The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

The Best Backpacking Packs for Women

The suspension system on the Aircontact provided enough stability to move through uneven terrain with ease.
By Jane Jackson ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Monday November 19, 2018
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Searching for a new backpack can feel overwhelming. Let us help! We read up on hundreds of packs and bought the top 16 of the best women's backpacking backpacks to test and compare. From quick overnights and weekend trips to alpine climbing adventures, we stress tested these packs to find every strength and every weakness. We noted how easy each one is to pack and adjust for optimal support and comfort. Then we varied our packing list to find out how each pack holds up to heavy and light loads. Along the way, we noted how accessible our water bottles, snacks, and layers stayed. Whether you are starting on your first backcountry adventure or are a seasoned veteran in need of an upgrade, this review has the pack for you. Shopping for a man friend? We also reviewed men's backpacks.


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Updated November 2018
We tested three new packs this season while out reveling in crisp autumnal conditions. We were pleased to check out the excellent updated Deuter Air Contact Lite 60+10. It's a comfortable and supportive pack that we named our Top Pick for Heavy Loads. We also tested one new and one updated model from Gregory, the Jade 63 and the updated Deva 60. Both are solid packs, but they don't compare very favorably to the rest of this stellar fleet. Read on to see what we found.

Best Overall Women's Model


Osprey Aura AG 65


Editors' Choice Award

$201.95
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

Weight: 4.66 pounds | Liters available: 65
Light for such a supportive pack
Top-notch ventilation
Comfortable
Waist belt offers low-profile storage
Very adjustable
Thoughtful feature set
Not ideal for smaller loads
Waistband is attached to back panel
Feels a bit bulky

We took our old favorite, the Osprey Aura AG, out on the trails again to make sure it still deserves its Editors' Choice title. Even compared to the newest models we reviewed, the Aura still excels as our favorite all-around pack. The comfort and support it provides are unparalleled — mostly due to its high-tech, supremely breathable suspension system. We also love the feature set this pack provides. Its overall design is sleek and simple, but it still provides plenty of straps and pockets to keep your gear organized. We especially love the large, stretchy mesh outer pocket. It adds tons of external storage space. The hip belt is now collapsible, making this pack much easier to store than previous versions where the rigid hip belt stuck out a few feet.

While the pack can feel bulky and is overkill for lighter loads, the Aura is still our Editors' Choice for everything from simple overnight hikes to month-long thru-hiking adventures.

Read review: Osprey Aura AG 65

Best Bang for the Buck


The North Face Terra 55


Best Buy Award

$168.95
at Backcountry
See It

Weight: 4.13 pounds | Liters: 40 and 55
No superfluous pockets or straps
Simple and easy to use
Great value
Small capacity compared to other models
Lacks adjustability

These days, it's challenging to find a full-sized backpack that performs well for under $200. Enter the North Face Terra 55, available online for $170. This pack received high scores in almost all of our rating metrics, holding its own among packs that cost twice as much. We appreciate that the Terra's simple design is not cluttered with extra features but still offers ample outer storage with six pockets. The suspension system provides enough support for the pack to remain comfortable on long days, but is nothing too fancy. It's an added bonus that this pack is the least expensive model in this review. The Terra wins our Best Buy award for its combination of simplicity, versatility, and intuitive design.

The Terra's main storage area has a barrier that separates the bottom portion into a sleeping bag compartment. This divide and the pack's smaller size overall limit its carrying capacity. Still, the pack is roomy enough for most backcountry endeavors. The pack is not as adjustable as others, but it works. The North Face Terra is a great, comfortable pack for a reasonable price.

Read review: The North Face Terra 55

Top Pick Award for Travel


Thule Versant 60


Top Pick Award

$206.95
(20% off)
at Amazon
See It

Weight: 4.38 pounds | Liters: 50, 60, and 70
Lightweight
Sleek and packable
Large U-shaped zipper provides easy access
Capacity larger than claimed
Very comfortable
Adjustable for both light and heavy loads
Removable lid is not useful as separate pack
Shoulder straps lack padding

A U-shaped zipper access point and spacious interior make the Versant our Top Pick for Travel. This large front zipper adds to the duffel bag vibe and also makes it easy to pack and organize your gear. This backpack is also comfortable and easy to carry. The Versant performs exceptionally well whether it's stuffed with backpacking gear for a few nights or filled with clothes and books for an international adventure. In terms of adjustability, the pack is just as versatile as it gets. It can carry both heavy and lighter loads comfortably. The Versant's sleek suspension system is supportive and comfortable but lacks the bulk of other packs in this review. This makes the Versant easy to fit in trains, planes, and automobiles, and it carries well on, or off, trail in the backcountry.

