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The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Head into the backcountry with one of the best backpacking backpacks of 2023. From budget-friendly options to ultra-comfortable picks, we’ve got you covered.

Group backpacking photoThe GearJunkie team backpacks through the Colorado desert; (photo/Eric Phillips)
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Whether you’re going on a short overnight trip or a months-long thru-hike, finding the best backpacking backpack is fundamental to success. It not only needs to hold all your necessary gear, but it should also be comfortable enough that you don’t spend the day fidgeting or thinking about your pack.

After loads of research and miles upon miles of rigorous testing, we found the best packs for every use and budget. Because no single pack works for everyone, we’ve broken the list into categories to help you find the perfect fit. And if you need more help deciding, be sure to check out the comparison tablebuyer’s guide, and FAQ at the end of this article.

The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023


Best Overall Backpacking Backpack

Osprey Aether & Ariel 55

Specs

  • Weight 4.83 lbs. (S/M); 4.87 lbs. (M/L)
  • Volume 55 L
  • Material 420HD nylon packcloth, 210-denier nylon Diamond (Bluesign-approved)
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 2 dual-access stretch mesh side water bottle pockets, ice axe attachments, and fabric-reinforced front shove-it pocket.
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Customizable sizing
  • Extremely durable
  • Lots of options for outside storage

Cons

  • On the heavier side
  • Not a lot of upper-body mobility
Best Budget Backpacking Backpack

REI Co-op Flash 55

Specs

  • Weight 2 lbs., 12 oz.
  • Volume 55 L
  • Material 100-denier ripstop nylon main body; 210-denier nylon bottom
  • Outside storage Removable hipbelt pockets, 2 side water bottle pockets, 2 larger side mesh pockets, ice axe attachments, breathable mesh front pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to customize

Cons

  • Not quite as durable as other models
  • Doesn’t carry heavy loads as well as other models
Best Breathable Backpanel

Gregory Men’s Katmai 55 & Women’s Kalmia 50

Specs

  • Weight 4 lbs., 9.8 oz. (S/M); 4 lbs., 10.9 oz. (M/L)
  • Volume 55 L
  • Material 210-denier 40% recycled nylon/420 denier 45% recycled nylon
  • Outside storage Hipbelt pockets, 1 side mesh pocket, 1 SideWinder water bottle holder that can be put away when not in use, ice axe/trekking pole attachments, front shove-it pocket, large zippered front pocket with mesh divider
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Extremely breathable
  • Comfortable design carries heavy loads well

Cons

  • On the heavier side
  • Only one side mesh pocket
Best Women’s Backpacking Backpack

The North Face Women’s Terra 55

Specs

  • Weight 3 lbs., 9 oz. (XS/S); 3 lbs., 12 oz. (M/L)
  • Volume 55 L
  • Material 210D nylon with DWR finish, 600D polyester bottom
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 2 dual-access stretch mesh side water bottle pockets, and front shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Unique Dyno Lift load lifters help achieve an optimum fit
  • Comfortable, female-specific features
  • Affordable

Cons

  • On the heavy side
Best Ultralight Backpacking Backpack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack

Specs

  • Weight 1 lb., 14 oz.
  • Volume 40 L
  • Material Dyneema: White (DCH50 – main body, DCH150 – bottom); Black (DCH150 – main body and bottom)
  • Outside storage 2 side pockets, 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, ice axe attachment, front shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Quite durable given its ultralight construction
  • Stable and comfortable compared to other ultralight models
  • Side and front external pockets have drain holes and reinforced bottoms

Cons

  • Minimal features
  • Expensive
  • Center ice axe loop can be awkward to use, as there is no higher attachment for the shaft
Best Comfort Ultralight Backpacking Backpack

ULA Circuit

Specs

  • Weight 2.28 lbs.
  • Volume 68 L
  • Material ULA 400-denier Robic
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 2 adjustable side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, ice axe/trekking pole attachments
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • High carrying capacity given its low weight
  • Extremely comfortable as an ultralight pack

Cons

  • On the heavier side of ultralight packs
  • Somewhat limiting side pocket design
Best Heavy-Hauler Backpacking Backpack

