Best Budget Backpacking Pack of 2020
Best Men's Budget Backpacking Pack
Osprey Volt 60
The Osprey Volt 60 takes our pick for the best men's budget backpack thanks to its effective design and a high degree of adjustability. It has all the necessary features we need in a pack, plus just enough extra to put it ahead of the rest of the packs in this category. It's a true one-size-fits-all pack, with an easily adjustable frame plus an adjustable waist belt that was particularly helpful. The suspension system is comfortable, and the straps are well padded. It is the most expensive pack in this review, but its price is still much lower than some more sophisticated packs such as the Granite Gear Blaze 60 or the Osprey Atmos AG 65.
One of the biggest downsides of the pack is that it's heavier than we would like. Considering the simple design, 4.5 pounds is a lot. It's not a huge issue, but its something to note for those that like to count ounces. Another issue was that the front-facing water bottle pockets were poorly executed, and a Nalgene-sized bottle can dig into your sides and arms a bit while hiking. Aside from these issues, this is a stellar pack for the price.
Read Review: Osprey Volt 60
Best Women's Budget Backpacking Pack
Osprey Viva 50
The Osprey Viva 50, the women's version of the Volt 60, was our favorite women's specific budget pack that we tested. With a very similar design to the Volt, this pack was our choice for all the same reasons. It's simple but very well-designed, comfortable, and can fit just about any sized hiker.
Our biggest issue with the pack is simply the size. It's not a problem for an overnight or maybe a weekend trip, but 50 liters was too small for us to fit enough gear for anything much longer. Additionally, our testers noticed the same problem that the Volt had with the water bottles causing discomfort. We think this is one of the few problems with the pack though because there's not much else to dislike. If the size of the pack fits your needs, this is a great women's specific option for the budget-friendly backpacker.
Read Review: Osprey Viva 50
Best Lightweight Pack for Those on a Budget
REI Co-op Flash 55
REI products have varied in quality in years past. Sometimes they produce products that hit the nail on the head and perform well for a lower price point when compared to other name brands, but sometimes we are left wondering what the designers were thinking. The REI Flash 55 nails it as an affordable lightweight option. Weighing in at only 2lb 10oz, this super-light pack caries a medium weight load surprisingly well. The Flash uses the Packmod system, a feature that allows you to customize the pockets and straps by moving or even re-moving them to suit your needs. One of the most useable features of any pack is the rear stash pocket, and the Flash 55 adds two more similar pockets between the back stash pocket and the water bottle pockets, nearly doubling the usable exterior pocket space. The water bottle pockets were our favorite in the whole group and allowed the bottles to be out of the way of your swinging elbows, but still super easy to access on the go with one hand.
Any pack that is made to be super light, as this one is, will suffer in the durability department. In our testing, we rubbed up against a sandstone wall and quickly wore a few holes in the ripstop. Another drawback of packs that weighs so little is that they will generally not carry heavy loads very well, and this is no exception, as it will only comfortably carry up to 30 pounds before it feels overloaded. However, if REI had built this pack for heavier loads, the suspension would have to weigh more as well, changing the nature of the pack all-together.
Read review: REI Flash 55
Best Bargain Basement Backpack
Teton Sports Scout 3400
The Teton Sports Scout 3400 is our pick for a truly cheap backpacking pack. Unlike every other pack in this review, we had never heard of the manufacturer before we began our research. At such a low price, we were curious about what this pack had to offer. It certainly didn't impress compared to the other packs we reviewed, but the price is just about impossible to beat. We're awarding it with the top pick for a Bargain Basement Backpack because it's less than half the price of the second cheapest pack, and it served our needs well enough to give it a decent value.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this pack. If you want a functional backpacking pack at the lowest cost, then this is for you. However, with that lower price comes many issues that we did not like. It's not particularly comfortable, the materials seem and feel low-quality, and its cheap construction makes it difficult to pack. It works for overnight trips, and if that's what you care about more than comfort and quality, then the price of this pack might mean you should give it a closer look.
Read review: Teton Sports Scout 3400
Best Travel and Backpacking Pack
REI Co-op Ruckpack 65
If you love to travel and backpack, here's a great way to save some money: combine your packs! The REI Co-op Ruckpack 65 is designed with travel in mind, but can satisfy your needs on short backpacking trips too. Different than the usual design of a backpacking pack, the Ruckpack offers superb gear accessibility with a single zipper opening that allows the entire back panel to open up. The pack contains both a rain cover and a built-in flap that can zip over the backpacking straps, essentially converting the pack into a duffel bag with handles built into each side and the top. The pack even comes with a removable 15-liter day-pack that is great for using for shorter trips out of the hostel for the day.
While the pack is suitable for shorter backpacking trips, the plethora of travel features does come at the expense of backpacking capability. Most notably, the pack is quite heavy, the heaviest in the review. At almost five pounds for a 65-liter pack, the weight to size ratio is well below average. Although the pack allows great access to gear, the zipper opening does make the backpack harder to pack efficiently and tightly. If you plan on using a pack mostly for backpacking, this is not the one for you. But if you enjoy traveling and want a pack that can act like a suitcase as well as an overnight bag on the trail, we highly recommend giving this option a closer look.
