The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2017
There are hundreds of backpacking backpacks, from ultralight to ultra comfy. We researched 65 packs and bought the 12 best for 210 hours of tests in the mountains of Patagonia and the Pacific Northwest. Today's backpacks are more feature-rich than ever, but it's hard to distinguish what's useful and what adds weight. We'll find you the right model for a 2-8 day trip, whether you're a minimalist or want the feeling of luxury every time you clip your hip belt. Since no pack fits everyone perfectly, our mountain-guide-led testing team got fit feedback from friends and clients to accurately score comfort and suspension. Read on to pick your perfect pack.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
|Displaying 1 - 5 of 12||<< Previous | View All | Next >>|
Analysis and Award Winners
Updated March 2017
Our 2017 review update includes new award winners, charts, and graphs. It's easier to see how each pack excelled or flailed in each metric. While the Arc'teryx continues its reign, many new award contenders emerged, especially for value and weight. The packs keep getting better and the competition tighter.
Best Overall Backpack
Arc'teryx Altra 65
The Altra 65 has won our Editor's Choice more times than any other pack. In 2017, it's again on top. Even with heavier (50+ lbs) loads, it's still comfortable and light. It's unique pivoting waist belt transfers pack weight comfortably to hips. The Altra has some of the tester's favorite features, like a dual-zippered lid (that was the easiest to keep things organized) and a giant "U" shaped access zipper running around the front of the pack, as well as an enormous zippered kangaroo pocket. It has a few downsides, mainly that at $475, it's $120+ more than any other pack reviewed. If you don't need its load hauling prowess (your loads are regularly below 40 lbs), then you could get away with a lighter, less expensive pack. If you're going to spend $475, it will last for a while, and we'll vouch for it. We used the older, less durable version over 120 days (including six Denali trips) and were impressed with its longevity; the newer version is even tougher and more water-resistant. And if you are looking for a bigger size, Arc'teryx makes the Altra in the Arc'teryx Altra 75 and the monster Arc'teryx Altra 85.
Awesome pivoting waist belt
Innovative and effective adjustment system
Best lid pockets
Easily some of the best features of any pack in our review
Read full review: Arc'teryx Altra 65
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Volt 75
The Osprey Volt 75 combines comfort and performance with value. The $200 Volt 75, or the identical but smaller $180 Volt 60, scored high in most categories and scored better overall than several more expensive packs. The Osprey Volt 75 appeals to people who appreciate simplicity: few extra pockets or pouches, just the essentials and an above average frame, padding, and ergonomics. While the Volt 75 is not feature-heavy, it does have all the features that backpackers care about most, like a lid pocket, dual entry water bottle pockets, stretchy beavertail pocket and a lower zippered access point (AKA sleeping bag compartment), among other things. What our testers noticed was the Volt's ergonomic shoulder straps, foam, and face materials, which were all better than most packs in its price range. If you're looking for something smaller, check out the Volt 60.
Fits a broad range of people
Not as supportive for super heavy (50+ lb) loads
Read full review: Osprey Volt 75
Top Pick for Shorter Trips
Osprey Atmos 65 AG
The Osprey Atmos 65 AG loses the Editors' Choice title this year, but it remains a Top Pick for short excursions and comfort. It's one of the best all-around backpacking packs because of its functional features, comfort, and ventilation, all at a lighter than average 4 lbs 6 oz. However, what lost it the best all-around award is its inability to handle heavier loads (greater than 45 pounds) as well as competitors. If you pack lighter or don't embark on extended trips often, this pack is one of the best. What sets the Atmos apart is its luxurious AG suspension that spreads loads evenly across your body and makes your pack seem lighter than it is. For trips where we carried less than 40 lbs, this was the most comfortable pack reviewed for the majority of testers. Another big advantage is the fit, ergonomics, and adjustability of the Atmos, from the frame to the waistbelt. Our testers raved about its refined design: every additional pocket is well placed and sized, with few features our testers claimed to be useless. The only downfall: the Anti-Gravity suspension doesn't carry heavy loads as comfortably as some of our other Top Picks, and it can fill with snow during winter or mountaineering objectives. Want the smaller and lighter version of this pack? Check out the Atmos 50 AG.
