Reviews You Can Rely On

10 Best Backpacks

We tested all sizes and shapes of backpacks for travel, work, play, and everything in between. These are the best of the best.
10 Best Backpacks
The North Face Borealis is great for carrying everything you need for commuting by bike, on foot, or any other way you move through life.
Credit: Edward Kemper

Our Top Picks

Thursday October 27, 2022
Our Editors independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more

Looking for the best backpack for travel, work, or play? Our gear experts have spent the last decade buying and testing hundreds of backpacks to help you find the best pack for your next adventure. A backpack is a key to many of life's greatest adventures, and we put each of these packs through the wringer in all of the same ways you would. We took them around town every day to work, school, the gym, and on errands. We hit the trails with them on day hikes and overnight camping adventures, and we brought them with us while traveling near and far by car, train, or airplane. Whether you're looking for the best option for travel, work, school, or play, we've compiled this list of the best options for each type of backpack.

Do you have the itch to travel? Our experts have tested and ranked top travel backpacks, the best carry-on luggage, and the best duffel bags. Are you trying to dial in your daily work or school commute? We've found the best laptop backpacks as well as the best backpacks on a budget for those looking to save some cash. Finally, if you're the outdoorsy type, we've put in hundreds of trail miles to help you find the best daypacks for men as well as the best women's-specific daypacks. We also have recommendations on our favorite backpacking packs to help you complete your hiking or camping gear kit.

Editor's Note: We updated our backpack article on October 27, 2022, with a focus on product availability and to ensure we still stand by our chosen award winners.

Best Overall Backpack

Incase Icon

Volume: 17 L | Electronic Storage: 15-inch laptop & tablet
Multiple organizational compartments
Durable construction
Comfortable weight distribution
Protective access for laptops & tablets
Great style
No cushion on the bottom

The Incase Icon takes the top spot as our favorite option in our Best Laptop Backpack review. It's a clean, stylish laptop bag boasting great organization and protection. This pack has three separate compartments for keeping all your large items organized. There's a laptop pocket, a smaller sleeve for a tablet, and a larger main compartment for the rest of life's necessities. The total volume of this pack is 17 liters, and it features a whopping 14 pockets. The Icon excels at keeping all your tech organized while still having room for gym clothes and a lunch.

We also really love the style of this pack. Its sleek design is great for the office, but this bag is versatile enough to double as a gym bag, urban backpack, or even a small travel bag. Some who like to stuff everything into one main storage compartment might not love the multiple main compartments of this bag. But we think this is a great, versatile option for carrying all your gadgets and more.

Read more: Incase Icon review

best overall backpack
The Icon features several compartments specific for different electronics, making access super easy. No need to rifle through all your things to get to your laptop or tablet.
Credit: Amber King

Best Bang for the Buck

The North Face Borealis

Volume: 28 L | Electronics Storage: 15-inch laptop and small tablet
Awesome organization
Ample storage
Durable and fairly water-resistant
Lacks urban style

The North Face Borealis earns accolades for its excellent value in our laptop backpacks category. This pack is a super versatile option for school, work, and travel and would make a great day-to-day book bag. It's a great commuter bag and our testers loved using it on a bike all around town. Its 28-liter capacity is big enough to fit the extras you pick up during those errands on your way home. It has a separate laptop compartment and plenty of easy-access pockets to keep your life organized. This bag looks sporty enough to take out on the trails after work or on the weekends as well. It's super durable and water-resistant, which only adds to the versatility of this pack.

While we don't mind the outdoorsy look of this pack and think it's great for out on the trails, some might prefer a more stylish bag for carrying a laptop to work or school. But for the price, we think this is a great choice to carry a laptop and so much more.

Read more: The North Face Borealis review

backpack - best bang for the buck
We love features like bungee cords and water bottle holders for commutes to work. The North Face Borealis does a great job as a bike commuter with many other applicable functionality.
Credit: Edward Kemper

Our Favorite Classic School Bag

JanSport Big Student

Volume: 34 L | Weight: 1.5 lbs
Good volume
Carries loads well
Lots of convenient storage pockets
Classic style
No separate laptop sleeve
Somewhat heavy

The JanSport Big Student has a classic style and stands out for its excellent value in our Best Budget Backpack review. This classic school bag has plenty of storage volume to hold those hefty textbooks, lunches, gym clothes, and other everyday essentials. The separate storage compartments and additional zippered pockets make it easy to keep your gear organized and find that calculator, cell phone, or car keys that you're looking for. While this bag is designed with students in mind, its size, style, and versatility also make it a great choice for commuters, travelers, and parents on the go.