Gregory Baltoro 75

Specs

  • Weight 4.83 lbs.
  • Volume 75 L 
  • Material  210D Honeycomb Cryptorip HD/210D high-tenacity nylon (body), 630D high-density nylon (bottom), 135D high-density embossed polyester (lining)
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hip belt pockets, 1 stretch mesh side pocket, 1 SideWinder bottle holster that tucks away when not in use, dual front zippered pockets, front shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Solid suspension system that balances heavy loads well
  • Durable fabric
  • Comfortable cushion on the hipbelts and shoulder straps

Cons

  • Quite heavy at nearly 5 pounds
  • Tall side pockets can be difficult to access when pack is loaded
Best of the Rest

Osprey Exos 58

Specs

  • Weight 2 lbs., 13 oz. (S/M); 2 lbs., 15 oz. (L/XL)
  • Volume 58 L (S/M); 61 L (L/XL)
  • Material 100- and 400-denier high-tenacity recycled nylon (both Bluesign-approved)
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hip belt pockets, 2 dual-access stretch mesh side water bottle pockets, ice axe attachment with bungee tie-off, and stretch mesh front shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Extremely comfortable for its low weight
  • Efficient suspension system 
  • Great ventilation

Cons

  • Some extra features seem gimmicky and unneeded 
  • Compression system is somewhat awkward to use and impacts the usability of the hip belt pockets

Big Agnes Prospector 50L

Specs

  • Weight 3 lbs., 1 oz.
  • Volume 50 L 
  • Material Recycled high-tenacity Mipan regen robic nylon
  • Outside storage 2 zippered removable hip belt pockets, 2 stretch mesh side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, small front zippered pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Durable 
  • Extra features contribute to comfort and usability without adding too much weight
  • Solid suspension system 

Cons

  • Not quite as ventilated as other models
  • Frame often sticks up awkwardly over smaller loads 
  • Hipbelt pockets are somewhat awkward and loose-fitting

Deuter Aircontact Ultra

Specs

  • Weight 2.6 lbs. (55L version)
  • Volume 55L or 50L
  • Material 200 D ripstop polyamide
  • Outside storage 2 side pockets, 2 zippered mesh hip-belt pockets, front mesh shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Fully featured
  • Superior suspension system

Cons

  • Not quite as breathable as other models
  • Doesn't carry heavy loads quite as well as other packs

Granite Gear Blaze 60

Specs

  • Weight 3 lbs.
  • Volume 60 L
  • Material 100-denier ROBIC high-tenacity nylon with Barrier DWR (main body); 210-denier ROBIC UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) triple ripstop nylon (reinforcements)
  • Outside storage 2 side pockets, 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, front mesh stash pocket, ice axe attachments
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Lightweight for its carrying capacity
  • Well-ventilated
  • Carries heavy loads comfortably

Cons

  • Takes some time to figure out how to adjust shoulder straps and hipbelt

Zpacks Arc Blast 55

Specs

  • Weight 1 lb., 5.3 oz.
  • Volume 55 L
  • Material 3.1 oz./sq. yd. Dyneema Composite Fabric
  • Outside storage 2 side pockets sized to fit 1L or 1.5L water bottles, front mesh shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Water-resistant
  • Lightweight frame

Cons

  • Expensive
  • No hip belt pockets
  • Front mesh pocket is not very stretchable

Helly Hansen Resistor 45L & Capacitor 65L Packs

Specs

  • Weight 3 lbs., 4 oz. (Resistor); 4 lbs., 3 oz. (Capacitor)
  • Volume 45 L (Resistor); 65 L (Capacitor)
  • Material 100% polyamide with a polyurethane coating
  • Outside storage 2 side pockets, 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, ice axe attachments, front shove-it pocket, small front zippered pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Good ventilation
  • Comfortable padding
  • Durable
  • Recco transponder

Cons

  • On the heavier side

Osprey Rook 65

Specs

  • Weight 3.52 lbs.
  • Volume 65 L
  • Material 600-denier polyester (main), 450-denier polyester (accent), 1000-denier nylon packcloth (bottom)
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 2 dual-access stretch mesh side water bottle pockets
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Durable
  • Relatively lightweight given its durable design

Cons

  • Minimal features
  • Not as comfortable as other models
  • No front shove-it pocket

Deuter Aircontact Core

Specs

  • Weight 4.74 lbs.
  • Volume 70 L 
  • Material  500D Textured Polyamide
  • Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 2 stretch mesh side water bottle pockets, front mesh shove-it pocket
The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023