The removable lid does not work well as a deployable daypack. This is a shame since daypacks are so useful when traveling. The bag's shoulder straps are also minimally padded, which can be uncomfortable after a long day under heavy loads. Still, the travel-friendly benefits add up to make the Thule Versant an excellent option for versatile adventures.

Read review: Thule Versant 60

Top Pick for Ultralight Design


Osprey Lumina 45


Top Pick Award

$186.95
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

Weight: 1.86 pounds | Liters: 45 and 60
Extremely lightweight
Main pack body is durable
Big, stretchy outside pockets
Slim profile
Can carry heavy loads
Small capacity
Designed for specific use
Costly

We have yet to see a backpack that is as lightweight as the Osprey Lumina 45. It's our Top Pick for Ultralight Design. There are more and more women's specific packs infiltrating the ultralight market, but the Lumina is the best we've seen. At 1.86 pounds, this pack is impressive even by ultralight standards. You may think that such a featherweight pack would lack support, but the Lumina has a full frame and suspension system provided plenty of support without adding weight.

The Lumina has three large, external storage pockets, which provide extra space on the outside of the pack for storage. This is important because the main body is slim, which can make it tough to pack correctly. It's is an advanced model, designed for a specific use. It's better suited for women who are experienced in the backcountry and who are looking to seriously pare down their kit.

Read review: Osprey Lumina 45

Top Pick for Heavy Loads


Deuter Aircontact Lite 60+10 SL - Women's


Top Pick Award

$154.00
(30% off)
at Backcountry
See It

Weight: 4.1 pounds | Liters: 45 and 60
Light for capacity and support provided
Comfortable for heavy loads
The collapsible waistband is nice for storing
Easy-to-remove lid
A simple, thoughtful feature set
Very tall
Not as suitable for shorter folks

Our favorite new pack this season is the Deuter AirContact Lite by far. It was a contender for our Editors' Choice award but fell short in a few metrics. That said, we love the AirContact for its streamlined design and ability to carry around 50 pounds without causing pains or strains. We took the pack out of the box, loaded it down with 55 pounds of food and climbing gear and headed straight out the door. The AirContact excelled. It provided tons of support and stability when maneuvering through talus and steep, rocky terrain. The pack worked just as well when nearly empty on day hikes. The removable lid is also large enough to hold our small personal items, which we loved.

The pack is very tall and can feel top heavy, as a result, it might not work well for shorter women. For women of average height or above, this pack's excellent suspension system and carefully considered features make this Deuter model one of our favorites.

Read review: Deuter Aircontact Lite 60+10 SL


Testing packs on a 10-day trip in Yosemite's northern backcountry.
Testing packs on a 10-day trip in Yosemite's northern backcountry.

Analysis and Test Results


We rated each of these backpacks on how comfortably they carry loads, how supportive their suspension is, how easy they are to use, how much they weigh, and how useful their features are. We also paid special attention to what makes these bags women's specific and how they are different from unisex or men's pack. Keep reading to find out all about the top performers.

Why Buy a Women's Pack


All of the packs we evaluated in this review are women's specific. Some of these brands, like Osprey, Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, and Gregory, offer a men's version of the same pack. The notable differences separating men's, unisex, and women's backpacks are weight and sizing.

Saddling up for more time on the trail with the REI Traverse.
Saddling up for more time on the trail with the REI Traverse.

Women's models are sized and shaped specially for a woman's torso. Often the shoulder straps and back panels are narrower, the hip belts are curved or molded for curvier bodies, and the adjustment options are within the smaller size range of women. A woman's center of gravity is typically lower than a man's, and women's specific designs are intended to optimize load carrying. Women's packs are usually ounces lighter, primarily due to a decreased size. These fit and sizing changes often make a women's specific model more comfortable and better fitting than a men's or unisex model. They also keep the pack weight to body weight ratio in a more appropriate range for smaller bodies. These shifts all make a big difference as you log miles.

Women with larger frames and broader shoulders may prefer men's or unisex models, but most women will find the features of a women's specific pack preferable. With any pack, it is worth spending the time to get the correct size for your body type. For more information see the Sizing and Fit section of our Buying Advice article.


Value


While we only consider performance during product testing and scoring, we know that value matters. While the best performing products win our Editors' Choice or Top Pick awards, our Best Buy awards go to products that offer up the best value, providing high performance at a reasonable price. In this review, The North Face Terra 55 and Gregory Octal 55 offer a high performance to value ratio.

