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After researching over 50 of the best budget backpacking backpacks to get you on the trail without breaking the bank, we bought 9 of our favorites to test in a head-to-head competition, searching for the perfect option for every situation. And we didn't go easy on them. We climbed the same rugged mountain peaks and bushwacked through the same lush tropical vegetation where we test all of our other higher-priced backpacks. Luckily for everybody, these packs are darn good and ready to accompany your adventures for a reasonable price. We hope this review helps you find the right fit for your needs and budget.
The Kelty Coyote 65 earns it our top spot in the budget backpacking backpacks review. It performs just as well as packs that cost twice as much and can comfortably carry heavy loads between 45 and 50 pounds. Using dense foam on the shoulder and hip belt, the pack stays supportive all day under a full load. It also features a velcro panel for easy torso height adjustment, which helps get the perfect fit for even more comfort. One of our testers let out an audible "ahhh" when switching back to this pack. Its suspension is really that impressive. We also appreciated the upper side wing pockets on this pack. These extra pockets are like having two extra top lids, or your own personal assistant to keep you organized. These pockets are big enough for a Nalgene water bottle during extra-long water carries, but they're really the perfect spot for those items you need to keep separate--toiletries, first aid, headlamp, or battery bank. The wing pockets are detached on the top and bottom, allowing items like fly rods or tent poles to slide through and store securely.
As is the trend, a pack that handles heavy loads is usually heavy itself, and this pack is definitely pretty heavy. It weighs 4.3 pounds, which is almost twice as much as some ultralight backpacks. While weight is a downside, its ability to carry larger loads makes this fact minimal in our eyes. Another thing to note is that the side zipper pockets get in the way of tall water bottles when stored in the side stretch pockets. To access the bottle, you need to tilt it forward, which makes it brush against your side. We also did not like that the lid's zipper is located on the side, making the pocket a very narrow, deep space that made gear hard to locate. Kelty claims the reasoning for this is to provide easier access by a hiking partner, but it was hard to use in this manner, too.
The REI Flash 55 nails it as an affordable and lightweight backpacking pack. Weighing in at only 2.6 pounds, this super-light pack carries a medium weight load surprisingly well. The Flash uses the Packmod system, a feature that allows you to customize the pockets and straps by repositioning or even removing them to suit your needs. One of the most useable features of any pack is the rear stash pocket. The Flash 55 adds two more similar pockets between the back stash pocket and the water bottle pockets to nearly double the usable exterior pocket space. The water bottle pockets were also our favorite of any backpacking pack we tested. They kept the bottles out of the way from swinging elbows but were still super easy to access on the go with one hand.
Any super light pack will suffer in the durability department. We rubbed against a sandstone wall in our testing and quickly wore a few holes in the pack's ripstop fabric. However, we've also seen this pack last for entire thru-hikes, so as long as you watch out for sandpaper textured walls this pack should last plenty long. Another drawback of packs that weigh so little is that they generally do not carry heavy loads very well, and this model is no exception. We believe it will only comfortably carry up to 30-35 pounds before it feels overloaded. However, if REI had built this pack for heavier loads they would be changing the nature of this pack altogether. The suspension system would need to weigh more, then it wouldn't be the Flash.
At such a low price point our expectations were minimal. And while it didn't blow us away, it performed better than other similarly-priced packs. At a price of less than half of some other packs in the review, this is a good pack to find out if backpacking is an activity you would enjoy. Think of this pack as a sampler to help you feel out features that you like and dislike.
While it does fill the role of a true budget backpacking backpack, there are a few things to note. During testing, we found the pack to be slightly lacking in the comfort department. This lead to some sore shoulders when we loaded up the pack. We also found the pack felt bulky since the buckles and padding are much larger than other packs. At over 4 pounds, this pack is also on the heavier side. But, it does feel very durable and can carry a load fairly well. We recommend this pack for someone looking for value over perfection. This pack would make a good first pack for an overnight trip.