While we love the classic style of the Big Student, it lacks a dedicated padded laptop storage compartment, which is a feature found on many modern designs. This bag can certainly safely hold most laptops in one of its main storage compartments, but a little extra padding and security would be nice. All in all, this bag provides excellent value and is one of our all-time favorite choices for students.

backpack - our favorite classic school bag
The JanSport Big Student has enough space to comfortably carry everything a student might need.
Credit: Buck Yedor

Best Simple and Affordable Daypack

REI Co-op Flash 22

Volume: 23 L | Weight: 0.8 lbs
Simple and lightweight design
Only the necessary features
Comfortable suspension for its weight
Uncomfortable with heavy loads
Could be more durable

The trusty REI Co-op Flash 22 stands out for its value in our Best Daypacks review. This is a lightweight and surprisingly comfortable minimalist daypack that is also quite versatile. We were impressed by how well this ultra-lightweight pack carried loads. It has a thin piece of foam padding for a frame, side pockets for water bottles, and an ice axe loop. It doesn't have much more than those features, but that's usually all we want in a daypack anyway. We've been using versions of the Flash for over a decade now, and the newest version sets the standard for affordable and lightweight daypacks. We've even used this pack for running. And while it bounces around a bit, the lightweight build makes it work well enough for moving quickly on the trail.

With a single layer of ultralight fabric, the Flash 22 isn't the most durable pack out there. However, the ripstop nylon it's constructed with is durable and easily patchable if you do experience any wear. This pack isn't great for heavy loads, but we don't expect that from a sub-one-pound pack. If you're looking for an affordable pack that works for hiking, commuting, travel, or bringing along backpacking as a day pack, this is a great choice. This pack is available in multiple sizes and colors as well.

Read more: REI Co-op Flash 22 review | REI Co-op Flash 18 review

backpack - best simple and affordable daypack
We enjoyed our short, lightweight jaunts in the REI Flash.
Credit: Maggie Brandenburg

Best Travel Backpack

Peak Design Travel 45

Volume: 45 L | Weight: 4.5 lbs
Very comfortable
Syncs well with accessories (sold separately)
Innovative yet simple design
Carry-on size compliant
Weight per volume is not optimal

The Peak Design Travel 45 is an extremely well-designed pack with loads of great features. It takes home the top honors in our Best Travel Backpack review, but it's much more than just a pack for travel. This is a particularly sturdy and rigid bag, which helps protect your luggage, camera gear, or anything else you stuff in here, making it great for day-to-day use. This rigidity also adds to the overall durability of the pack. Thanks to their thick, dense foam, the hip belt and shoulder straps are some of the most comfortable we've worn, and they can be tucked away behind a magnetic flap to make stowing your pack during travel a breeze. It has detachable lash straps that double as compression straps, compressions buttons, and a circumferential compression zipper to make carrying a variable load easy with this pack. This also helps if you need to fit it into tight spaces, as you often do when traveling. Peak Design also makes many accessories for camera gear, including a camera case that nests nicely inside this pack.

The sturdy and rigid construction does make the Travel Backpack difficult, if not impossible, to overstuff. So, this might not be the best choice to backpack across Europe. However, we think this bag's sleek design, ultimate comfort, and well-thought-out features make it one of the best choices for carrying your gear near and far.

Read more: Peak Design Travel Backpack review

best travel backpack
The Peak Design Travel 45 is simple, sleek, and streamlined - perfect for road trips near and far.
Credit: Hayley Thomas

Best Hiking Daypack

Osprey Talon 22

Volume: 23 L | Weight: 1.7 lbs
Tons of features
Fully adjustable
Well ventilated
Separate hydration compartment
Runs small
Small side mesh pockets
No rain cover included

The Osprey Talon 22 is consistently one of our favorite daypacks, and every year it seems to get better. This year, we honored it as our favorite lightweight daypack in our Best Daypacks review. This pack has a very versatile design that's loaded with useful features. It has a dependable, lightweight design that carries weight better than most smaller packs. Its suspension system is similar to those on larger packs, which makes it very comfortable for many different activities. The flexible frame and padded hip belt keep this pack securely in place while you move down the trail. Osprey's AirScape design on the back panel allows for plenty of airflow between your back and the pack, preventing your back from getting too sweaty. Other features include a hydration sleeve, an ice axe loop, trekking pole holders, a helmet-carrying system, and even a place to attach a blinking light.

