Best Backpacking Backpack for Women of 2020
Ultralight Adventure Equipment Circuit
Take a bag designed for ultralight users and overbuild the suspension, incorporate durable fabrics, and load it up with capacious pockets and you have the ULA Circuit. Advertised as "the favorite child" by ULA, we tend to agree. The comfort of this model, even under heftier loads, exceeds that of many packs built to take more weight. The hip belt flexes to accommodate hips of varying angles, and the choice of two differently shaped shoulder straps allows both men and women of different builds to get a great fit.
The Circuit may not have the most pockets of any bag we tested, but we feel that it has all the right ones in all the right places making gear easy to grab or stow away. The cavernous main compartment is easy to load but lacks a sleeping bag compartment with bottom access. For hot weather pursuits, the non-ventilated back panel is likely to bring on the sweat, but because of the uncommon comfort and thoughtful organization systems, we feel confident recommending the Circuit to anyone but the heatstroke-prone rain forest explorer.
Read review: Ultralight Adventure Equipment Circuit
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Renn 65
These days, it's challenging to find a full-sized backpack that performs well for under 200 bucks. Enter the Osprey Renn 65. The Renn took a unique approach to design, spreading the 65L load laterally, creating a comfortable pack where even the heaviest of loads rode well on our hips. We love the Renn's simple design, complete with just the important features: roomy hip and brain pockets and an included rain cover. We were impressed that even though the Renn is one of the lowest-priced options we tested, it still boasts the comfortable award-winning Osprey suspension. The Renn 65 is a good choice for its unique, comfortable design and advantageous extra features.
You can fit pretty much anything you want in the Renn's roomy main compartment; bear canisters situated horizontally, full climbing ropes, you name it. Unfortunately, it lacks the large, stretchy back pocket that is just so darn convenient for layers, snacks, water filters, and more. But that's a small sacrifice for a pack that is lightweight, cozy, roomy, durable, and budget-friendly.
Read review: Osprey Renn 65
Best for All-Around Comfort
Osprey Aura AG 65
We took a long-beloved pack, the Osprey Aura AG, and hit the trails again. The Aura still excels as a favorite all-around pack. The comfort and support it provides rank highly in our tests — mostly due to the high-tech, supremely breathable suspension system for which Osprey is famous. While maintaining a sleek look, the Aura packs a nice quiver of features and pockets to keep your gear organized. The sliding torso adjustment and extendable padding in the waist belt make the Aura one of the most adjustable models we've reviewed.
Although many women find the hip belt to be a great fit, everyone's body angles are different, and a few of our testers found it to dig uncomfortably into their bellies and bums so be sure to try on with weight before you buy. While the pack can feel bulky with its semi-rigid belt, the Aura is still a great option for everything from lighter overnight hikes to big, burly expeditions where you'll want added support.
Read review: Osprey Aura AG 65
Best for Ultralight Design
Osprey Lumina 60
We have yet to see a women's specific backpack that is as lightweight as the Osprey Lumina 60. It's our favorite 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 1.81 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 that provided plenty of support even when loaded heavier than recommended by Osprey. Even though features are trimmed down, the Lumina retains three large, external pockets plus a lid.
Like other packs with trampoline-style suspension, the frame protrudes into the interior space making it a bit tricky to load. The ultralight fabric on parts of the pack needs to be treated gently to avoid tearing. It's is an advanced model, designed for a specific use and is best suited for women who know what they need in the backcountry and have already pared down their kit to the essentials.
Read review: Osprey Lumina 60
Best for Heavy Loads
Granite Gear Blaze 60 - Women's
We were impressed by the Granite Gear Blaze 60. This pack offers by far the most storage space out of all the packs we tested, with plenty of ways to customize the pack and make it your own. The Blaze easily took on a trad rack and rope when we headed into the desert on a climbing trip in the backcountry. Its lightweight design also makes it the perfect choice for the advanced backpacker looking to pare down on weight for long hauls or heavy loads. It remained stable as we scrambled through canyons and offered a great amount of comfort for a paired-down pack.
The removable lid expands upwards, so you can make the pack as short or tall as you need. Both short and tall testers, along with veteran thru-hikers, loved the endless options of this bag. We wish it came in a lighter color since it was difficult to rifle through the Blaze in bright, contrasting conditions. Also, the side access is only available if the side compression straps aren't loaded.
Read review: Granite Gear Blaze 60
Why You Should Trust Us
Elizabeth travels the country, seeking outdoor adventure with her family from canyon exploration in the deserts of Utah to thru-hiking Vermont's Long Trail. She has been backpacking for more than two decades, including all 2193 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a honeymoon thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, and multi-week excursions in the canyons of Southern Utah. Her pack style varies from ultralight fastpacking 25-mile days to hauling loads for her two daughters on multi-week trips in the backcountry. Elizabeth also spent over ten years working in outdoor stores fitting backpacks for women and men of all shapes, sizes, and experience levels.