If you're looking to lighten your base weight but not your wallet, we think you'll appreciate the Mountainsmith Scream 55. This pack's minimalist design will have you on the trail before sunrise, and its reasonable number of pockets will ensure you don't misplace your gear in a labyrinth of pockets. Due to its roll-top opening, it's easy to shove all your gear into and quickly roll down to be on your way in no time. The roll-top closure also keeps your pack tightly compressed, so no matter how much or little you're carrying, the pack will be full. Our testers liked the internal frame on this pack. It's comfortable in a no frills kind of way. We also found this pack to be rather water-resistant, so you don't have to worry about a drizzle here and there. We still recommend a pack cover or compactor bag if storms roll in, thought. If you are new to the roll-top ultralight style backpack, this pack is great because its large U-shaped zipper allows access to all of your equipment. The unique double-barrel pockets in the front of the pack are large enough to fit a two-pound tent, minus the poles. But, we prefer to store the small essential items like toilet paper, headlamp, or sunscreen in these pockets. It can carry loads around 35 pounds well. But in the spirit of the pack, it's happier carrying less.
Due to the minimalist design, a lot of the positive aspects of this pack can be negative if ultralight isn't your style. There is no traditional stretch mesh pocket for quick storage and no lid, which means less organization or quick access to items. We also thought the shoulder straps could have been more padded. Lastly, this pack only comes in one size with no adjustment options on the pack, so it either fits or it doesn't.
This review was conducted and written by Sam Schild, Ben Skach, and Bennett Fisher. Sam is a backpacker, trail runner, and mountain biker based in Colorado. He has backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Colorado Trail 3 times along with countless shorter backpacking trips. On top of the nearly 10,0000 miles logged while backpacking, he has bikepacked more miles than he can begin to count in the American Southwest and beyond. With all this carrying gear on his back and his bike, Sam is quite the expert on backpacks.
Ben is 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 trekked hundreds of miles through the Himalayas in Nepal. Throughout his experiences, he has used various backpacks, which has developed his knowledge of brands, designs, and features that are important to budget backpacking packs. While leading trips in Colorado, he was responsible for teaching each student how to pack and adjust a backpack for maximum comfort and efficiency. He understands the significance of designs that are easy to load and adjust.
Also an avid backpacker, Bennett has over a year and 7,000 miles logged on America's long trails, including Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes. Along the way, he has learned what constitutes a great backpack. He honed his knowledge at a gear shop, where he helped equip all kinds of people for their own journeys. After his stint in college for product design, he further learned what makes a great product; it's all about the user experience, and he uses this knowledge in every aspect of his testing.
When selecting the budget backpacking packs to include in this review, price and capacity were two primary considerations. We researched over fifty different packs that matched our criteria, from which we chose nine for the hands-on testing process. Each model has been packed and re-packed with different gear sets countless times to evaluate their features and design. After deciding how to best fill them, we brought each backpack on overnight trips with varying weights to assess comfort and ease of use in real-world backcountry use.
Analysis and Test Results
We used several metrics to rate each of these budget backpacking packs on their performance. Depending on your intentions and priorities, different packs will 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 as well. We believe that comfort and suspension is the most crucial factor, and thus weighted it the highest. Below that in importance come features and weight, followed closely behind by adjustability. This reflects the way each metric influences the overall quality of a pack. Below, we delve into each metric to discuss its importance and relevant factors that we noticed in these packs.
From the inception of this review, we tried to keep value in mind. We only considered packs that offered good value at a low price, but there are still different ranges of value within this category. Typically, a higher price tag means better quality, more features, and a more nuanced design. Since this review only includes less expensive packs, you won't find the most high-tech suspension systems. 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 for is the quality and purpose the bag is built for.
All of the packs above are a great value because this is the budget review, but the Kelty Coyote 65 comes in at such a great price and comfort it earned our highest honor. Its ability to carry heavy loads and its unique storage options had us hooked. The REI Flash 55 is another pack of outstanding value because of its ultralight weight and modular design.
Suspension and Comfort
An uncomfortable pack is quite literally a pain in the neck — and back, and shoulders. It can easily ruin your hopes of an enjoyable backcountry outing. Because of this, we weighted Suspension and Comfort 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 distributed weight and the pack's comfort 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. Every pack rides differently on the hips and torso, some more comfortably than others. This metric is significant because if a pack creates pressure points it will be very uncomfortable when you load it up. And a pack that transfers the weight to your hips is going to be much more comfortable than all that weight resting on your shoulders. 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 different lengths. Aside from the suspension, the shoulder strap and waist belt designs affect how the pack's weight rests on your body. This is also an essential characteristic of a well-performing pack. Lastly, the amount and type of padding on the pack and how comfortable the materials feel against the skin affected our rankings.