Pros

  • Solid suspension system that balances heavy loads well
  • Durable fabric
  • Comfortable cushion on the hipbelts and shoulder straps

Cons

  • Relatively heavy at nearly 5 pounds
  • Tall side pockets can be difficult to access when the pack is loaded

Backpacking Backpack Comparison Chart

Backpacking BackpackPriceWeightVolumeMaterialsExterior Pockets
Osprey Aether & Ariel 55$3004.83 lbs. (S/M); 4.87 lbs. (M/L)55LNylon Packcloth (210D & 420D)7
REI Co-op Flash 55$1992 lbs., 10 oz.55LNylon (100D & 420D)9
Gregory Katmai 55 & Kalmia 50$2904 lbs., 9.8 oz. (S/M); 4 lbs., 10.9 oz. (M/L)55LNylon (210D & 420D)7
The North Face Terra 55 $1693 lbs., 9 oz. (XS/S); 3 lbs., 12 oz. (M/L)55L210D nylon with DWR finish, 600D polyester bottom5
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack$350-3701 lb., 14 oz.40LDyneema (DCH50 & DCH150)5
ULA Circuit $2802.33 lbs.68LNylon (400 Robic)5
Gregory Baltoro 75$3604.83 lbs.75LNylon (210D & 630D), Polyester (135D)9
Osprey Exos 58$2602 lbs., 13 oz (S/M); 2 lbs., 15 oz (L/XL)58L (S/M); 61L (L/XL)Nylon (100D & 400D)6
Big Agnes Prospector 50$2303 lbs., 1 oz.50LRobic Nylon6
Deuter Aircontact Ultra$2502.6 lbs.50L or 55L200 D ripstop polyamide6
Granite Gear Blaze 60$3003 lbs.60LNylon (100D & 200D)6
Zpacks Arc Blast 55$3751 lb., 5.3 oz.55LDyneema (3.1 oz./sq. yd.)3
Helly Hansen Resistor 45L & Capacitor 65L$210 (Resistor), $290 (Capacitor)3 lbs., 4 oz. (Resistor); 4 lbs., 3 oz. (Capacitor)45L, 65LN/A7
Osprey Rook 65$1903.52 lbs.65LPolyester (600D & 400D), Nylon Packcloth (1000D)5
Deuter Aircontact Core$2504.74 lbs. 60 + 10L Textured Polyamide (500D)6
A group of backpackers on trail.
The GearJunkie team testing packs in western Colorado; (photo/Eric Phillips)

Why You Should Trust Us

The GearJunkie team is made up of all sorts of backpackers. From weekend warriors to seasoned thru-hikers, we’ve collectively spent many years on the trail.

Chris Carter, one of the authors of this guide, has significant experience putting various backpacks through torture and torment, having thru-hiked the Triple Crown of long trails in America: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. He’s navigated the sinking sadness of a mid-hike pack failure, and knows the importance of choosing a model that fits your needs, and will last the distance.

This list of product recommendations above results from thorough field testing. When testing packs, we pay careful attention to ease of use, long-term durability, comfort, and overall value. Impressive-sounding features might look good on paper, but they don’t always translate to actual performance. Our testing aims to determine a pack’s true utility.

Every year, design updates and new products roll out across the market. We make sure to keep our finger on the pulse of the backpacking world and test out any new style that has the potential to be great. This list of recommendations is always in flux — it represents the best of the best at any given time.

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Backpacking Pack

A solid backpacking backpack makes wild adventures all the more enjoyable; (photo/Chris Carter)

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.

Pack Sizing

Best Backpacking Backpacks
The duration and intensity of your backpacking trip will play a role in determining which pack size to go with; (photo/Chris Carter)

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.

DSC05215
Finding the appropriate pack size for your body type and adventure is essential for a smooth, comfortable trip; (photo/Honey McNaughton)

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

Most backpacking packs are labeled according to their capacity.
The Osprey Exos has a 58L capacity; (photo/Eric Phillips)

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 more 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 need to carry several days’ worth of food and/or water, you’ll need to be sure that your pack can handle it.