Meg spends several months out of the year in the outdoors backpacking, hiking, climbing, and mountaineering. Her written work focuses on empowering others to get outside by teaching relevant outdoor skills and telling compelling stories of life in the outdoors. As a writer, she spends nearly half the year in the outdoors, gaining experience and capturing stories for her clients. She heavily relies on backpacking packs not only for nights in the wild but also to tow heavy climbing and photography gear.
We gave these packs a beating in the snowy Colorado mountains, the harsh desert landscape of the southwestern United States, and the muddy, rugged peaks of Vermont. Meg relied heavily on the ability of each pack she tested to carry the burden of extra gear during a cold spring, pushing some of the packs to their limits. Elizabeth tested packs while carrying heavier loads of multiple people's food to support her young kids on the rugged New England trails.
We began this review with thorough market research, scouring manufacturers' websites, and backpacking forums. We looked at hundreds of models before purchasing the top 15 to put through the rigors of our hands-on testing. We identified four key performance areas to focus on. We paid attention to things like how easy it was to get the packs adjusted for different users, how comfortable they were when fully loaded, and the functionality of the pockets and features. The resulting review is a great starting point if you're in the market for a women's backpacking pack.
Analysis and Test Results
Each pack has been rated and ranked on their comfort when carrying loads, how much they weigh, the functionality of each of their organizational systems, and their adjustability for varying body sizes and types. Keep reading to find out all about the top performers.
Why Buy a Women's Pack
In this review, we tested packs that are designed specifically for a woman's body shape or offer interchangeable components to get the right fit for women. Many of these brands, like Osprey, Granite Gear, and Gregory, offer a men's version of the same pack. Most important are the differences in the shape of hip belts and shoulder straps between a pack designed for women and a men's/unisex model.
Women's models are shaped uniquely for a woman's torso. Typically 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 will sometimes optimize load carrying with a lower, wider bag. These fit and sizing changes often make a women's specific model more comfortable and better fitting than a men's or unisex model. These shifts all make a big difference as you log miles.
Most women will find a women's specific pack to offer a better fit, but just because you are a woman and the pack says "women" doesn't mean it will be the right fit for you - or just because you are a male, doesn't mean that a women's pack won't be the best fit you can find. Women with larger frames and broader shoulders may find men's models to fit them better and men with narrower shoulders may find a more comfortable fit from a woman's pack. With any pack, it is worth spending the time to get the correct size and shape for your body type rather than just your biological sex.
While we only consider performance during product testing and scoring, we know that price matters. While the best performing products win our top awards, our Best bang for your buck awards go to products that offer up the best value, providing high performance at a reasonable price. In this review, Osprey Renn 65 and Gregory Octal 55 offer a high performance to value ratio.
There are outliers on both ends of the price spectrum — like the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61, which is an incredibly technical, yet also costly pack. On the other hand, there are packs like the Deuter AirContact Lite, which is a well designed, durable pack for significantly less.
Comfort and Suspension
How comfortable is this pack when fully loaded? What about when you've eaten up most of your food and aren't carrying much weight? Does the load sit on your hips? Does the suspension system allow for airflow behind your back? Are there contact points that lead to discomfort, chaffing, or bruising? How do we feel about this pack after a grueling day on the trail? These are some of the questions we posed while testing. The packs in this review are intended to carry your food and shelter on your back day in and day out, so comfort is essential. Fast and light backpackers often have to sacrifice a degree of comfort and spaciousness for the sake of covering more ground more quickly, while the glampers of backpacking will happily carry more weight to cook a gourmet meal while seated in a chair by a lake at sunset and are more focused on a sturdy pack that rides comfortably even when heavily loaded.
The ULA Circuit and Osprey Aura AG top the charts for comfort in our test. The Circuit's suspension and padding deliver exceptional comfort for loads of all sizes. The Aura has long been a favorite for its exceptional ventilation and hug-like fit.
To get these scores, we evaluated the overall cushion and support of each backpack and how well the pack transfers the weight to your hips. Padding on both the shoulder straps and the hip belt is essential to help you avoid chaffing and enjoy all-day comfort. Some models, like the two Osprey packs, the ULA Circuit, and the Gregory Deva 60, have great padding, while others, like the REI Co-op Traverse 65 and Osprey Lumina, are designed to carry lighter loads, so they don't offer as much padding. We also considered the width of the shoulder straps, along with their thickness. Women with smaller shoulders may find a narrower strap gives them more freedom of movement, while broader chested women will appreciate the weight distribution of a wider strap.
A pack's suspension system distributes weight across your shoulders and your hips, and relates directly to the pack's frame. Some packs accomplish this with a straight, rigid frame with one or two aluminum stays tied into the hip belt, allowing the weight to transfer down to the hips where you want it. With a hip belt attached to the stay and frame, weight is easily transferred to the hips but be aware, in this style, if the hip belt doesn't tie closely enough to the frame, the loads can sag onto your shoulders. The Circuit and Blaze are two of our favorites that effectively use this type of suspension. Some models like the Deuter AirContact Lite and most Gregory models have and extra curve of padding in the lower back, just above the waist belt. To some, this feature is a welcome help in carrying heavy loads while, to others, it's a jutting lump in the lower back. This feature really emphasizes the variety of body types out there. Put one of these packs on, and you'll know which one you are.