As you might expect with a smaller volume pack, this isn't the best for winter conditions when you have to carry a lot of layers. The Osprey Talon 22 is great for light and fast day trips and moves well with you. For day hiking, mountain biking, and bike commuting, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better option than the Talon 22.

Read more: Osprey Talon 22 review | Women's Version: Osprey Tempest 20

backpack - best hiking daypack
Sunset hike with the Talon 22. Plenty of room for layers on a crisp evening.
Credit: Jacob Clark

Best Women's Hiking Daypack

Gregory Jade 28L

Volume: 28 L | Weight: 2.6 lbs
Great ventilation
Comfortable hip belt
Good storage capacity
Durable construction
Heavier weight

The Gregory Jade 28 is our favorite women's daypack for longer hikes. With a large 28-liter storage capacity, this pack will comfortably carry all your gear wherever the trail or the day takes you. The plush, supportive hip belt makes it easy to support heavier loads and feel like the load is evenly distributed across your hips. Although the larger storage capacity makes it easy to accidentally overpack, the plush padding and supportive frame easily absorb the additional weight.

Because of its larger storage capacity and supportive suspension system, the Jade 28 is definitely on the heavier end of the women's daypacks we tested. But, since the pack does such a good job of supporting and distributing the load, it remains comfortable even when it's fully weighed down. This pack has all of the features you'd expect from a high-end model, including hip belt pockets, a FreeFloat mesh back panel, and plenty of adjustability. Whether you're hauling your kids' gear around town for the day or loading up a full day's worth of trail essentials, the Jade 28 is the ideal pick when storage capacity is important.

Read more: Gregory Jade 28 review

backpack - best women's hiking daypack
The padding, frame and size of the Jade add up to extra weight, but we found this FreeFloat suspension to offer some of the best load distribution and back ventilation in our review.
Credit: Maggie Brandenburg

Award Error: invalid gearID #61015

Award Error: invalid gearID #61015


Best Hydration Pack[/award]

Volume: 12 L | Weight: 2.1 lbs
High-end quality and construction
Great comfort and support
Excellent storage and organization
Very breathable back panel
No hip belt pockets

The Osprey Syncro 12 immediately made a positive impression on us during testing and only continued to impress us from there, earning it top honors in our Best Hydration Packs category. This pack performed well and scored at the top of every performance metric we tested for hydration packs. This is a versatile pack, with easy-to-use storage and organization options. It's very durable, too. One of our testers has been using one for over a year with no issues whatsoever. The breathable back panel is common with most Osprey packs and is always a welcome feature on hot days. The hydration system on this pack is also excellent. We love the placement of the drinking hose and how easy it is to refill and replace the bladder. There is enough extra volume in this pack to store a layer or two as well.

While the Syncro is very capable in every regard, the burly construction and plethora of features make it quite heavy for a hydration pack. This is one of the only downsides to this pack, and since it comfortably carries weight, we didn't mind the extra ounces. Also, we would love to see some pockets on the hip belt, maybe that will be an improvement for the next version of this all-around great hydration pack for hiking, mountain biking, festivals, and more.

Read more: Osprey Syncro 12 review

backpack - best hydration pack
The Syncro 12 has a wireframe reinforcement and AirSpeed back panel that are secure in a variety of conditions, but add to the overall weight of the pack.
Credit: Nick Bruckbauer

Best Backpacking Pack

Granite Gear Blaze 60

Volume: 60 L | Weight: 3.0 lbs
Super light for its size
Small buckles are hard to operate with gloves

The Granite Gear Blaze 60 has repeatedly earned the top spot in our Best Backpacking Packs review. This pack is available in men's and women's versions. It can comfortably carry 50-pound loads and only weighs 3 pounds, which is much lighter than most backpacking packs. This pack is full of useable features that make it an excellent choice for backpacking. The hip belt width is adjustable, as is the torso length. We were able to make this pack fit a wide variety of body shapes when testing. The shoulder straps and hip belt are very padded, and the breathable back panel has just enough cushion to make wearing this pack very comfortable. It has a stretchy mesh front pocket and roll-top main compartment. The main compartment is also accessible via a zipper in the front of the pack. It also has roomy hip belt pockets, and the adjustable water bottle pockets are accessible without taking the pack off.