Most packs fall between $230 and $300. There are also outliers on both ends of the spectrum — like the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61, which is an incredibly technical, yet also costly pack. It rings in at $550. On the other hand, there are packs like the Deuter AirContact Lite, which is a well designed, durable pack for $220. The Terra 55 earns our Best Buy Award for its simple design at under $200.

Stoked on the Osprey Aura AG!
Stoked on the Osprey Aura AG!

Comfort


How comfortable is this pack when nearly empty? When fully loaded? Are there contact points that lead to discomfort, chaffing, or bruising? How do we feel after a long day with this pack on our pack? These are some of the questions we posed while testing. These backpacks are meant for multi-day use, and adequate comfort is essential unless you are mainly interested in fast-packing or ultra-lightweight hiking. Fast and light backpackers often have to sacrifice a degree of comfort and spaciousness for the sake of covering more ground more quickly.


The most comfortable pack in the fleet is the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61. We especially like its comfy waistband. The Bora combines s sleek and straightforward design with tons of comfort in a way that surpasses other packs in this review.

To get these scores, we evaluated the overall cushion and support of each backpack. Padding on both the shoulder straps and the hip belt are essential to help you avoid chaffing and enjoy all-day comfort. Some models, like the two Osprey packs and the Gregory Deva 60, have great padding, while others, like the REI Co-op Traverse 65 and The North Face Banchee, are designed to be lightweight and simple. They don't offer as much padding. We also considered the width of the shoulder straps, along with their thickness. Packs with thinner shoulder straps, like the Thule Versant 60, may be more comfortable for those with narrower shoulders, while wide straps can be more suitable for those with an athletic build.

The thick foam waistband on the Bora is one of the most comfortable we tested. This photo also shows the thin mesh hip pockets that were  unfortunately  a bit too small to be useful.
The thick foam waistband on the Bora is one of the most comfortable we tested. This photo also shows the thin mesh hip pockets that were, unfortunately, a bit too small to be useful.

Back panels, further discussed in the suspension section, do a lot to contribute to overall comfort. Some back panels are so soft that they are comfortable even against the skin, others use firm padding to maintain rigidity, stability, and support. Mesh back panels allow airflow and let your back breathe. Having a puddle of sweat held against your back isn't comfortable. A well ventilated back panel, like the one on the Aura AG, is incredibly comfy because the pack itself doesn't rest on your back. You can wear this pack in any season and with any clothing. Some models, like The North Face Terra or the Deuter ACT Lite have straightforward back panels that use their rigidity for added support.

The stretch mesh on the Aura AG (Anti Gravity) suspension system is a continuous panel that spans the entire back  hips and the underside of the shoulder straps. This design offers unparalleled ventilation and a lightweight and conforming suspension system.
The stretch mesh on the Aura AG (Anti Gravity) suspension system is a continuous panel that spans the entire back, hips and the underside of the shoulder straps. This design offers unparalleled ventilation and a lightweight and conforming suspension system.

Keep in mind that packs are designed around ideal weight loads. While most are capable of comfortably carrying an array of weights, some work with a broader range than others. Generally speaking, the lighter the pack is, the more comfortably it carries light loads, and the heavier it is, the more comfortably it carries heavy loads. There are obvious exceptions, but this will give you an idea of how well a model will handle your gear.

The wide and comfortable hip belt on the Lowe Alpine Manaslu makes this one of the most comfortably padded packs out there.
The wide and comfortable hip belt on the Lowe Alpine Manaslu makes this one of the most comfortably padded packs out there.

The Osprey Aura AG 65 is the most versatile pack in our test when it comes to weight loads. This contender can be used as a daypack or for a single night trip, carrying only lunch, a water filter, and extra layers. Or it can comfortably carry a massive multi-day load. In contrast, the Lowe Alpine Manaslu works best with larger loads. It is very stable, has adequate padding, and offers a generous amount of packing space. The Gregory Deva 60 works best for heavier loads due to its size. The pack is relatively bulky, and with a small load, it can feel sloppy and excessive.

Putting on the AG suspension system waist belt takes some getting used to  but once it's on  this pack is incredibly comfortable!
Putting on the AG suspension system waist belt takes some getting used to, but once it's on, this pack is incredibly comfortable!

Suspension


A pack's suspension system distributes weight across your back, from your shoulders to your hips and relates directly to the pack's frame. The Osprey Aura AG has an excellent suspension system that distributes weight evenly, lending itself to very comfortable hiking and load carrying, especially for longer days. The Anti-Gravity design is our favorite feature on any competitor and is a large part of why this model won our Editors' Choice award.