Read review REI Co-op Ruckpack 65
Why You Should Trust Us
This review was conducted and written by Ben Skach, an avid explorer, outdoor trip leader, and self-described gear junkie. He has spent years backpacking and mountain climbing all over the country; he has led outdoor trips for students in New England and Colorado and has trekked hundreds of miles through the Himalaya in Nepal. Throughout his experiences, he has used a variety of backpacks, which has developed his knowledge of brands, designs, and features that can improve a backpacking pack. While leading trips in Colorado, he was responsible for teaching each student how to pack and adjust a pack for maximum comfort and efficiency, so he understands the importance of a pack that is easy to load and adjust.
When selecting the packs to include in our research, price and capacity are two of the main considerations. We researched over fifty different packs that fit our criteria, from which these seven were selected for the testing process. Each model has been packed and re-packed with different sets of gear countless times to evaluate the features and design. After deciding how to best pack them, we brought each backpack on overnight trips with varying weights to evaluate comfort and ease of use in real-world backcountry use.
Analysis and Test Results
We use several metrics to rate each of these packs on their performance. Depending on your intent and priorities, different packs might fit your needs better than others. We evaluated each pack based on four criteria: comfort and suspension, features and ease of use, weight, and adjustability. We weighted the metrics based on their importance. Comfort and suspension, we decided is the most important factor, and thus weighted the highest. Below that in importance come Features and Weight, and then adjustability just behind. This reflects the way each metric affects the overall quality of the pack. Below, we delve into each metric to discuss its importance and relevant factors that we noticed in these packs.
Related: Buying Advice for Budget Backpacks
From the inception of this review, we have had value in mind. We only considered packs that offered good value at a low price, but even within this category, there are different ranges of value. Typically, a higher price tag means better quality, more features, and a more nuanced design. Since this review only takes into account the less expensive packs, you won't find the most high-tech suspension system. Instead, these packs offer great value because they're simple, effective, and reasonably priced. You could take any of these packs overnight on the trail without issue, so what you're paying more or less for is the quality and purpose the bag is built for.
The Osprey Volt 60 and Osprey Viva 50 were our picks for best men's and women's budget backpacks, respectively. These packs took the two highest overall ratings but also had the highest price tags in this review. The Gregory Stout 65 costs a little bit less and took second place for men's packs. The Teton Sports Scout 3400 scored far lower than any other packs, but it also costs far less. It is still a valuable option, as long as low cost is your top priority. The REI Co-op Ruckpack 65 appears to have low value, but it does combine two packs into one, so its value can actually be quite high if that's what you're looking for. The REI Flash 55 might not carry heavy loads very well or have a large capacity, but the super low weight and amazing pocket and feature configuration set this pack apart from the rest if you prefer a well organized, borderline Ultralight pack.
Suspension and Comfort
An uncomfortable pack is quite literally a pain in the neck, back, and shoulders, and can easily ruin your hopes of an enjoyable backcountry outing. Because of its importance we've weighted this as the highest metric in our scoring matrix. Several factors affected our opinions on the comfort of each pack. First, we evaluated how well the suspension systems distribute weight and the comfort of the pack against our backs. We also considered the shape and comfort of the shoulder straps and the fit of the waist belt. Third, we rated how well the padding and materials of the pack added to its comfort.
Each pack has an internal aluminum frame, but no two are alike, and each one rides differently on the hips and torso. This metric is significant because it affects if there are pressure points and ensures that the weight of the pack is transferred to your hips. To test this, we loaded each pack with various weights, ranging from 20 to 45 pounds, to determine if the suspension could comfortably handle the load for trips of various lengths. Aside from the suspension, the two main attachment points played a large role in the comfort of each pack. The shoulder strap and waist belt designs affect how the weight of the pack actually rests on your body, so it was important to take note of how each of these performed. Lastly, the amount and type of padding on the pack as well as how comfortable the materials are against your skin affected our rankings.
The Osprey Volt 60 and the Women's version, the Osprey Viva 50 were the most comfortable for carrying over 30 pounds. They share the same design, with a straightforward but effective suspension system and a comfortable waist belt. They can easily carry enough gear for multi-night trips. While the Osprey Rook 65 features a more advanced suspension system, we found its comfort to be underwhelming with heavier loads. While it felt great with gear for a single overnight, the comfort didn't hold up with much extra weight. The REI Co-op Ruckpack 65 was less comfortable than most of the designated backpacking packs, but performed well when carrying very heavy loads. For lighter loads of 30 pounds or less, it was no question, the REI Flash 55 was by far the most comfortable. The Teton Sports Scout 3400, while it has its place, was the least comfortable of all packs that we tested, with a poor suspension system, bulky straps, and rough materials that can be uncomfortable against your skin.
