Backpacking packs
Testing backpacking backpacks in Colorado. Photo credit: Eric Phillips.

The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2021

Head into the backcountry with the best backpacking backpacks of 2021. From budget-friendly options to ultra-comfortable picks, we’ve got you covered.

Whether you’re going on a short overnight trip or a months-long thru-hike, finding the best backpacking backpack is key to success. It not only needs to hold the necessary gear, but it should be also comfortable enough that you don’t spend the day fidgeting or thinking about your pack.

After lots of research and miles upon miles testing, we found the best packs for every use and budget. Since no single pack works for everyone out there, we’ve broken the list into categories so you can find the right fit. And if you need more help choosing, be sure to check out the buyer’s guide at the end of this article.

This article focuses on larger capacity backpacks. If you’re looking for a hiking backpack, check out our article on The Best Daypacks of 2021.

The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2021

Best Overall: Osprey Aether & Ariel 55

Osprey Aether 55 backpack

The Osprey Aether and Ariel 55 are recently updated versions of two of Osprey’s bestselling styles. Packed with features and thoroughly well-designed, the Aether and Ariel are our choices for the best overall backpacking pack.

Although these packs are classic-style top-loaders, a large front zippered access point allows you to get into the depths of your gear without having to fully unpack. For heavy loads, the burly materials and easy on-the-go adjustability make the Aether and Ariel strong and reliable carriers.

We like that the Osprey has combined some tried-and-true backpack design elements with clever and innovative features of their own creation. For quick access to bits of essential gear, these packs offer dual-zippered hip belt pockets, stretch-mesh water bottle pockets, and a front “shove-it” pocket.

Other noteworthy features include an internal hydration bladder sleeve, dual ice axe loops, and a versatile compression system that offers additional exterior storage.

Although Osprey also makes a 65L version of the Aether and Ariel, we like the 55L for its compact profile and slightly reduced weight. For long weekend trips, these packs will offer plenty of space for most users.

They can also handle longer trips with some thoughtful packing. Yes, the Aether and Ariel are heavier than many other packs of their size, but they are ultrareliable and feel stable and balanced on the trail.

Weight: 4.83 lb. (S/M); 4.87 lb. (M/L)
Volume: 55 L

Check Osprey Aether Price at REICheck Ariel 55 Price at Backcountry

Runner-Up: Deuter Aircontact Lite — Men’s & Women’s

Deuter ACT Lite 50 + 10

This versatile, expandable backpacking pack from Deuter ($310) is awesome and durable (our staff tester has had hers for over 4 years). What really makes this pack great is the expandable section below the brain that can add up to 10 L in volume of gear.

There’s a bungee closure at the top, a layer of extra fabric, and three adjustable compression straps that allow you to adjust to whatever extra gear you decide to carry. In testing, we also loved the closure straps underneath the brain — it’s the perfect place for securing a bladder or water reservoir, or first aid kit for quick access.

Our other favorite parts of this pack: the deep mesh side pockets, inner and outer brain pockets, and double hip belt zip pockets. Deuter’s AirContact Lite backpanel and load support system is spot on — comfortable, and plenty of strap length to fit a variety of waist sizes.

Factor in features like the padded hip belt, adjustable sternum strap, and adjustable back/torso length, and you’ll see why the Deuter ACT Lite is an awesome choice for women and men of various sizes. This series comes in both men’s and women’s-specific models in 45+10, 50+10, and 60+10 pack sizes.

The weight of this pack (about 5 pounds) puts it in the middle of the market in terms of weight. It’s not ultralight, but it’s also not too heavy considering the internal frame and overall design.

Weight: 5.1 lb.
Volume: 45-70 L

Check Aircontact Lite 50 + 10 Price at REICheck Aircontact Lite 45+ 10 Price at REI

Best Budget: REI Co-op Flash 55

REI Co-op Flash 55

Although REI has been selling backpacking gear for decades, the company is relatively new to offering packs of their own. The Flash 55 has quickly become their flagship model, and for good reason. This pack is light, customizable, and highly capable of the rugged demands of backpacking.

The Flash 55 is a modular pack, and various features can be added or removed to increase storage or shed weight. With all the organizational features included, this pack weighs around 2 pounds 10 ounces.

By removing all of the modular features, the user can reduce the total weight by almost half a pound. Importantly, removing these features does not affect the Flash’s suspension system or carrying comfort.

At the top entry point of the main compartment, a roll-top dry bag-esque closure system helps to keep the pack compressed and the contents dry. Thanks to this roll-top, users can also choose to leave the pack’s top lid behind when preferred. Other useful features include a front mesh pocket, hydration bladder capability, and an ice axe attachment loop.