The Deuter AirContact Lite provides lots of lower back support. This pack has extra padding in the lower back, just above the waist belt, which we find very helpful when carrying heavy loads. Some companies now use hinging suspension systems that allow the hip belt and the shoulder straps to move independently. This helps keep your load stay stable and allows the pack to move with you as you hike or climb over obstacles. Please note that a proper fit is necessary for the hinging design to function correctly. These newer systems are very stable and evenly distribute your load, though they add weight to the pack.

The Thule Versant has a surprisingly large carrying capacity. Volume will not be a limiting factor with this pack.
The Thule Versant has a surprisingly large carrying capacity. Volume will not be a limiting factor with this pack.

The Arc'teryx Bora AR has one of these systems, which hinges at the lower back. It moves with your hips while stabilizing the pack on the shoulders. We love its simple, yet supportive design. The Gregory Deva 60 also has a decentralized system called the Response Auto Fit Suspension, which rotates independently on the waist belt. Unfortunately, it doesn't pivot as smoothly as the Bora and its hip belt is uncomfortably stiff. These flaws limit the design's effectiveness.

Another important suspension element to consider is back panel design. This part of the pack rests directly against your back and is an essential aspect of comfort. Most of the models we tested are designed to allow airflow between the hiker's back and the pack. This is accomplished using a curved frame design that rests against your shoulder blades and hips while opposing the natural curve of your back in between. Look toward the Osprey Lumina or the Gregory Octal for examples of this style back panel.

The back panel on the Aircontact Lite is supportive enough to handle heavy loads.
The back panel on the Aircontact Lite is supportive enough to handle heavy loads.

The Osprey packs have elaborate airflow designs that significantly reduce the sweat that forms on the back during a full day of hard hiking. Anti-Gravity (AG) is a highlight of the Aura AG and Ariel AG packs. It features a tightly suspended mesh back panel that is inches away from the back of the main compartment. This creates unparalleled ventilation and comfort. The space between the body and the main compartment doesn't compromise any stability except with cumbersome pack loads. (The closer the pack is to the body, the better it will contribute to stability under heavy weight.) This is why models that are intended for larger carrying capacities rest tightly against the back, incorporating ventilation into the padding itself. A good example is the Deuter AirContact Lite.

Staying out late on the trail with the Mountain Hardwear Ozonic. This contender was one of the lightest models in our review.
Staying out late on the trail with the Mountain Hardwear Ozonic. This contender was one of the lightest models in our review.

Weight


First, we weighed each of these packs in-house. Then, throughout this review, we packed each model with very similar kits each time we headed out for a test trip. For a multi-day trip, we packed a sleeping bag, a two-person tent, a couple of changes of clothes, rain gear, water, a bear canister with food, and few miscellaneous items. Since we were carrying nearly the same gear weight on every trip, we could pay attention to the packs' weight.


This review includes a ton of very lightweight models that blow the rest of the packs out of the water. The Osprey Lumina 45 is by far the lightest, weighing only 1.86 pounds. Next is the Gregory Octal 55 and the Osprey Eja 58, which weigh 2.58 and 2.6 pounds respectively. We love these lighter models, though they do sacrifice some comfort and trim some favorite features to make this possible. Weight is a trade-off. The difference between a 5-pound pack, like the Manaslu and a 2.5-pound model, like the Gregory Octal means automatically carrying an extra three pounds every day on the trail.

The Versant breaks down into three separate containers: the main pack body  the lid  and a removable  roll-top side pocket. This helps you customize its weight.
The Versant breaks down into three separate containers: the main pack body, the lid, and a removable, roll-top side pocket. This helps you customize its weight.

That said, heavier packs often provide more support — that's the case with the Deuter AirContact Lite, which weighs four pounds. This pack offers substantial support for heavy loads but keeps its weight reasonable by cutting features and keeping its design simple. The Lowe Alpine Mansalu, Osprey Ariel 65, and Gregory Deva 60 are the heaviest packs in this review, weighing over five pounds. Most models fall in the 4-pound range. Some contenders, like the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61, feel much lighter than they appear on the scale due to the overall simplicity of their design.

Here is the Terra fully packed up with a few days worth of food  clothes  and camping gear. The Terra's light weight was one of the reasons this model is our Best Buy!
Here is the Terra fully packed up with a few days worth of food, clothes, and camping gear. The Terra's light weight was one of the reasons this model is our Best Buy!

When looking at pack weight, consider how much you'll be carrying. Are you someone who likes to bring a lot? Is this pack going to be used for backcountry climbing missions? Or, are you excited to cut weight and slim down your kit? You can look to our How to Choose a Women's Backpack article for more details on how weight should play a factor in your decision.

