several aspects of the Xenith 105, including the diameter of this model's wireframe and padding with this pack — and it shows. If we know huge loads are in our future, we want the Xenith by our side. Thus, the Xenith is lead tester Ian Nicholson's go-to Denali pack.

While our Editors' Choice winner the Atmos 65 performs well when carrying loads below 40 pounds, it isn't as comfortable for loads above that weight. Its anti-gravity trampoline-style suspension feels mushy and less supportive. At these weights, it's not even close to as comfortable as the options noted above once we get over 50 pounds. The Osprey Aether AG 60 features a similar "AG" suspension, but it is noticeably more supportive.

The Thule Versant 70 and the Deuter Aircontact Lite 65 + 10 both feature robust suspensions and weigh only a little over four pounds — an impressive feat.

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) over a more traditional frame single stay or "Y" shaped frame. These allow more air to flow, reducing back sweat. More importantly, they tend to produce fewer hot spots because the weight is more evenly distributed. This design is becoming increasingly common.

We like trampoline-style suspension systems for these reasons. But, when it comes to massive loads, having the weight closer to your back without a gap is more supportive and comfortable. All trampoline style systems come with a weight limit where the suspended mesh is pressed so tightly against the wearer that it either bottoms out or causes a hot spot. This happens because it's tensioned to a point where it can't evenly spread the weight out. In contrast, the Gregory Baltoro 65 doesn't feature a trampoline suspension system, which that's one reason it carries such massive loads efficiently.

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 category delves into how easy it is to pack and retrieve items from these backpacks and examines the design features of the main compartment, pockets, lid, straps, and special additions. We compared the number and location of extra pockets and how useful our testers found them. We also carefully compared how helpful the lid (or brain) of the pack is at providing easy access to a handful of items and staying organized. Lastly, we assessed access points to the interior of these backpacking backpacks.

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, "Did that pocket make my life easier or help keep me more organized, or is it just adding weight to the pack?". We also looked at access points and evaluated whether they are handy at retrieving items or if they are just for show and impractical to zip shut when the pack is full.


We also broke down how useful any additional features are and evaluated them during real-world use in the field. 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. We give higher scores to models with better weather resistance, ice axe attachments, an included rain fly, and easy to use waist belt buckles.

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 folks who like a good assortment of compartments and pockets for organization, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG, Gregory Baltoro 65, and The North Face Banchee 65 have by far the best and most useful pockets designs. These models offer a similar set-up and have our favorite overall organizational and pocket layout. All four of these packs offer two vertical zippered pockets (big enough to at least fit a 1-liter Nalgene) and a stretchy, open "beavertail pocket" behind that, which is great for drying out clothes or carrying oddly shaped items like fuel bottles, camp-shoes, or a frisbee.

The Banchee 65's two zippered pockets are a great organizational feature. They keep water bottles  snacks  and layers at the ready.
The Banchee 65's two zippered pockets are a great organizational feature. They keep water bottles, snacks, and layers at the ready.

The Thule Versant 70 and the Baltoro have the best access of any pack in our review. These models all provide great options for folks who like a lot of organization or the ability to get inside easily without having to take much out. The Osprey Xenith offers good access via a zippered side panel, but not nearly as much as the two previously mentioned models. The models above paid a weight penalty for access. This is what sets the Banchee 65 apart — it offers excellent organization and is one of the lighter packs in our review at 3 lbs 10 oz. It's around a pound lighter than most of the other, similarly designed packs.

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

Almost every pack has a top lid with a zippered pocket (some folks call the lid the brain of the pack). This ubiquitous feature is one of the best places to store small items that need easy access — like sunglasses, sunblock, bug spray. A majority also have a separate smaller pocket on the underside of the lid, offering a secondary place to store small items that don't need to be accessed as frequently, like car keys.

The Gregory Paragon 68's lid (shown here) features a large "U" shaped zipper that makes searching for items easy -- but  unlike the Baltoro or Bora models  we have to be more careful to make sure things don't fall out unexpectedly. This problem is slightly worse when the pack is super full.
The Gregory Paragon 68's lid (shown here) features a large "U" shaped zipper that makes searching for items easy -- but, unlike the Baltoro or Bora models, we have to be more careful to make sure things don't fall out unexpectedly. This problem is slightly worse when the pack is super full.