Packed full of features
Lots of awesome pockets offering excellent organization
Lighter than average
Sweet adjustable hip belt
Not as supportive for super heavy (50+ lb) loads
Snow can get inside of the back panel
Read full review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG
Top Pick for Comfort and Features
Gregory Baltoro 65
The improved Gregory Baltoro 65 is as comfortable as ever and offers improved features and usability while weighing eight ounces less than the previous model. The Baltoro remains the best pack reviewed for carrying loads more than 60 lbs, offering a plethora of features. It's a heavier than other models; at 5 lbs 3 oz, but not much heavier, especially if you need to carry significant weight or access is important to you. It will last (nearly) forever and gives you a ton of features. The Baltoro is also available in larger sizes, like the Gregory Baltoro 75 and the Gregory Baltoro 85. Gregory has also teamed up with Goal Zero with the Gregory Baltoro 75 GZ to provide charging capabilities.
Carries heavier loads among the best in the review
Dual zippered lid pockets are awesome
"U" shaped opening provides easy access
Slightly heavier than average
Supportive foam can feel stiff initially
Read full review: Gregory Baltoro 65
Top Pick for Extended Trips
Osprey Xenith 75
If you frequently participate in long trips (upwards of 5 days) that require a lot of gear or, then the Xenith is the pack for you. It comes in 75L, 85L, and 105L, and is tester Ian Nicholson's favorite pack for heavy loads on Denali. The Xenith series is also a favorite for extended trips among many NOLS instructors. We think it hits the sweet spot of a robust suspension and above average padding and ergonomics while offering features and an assortment of pockets. It remains lightweight for a pack that carries fantastically. While the Xenith was one of the best load hauling packs we have ever tested, it was a toss up as to which pack could carry monster loads better: the Baltoro or the Xenith. In the end, they both proved awesome; the only difference between the two came down to slight personal preferences. The Xenith is also available in the Osprey Xenith 88 and the spacious Osprey Xenith 105 to keep you supplied on long trips.
Carries heavier loads among the best in the review
Superb external twin zippered pockets
Functional and easy to use stretch mesh zippered pockets
Difficult to search for items in lid pockets
Lumbar pack lid rarely useful
Read full review: Osprey Xenith 75
Top Pick for Best Lightweight
Osprey Exos 58
The Osprey Exos 58 was the lightest pack reviewed by over a pound but remained comfortable for sub-40-pound loads. The Exos blurs the line between traditional backpacking packs and ultralight packs, making it unique. It's almost as light as many frameless ultra-lightweight packs (being only 0.5-1 lbs heavier than most), but still has the essential features you'd expect in a traditional backpacking pack (including a frame). It's a great stepping stone for people who want to get into "ultralight" backpacking but can't get their load down to the 20-30 lbs necessary to make a sub 2-pound frameless pack comfortable. Or, it's for people who already pack on the light end, but want a little more suspension and features than most frameless packs provide. If you like the idea of a lighter pack, but want more features and a more substantial frame, consider the The North Face Banchee 65 or REI Flash 65, both 3 lb 10 oz. Looking for a day or ultralight pack? Check out the Exos 38 and Exos 48 to complete your pack quiver.
Lightest pack in the review
One of the lightest framed packs available
Comfortable for loads under 40 lbs
Great pockets and features
Not a ton of extra features
Not very adjustable
Read full review: Osprey Exos 58
Analysis and Test Results
There is a lot to consider when selecting the right pack, whether it's your first bag or you're just adding to the quiver. In this review, we compared the best and most popular men's backpacking backpacks. We tested these twelve models and compared them in five independent metrics: Comfort, Weight, Suspension, Ease of Use, and Adjustability. Below we describe the importance of each category, as well as how we tested and scored within each one.
For comfort, we compared how comfortable and supportive each pack's frame, shoulder straps, and hip belt were by field testing each for hours and days at a time. We compared these packs with standard 30-45 lb loads typical of week-long trips, as well as "load-hauler" type loads, where we compared each pack with 55-65 lbs for longer than our hips and shoulders would have liked.
We paid attention to how the waistbelt and shoulder straps felt after wearing the packs for long days with heavy loads. We took feedback from OutdoorGearLab Editors, friends, and climbing partners and tested these packs in excess of three hundred days give us a broader perspective when choosing the most comfortable pack.