Features and Ease of Use
Here we evaluate how well designed the structure of the pack is. Is it easy to pack? Is your gear accessible? Does it have extra loops for your gear? Just some of the questions we ask when assessing a pack. Every make and model has something that makes it unique. One of the main aspects we look for is how efficiently we can pack and unpack our gear. If pockets are easy to access and the design is well thought out, it can significantly help a pack's rating on this metric. Sometimes, unique features can make our lives as backpackers easier, so we always keep an eye out for anything to help improve a pack.
The first thing we looked at was the pocket setup. Many of the packs in this review feature some variation on the main pouch, a lid, a rear pocket, and water bottle pockets. It's a rather basic design without additional pockets, but this simple setup still works perfectly well. The Osprey Volt 60, Osprey Viva 50, and Gregory Stout 65 are all very similar in this regard. The Osprey Rook 65 takes an even simpler approach, which helped its price but hurt its performance. It foregoes the stretchy rear pocket for a more streamlined look. This means that the water bottle pockets and the top lid are the only places to store gear aside from the main body. The lid is also fixed to the bag, meaning it can't be removed. This was also the case in the Teton Sports Scout 3400, and we found that both of these lids were harder to pack than the removable ones.
We graded the Viva 50 lower than the Volt 60, simply because of its smaller size. A large sleeping bag barely fits in the lower compartment of the pack, and we had a lot of trouble fitting a bear can in as well. It's still a fine option for short trips that require less gear, but we had to strap some gear onto the outside if we wanted to carry more.
We also looked for other features that each pack contains. The Osprey Rook 65 was the only pack that does not feature ice axe loops; these are a nice addition, but not a problem if you don't anticipate winter travel. The Osprey packs all have water bottle pockets that open toward the front and top. This is handy because you can access the bottles yourself, although they are a bit tricky to use in the Volt and Viva. We really liked the u-shaped zipper on the lid of the Gregory Stout 65, which allowed the entire top of the lid to open. This was great for finding small items easily, although you have to be careful that things don't fall out. All of the packs except for the Teton Sports Scout 3400 have one small pocket on either side of the waist belt, which are always handy for carrying anything from a Clif bar to a compass to microspikes.
The REI Flash 55 is loaded with great modular features REI refers to as the Pacmod system. Many of the features like the hip belt pockets, top-lid, and ice axe loops can be moved, adjusted, or eliminated completely to configure the pack the way that best works for your specific needs or trip.
The REI Co-op Ruckpack 65 differed from all of the other packs in this review in terms of its feature set. Designed to be a crossover between travel and backpacking pack, it converts into a duffel bag, has handles on all sides, and the entire back zips open to allow easy access. That is all in addition to the typical features that you can expect in a backpacking bag. We liked all of the features that it offers, but if you plan don't plan on using it for both of its intended purposes, you would be better off with a more specialized pack for either backpacking or travel.
Weight is a pretty straightforward metric to assess. In general, a heavier pack just means more pounds to carry on your back, but also tends to more comfortably carry heavy loads as well. Lighter packs tend to sag and perform poorly when loaded down.
The REI Flash 55 being the lightest in the group was super comfortable for carrying 30 pounds or less but it can't handle heavier loads. The new model of the Osprey Viva 50 weighs 4.38 pounds, more than the previous model and most women's packs that we've tested. The heaviest pack in the review is the REI co-op Ruckpack 65, which weighs almost five pounds. This hurt its performance for backpacking, but it's understandable considering all of the travel features that it packs in.
When rating adjustability, we look at the range of users that a pack can fit. Most packs allow the suspension to be adjusted for different torso lengths, and some packs are designed for the straps and hip belts to be more easily adjustable to different body types.
Most of the packs in this review come in just one size to fit all users. Because of this, they are highly adjustable (making them a particularly good option for young hikers who can increase the pack size as they grow). Even for fully grown backpackers, an easily adjustable pack means you can dial down the fit so it's perfect for you. The one-size-fits-all packs in this review are the Osprey Volt 60, Gregory Stout 65, Osprey Rook 65, Teton Sports Scout 3400, and Osprey Viva 50. All of these feature a Velcro system that allows micro-adjustments to any size, except for the Osprey rook 65, which has preset sizes that must be used. We found this to be adequate, but prefer systems that allow more precise adjustment.
The straps of each pack also factor into the adjustability. Most of the packs had very easy to adjust waist, shoulder, and sternum straps. The main exception was the Teton Sports Scout 3400. We found the straps to be stiff and not feed through the buckles well. While they were adjustable enough to work, it took a bit of work to get things sized right. The most notable issue was that it was quite difficult to tighten the waist belt once it was buckled, making it harder than we would like to ensure the pack's weight rests on your hips.
Buying a pack is one of the more important steps in gearing up for backpacking. These budget backpacks are all good options if they fit your needs, but it might not be a good idea to rush to any decisions just to save a hundred bucks. A good backpack can last decades if you treat it well, so make sure you're picking out the right one for you. Evaluate your planned activities and decide if the pack serves your purposes. If you decide that saving money is more important than additional pockets or better suspension, then any of these packs can be the right choice. We've tested everything to give you a better idea of what each pack is like, but in the end, the pack is there to serve you. Make sure to pick one with the right design for your needs.
— Ben Skach