The North Face Banchee is super lightweight  but this also means the pack has a smaller capacity overall  making it great for weekend outings.
The North Face Banchee is super lightweight, but this also means the pack has a smaller capacity overall, making it great for weekend outings.

Ease of Use


The ease of use rating assesses how simple each model is to adjust, pack, access, and personally configure to maximize enjoyment, comfort, and space. Plainly said, how easy is this pack to live with, day in and day out? We also consider how adjustable each pack is to your specific build. The better the pack fits your body, the more comfortable and enjoyable the overall experience will be! Few things can be worse than finding yourself thirty miles in the backcountry, unsure of how to use your pack.


Most packs follow the same basic design principles, so they all tend to do well here. That said, nuances make some models stand out. The Thule Versant received our highest score in this metric for its design that includes an easy to remove lid, a sizeable U-Shaped zipper for quick internal access, and a simple feature set that does not complicate the outside of the pack. The Osprey Aura AG and Osprey Ariel Pro also rate well due to user-friendly adjustments, multiple access points, sleeping bag compartments, and few if any, excessive design features.

The back panel of the Terra is easily adjustable and intuitive.
The back panel of the Terra is easily adjustable and intuitive.

Packs that receive low ratings in this metric are the Osprey Ariel 65 and the Lowe Alpine Manaslu. We found them overly complicated and excessive in their feature set. Both Gregory packs — the Deva and the Jade received average scores in this metric, since they are easy to adjust, but felt excessive in terms of external pockets and straps.

A view inside the Thule Versant from the U-shaped duffel pocket. This pack has the easiest access of any pack we tested  making it great for traveling.
A view inside the Thule Versant from the U-shaped duffel pocket. This pack has the easiest access of any pack we tested, making it great for traveling.

The competitors with the easiest and most intuitive suspension system adjustment points include the Thule Versant, the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61, and the Osprey Aura. Others, like the Mountain Hardwear Ozonic Outdry 60 and the Lowe Alpine Manaslu are less intuitive and take some fiddling to make the proper adjustments.

We loved the roomy lid on the Bora that seemed to fit more than most other lids in this review.
We loved the roomy lid on the Bora that seemed to fit more than most other lids in this review.

Features


To compare feature sets, we examined the size, shape, location, and number of pockets, the number and quality of buckles, the number and placement of straps, and the lid design. By utilizing (or in some cases, not utilizing) the unique organizational designs of these contenders, we found that simplicity is great and lightens the pack, but having the ability to separate gear is also an advantage for efficiency.


Organization strategies range from super simplistic with the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61, the Thule Versant, and the Deuter AirContact Lite to very complex with the Osprey Ariel 65, Gregory Deva and Lowe Alpine Manaslu. The latter three packs have more than five enclosed compartments and additional open pockets. The Editors' Choice award winner, the Osprey Aura AG, has five pockets: two medium and two small pockets, in addition to the main compartment.

We loved the Aura because it was able to provide tons of features  like the sleeping pad straps shown here  without feeling overly complicated.
We loved the Aura because it was able to provide tons of features, like the sleeping pad straps shown here, without feeling overly complicated.

While it does come down to preference, simple pack designs are more pleasant to use over time. After fiddling around with dozens and dozens of models, our testers have come to realize that they prefer designs with fewer pockets and straps in general. New packs like the Deuter AirContact Lite and the Gregory Octal are slimming down on features, suggesting that the market is headed toward more straightforward models overall.

The simple design of the Bora makes it easy to both pack and access gear. The large outer pocket is roomy enough for water bottles  clothes  and snacks.
The simple design of the Bora makes it easy to both pack and access gear. The large outer pocket is roomy enough for water bottles, clothes, and snacks.

Rain Covers


Except for the waterproof Mountain Hardwear Ozonic 60, which can withstand hours of pouring rain, the packs we reviewed are water-resistant at best. If you're out in a downpour, your gear is going to get wet. Use a garbage bag to get through bad weather in a pinch. If you're planning on an extended trip in wet weather, consider purchasing a rain cover fitted for your pack. Here are a few options:

In the end  its worth taking the time to find the right fit for you.
In the end, its worth taking the time to find the right fit for you.

Conclusion


Having the right pack on your back can make the difference between an enjoyable time in the outdoors and a great deal of annoyance. Choosing the right pack, however, can be pretty tough. Your personal needs will vary depending on the environment and climate where you spend your time, as well as your packing habits and body type. And while we can generally agree that we need a pack that will perform well on our outdoor excursions, we tend to prefer products that won't drain our bank accounts as well. We hope that this review will provide valuable insight as you search through the marketplace.


Jane Jackson