While this pack gets a lot of things right, nothing is perfect for everyone. Some of our testers found the small buckles difficult to use, especially while wearing gloves. But, we'll take that trade-off for a lightweight backpacking pack that can still handle heavy loads.

Read more: Granite Gear Blaze 60 review | Women's Version: Granite Gear Blaze 60 -Womens

best backpacking pack
The Granite Gear Blaze 60 is a pinnacle point of comparison when it comes to performance. This backpacking pack aided our explorations high above the trees of Vermont, making our travels light and comfortable.
Credit: Elizabeth Paashaus

Most Comfortable Women's Backpacking Pack

Gregory Deva 60

Volume: 60 L | Weight: 4.7 lbs
Stable and supportive suspension
Very comfortable and well ventilated
Highly adjustable
Carries heavy loads well
Heavy base weight

The Gregory Deva 60 has one of the best suspension systems we've ever tested, combining outstanding comfort and ventilation with excellent load-carrying capabilities. The Deva has thick, plush shoulder straps and a hip belt, and is also highly adjustable to help you dial in the right fit for your unique body. Although this is one of the heaviest women's packs we tested, it excels at carrying heavy loads, which makes it feel much lighter on the trail than its specs might indicate. It also has plenty of storage space and a range of well-placed pockets for organization.

While the Deva does great carrying heavy loads with its burly and comfortable suspension, it does feel a bit over-engineered for lighter loads or fast and light outings. There are packs similar in size that are half the Deva's weight. However, after our head-to-head tests with all of the best packs on the market, we kept coming back to the Deva for its all-day comfort, adjustability, and well-executed design.

Read more: Gregory Deva 60 review

most comfortable women's backpacking pack
The Deva has the suspension you need to carry heavy loads comfortably.
Credit: Jeffrey Mogavero

Best Budget Backpacking Pack

Kelty Coyote 65

Volume: 65 L | Weight: 4.3 lbs
Great value
Highly adjustable
Comfortable under a heavy load
Water bottle pockets are hard to access

The Kelty Coyote 65 is super affordable, can comfortably carry heavy loads, and is loaded with useful features. This pack lands at the top of our Best Budget Backpacking Pack review. The suspension on this pack is impressive. It can adjust to different torso lengths so you can dial in the fit. The curved frame loaded the weight onto our hips nicely, and the super padded hip belt and wide shoulder straps made this pack one of the most comfortable backpacking packs we've ever tested. Also, this pack has loads of external pockets. There are three separate zippered pockets in the front, a pocket on the pack lid, two water bottle side pockets, and two hip belt pockets. With all these pockets, it's easy to stay organized and avoid the need for a pack explosion on the side of the trail. You know what we're talking about here.

But, a pack that handles heavy loads and has lots of pockets is generally heavier by nature, and the Coyote 65 is no exception. At 4.3 pounds, it's certainly not lightweight. Also, the extra zipper pockets above the water bottles make it difficult to use taller water bottles with this pack. But for a comfortable, high-capacity, and durable backpacking pack at such an affordable price, we can live with these minor issues.

Read more: Kelty Coyote 65 review

best budget backpacking pack
Comfort, price, and features make the Kelty Coyote 65 a top contender for your next trip.
Credit: Bennett Fisher

Best Ultralight Backpack

Gossamer Gear Mariposa

Volume: 60 L | Weight: 1.9 lbs
Comfortable with both light and heavy loads
Great features
Well made
Fits bear canister
Heavier than some ultralight packs

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa has repeatedly won the top honors in our Best Ultralight Backpacks category. This pack is both comfortable and lightweight at the same time. It has well thought out features, but not too many. Of all the ultralight packs we tested, this one has our favorite external mesh pocket. It's big enough to fit extra layers, snacks, and other miscellaneous items we wanted to access quickly. This pack can handle a large load, too — it can even fit a bear canister. On the flip side, it can also be cinched down if it's not as full. The fabric on this pack is very durable, too. We've done a lot of bushwhacking with this, and it's still in great shape.