The most common length of a backpacking trip is 2 to 3 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 extended 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 loads. Still, many modern options, such as the ULA Circuit, 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

A shoulder strap on a backpacking pack.
A good suspension system greatly improves comfort — especially while hauling heavy loads; (photo/Eric Phillips)

Suspension is a system of frames, hip belts, straps, load lifters, and harnesses that keep 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 allows 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.

Breathability

This pack has a large mesh back panel.
Many packs aim to increase breathability with a mesh back panel; (photo/Eric Phillips)

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 panel’s surface 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

DSCF0275
You’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable and familiar with how your pack is organized before setting off on any extended trip; (photo/Darwin Rakestraw)

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.

Traditional backpacks use what is called a top-lid closure, which usually consists of a large opening that cinches closed, covered by a brain. Rolltop bags, on the other hand, are streamlined, no-frills backpacks that close like a dry bag on top, though usually aren’t entirely waterproof.

The rolltop system, used on wildly popular packs such as Hyperlight’s 2400 Southwest, has become a super common design on ultralight models, as it makes it easy to eliminate unneeded backpack volume by rolling up the excess fabric. This is especially helpful for thru-hikers whose pack volume tends to vary significantly over the course of a 5-month excursion through different climates and environments, or even between town stops. These also help compress the pack’s contents for a less bulky, more compact load. Something thru-hikers are always after.

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 (such as many rolltop models), 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, sleeping bag, and clothes.

Nearly all backpacks have a large opening at the top where users can access the main compartment. Some packs, such as the Osprey Aether & Ariel 55, have additional entry points into the main compartment, allowing users to access items within the pack without removing everything on top.

Hipbelt Pockets

A backpacker pulls a phone out of a hipbelt pocket.
Hipbelt pockets are ideal for storing items that must be readily accessible, like a phone or granola bar; (photo/Eric Phillips)

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 removing your pack, like lip balm, granola bars, or a GPS device.

Top Lid Pockets

A backpack is shown with open top lid pockets.
Top lid pockets are perfect for carrying a map, sunscreen, hydration tablets, and snacks; (photo/Eric Phillips)

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 easily access, including a headlamp, rain layers, or a lightweight puffy jacket.

In most cases, you’ll need to remove your pack to access the 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 stay 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 with exterior water bottle holders for easy access.

Compression Straps

Compression straps help compress and condense the load in your pack and keep the bulk of the pack’s weight close to your body. Without properly tightened compression straps, a pack can swing and sway while hiking, which can throw off your balance and cause discomfort or fatigue.

Each time you put on your pack, cinch the compression straps to ensure a stable and comfortable load. Smaller items can also be clipped to or stored underneath the straps for easy on-the-go access.

Compression straps really only make sense on backpacks with frames, as they serve to pull the load into the frame to hug it closer to your back. Frameless packs, like many ultralight models, may have straps on the side, but those are generally only used for lashing things to your pack, like trekking or tent poles. They can serve to snug the load in a bit to prevent it from swaying around, but they won’t provide the same advantage as straps on a fully framed pack.

Rain Protection

ATP09731
A solid rain cover, like this one that comes with the Osprey Aether, can be a good option for keeping gear dry; (photo/Emily Malone)

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.

Many backpackers prefer to use a waterproof pack liner instead of (or in addition to) a rain cover, as a rain cover leaves the back of the pack open to water seeping through to the gear inside. This method works best with backpacks with only one big, main compartment.

This is the best, and cheapest, way to ensure that your gear stays completely dry. And you don’t have to waste time desperately fitting a rain cover over your pack as a freak storm sweeps in, as the inside contents are already protected.

While you can just opt to use a burly trash bag, many manufacturers have come up with more durable, backpacking-specific pack liners that are designed to last for months.

The two most popular waterproof pack liners are Nylofume bags, such as this one sold by Waymark Gear, and polyethylene bags, such as this one sold by Gossamer Gear. Both of these options are extremely durable alternatives to trash bags or rain covers, and also help serve as odor barriers when tied off securely at the top. One Nylofume liner from Waymark kept our tester’s gear bone dry for an entire 3-month thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, a journey that wasn’t lacking in heinous storms and constant drizzle.

Material

ATP09920
The Prospector is made with “high tenacity” nylon, maintaining a lightweight while still being super durable; (photo/Chris Carter)

You usually see backpacking packs utilizing one of two types of fabric: Dyneema composite (DCF) or some form of solid ripstop nylon. The tougher the fabric, the more durable it is likely to be, but often at the cost of increased weight. Packs like the Osprey Rook boast stellar 600- and 1000-denier nylon packcloth, and could be carried into battle.

