Searching for the right backpack online can be tough. How will it fit? Is it large enough, light enough, have enough pockets? All of these are essential questions. In this review, we focus on the critical components in an exceptional pack. We compared the top models on the market and figured out each packs' strengths and weaknesses in the following categories: comfort, weight, suspension, ease of use, and feature set.
Each model we tested is different, with a design and feature set that caters to one specific use. Some are best for backpacking or traveling; some are ultralightweight, some carry heavy loads better than others, some have tons of pockets and others are simple. Consider the length of your typical trip, the size of your average load, and the environments you will be in to narrow in on the right pack for you.
There's a wide range of backpacking styles. By deciding which you prefer, you will narrow your choices toward backpacks that suit your needs. Consider whether you like to go short or long distance trip and whether you prefer overnight, weekend, or weeklong trips. If you're thru-hiking, you'll want to consider the weight that you'll be hauling that whole way. Each is unique to personal style and geographical parameters.
Some hikers prefer to move slow and steady and aren't focused on covering a lot of distance. This style of backpacking is leisurely and typically allows plenty of time for photography, breaks, and rest time around camp. This hiker goes out for any length of time, from an overnight trip to a thru-hike. There is less concern for lightweight gear, and this hiker can afford to carry an extra pound or two in both time and energy.
This specific style covers shorter distances per day and typically enjoys shorter length trips overall. This style of backpacking may be much more open to different backpack designs and features. Any of the women's specific backpacking packs reviewed would suit this style. It comes down to personal preferences on comfort and organization to choose the most suitable model.
Light and Fast
Light and fast style entirely opposes the slow and steady leisure hiker. These hikers are very concerned with weight and the ability to cover distances quickly. This hiker may sacrifice some luxuries in the name of carrying a lighter weight pack and less gear. Whether hiking 50 miles in 5 days or 2,000 miles in 5 months, this hiker pays most attention to cutting down on weight and optimizing suspension to remain comfortable and unrestrained for going the distance. Models like the Osprey Aura AG 65 and the Gregory Octal are suitable for the light and fast backpacker.
And then there are thru-hikers, who backpack long distances over an extended period, typically from the start to the end of a particular trail, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. Like the light and fast style, the thru-hiker is typically aware of gear weight. This style requires more preparation and planning than a leisurely trip or even a weeklong trip. Thru-hikers tend to seek simplicity and organizational capabilities with great suspension, as the packs will be worn for an extended period.
There are some exciting new developments in the realm of ultralight backpacks designed specifically for women. The Osprey Eja and the Osprey Lumina are the women's specific counterparts to two Osprey packs we have in our Ultralight Backpacking review. These packs are designed for women who have slimmed down their kit and plan to travel light in the backcountry. The Gregory Octal is also an option for those looking for a pack under three pounds.
You may find yourself seeking a fusion of one or many of these backpacking styles. By determining your style(s), you can narrow your options down by size, weight, and organizational needs.
Seansons, Climate and Environment
Most backpackers find that the summer months offer prime backpacking conditions with extended daylight hours, stable weather, and warmer temperatures. For those backpackers extending their hiking season to three or four seasons, consider the features you will need to be comfortable. Even in summer, it can snow at high altitude. Determine the range of conditions you will be backpacking in and the different needs of each season, from extra layers in the winter to less food in the summer.
Also, consider the landscape and climate when determining your backpacking style. If you are planning to hike in warmer regions, a proper airflow design is critical. If you are planning to walk in colder areas, airflow is still necessary but it's not as big of an issue to have a pack that rests directly on your back. This can also provide a degree of insulation.
The Mountain Hardwear Ozonic 60 is the best option for year-round versatility as it has a waterproof exterior that will keep your gear dry in rain and snow. In hot weather, the Aura AG is one of the best options, it's lightweight with superior breathability. The new Thule Versant 60 is also an excellent option for warm climates since its padding and suspension system are relatively minimalist.