Some might find the 60-liter capacity of the Mariposa to be too big for an ultralight pack. But as long as you aren't constantly filling this pack to the brim, we found a little extra space was helpful for longer food carries. Also, this isn't the lightest ultralight backpacking pack. But at less than 2 pounds for an ultralight pack that can still comfortably carry all your backpacking gear, this pack is hard to beat.

Read more: Gossamer Gear Mariposa review

backpack - the ultralight gossamer gear mariposa going into the sierras.
The ultralight Gossamer Gear Mariposa going into the Sierras.
Credit: Sarah Van Cleve

Why You Should Trust Us

Over the years here at GearLab, we've tested more backpacks than we can count. We tested packs on the trails, on our bikes, at the airport, during our daily commutes, and at the crag. You name it, and we've been there. For this review, we compiled test results from over 300 different models in total, all purchased at retail prices from many of the same popular merchants you likely shop at.

The test team for this review is led by Sam Schild, Hayley Thomas, and Nick Bruckbauer. Sam is an avid backpacker with close to 10,000 miles of backpacking experience. He has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Colorado Trail, and the Grand Enchantment Trail. When he's not out on the trails somewhere, you can find him mountain biking or trail running on the Colorado Front Range, or bikepacking somewhere in the American Southwest. On all his adventures, he uses a backpack to carry all the essential gear.

Hayley has done a lot of testing of travel bags over the years and is based in Denver, CO. Travel is a huge part of Hayley's life. Besides traveling, her main passion is rock climbing. You can also find her hitting the slopes in the winter and taking long bike rides in the summer — almost always with a backpack in tow.

Nick manages many of the GearLab backpacking categories, and is also an avid outdoorsman and gear junkie. His passions include trail and road running, road cycling, paddling, hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing, and skiing. Nick owns packs of all different shapes and sizes and has experience hauling different packs around town, through the airport, on a bike, on the trails, and on weekslong climbing and ski expeditions.

The Talon's back panel is very comfortable while riding and didn't...
The Talon's back panel is very comfortable while riding and didn't impact our riding position or range of motion.
Taking three of our favorite options out for a stroll. From left...
Taking three of our favorite options out for a stroll. From left, the Osprey Flapjack, followed by the Burton Tinder, and last but not least, the North Face Borealis.

Our teams tested and rated all these backpacks for different qualities depending on the type of model and its intended use. We tested for durability, comfort, weight, features, volume, ease of use, water-resistance, style, accessibility, and more. We packed and unpacked them all. We hiked, we biked, and we went through airport security with them. We loaded up our precious laptops and tablets in them. In short, we put all these backpacks through the wringer to find the best of the best.

backpack - we put the packs through head-to-head field tests to help you decide...
We put the packs through head-to-head field tests to help you decide which one is right for you.
Credit: Nick Bruckbauer

How to Buy the Right Backpack

Choosing the right backpack for your intended use is important. You might be loading it up with heavy gear and wearing it for long hours, so you want to make sure it has the right features to organize and carry your gear and that it comfortably fits your body. Different types of backpacks can often be used interchangeably, but having the right design might make the difference in quickly accessing your camera to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot, keeping your valuables protected from the elements, or keeping your hips, back, and neck comfortable on long hikes or overnights. We'll walk you through all of the different types of packs available to help you decide which features are right for you.

Where Do You Want Your Pack To Go?

Before choosing a backpack, it's important to know what you're planning to do and where you're planning to go. If you want a pack that will organize and carry all of your essentials to work or school, that will be a very different size and shape compared to a larger backpack for travel or backpacking. If you're going to be hiking with your backpack, do you want something small for fast and light day hikes, or something heftier for multi-day adventures? Maybe you just need a hydration pack to carry water and a few essentials. Getting the right pack will make your hikes, commutes, or travels more comfortable and convenient.

