The Best Women's Backpacking Backpacks 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.
While there are fewer pockets than many bags in our test, we found them to be just the right size and accessibility to fit all of our gear right where we needed it. 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 wins our Best Buy award for its unique, comfortable design, and advantageous extra features.
The Renn's roomy main compartment can handle whatever type of adventure you're into, from bear canisters to ropes. Unfortunately, the Renn doesn't allow for infinite adjustment, and it lacks the large stuff pocket on the back that is so handy for shedding layers. 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, out on the trails again. Even compared to the newest models we reviewed, 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 well 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 in our test.
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 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 1.81 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 climbing the classics of Joshua Tree to thru-hiking Vermont's Long Trail. She has been backpacking for 20 years, including a 5-month hike on the Appalachian Trail, a honeymoon thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, and multi-week excursions in the canyons of Southern Utah to name a few. Her pack style varies from ultralight fastpacking 25 mile days to hauling loads for her two kids on multi-week trips in the backcountry. Elizabeth has also spent over a decade 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.
As with most of our reviews, we began with thorough market research, scouring manufacturers websites, backpacking forums, and user reviews. We looked at hundreds before purchasing the top 17 to compare in the field. 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
We rated each of these backpacks on how comfortably they carry loads with their given suspension system, their weight, how each unique organizational system performed, and how adjustable they are for various body types and packing needs. We also paid special attention to what makes these bags women's-specific and how they are different from unisex or men's packs. 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. The notable differences separating men's, unisex, and women's backpacks are the shape of the hip belts and shoulder straps.
Women's models fit and 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 are intended to 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. 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.
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 prefer men's or unisex models and men with narrower shoulders may find a better 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.
While we only consider performance during product testing and scoring, we know that price 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, 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. The Renn 65 earns our Best Buy award for its comfortable design for still even 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 air movement? 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 are packs intended to carry everything you need on your back for days on end, 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.
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 load 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. Packs with thinner shoulder straps, may be more comfortable for those with narrower shoulders, while wide straps can be more suitable for those with an athletic build.
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 rigid 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.
Others 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.)
Some companies now use hinging suspension systems that allow the hip belt and the shoulder straps to move independently, which 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 evenly distribute your load, though they add weight to the 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. 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 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 this will give you an idea of how well a model will handle your gear.
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, 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. The Osprey Ariel 65, and Gregory Deva 60 are the heaviest packs in this review, weighing over five pounds. Most models fall in the four-pound range.
When looking at pack weight, consider how much you'll be carrying. Are you someone who likes to bring extra luxury items? Is your kit bulky and bigger? Is this pack going to be used for backcountry climbing missions? Or, are you excited to cut weight and slim down your kit? But don't place too much importance on the weight of the pack itself; a relatively heavy pack can feel lighter than one of the featherweight models if it is the right fit for you. You can cut ounces and pounds elsewhere.
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. We also looked at how easy it is to customize each pack and what it's like to live with day in and day out.
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 three 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.
Fine-tuning the fit and features is important 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