For a backpacking pack, the Flash’s 100-denier ripstop nylon body feels thin and potentially fragile. Although this pack doesn’t seem to wear or tear faster than other packs in its class, users should avoid rubbing the sides of the pack against rock and rough surfaces. On the bottom of the pack, burly 420-denier nylon offers supreme protection from the ground.

At $199, the Flash 55 is one of the best values on the backpacking market.

Weight: 2 lb. 10 oz.
Volume: 55 L

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

Extra Breathable Backpanel: Gregory Men’s Katmai 55 & Women’s Kalmia 50

Gregory Katmai 55

The Gregory Katmai/Kalmia 55 is a comfort-first backpack with well-padded straps and belt, and a suspension system that moves with your natural movement when walking, especially under load. Additionally, the breathability in the back panel reduces the inescapable issue of lower back sweat.

This pack targets that issue with its FreeFloat 360 ventilated back panel. Flex panels and rotating shoulder straps move independently with the shoulders and waist while walking. Gregory even added Polygiene odor treatment to the moisture-wicking back panel.

The Katmai has side and bottom access zips to the storage for quick access and seeing inside more of the bag. That’s a bit of a love/hate feature, but we leaned toward love. The lid has a large zippered pocket on the top and a smaller one inside for stashing valuables away from the elements.

A large, shallow front compartment makes a good place to stick meal packets, maps, or guidebooks and is covered by a stretchy mesh pocket for a layer. Additionally, it has long-trip essentials you’d expect like a hydration sleeve with a hanger, trekking pole loops, and a sleeping bag compartment.

The shoulder harness and hip belt are easy to adjust and stay in place. It has an adjustable steel alloy internal frame, ranging from 18 to 22 inches in the M/L size (15-19 inches S/M).

Check Gregory Katmai 55 Price at REICheck Kalmia 50 Price at REI

Best Women’s Backpack: The North Face Banchee 65

North Face Banchee 65

The Banchee 65 ($250) is a very comfortable pack. Our first impressions: it’s really lightweight for the volume, and feels great on. It can haul 30-40 pounds of gear perfectly, and it didn’t show any signs of wear on a week-long backpacking trip.

Our second point of praise for this pack: pockets. Everywhere we looked there were more and more pockets. With a volume perfect for multiday trips, and some new features (The North Face redesigned this pack for 2020), the Banchee is a popular pack that performed as well, and better, than we expected.

Compared to the prior model, we noticed better pocket placement — specifically, the side stretch pockets — and improved design of the exterior vertical zippered compartments.

In terms of features, this pack has a sleeping bag compartment, designated hydration sleeve, and hip belt pockets. The pockets on the hip belt are perfect for stashing the items you want readily available on the trail — chapstick, Clif bar, sunscreen, phone, map, you name it.

It has a women’s-specific fit around the hips and shoulders, which we found great and accurate. This pack also has load lifters (a standard feature nowadays), and we found on this pack they were easily adjustable while wearing.

Note: For taller women (above 5’6″), we recommend jumping up to the M/L size pack. The Banchee is also available in a 50L capacity.

Weight: 3 lbs. 3 oz.
Volume:
65 L

Check Price at BackcountryCheck Price at The North Face

Best Ultralight: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack

For an ultralight pack, the 2400 Southwest Pack from Hyperlight Mountain Gear strikes a rare balance between comfort, weight, and durability. This pack is built almost entirely from Dyneema — a super-strong and incredibly light material.

Although Hyperlite makes similar packs with larger capacities, many users prefer the 40L size of the 2400 Southwest Pack, which weighs in at a featherlight 1 pound 14 ounce.

Most ultralight backpacks simply are not as stable or comfortable as heavier packs. The Southwest Pack manages to break the mold. Even with a full load, this pack is quite enjoyable to hike with.

A ¼-inch back panel pad adds significant cushioning that prevents the pack’s contents from poking into the user’s back. Structural support comes from removable aluminum stays, which help distribute the pack’s weight evenly across the user’s body.

Like most ultralight gear, this pack is minimalist and basic in its tube-like design. Aside from the main compartment, the pack features three exterior pockets and two zippered hipbelt pockets.

The roll-top system seals with a Velcro closure and fastens to the pack’s sides with buckles. There are no internal zippered pockets or organizational features in the main compartment, aside from a simple hydration bladder sleeve.

In addition to various size options, the Southwest Pack is also available in two different Dyneema fabrics. The 50-denier version is white, while the 150-denier version is black and costs $20 more. Most users report great durability, even with the thinner version.

Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz.
Volume: 40 L

Check Price at BackcountryCheck Price at Hyperlite Mountain Gear

Best of the Rest

Granite Gear Blaze 60 — Men’s & Women’s

granite gear blaze 60

The Granite Gear Blaze 60 is a lightweight pack that can easily carry heavy-duty loads. It’s difficult to find a pack that remains comfortable even when fully weighed down with a week’s worth of gear. With tons of classic and innovative features and pockets, the Blaze 60 is one of the true gems of the backpack market.

At 3 pounds, this pack is slightly lighter than average for its capacity. Although it performs well across the board, the most striking characteristic of the Blaze 60 is its phenomenal suspension system.

No matter what you need to carry, this pack will handle it with stability and grace. The internal frame that enables the pack’s stability is designed with effective airflow channels that help to keep your back cool. Of all the breathable back panels out there, the Blaze 60’s stands out.

The shoulder and hip straps are mesh-free and tend to feel a bit sweaty. This pack features durable materials in high-wear zones, and it saves weight with thinner fabric in areas of less concern.

The Robic fabric that covers much of the pack’s body is both light and tear-resistant. For backpackers that plan to carry full and heavy loads but don’t want an ultra-bulky pack, the Blaze 60 is a top pick.

Weight: 3 lbs.
Volume: 60 L

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

Zpacks Arc Blast 55

zpacks arc blast 55 ultralight backpacking pack

This backpack from ZPacks was made specifically for the ultralight backpacking crowd. At just 1 pound 5.3 ounces, it really doesn’t get any lighter than this for a pack with 55 L of storage.

In just about every way, this is a minimalist piece of gear. Mesh-free hip and shoulder straps are simple and thinly padded, and the hip straps do not have pockets.

Few external pockets exist on the entire pack, although it does have ice axe loops and trekking pole holders. The bottom line is that this is not the pack to buy if you are looking for robust padding and maximum extra features.

Instead, what you get with the Arc Blast is a world-class tool for fast and light backpacking. Although it is rated to carry upward of 30 pounds, this pack really shines with sub-25-pound loads.

The five-piece carbon frame is integrated into the pack itself, and we do not recommend trying to remove it. The frame can be shaped by the user to create a gap of airflow between your body and back panel. A rectangle of mesh further helps to keep your back distanced from the body of the pack.

The Dyneema fabric of the Arc Blast’s body is super-lightweight and abrasion-resistant. A Velcro roll-top closure keeps water out — even in gnarly storms.

Because this pack is specialized and expensive, we don’t recommend it to beginner backpackers or casual weekend hikers. Instead, this is a minimalist tool that is best suited for a light and fast thru-hiking mission or alpine traverse.

Weight: 1 lb. 5.3 oz.
Volume: 55 L

Check Price at Zpacks

Helly Hansen Resistor 45 & Capacitor 65L Packs

RESISTOR BACKPACK 45L

The Resistor and Capacitor backpacks from Helly Hansen share many aesthetic and functional characteristics. The smaller Resistor is an excellent compact option for quick and light trips, while the larger Capacitor can easily handle long multiday expeditions in the mountains.

While Helly Hansen is a long-established maker of high-quality alpine outerwear, the Resistor and Capacitor are new additions to the brand’s lineup. Both styles have a large top-loading main compartment, hydration compatibility, and a floating top lid with zippered pockets.

At the top of the main compartment, extendable collars provide versatile options for expanding the internal capacity and protecting the contents from the elements.

Both the Resistor and the Capacitor include an adjustable back panel and customizable torso length. And 3D mesh across the entire back panel helps to keep your back cool and ventilated while hiking. A thickly padded hip strap also comes equipped with a breathable mesh lining.

While these nice-looking and highly capable packs aren’t especially light or innovative, they are reliable workhorses that will perform exactly as a good backpack should.

Weight: 3 lb. 4 oz. (Resistor) 4 lb. 3 oz. (Capacitor)
Volume: 45 L (Resistor) 65 L (Capacitor)

Check Resistor 45L Price at Helly HansenCheck Capacitor 65L Price at Helly Hansen

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Backpacking Pack

Purchasing a backpacking backpack — especially for the first time — can be a challenging process to navigate. Reliable gear is the foundation of a successful backpacking trip, and a good pack may be the most important item in your whole kit.

While hiking, the ideal pack should feel balanced and comfortable. In camp, a well-designed pack helps keep your systems organized and efficient.