Travel Backpacks

Travel backpacks are made to be efficiently carried on airplanes, trains, buses, and cars. These bags are usually designed with a large, easily accessible main storage compartment, along with lots of pockets to organize gear and clothing while traveling. They also often have a number of adjustable carrying methods, like removable backpack straps, shoulder slings, and comfortably padded grab handles. These packs will usually have minimal external features so they can easily be stuffed into overhead bins, car trunks, or other tight spaces. They are typically moderate in size — somewhere between the size of a daypack and a large backpacking backpack — in order to meet airline carry-on size requirements and to maintain a comfortable carrying weight.

backpack - travel backpacks are great for getting all your luggage to wherever...
Travel backpacks are great for getting all your luggage to wherever you're headed next.
Credit: Hayley Thomas

Laptop Backpacks

Laptop backpacks are typically small to moderate in size and have specific design features meant to carry a laptop and other electronic devices. They usually have a well-padded internal sleeve or multiple sleeves to protect your laptop or tablet. They might have specially designed compartments for things like extra battery packs or charging cords. Most laptop bags have a more sleek and stylish look that fits into an office or urban setting. Some look more sporty, too. Laptop bags are a great option for protecting your valuable electronic equipment, and many have enough extra space for things like textbooks, lunches, gym clothes, and other essentials to complete your commute to work or school.

backpack - this shows the incase icon's separate compartment for the laptop...
This shows the Incase Icon's separate compartment for the laptop that is ultra padded and protective.
Credit: Amber King


Daypacks usually have fairly simple and versatile designs that make them ideal for any type of day trip. Those day trips can be on a hike, a bike ride, or even just a stroll around the city. Daypacks are big enough to fit everything you'd need for a day out – snacks, extra layers, a first aid kit, and more. They're also great for commuters since they usually have multiple water bottle pockets, one for coffee and one for water, and enough to carry all your daily essentials. Many hiking-specific daypacks will have more technical features like a separate internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, hip belt pockets, and additional external straps to secure things like helmets, trekking poles, an ice axe, or even skis.

backpack - daypacks fit everything you could need for a day in the mountains or...
Daypacks fit everything you could need for a day in the mountains or around town.
Credit: Scott Ring

Hydration Packs

Hydration packs are typically smaller hiking-style packs that have a dedicated pocket to hold an included hydration reservoir. Some are not much bigger than the size of the hydration reservoir and are meant just for carrying water, while others are large, fully-featured backpacks. Smaller hydration packs are great for fast and light adventures where you don't need to carry much more than water and snacks, while larger hydration packs are great for hauling a larger volume of water that is easily accessible without having to stop to drink or refill as often.

backpack - the syncro 12 can be your go-anywhere, do-anything hydration pack.
The Syncro 12 can be your go-anywhere, do-anything hydration pack.
Credit: Nick Bruckbauer

While hydration packs are often a bit smaller and lighter than most hiking daypacks, they can still be a bit heavy and bouncy if you're really trying to go fast and light. Trail runners, fast hikers, or ultramarathoners often opt for a running hydration pack. These packs are often designed as a tight-fitting vest, and have enough storage to hold water, snacks, and maybe an extra layer of clothing, but are lighter and fit snuggly to your body to allow for unencumbered movement. There are even women's specific designs too.

backpack - the vaporair 2.0 is a feature-rich pack but we always felt it. the...
The VaporAir 2.0 is a feature-rich pack but we always felt it. The best packs fit and carry in a way that we forget we are wearing them.
Credit: Jeff Colt

Backpacking Packs

Backpacking backpacks are higher-volume packs designed to comfortably carry everything you'd need to hike and camp for multiple days. Since many of these packs are in the 50 to 70-liter size range and can easily carry 40 to 50+ pounds, they typically are designed with a substantial internal frame and a comfortable suspension — which includes a well-padded, supportive hip belt and a supportive and well-ventilated back panel — to help evenly distribute heavy loads. The best backpacking packs are also very adjustable, where the hip belt, shoulder straps, sternum strap, and even load lifter straps can be adjusted to optimize the fit to your body.

backpack - backpacking packs are great for hiking out to a destination for...
Backpacking packs are great for hiking out to a destination for camping.
Credit: Elizabeth Paashaus

High-end backpacking packs can sometimes run in the hundreds of dollars, which can be a big investment for beginning hikers. We've also reviewed the best budget options that strike a nice blend of quality, performance, and affordability.

While backpacking packs are intended for hiking, they're usually too big and clumsy to use on day hikes. And conversely, standard daypacks are usually too small and not supportive enough to carry the heavier loads required for multi-day backpacking trips.