Our favorite top lid design is the Gregory Baltoro 65. Second place goes to the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63. Both feature lid-pockets with zippered access on the top of the pack rather than the more common zipper on the side. This makes it easier to locate items and makes them less likely to fall out while we search. The Baltoro also has two lid pockets that are shaped to make searching easier. The Gregory Paragon 68 features a similar lid pocket that is nearly as easy to find items in. It is darn sweet, except we had to be a little more careful that our gear didn't fall out of it.

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.

The rest of the packs have zippers on the front or back of the lid. None of these contenders are as easy to get into as the Bora, Paragon and the Baltoro. However, not all of the lid's side zippered pockets are created equal. The large zippered lid pockets of the Atmos 65 AG, Aether AG 60, Xenith, and Banchee 65 are the next top scorers. They have nearly the same volume as the Baltoro and have a longer than average zipper that wraps slightly around the sides. This makes access better, but not as great as the Baltoro or Bora.

The Thule Versant 70 offers unrivaled access to your gear.
The Thule Versant 70 offers unrivaled access to your gear.

Pack Access

How you access the primary compartment is part of our "Ease of Use" metric and measures easily we could grab a few items without unpacking the entire bag. Its importance depends dramatically on the user and the volume of the pack. As pack volume increases, access is more critical than ever.

The Bora doesn't feature a traditional sleeping bag compartment and instead features a small side-access zipper (shown here). We found that when we packed the Bora with larger items we thought we might want easily accessible near this zipper  it worked well.
The Bora doesn't feature a traditional sleeping bag compartment and instead features a small side-access zipper (shown here). We found that when we packed the Bora with larger items we thought we might want easily accessible near this zipper, it worked well.

For non-travel purposes, ease of access is not all that important. Don't select a pack solely for a huge zippered access panel. You will rarely use it and pay a weight penalty. (Zippers are heavy.) Note that many side access panels are nearly impossible to close when the pack is full.

Weight Penalty — All features come with a weight penalty. Consider your priorities before saying "I want lots of access". We hear that often on only to witness folks go several trips between using their side access panel. The exception is when you're traveling in the front country, where access is more important.

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, nearly all have a sleeping bag compartment, and a little more than half have some side or panel access zippers. These openings allow access to a lower portion of the pack that are hard to access from the top. The Gregory Baltoro and the Thule Versant 70 offer the easiest access. Both of these models feature a huge U-shaped opening that travels nearly the entire length of the back of the pack. These models open almost as large as a suitcase and larger than many duffel bags. This makes them an excellent option for anyone "backpacking" through Europe or Southeast Asia.

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.

Extra Features

While hardly essential, we appreciate when at least one zippered pocket is built into the hip-belt that's big enough for a small point-and-shoot camera, smartphone, or a few snacks. The Osprey models all have large zippered pockets that are easy to access while hiking. We also like the Gregory Paragon and The North Face Banchee 65 pockets, but they aren't as easy to use as those on the Osprey models. It's also worth noting that the Baltoro features a single weather-resistant pocket, which is particularly helpful for folks who want their smartphone close-at-hand for taking photos. This weather resistant is in addition to a secondary mesh zippered pocket.

The Bora is by far the most weather resistant pack in our review. It uses Arc'teryx's proprietary AC2 fabric on all non-black areas of the pack. Not only do they use a weather resistant fabric  but these models also seam tape exposed areas  including this beavertail pocket  which has a watertight zipper. We used this pack on several VERY wet trips and these features kept our gear dry.
The Bora is by far the most weather resistant pack in our review. It uses Arc'teryx's proprietary AC2 fabric on all non-black areas of the pack. Not only do they use a weather resistant fabric, but these models also seam tape exposed areas, including this beavertail pocket, which has a watertight zipper. We used this pack on several VERY wet trips and these features kept our gear dry.

Weather-Resistance

All of the models are reasonably weather resistant, but the Arc'teryx Bora stands out. It consistently kept our gear drier during spring hikes in Washington's Olympic rainforest and some garden hose tests. The Bora 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 watertight zipper, because this location will likely see the most water while hiking or placing it on the ground.

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

All the packs in this review have a location to store a hydration bladder where it is held upright. All the models we tested should work with just about any brand's 2-3 liter hydration bladder model, and it should fit into most models hydration bladder sleeve.

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.