In this how-to-choose guide, we will go over all of the important considerations that will help you choose the right pack. Everything from padding and water protection to sizing and capacity is explained here in detail. By the end, we hope that you’ll feel confident about choosing the perfect pack to support your backpacking adventures.

a female tester wearing the blue Osprey Aura 65L pack
Testing the Osprey Aura AG 65; photo credit: Kyle Nossaman.

Pack Sizing

When deciding which pack size is right for you, you’ll need to complete a few quick self measurements. Because torso size can be very different even for two people of the same height, you should not choose your pack size simply because you are tall or short. Instead, you’ll want to determine your torso and waist measurements.

Torso measurement is the most important factor for pack sizing. To figure out yours, you’ll need a friend and a cloth tape measure. If you don’t have one, a length of rope or string and a measuring stick will also work.

Begin by resting your chin against your chest and have another person locate your C7 vertebra at the base of your neck (it’s the one that tends to protrude more than the others). Place your hands on your hips so that your hands are sitting on top of your hip bones and your thumbs are pressed against your lower back.

Ask your friend to measure the length between your C7 vertebra and the center point of your spine at the level of your thumbs. This distance is your torso measurement.

Your waist size is the circumference of your waist at your iliac crest, which is the highest point of your hip bones. The middle of your backpacking hip straps should be positioned directly on top of your iliac crest. While hiking, 80% of your load should be carried by the hips and lower body, so it is essential that your hip straps fit properly.

If you are unable to find a pack that fits both your torso and hip measurements, you will likely be able to find one with replaceable hip straps. Some packs are more adjustable than others, and it is certainly a good idea to try a pack and ensure that it properly fits before purchasing.

Capacity

Backpacking packs come in many different sizes and capacities. When deciding the best pack capacity for you, there are several factors worth considering. For longer trips with multiple overnights, you’ll need some increased space to pack the appropriate kit.

In cold weather, you’ll need more space for clothing and warm sleeping gear. Food and water are also important considerations. If you will need to carry several days worth of food and/or water along, you’ll need to be sure that your pack can handle it.

The most common length of a backpacking trip is between one and three days. For these short trips, a pack between 50 L and 70 L will likely provide enough capacity for most people.

On a single overnight trip, a smaller pack of around 35-40 L may be sufficient. For long trips over 3 days long, you’ll want a larger pack that holds at least 60 L — especially in cold weather.

Pack Weight

Contemporary backpacking packs are designed to be both lightweight and capable of carrying heavy loads. Most packs come with a recommended range of how much weight they can hold. Pack features that contribute to weight capacity include the frame, suspension system, and padding.

When these features become more robust, maximum load capacity increases. For this reason, bulkier packs tend to be best for carrying the heaviest of loads. Still, many modern options stand out as impressive haulers even though their baseline weight is relatively low.

Some manufacturers provide load ratings for their packs. It is a good idea to estimate the total weight of the loads you plan to carry before purchasing a pack.

Suspension

Suspension is a system of frames, hip belts, straps, load lifters, and harnesses that keeps you securely connected to your pack. Overall, a pack’s suspension system transfers the weight of your gear onto the appropriate structures of the human body.

If fitted properly, a good suspension system will allow the wearer to move freely and maintain a natural sense of balance while hauling the pack. Effective suspension relies on a combination of fit and design to maximize comfort and efficiency while hiking.

Different pack manufacturers utilize slightly different suspension features. Generally, your pack should be carried by the structure of your hip bones and the strength of your legs and lower body. The remaining weight should be transferred between your chest, shoulders, and other parts of the upper body. Fitting your pack properly is all about fine-tuning the suspension system.

Backpacking backpack suspension
The mesh back panel provides comfort and breathability. Photo credit: Eric Phillips.

Breathability

Because your pack will be in direct contact with your body during strenuous physical exercise, it’s important that it breathes properly. Without sufficient breathability, you are likely to sweat uncomfortably and potentially overheat while hiking with your pack.

The two primary areas of a pack that should have effective ventilation are the back panel and the hip straps. Your back panel conforms to your back, and there should not be too much negative space between the surface of the panel and your back. Some contemporary packs feature a fully suspended mesh back panel that maintains airflow along the length of the back.

Other packs simply utilize a pattern of offset mesh and foam panels to create channels of airflow across the surface of the wearer’s back. Generally, suspended mesh back panels will allow for more ventilation than the offset mesh/foam styles.

Hip straps should also be designed to allow for breathability and airflow. Excessive sweating beneath a hip strap can lead to discomfort and blisters.

Organization

Not all backpackers have the same organizational preferences. There are many ways to organize a pack, and certain styles will be better suited to certain users based on these preferences.