These charts provide a general guideline for choosing pack size by type of trip and pack size, although, as you will read in The Best Women's Backpacking Backpack Review, some packs are versatile enough to suit a single overnight trip or an extended trip.
These charts do not apply to ultra-light hikers, who can get by with less capacity and weight in each case.
Sizing and Fit
The first step in sizing is to measure your torso length. Using a flexible measuring tape, measure the distance from your C7 vertebrae to your iliac crest. The C7 vertebra is the most prominent bone at the back of your neck. To locate it, tilt your head forward. Find the iliac crest by placing your hands at the top of your hips, with your fingers forward and your thumbs wrapped backward. If you were to draw a line between your thumbs, across your back, that is your iliac crest. It's also where your backpack should rest. Your torso length will determine which size you order.
Manufacturers' sizing methods vary. Some models, like the Thule Versant 60 come in a single size with an adjustable torso length. Others are sized specifically based on torso length and may be offered in extra small, small, medium, or large. Our women's specific review notes the available sizes for each pack we reviewed.
The second step in sizing is to determine your hip belt size. Your hip belt should rest below the identified iliac crest but slightly above your hip bones. This is most important for packs that offer a separate hip belt sizing option or when the hip belts are interchangeable. Some models have an expandable hip belt, like the Fit on the Fly feature of some Osprey packs, which extends the size with a simple adjustment.
If considering an Osprey pack, Osprey has a comprehensive fit guide for their backpacks.Once you select a size, it is essential to adjust it to your back while wearing it.
- Begin by loading the pack with 15 to 30 pounds.
- Put it on and loosen all of the straps to begin the size and fit assessment.
- Tighten the waist belt first; it should rest along your iliac crest. The top of your hips should align with the middle or top of the waist belt. A woman's pelvic girdle is where a majority of the weight load should be distributed, so having an accurate fit on the waist belt is very important.
- Once the waist belt is resting properly on your hips, tighten the shoulder straps. The shoulder straps will ideally follow the natural curve of your shoulder from top to bottom.
- Next, tighten the load lifter straps that connect the top of the shoulder strap to the top of the backpack. There should be two load lifter straps, one on either side. These should be tightened to a 45-degree angle, give or take.
- Lastly, tighten the sternum/chest strap. This connects the two shoulder straps across your chest to keep it in place and to add to the stability of the weight load. This should be adjusted comfortably so that it doesn't rest too high on your neck or too low across your chest. The sternum straps should pull the shoulder straps inward to relieve any chaffing on your inner arms. They should also shift the overall pack weight into your hips by reducing shoulder pressure.
Once you've nailed the adjustments, you can determine whether a pack is a good fit. It should be comfortable under a load, with very little pressure on the shoulders and most of the weight on your hips. It should be well padded with no chafing on the shoulders and hips, the length should match your torso well, and it should fit comfortably with regards to the waist belt, shoulder straps, load lifters, and sternum/chest strap.
Sizing a pack can be simple, although there are many variables to consider. If it's your first pack, a professional fit could go along way to teach you what to watch for and to assure the pack's comfort and functionality. Outdoor retailers are an excellent resource to assist you in sizing and fitting.
Women's Specific Features
While there are many options for backpacking packs, most women will prefer a women's specific design. The key differences between a men's model, a unisex model, and a women's model are the fit.
Most packs come in a range of sizes, colors, and features, but fitting is specific to the intended gender. Women's particular models are designed with shorter torso lengths, narrower shoulder widths, and waist belts designed for women's hips. Every single body is different, and these specific features are not intended to suit all women. Some women may find that a men's model fits better, or that a unisex version is more comfortable.
Our females testers find that women's specific packs work well for them. The curved shoulder straps are adequately proportioned so that they don't dig into your neck or inner arms. The waist belts accommodate wider hips so that the backpack rests comfortably. The benefit of buying a women's specific model is a fit that is tailored to your anatomy.