On the other end of the spectrum, ultralight models such as the Zpacks Arc Blast use abrasion-resistant Dyneema, but need to be babied a bit more and are catered for hikers sticking to on-trail travel with minimal bush bashing. Generally, DCF is lighter and repels water better, but comes at a higher price point.

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.

Packing Your Backpack

DSC05145
Packing your backpack correctly will greatly improve carrying comfort on the trail; (photo/Honey McNaughton)

Though backpacks vary in design and construction, there are a few reliable methods of efficiently packing any backpack that will maximize comfort and load distribution on your forays into the mountains. A well-packed bag will feel a lot lighter than a poorly-packed bag. And it will help reduce stress and discomfort over the long haul.

Starting at the bottom of the pack, it’s a good idea to pack lighter, fluffier items such as a sleeping bag. This creates something of a pillow on your lumbar, on top of which the heavier items can sit.

Additionally, you probably won’t be needing your sleeping bag until the end of the day when you are setting up camp, so there is no problem with shoving it to the bottom.

On this same note, it’s helpful to put the other elements of your sleep system, such as a sleeping bag liner and sleeping pad, in the bottom of the pack. These items are also relatively lightweight and won’t be needed throughout the day.

Next, you want to pack the middle section of the bag, which will house the heaviest items in your kit. You want to pack this gear (such as your food bag, cooking system, and backpacking tent) as close to your back as possible.

DSC04223
When packing your backpack, think about which items you’ll need readily available, while still focusing on weighting the load evenly; (photo/Honey McNaughton)

By putting these items in the middle of your back, you alleviate a significant amount of stress from your shoulders or lower back. You can also use spare clothes that you probably won’t need throughout the day to fill in the gaps between these items. This will keep them from shifting around while you are hiking.

Finally, at the top of your bag, you want to pack lighter items that you may want to use throughout the day, such as a midlayer or rain jacket. Once the main compartment is filled, you can put smaller items that you may want to easily access in the outside compartments of the pack. This could include a headlamp, first-aid kit, or maps.

While packing your bag, you want to think of what you’ll need throughout the day, how the weight is distributed, and if you can quickly protect all of your gear from sudden changes in weather.

If you use a rain cover as your primary protection, every pocket will be protected. But, if you rely on a pack liner, you need to make sure that the items in external storage are in additional waterproof containers or dry bags.

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

Value

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Quality packs can often be tough on the wallet, but it’s an important investment for reliable comfort in the backcountry; (photo/Chris Carter)

Backpacking packs vary in price and value. High-quality options range from around $200 to well over $500. More expensive packs may include higher quality materials or extra features, but sometimes simpler is better when weight is the biggest concern.

With ultralight backpacking rising in popularity, and lightweight, durable packs coming out to match the demand, the comfort-to-weight ratio is a big deciding factor for many backpackers. The Osprey Aether & Ariel 55 are loaded with features and are extremely durable.

However, many hikers would opt for the more fragile, simpler Zpacks Arc Blast 55 as a lightweight alternative for fast missions in the mountains, even though it may not last as long as the Osprey.

As you think about which pack to get, consider what you need it for, and the level of comfort you want for the trips you have in mind. Are you bushwhacking through dense underbrush for an extended weekend? Maybe a heavier, durable pack is the best option.

Are you trying to clock big miles on an established trail through the Cascades? A lighter, simpler model may be the best fit. A good pack can last for many adventurous years on the trail, so consider your pack to be an investment.

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A solid backpacking backpack can make or break a long trek through the woods; (photo/Honey McNaughton)

FAQ

What is the best backpacking backpack?

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 capacity range that allows 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.

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Taking the Exos on a stroll through Appalachia; (photo/Chris Carter)
What is a good size backpacking backpack?

The ideal size of your pack depends 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.

Is a 40L backpack big enough for backpacking?

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 excursion.

The Aircontact Ultra is quite light, yet extremely comfortable and well-featured; (photo/Honey McNaughton)
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 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, a GPS device, etc.

Putting the Osprey Aether to the test on the Cumberland Trail; (photo/Emily Malone)

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