Main Compartment

The main compartment of a backpack is the largest storage space. Some backpackers prefer a simple pack that doesn’t have more than a giant singular main compartment, and others prefer packs with lots of separate pockets and pouches. Usually, the main compartment is where your bulky and heavy items will go, including a tent, clothes, and sleeping bag.

Nearly all backpacks have a large opening at the top where users can access the main compartment. Some packs have additional entry points into the main compartment, which allow the users to access items at the bottom of the pack without removing everything on top.

Hip Belt Pockets

Many packs include some small pockets integrated directly into the hip belt. These are convenient places to store items that you will want to access without having to remove your pack, like lip balm or a GPS device.

Top Lid Pockets

A pack’s top lid usually sits above the main compartment access point. Zippered top lid pockets are a good place for lightweight items that you will want to have accessible, including a headlamp, rain layers, or a lightweight puffy jacket. In most cases, you will need to remove your pack to access top lid pockets, or you can always ask your hiking buddy to help you out.

Hydration Pocket

Some packs come with an integrated hydration pocket. Typically, a hydration pocket is a sleeve-like space where a water bladder or hydration pouch will fit easily and be kept out of the way of your other gear. A thoughtfully designed pack will also have a simple way to secure and access a water bladder drinking tube. If you prefer to drink out of bottles while hiking, look for a pack that has exterior water bottle holders for easy access.

Compression Straps

Compression straps help to compress the load in your pack and keep the bulk of the weight close to your body. Without properly tightened compression straps, a pack can swing and sway while hiking, which will throw off your balance. Each time you put on your pack, cinch up the compression straps to ensure a stable load. Also, small items can be clipped to or stored underneath your compression straps for easy access.

Rain Cover

When backpacking you’ll need to be prepared to keep your kit dry in case of rain. Many backpacking packs come with a rain cover, which is usually a form-fitting piece of waterproof nylon with an elastic perimeter. The cover should fit over your entire pack and cinch securely in place.

When not in use, the rain cover can be stored in an accessible place such as the pack’s top lid pocket. Certain styles also have fully integrated rain covers that are sewn or stitched directly into the pack.

Ultralight Backpacking Packs

Some backpackers prefer to shed weight from their kit by just about any means necessary. Because packs are one of the heaviest items in a backpacking kit, the ultralight crowd has developed and popularized a range of super lightweight backpacking packs.

Though it sounds great to reduce weight and feel lighter on the trail, ultralight packs certainly do come with some drawbacks. Most of these models have reduced storage space, minimal padding, and a less substantial frame. Also, an ultralight pack’s general construction will probably be thinner and less robust, resulting in a less durable pack overall. Still, for those who are all about going light and fast, ultralight packs are a viable option.

Price

Backpacking packs vary in price. High-quality options range from around $200 to well over $500. More expensive packs may include higher quality materials or extra features. A good pack can last for many adventurous years on the trail, so consider your pack to be an investment.

FAQ

What Is the Best Backpacking Pack?

The best backpacking pack is the one that fits your body and your backpacking objectives. We’ve included lots of excellent packs on this list.

For most people, comfort is paramount. You’ll be hiking great distances with your pack on, and you don’t want to dread doing what you love because of uncomfortable gear.

Measure your torso length and waist size carefully before choosing a pack. Determine a range of capacity that will allow you to pack everything you’ll need on your backpacking trips. If you like certain features or have organization preferences, seek them out when it’s time to make a purchase.

What Is a Good Size Backpacking Pack?

The ideal size of your pack will depend on your own dimensions, as well as on the amount of gear that you plan to carry. For trips up to 3 days, a 50-70L pack is usually enough. For longer trips, look for a pack that can carry at least 60 L.

Some backpackers have truly mastered the art of thinning down their kit to the bare essentials. However, for most people, a 40L pack will not be large enough for trips longer than a single overnight.

How Should I Pack My Backpack?

Packing your backpack properly will help you maximize your pack’s capacity and ensure that you feel balanced while hiking with a heavy load. The more organized your initial packing process is, the less you will have to rummage around, looking for stuff during your trip. Knowing how to properly and efficiently pack is an essential part of a successful adventure.

Generally, you’ll want to pack items that you won’t need while hiking near the bottom of your pack. This includes your sleeping bag and extra clothes. The middle of your pack is where you should keep heavier items like food and water. The closer that the heavy items are to your back, the better.

Keep frequently used items like rain layers and toiletries near the top of your pack where they will be easily accessible. In your hip strap and top lid, you’ll want to keep things like maps, lip balm, GPS device, etc.

For more information about how to pack a backpacking pack, check out our complete guide on how to pack a backpack.


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