Searching for the right backpack online can be tough. How will it fit? Will it be large enough, light enough, have enough pockets? All of these are important questions, and it can be hard to figure out which pack is best suited for your specific needs. In this review, we have focused in on what we found to be the most essential components of an exceptional pack. We compared the top models on the market and figured out each packs' strengths and weaknesses in to following categories: comfort, weight, suspension, ease of use, and feature set.
Remember that some of these decisions and proclamations we have made are subjective, so it is important to have your preferences as you read through this review. It is also important to try the pack on and have it sized professionally, in person, to guarantee a proper fit. This is especially important when you consider the amount of money some of these packs cost — it is an investment. 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 ultralight weight, some carry heavy loads better than others, and some have tons of pockets while others are simple. Consider the length of your typical trip, the size of your load, and the environments you will be using the pack in to narrow in on the right pack for you.
There is a diverse range of backpacking styles, and by deciding what style you prefer, you will narrow your choices toward backpacks that specifically suit your needs. Among the styles of backpacking are short distance or long distance, high mileage trips, overnight, weekend, or weeklong trips, and thru-hiking. Each is unique to personal style and geographical parameters.
Some hikers prefer to spend their time moving slow and steady, not focused on covering a lot of distance. This style of backpacking is leisurely and typically allows plenty of time for photographing, breaks while hiking, and time to rest 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 in both time and energy to carry an extra pound or two.
While all backpacking can be considered leisurely, 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 comfortable style (relative to pack load weight). It comes down to personal preferences on comfort and organization to choose the most suitable pack.
Light and Fast
Light and fast is another style of backpacking, and it entirely opposes the slow and steady leisure hiker. This style is very concerned with weight and the ability to cover distances either over a short or long time frame. 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 2000 miles in 5 months, this hiker pays most attention to weight and suspension to remain comfortable and unrestrained for going the distance. Models like the Osprey Aura AG 65 and The North Face Banchee are suitable options for the light and fast backpacker.
And then there are thru-hikers, who backpack over long distances over an extended period, typically from the start to end of a particular trail, such as 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. In regards to the women's specific backpacking pack review, the Lowe Alpine Manaslu, or the Osprey Aura AG 65 are worthy thru-hiker options, both offering distinctly different features. The Aura AG is light in weight and versatile under a light to heavy pack weight while the Ariel is slightly heavier in weight and ideal for carrying more gear, with more organization.
Lastly, is the ultra-light style of backpacking. This style may venture out for weekend trips, weeklong trips, or month-long trips. For the ultra-light hiker, weight is the number one concern. These hikers have been known to cut off the handle of a toothbrush, or not bring one at all, in the name of lightweight. This style will carry only the minimal essentials and will therefore only require a smaller carrying capacity. They will prioritize a lighter pack with fewer features. Models like The North Face Banchee are the closest thing to an ultralight pack in this review.
The length of time you intend to be camping dramatically influences your needs in a backpack. If you are planning to head out mainly on weekend trips, you will find yourself pleased with a pack in the 45-55 liter range. If you are traveling with children, you will likely prefer a more substantial model, in the 60-75 liter range. And if you enjoy luxuries of gear such as spices, a book, and extra clothing, you'd be well suited with a more extensive pack, as well. Some larger models that we reviewed include the Gregory Deva 60 and the Lowe Alpine Manaslu.
These charts provide a general guideline for choosing the 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 and an extended trip. These charts do not apply to ultra-light hikers, who can get by with less capacity and weight in each case.
Most backpackers find the summer months to offer prime conditions with more 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 in any conditions of those seasons. 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.
The landscape and climate are also things to consider when determining your backpacking style. If you are planning to hike in warmer regions, a proper airflow design will be critical. If you are planning to hike in cooler areas, airflow should still be considered, although it will be suitable to have a pack that rests more on your back- this can provide a degree of insulation, too. 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 with superior breathability and light weight. The new Thule Versant 60 is also an excellent option for warm climates since its padding and suspension system are relatively minimalist.
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.