Rather than use the same brand bladder as the pack, we recommend reading our Hydration Bladder Review and picking the best reservoir for your needs and budget. One super cool bonus feature among packs we tested was that the Gregory Baltoro comes with a removable hydration sleeve that doubles as a relatively functional hydration pack.

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


The lightest pack in our review, by a pretty significant margin, is the Osprey Exos 58. At 2 pounds 8 ounces, the Exos straddles the line between a backpacking backpack and an ultra-light minimalist pack. While heavier than most ultralight frameless backs, which typically weigh 1.5-2 lbs, it isn't WAY heavier. And it's certainly more comfortable for people who don't have their pack weight down below 20-25 pounds.

The Exos is also a great option for folks who want to go super light, but still want a comfortable and supportive pack with an actual frame and more robust padding. Despite being a little on the heavy side of ultralight packs, we know several people who have used the Exos (mostly in its smaller volumes) on the PCT and the AT.


For a lighter but still rugged and featured pack, our review team recommends The North Face Banchee 65 (3 lbs 10 oz) and would recommend considering the Aether Pro 70, Gregory Paragon 68, or both Osprey Volt 60 (3 lbs 14 oz).

The Exos 58 is a surprisingly comfortable pack  especially considering its 2.6 lb weight. It's fantastic carrying up to 30 lbs  and decent to 40 lbs  but we wouldn't want to carry much more than that.
The Exos 58 is a surprisingly comfortable pack, especially considering its 2.6 lb weight. It's fantastic carrying up to 30 lbs, and decent to 40 lbs, but we wouldn't want to carry much more than that.

Every model strikes a balance between weight and comfort. Having both is hard. That is one category where the new Osprey Aether Pro 70 climbs into a much-needed niche. The Aether Pro is relatively low weight (3.9 lbs) but still has one of the most robust suspensions systems we tested. It's also one of the most comfortable models in our review, thanks to its top-tier foam, heavily articulated shoulder straps, and top-notch feeling face fabrics. The Aether Pro strikes this balance by having minimal pockets and access.

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 pack's adjustability and fit, we consider its overall ergonomics in addition to how adjustable each model is. We also look at how many torso lengths are available. More sizes mean it could work for a wider range of users. Check out the chart below to see how each pack ranks in the adjustability metric.


Mix and Match Sizing — A handful of pack manufacturers will let you swap out shoulder straps and waist belts sizes to customize your fit. For example, you may want a medium frame and a small waist belt. If this would be helpful for your body type, it's worth seeking out a pack from one of these manufacturers, like Gregory.

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 yokes (shoulder straps) up or down nearly 10 inches. Not only does this help fit a wide range of people and let it truly tailor to its wearer, but it also makes them an excellent choice for quickly growing children or teenagers.

We really liked the unique "GridLock" system on Arc'teryx's new 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 new 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 Volt and Aircontact have the advantage, but when it comes to pure tailor fitting, the adjustment options of the Arc'teryx Bora reign supreme. While it doesn't have as much pure vertical adjustment range, we love that you can adjust the shoulder straps side to side (width-wise), as well as up and down. The North Face Banchee 65, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Atmos, Xenith, and Osprey Aether 70 all have a respectable amount of adjustment. They feature approximately four inches of vertical adjustment and are available in a number of sizes. We also took into account 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


None of these backpacks are waterproof, though the Bora AR comes pretty dang close. Covering them with a garbage bag will get you through in a pinch on short trips. However, on an extended trip, a true rain cover is tough to beat, particularly if you are facing a long stint of bad weather. If you are planning on a lot of time in the rain or considering going somewhere with a wet reputation (Patagonia, New Zealand, Pacific Northwest, BC Coast ranges), consider a pack cover designed and fitted for your pack. It's worth noting that the Gregory Baltoro, Thule Versant 70, and the Gregory Paragon all come included with rain covers.

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.

Here are a few options:

Conclusion


While traveling from points A to B on a backcountry trip might seem like simple enough goal, choosing the model that will work best for your needs and goals can be overwhelming. Figuring out which backpacking backpack is right, or better yet perfect for you, might seem hard. You might not even know the best place to start. We hope that our review and the findings from our testing 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

When selecting a model, first focus on the duration of trips you typically embark on as well as any goals or objectives you might have. It can also be helpful to come up with 2 to 3 features that you'd like your pack to have and prioritize specific designs like cushy shoulder straps or a sub-4-pound weight. If you are still not sure, we recommend taking a look at our buying advice article.


Ian Nicholson