Other packs accomplish this weight distribution 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. Stand-off mesh back panels, like on the Aura and Renn, allow airflow and let your back breathe. The packs that offer the most breathability tend to be preferred for warmer climates and folks who tend to run hot. 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.)
The Arc'teryx Bora AR has a unique hinged suspension system, which hinges at the lower back. It moves with your hips while stabilizing the pack on the shoulders. 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.
Beyond a pack's suspension, the shape, padding, and adjustability of the hip belt and shoulder straps also contribute to its comfort. Models like the Aura, Circuit and Deuter Aircontact provide thickly padded hip belts that help soften the squeeze. Ultralight contenders like the Lumina and REI Flash cut down the padding to save weight and also because its users will be carrying lighter loads, the extra padding isn't always a necessity.
For women with larger hips, models with extendable padding go a long way to add comfort. The Gregory Maven and Osprey Aura are two that we tested where you can extend the padding out, so it wraps farther around wider hips.
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 like the light and highly comfortable Blaze 60 and ULA Circuit, but generally, light packs will begin to sag uncomfortably under heavy loads.
Selecting a pack that fits your body type and planned weight loads is the hardest and most important step. Our biggest word of caution is — don't think about any other aspects other than capacity and comfort until you have found a pack that feels great when fully loaded.
First, we weighed each of these packs in-house. Then, throughout this review, we packed each model with very similar loads as we headed out on test trip after test trip. Because we were carrying similar weights, we were able to objectively compare the feel of each model.
We also packed the bags with additional, heavy, and bulky items to see how the packs handled heavier loads and bulky gear. We checked each model for its ability to carry a bear canister both vertically - most can accommodate that - and horizontally, something only a few larger packs can manage.
This review includes some very lightweight models that blow the rest of the packs out of the water. The Osprey Lumina 60 is one of the very lightest, weighing only 1.81 pounds. We also tested the Gregory Octal 55, Osprey Eja, REI Flash 55, and ULA Circuit, which all weigh in at 2.6 pounds. 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.
That said, more massive packs often provide more support — that's the case with the Deuter AirContact Lite, which weighs four pounds. The exceptions to this rule are the Granite Gear Blaze 60, which weighs 2.63 pounds but handles heavy loads like a champ and the ULA Circuit weighing in at 2.68 pounds and also being a gear-hauling beast. This capability is due to the packs' sturdy and close-fitting frames.
When looking at pack weight, consider how much you'll be carrying. Are you someone who likes to bring extra luxury items? Do you have an older sleeping bag or tent that takes up a lot of room? Is this pack going to be used for backcountry climbing missions? Or, have you gotten the ultralight bug and are cutting every luxury and ounce you can? Cutting weight in your kit feels good, both emotionally and physically, but your pack should be one of the last places you trim ounces. A relatively heavy pack can feel lighter than one of the featherweight models if it is the right fit for you and is loaded within its ideal carrying range.
The organizational systems rating assesses how easy each model is to pack and access, as well as any additional features that may (or may not) come in handy.
Organization strategies range from minimal with the ULA Circuit and Arc'teryx Bora AR 61 to very complex, with the Osprey Ariel 65 and Gregory Deva. The latter two packs have more than five enclosed compartments and additional open pockets. The Osprey Aura AG, has five pockets: two medium and two small pockets, in addition to the main compartment.
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 Aura AG received a high score in this metric for its design that includes an easy-to-remove lid, multiple access points, and a few handy extra pockets not seen on some of the more streamlined models. The ULA Circuit also rated well due to large, user-friendly pockets and few if any, excessive design features.
Getting a pack fit to your unique build and packing style is critical when you're wearing your house on your back. Our testers checked out all the features that could be adjusted, moved, removed, and changed. Some models have straps galore for attaching excess gear or compressing a less than fully loaded bag. Others only offer a couple. Bags with a wide range of hip, shoulder, and torso adjustment tend to fit a wider range of body types well.
Packs that scored well in this category allowed for a full range of adjustments. The Aura AG and Gregory Maven both scored high marks since they offered not only different compression adjustments but also were easy to adjust on the fly. We also liked the Granite Gear Blaze 60 because it offers ways to quickly trim down the pack's features and move around compression straps to keep your items secure, no matter what you're carrying.
The competitors with the most natural and most intuitive suspension system adjustment points include the Arc'teryx Bora AR 61 and the Osprey Aura.
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. The ULA Circuit is a great example of this. New packs like the Osprey Renn 65 and the Gregory Octal are slimming down on features, suggesting that the market trends are toward more straightforward models overall.
Except for Osprey Renn 65, Gregory Maven, Deuter Futura Vario and Osprey Kyte 46, which come with a built-in, removable rain cover, 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 backpacking regularly, consider purchasing a rain cover fitted for your pack.
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.
— Elizabeth Paashaus, Meg Atteberry and Jane Jackson