Sizing and Fit
The first step in sizing is to measure your torso length. This is not your height. Using a flexible/soft 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, tilt your head forward. The iliac crest can be found 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, this is your iliac crest, where the backpack should rest. The length of your torso will determine the size. Each manufacturer will vary in sizing. Some models, like the Thule Versant 60 come in a single size and are adjustable in torso length. Others are sized specifically for torso length and may be offered in extra small, small, medium, and/or large. Packs that provide this range in sizing options are the REI Co-op Traverse 65 or the Osprey Aura AG 65. Our women's specific review has noted the available sizes for each pack we reviewed.
The second step in sizing is to determine your hip belt size. Below the identified iliac crest but slightly above your hip bones is where your hip belt should rest. This is most important with 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 guide specific to their backpacks.
Once a size has been selected, it is essential to fit it on your back physically. Begin by loading the pack with weight- we recommend 15-30 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 measure at the middle or top of the waist belt. A woman's pelvic girdle is where a majority of the weight load is to 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.
When you get on the trail, keep in mind that the load lifters should regularly be adjusted to account for terrain changes, hiking uphill or downhill, and as pack content weight changes. The load lifter straps move the backpack's bulk closer to your body to create stability or move the load away from your body to shift the weight load. 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 enough to relieve any chaffing on your inner arms and should also shift the overall pack weight slightly more into your hips by reducing shoulder pressure.
Once all of these sizing aspects are considered, you can determine whether a pack is a good fit. It should be comfortable under a weight load with little pressure on the shoulders and most of the weight bearing on your hips. It should be well padded with no chafing on the shoulders and hips and tightened thoroughly and adequately on the torso length, waist belt, shoulder straps, load lifters, and sternum/chest strap.
Sizing a pack can be simple although there are many variations and a professional fit is recommended to assure 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 all packs come in a range of sizes, colors, and features, but fitting is specific to the intended gender. Women's particular models tend to be designed with shorter torso lengths, narrower shoulder widths, and specially designed waist belts that are mindful of women's hips. Every single body is different, and these specific design features are not intended to necessarily suit all women. Some women may find that a men's model fits better or that a unisex version is more comfortable.
We recommend a women's specific backpacking pack for its sizing and fit that is designed for a woman's body. The curve of the shoulder straps are adequately proportioned so that the straps do not dig into your neck or inner arms; the waist belts are considerate of women's hip shape so that the backpack rests appropriately on your hips in comfort. The benefit to buying a women's specific model is a fit that is tailored to your anatomy. (And, it's hard not to appreciate feminine details in color and style as well!)
As discussed throughout our review of women's specific backpacking packs, comfort is key! When setting out on a 2, 5, or 10+ day adventure in the backcountry, it is essential to find comfort 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
Suspension of a backpacking pack relates directly to fit and comfort. Most backpacks are internal framed, which utilize a lightweight metal such as alloy, to frame the backpack. An internal frame is enclosed within the fabric. There are three unique suspension details found in our review for women's specific models. The first is a mesh back panel that is flexible against the body's movement, 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 designs have arched the foam to oppose the natural curve of the back, which then allows for 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.
And third is a hinging system that moves with the hips and stabilizes the shoulder straps. This technical design is unique and offers synchronization between the backpack and the user. The Arc'teryx Bora AR 61 has the most obvious hinging system.
Each suspension design is slightly different in its actual application. The preference for a specific suspension depends on fit and comfort, as well as geographical use. If you intend to use a pack in a warmer climate, the 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 will vary 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 a Velcro system that is easy to use. This is an excellent feature for those who experience or plan to experience changes in 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. The waist belt design is particular to personal preference for comfort but lends to the supportive capabilities of your backpack.
Other Features and Small Details
Once you have determined your backpacking style and have correctly sized and fitted a pack, you can give attention to the small details. These features do not always affect the functionality of a backpack but can be conveniences or luxuries for more enjoyment.
These 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 enclose. Determine 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 some degree of hydration system compatibility. 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 specific uses. Some manufacturers also offer components that can be attached aftermarket (bought separately).
Planning to hike in humid or rainy weather? Consider a rain cover that can be purchased separately. These cover your pack entirely so that all of your gear remains dry in 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.