The best ultralight backpacks are popular items for many of today's backpackers who are aiming to lighten their load for faster and lighter adventures. These packs share many of the same features as backpacking packs but are often stripped down to save weight. Ultralight packs usually sacrifice a bit of comfort and support in the hip belts, shoulder straps, and back panels, and may eliminate extra pockets or straps, but doing so can drop the bare pack weight from around 5 pounds to under 2 pounds.

Specialty Packs

Many backpacking packs include some technical features — like hydration reservoirs and external straps for helmets, skis, ice tools, or hiking poles — but there are other more specialized types of backpacks that fill some technical roles a bit better. Rock climbers looking for a backpack to haul bulky items like climbing ropes and hardware racks can opt for a climbing pack or haul bag that typically has one huge primary storage compartment and burly construction for hauling heavy loads a short distance. Mountaineers in need of a technical pack to carry things like ices axes, crampons, or an avalanche shovel and probe can find specific design features for these tools in moderately-sized mountaineering packs. And backcountry skiers willing to make an investment in an extra layer of potential protection can opt for an avalanche airbag pack to add to their beacon, shovel, and probe kit.

There's some reference to Goldilocks in this photo of the Osprey...
There's some reference to Goldilocks in this photo of the Osprey Mutant 38 (left) and 52.
Rich Weight,  Scott Orr, and Tracey Bernstein enjoy a good laugh at...
Rich Weight, Scott Orr, and Tracey Bernstein enjoy a good laugh at being able to fire off the Alpride E1 anytime (seen here in an Osprey Soelden Pro 32) as it only requires 40 minutes and a pair of double AA batteries to recharge.

Though, not technically a pack that goes on your back, hip packs are very useful for mountain biking and we have best fanny pack reviews as well. They provide a great place to store water, snacks, and your wallet, keys, and phone, but stay off your shoulders and back to reduce strain.

Bike commuters that want to reduce strain on their back, neck, and shoulders while riding can also use bike panniers that clip onto your bike rack. Some models even convert to backpacks.

Women's Backpacks

Many hiking daypacks and backpacking packs come in women's specific sizing as well. Although many women can and do comfortably wear men's or unisex models, women's specific packs are usually sized to more closely fit women's anatomy. This means a women's pack usually has a shorter torso length and a wider hip belt.

backpack - women's backpacks - like the osprey ariel shown here - are designed...
Women's backpacks - like the Osprey Ariel shown here - are designed to fit a woman's anatomy.
Credit: Adam Paashaus

What Else to Look For?

Once you've figured out the backpack style that best suits your needs, looking at the specific design features of different individual models will help you narrow down the field considerably.

Pack Size: Storage Volume and Weight

Choosing the right pack size depends on what kind of gear you need to carry and for how long you need to carry it. A bigger pack will obviously be able to hold more gear than a smaller pack, but will almost always weigh more than a smaller pack. This might not be so important if you're just carrying your pack on the bus or around the office but becomes more critical if you're hauling gear for longer distances or time periods — like around town for a full day, on a long hike, or on a multi-day backpacking trip.

Smaller and lighter packs usually have more minimalist features for supporting heavier loads and tend to get uncomfortable more quickly once you load them near their full capacity. Conversely, heavier packs with more robust suspension systems might feel awkward if they're only minimally loaded but will feel more balanced and comfortable when loaded with an appropriate weight that utilizes the hip belt and suspension system.

General Sizing Guidelines

Depending on your intended use, most packs will fall into these general size ranges:

5 liters to 20 liters: Most hydration packs and smaller daypacks; ideal for fast and light outings of a few hours.
15 liters to 30 liters: Most daypacks, school bags, and laptop backpacks; ideal for a full day's worth of gear for work, school, hiking, or around town.
30 liters to 45 liters: Larger daypacks, most travel backpacks, and smaller technical hiking and climbing packs; ideal for an overnight or weekend outing.
45 liters to 60 liters: Larger technical hiking and climbing packs and smaller backpacking packs; ideal for 2-4 day outings.

60+ liters: Most backpacking packs; ideal for 5+ day outings.

backpack - if you're looking for a versatile, softshell, briefcase-style travel...
If you're looking for a versatile, softshell, briefcase-style travel pack, look no further than the Patagonia MLC, which at 45 liters in size, is the ideal travel and carry-on size.
Credit: Hayley Thomas

Comfort and Fit

All backpacks have shoulder straps and a back panel. What sets different packs apart from one another in terms of comfort and fit is a suspension system is what distributes the weight of the pack between your shoulders and hips. If a pack has no suspension, then all of its weight will rest squarely on your shoulders. This is okay for lightweight loads, but for heavier loads, it will be a pain in the shoulders.