The Kelty Coyote 65 had the smoothest ride and was the only pack in the review that could comfortably carry more than 35 pounds. In addition to the shoulder strap load lifters, it also features hip belt load lifters that adjust how much the hip belt can pivot. This lets you dial in how much support is needed for each trip. We found the Mountainsmith Scream 55 also does a good job of staying comfortable in the mid-30-pound range. The Gregory Stout 60 had all the right ingredients since it is highly adjustable. However, the crossbar against the back becomes too uncomfortable when the pack is weighed down. This made us not want to overstuff this pack.
Weight is a pretty straightforward metric to assess. In general, a heavier pack means more pounds to carry on your back. Heavier packs, however, also tend to be more comfortable carrying heavy loads. Lighter packs, in contrast, can sometimes sag and perform poorly when loaded down.
The REI Flash 55 was the lightest in the group. It was super comfortable carrying 30 pounds or less but it struggled with heavier loads. For a very affordable lightweight option, take a look at the Wasing 55L. This pack weighs just a few ounces more but comes at a fraction of the cost. The Kelty Coyote 65 was the heaviest pack we tested but can comfortably carry the most weight.
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? These are 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 in 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 Gregory Stout 60 and Kelty Coyote 65 are both very similar in this regard. The Osprey Rook 65 takes a more straightforward approach that helps its price but hurts its performance. It foregoes a 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 isn't removable. This was also the case with the Teton Sports Scout 3400, and we found that both of these lids were harder to pack than the removable ones. The Scream 55 traded a stretch mesh pocket for two expanding zipper pockets that we found especially handy due to the absence of a top lid.
We also looked at the other features found on each pack. The Osprey Rook 65 was the only pack that didn't have ice axe loops — these are a nice addition, but not a problem if you don't anticipate snow travel. We really liked the u-shaped zipper of the Mountainsmith Scream 55 that allowed access to all of our gear at one time without having to unroll the top opening. The Kelty Coyote 65 is equipped with a unique and perfect stretch hip belt pocket to keep a phone handy for snapping photos of wildlife or checking your GPS maps.
The REI Flash 55 is loaded with great modular features, which REI refers to as the Pacmod system, to customize the pack to your style and needs. Many of these features — like the hip belt pockets, top-lid, and ice axe loops — can be moved, adjusted, or eliminated altogether to configure the pack the way that best works for your specific needs or trip. It's really impressive how much is removable. You could strip even more weight off of this already lightweight option if you wanted to.
Adjustability and Fit
When rating adjustability, we looked 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 except the Flash 55 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 might change their pack size as they grow). Even for fully grown backpackers, an easily adjustable pack means you can dial in the fit. This way you can get a pack that fits perfectly for you. The one-size-fits-all packs in this review are the Gregory Stout 60, Kelty Coyote 65, Osprey Rook 65, Teton Sports Scout 3400, and REI Trailbreaker 60. These feature a Velcro system that allows micro-adjustments to any size. The Osprey Rook, on the other hand, has preset sizes that must be used. We found this to be adequate, but we prefer systems that allow more precise adjustment.
The straps of each pack also factor into the adjustability. Most of the packs have very easy-to-adjust waist, shoulder, and sternum straps. The main exception was the Teton Sports Scout 3400. We found its straps to be stiff and finicky to feed through the buckles. While they were adjustable enough to work, it took a bit of effort to get things sized right. The most significant issue was that it was quite difficult to tighten the waist belt once it was buckled, making it harder to ensure the pack's weight rests on your hips.
Selecting a pack is one of the most important steps to gear up for backpacking. These budget backpacking packs 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 the right one for you. Consider your planned activities and determine if the pack can serve your purposes. If you decide that saving money is more important than additional pockets or better suspension, then any of these packs could be the right choice. We've tested everything to give you a better idea of what each pack is like. But this will be your pack, not ours. So, make sure to pick one with the right design for your needs.
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