As discussed throughout our review, comfort is key! When setting out on a 2, 5, or 10+ day adventure in the backcountry, it is essential to find support under a loaded backpack. By choosing a women's specific version, you will find a size and fit that lends to the comfortable enjoyment of backpacking.
Suspension Designs and Support
A backpack's suspension relates directly to its fit and comfort. Most backpacks have internal frames, which utilize a lightweight metal such as alloy within the fabric. There are three unique suspension designs in our women's backpack review.
The first is a flexible mesh back panel that moves with the body. It offers incredible ventilation and repositions the weight of the backpack so that pressure is alleviated from the back.
The second, and most common, is a foam padded back frame. This suspension design is very comfortable but tends to offer less ventilation. Many models have arched the foam to oppose the natural curve of the back, which then allows airflow. This design typically contacts the back at the shoulder blades and the lower back, while many designs make contact with most or all of the hiker's back.
The third is a hinging system that moves with the hips while stabilizing the shoulder straps. This technical design is unique and is built to move with you. The Arc'teryx Bora AR 61 and Gregory Deva both have hinging systems. The Deva is a more affordable option with a similar suspension.
The preference for one suspension design over another depends on fit and comfort, as well as geographical use. If you intend to use a pack in a warmer climate, a mesh back panel is best for ventilation. However, if you will be wearing it in colder climates, the foam padding may be preferred for added warmth while still offering breathability, and if you are seeking a stabilized, moving system, the hinging suspension designs are technical and unique.
Your pack should be supportive of your weight load. The majority of weight should rest on your hips, and a comfortable, correctly fitting waist belt is essential. The padding should be sufficient to avoid chaffing and allow for a pleasant trek. There is a range of waist belt designs from interchangeable to extendable to heat moldable, and comfort varies between each model.
An interchangeable design may be offered to assure proper fit. Typically waist belts are adjustable enough that you will not have to change out the waist belt, but if you have an unusually narrow or wide waist, an interchangeable waist belt may be best.
An extendable waist belt, like the 'Fit on the Fly' system, found on two of the Osprey models in our review, offers the ability to widen a waist belt using an easy to use Velcro system. This is an excellent feature for those who experience or plan to change body size, like to add layers, or who prefer the flexibility of adjustment.
The heat moldable waist belts are specific to Osprey and can be molded by an Osprey oven to customize the shape of the padding. This offers a specified fit that no other design can provide, although it cannot be self-adjusted.
Other Features and Details
Other features might not be as critical to the functionality of a backpack but they can be conveniences or luxuries for more enjoyment.
Pockets vary greatly. Some models have many pockets for organizing gear; others offer only a single compartment. Some pockets are enclosed with a zipper, and some pockets are made of stretch fabric that does not close. Take a moment to think about your needs and wants when it comes to pockets. Also, consider stuff sacks as a suitable option for organizing gear.
Nowadays, it is rare to find a backpacking pack without a hydration system. Some packs, like the Osprey Ariel 65 come with their hydration system already incorporated into the design of the pack. If you prefer to carry your water with a bladder system, consider the options with a particular backpack. Some offer enclosed pockets (interior or exterior) and often are accompanied by a straw port. Some offer large side pockets suitable for water bottles but not for storing a bladder, and some offer a front pocket that is easily accessible while hiking.
If you hike with trekking poles, plan to use it for climbing trips, or like to attach gear to the exterior of the backpack, consider seeking gear loops that are complementary to your needs. Some manufacturers also offer components that can be attached aftermarket.
Planning to hike in humid or rainy weather? Consider a rain cover that can be purchased separately. These cover your pack entirely so all of your gear remains dry in even the wettest conditions. Nearly all the packs in this review come with a rain fly, except for the Mountain Hardwear Ozonic, which is waterproof already. The Osprey Ariel Pro is another model designed for wet conditions. Though it lacks the roll-top closure of the Ozonic, the Ariel Pro is made of durable, water-resistant material.