The most comfortable and supportive suspension systems include an internal frame that supports the weight of the pack, a padded hip belt that transfers the load to your hips, shoulder straps that comfortably help balance the load, load lifter straps that help adjust how the pack sits on your back, and a supportive and ventilated back panel. Together, these pieces make for a comfortable pack capable of carrying heavier loads more efficiently.

backpack - the deuter futura vario's popular trampoline style suspension offers...
The Deuter Futura Vario's popular trampoline style suspension offers plenty of air flow for when you start working up a sweat but surprisingly, didn't transfer weight to our hips as we had hoped.
Credit: Adam Paashaus

Load lifters connect the tops of a pack's shoulder straps and the main pack body. They are used to move the pack closer or farther away from your body. The tighter you make the load lifters, the more of the pack's weight will be on your shoulders. The looser the load lifters, the more of the weight will be transferred to the hip belt. You can use the load lifters to give your shoulder or hips a break by placing more of the weight elsewhere.

backpack - the minaal carry-on 3.0 has a comfortable harness system that comes...
The Minaal Carry-On 3.0 has a comfortable harness system that comes complete with load lifter straps.
Credit: Matthew Blake

A pack's hip belt is just as important as the shoulder straps. Generally speaking, the more cushioned a hip belt is, the more comfortable it will be. A hip belt should also be wide enough to not dig into your hips or stomach. But, if a hip belt is too wide that can also cause discomfort. Hip belt comfort is very dependent on body type. So, it's best to try a few different packs to figure out what works best for your body.

backpack - a pack's hip belt is important for comfort, but not everyone finds...
A pack's hip belt is important for comfort, but not everyone finds the same qualities in a hip belt comfortable.
Credit: Jeff Mogavero

Lastly, a pack's back panel is what rests on your back. Not all back panels are created equally. A good back panel will have enough cushion to rest comfortably on your body. And, it will be made of some sort of mesh material to allow air to flow between the pack and your body. We've all had a sweaty back from wearing a backpack on a hot day; this mesh helps with that.

backpack - the trampoline-style mesh back panel of the gregory optic 58 does a...
The trampoline-style mesh back panel of the Gregory Optic 58 does a good job of letting out moist warm air from behind your back.
Credit: Elizabeth Paashaus

Other Pack Features

It's important to look for a pack that has the features that you need and doesn't have a bunch of extras that you don't need. Don't just buy a pack with a lot of features because it has a lot of features. Buy a pack with the specific features you need. These extras are usually simple in design but have a specific intended use.

The convenient top zipper pocket is a handy spot to stash snacks...
The convenient top zipper pocket is a handy spot to stash snacks, keys, wallets, or phones for easy access.
The hip belt pockets on the Endo 15 are useful for keeping small...
The hip belt pockets on the Endo 15 are useful for keeping small items easily accessible.

If you plan to regularly carry a laptop in your backpack, then be sure it has a protective pocket or sleeve for a laptop. If you need to carry multiple drink bottles, get a back with big, functional water bottle pockets. If you want to quickly access a rain jacket or other layers without opening your pack, then get a pack with a big enough outside mesh pocket.

If you're using your pack for travel, get one with enough compartments to carry what you plan to travel with and keep that stuff organized. If you want a pack that carries a hydration bladder, be sure it has a designated sleeve for that. If you need to carry a sleeping pad on the outside of your pack, be sure it has straps and buckles for that.

backpack - if you're going traveling with a pack it's helpful to have a wide...
If you're going traveling with a pack it's helpful to have a wide opening to see all your gear.
Credit: Hayley Thomas


This guide should help make your backpack-buying decision a little bit easier. Be realistic about your goals and needs. The aforementioned list of packs is the best of the best. So, choose the one that fits your needs the best from this list and get out there. Rest assured, we will keep buying, using, and reviewing the best backpacks in the industry to keep this list current.

Sam Schild & Nick Bruckbauer

You Might Also Like

Ad-free. Influence-free. Powered by Testing.

GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.

Learn More