Not far behind the Xenith 75 and the Baltoro was the Gregory Contour 60, The North Face Banchee 65, and Osprey Aether 60 and 70L. While these models weren't as comfortable as the two packs above, they weren't far behind. For medium and lighter loads of around 30-40 lbs, we noticed less of a difference between packs, but once we crested 40 pounds, additional weight was challenging for packs to handle.
The fabric Osprey uses on the inside of the shoulder straps of the Osprey Xenith 75 and Osprey Aether 70 was incredible, while the feeling of the Atmos 65 AG was our favorite on bare skin; the shape and articulation of these packs were second to none. Many ask about the heat-moldable waistbelt featured on the Aether and other Osprey models. After extensive testing, there is little, if any difference, between molding it in a convection oven or breaking it in the old fashion way (AKA using it). After testing a molded waist belt and one that had been used for a three-day trip, there was almost no difference.
The Aircontact's shoulder straps and waistbelt were comfortable, but not as comfortable as the Xenith 75 and Baltoro 65. The Air Contact's padding was bulkier and hotter, and the shoulder straps were not shaped well for most testers. If you carry more than 40-45 lbs on a regular basis, we recommend the Xenith 75, Altra 65, or the Baltoro 65. If you rarely carry 40 or more pounds, we loved how the Osprey Atmos 65 AG and The North Face Banchee 65 felt as long as we didn't overload them. These packs felt good up to 40 lbs; above 50 lbs, the Xenith and Baltoro were superior.
The suspension category encompasses how well the frame transferred the load from the pack into the waistbelt and, to a lesser extent, onto our shoulder straps. The suspension is tied in with overall comfort, but we specified unique criteria for each category. In addition, we compared the foam, articulation, and how well the packs felt against our backs.
The Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith and Arc'teryx Altra performed fantastically, while the Xenith and the Baltoro barely edged out the Altra and the Contour because of how nicely the frame transferred loads to the waistbelt and our hips. With these two packs, heavy loads were noticeably not as bad to carry and were both Top Picks for extended trips and monster loads. That said, we liked how supportive and comfortable the foam on the Altra and the Aether were. The Osprey Atmos 65 AG, while comfortable when carrying loads below 40 pounds, wasn't that awesome for heavier loads when its Anti-Gravity trampoline-style suspension felt mushy and less supportive. The Deuter Air Contact was a hair behind the Baltoro; it featured thick, comfortable padding and a supportive frame — some testers thought it felt bulky.
Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System
Trampoline-style or suspended suspension systems use a mesh back panel over a traditional frame. The advantages of this frame are that it allows more air ventilation, making these backpacks cooler, less sweaty and, more importantly, producing fewer hot spots because the weight is spread out or "suspended" over a larger body area. More and more packs are using a similar design at least on the back panel. Our testers like the trampoline style suspension because of this; however, when it comes to massive loads, having the weight closer to your back without a gap will be more comfortable. For example, the Gregory Baltoro 65 doesn't feature a true trampoline suspension system, but that's one reason it carries massive loads effectively. With all suspension style systems, there comes a weight limit where the suspended mesh is pressed so tightly against the wearer that it either bottoms out or causes a hot spot. The ventilation area that's so wonderful in summer can fill with snow during mountaineering or winter trips, making the pack less pleasant to wear.
Ease of Use
Our ease of use category includes how easy a backpack was to pack and an examination of the main compartment design and additional pockets. We compared the number and location of pockets, how useful the lid (or brain) of the pack was, and how easy it was to access the main backpack compartment. For each pocket, we asked ourselves: "Did that pocket make my life easier, or is it not that useful and adding weight to the pack?" We also looked at access points and evaluated whether they were useful or just for show.
For "Ease of Packing" we broke down the level of usefulness of each feature and evaluated them during real-world use. Our testers feel that if a pocket or access point didn't help, it was adding weight. Lastly, we favored packs with a handful of straps for crampons, ice axes, sleeping pads or other items, because we felt it added to the pack's versatility.
Overall Organizational Ability
For folks who like compartments and pockets for organization, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith 75, and The North Face Banchee 65 have the best and most usable pockets, while the Arc'teryx Altra 65 and Baltoro had the best access of any pack reviewed. These packs provide options for folks who like organization or the ability to get inside their pack easily without having to take much out.
Our favorite collection of pockets came in the Baltoro 65, which is heavier than most packs reviewed, at 5 lbs 3 oz, and the Banchee 65, one of the lighter packs reviewed, at 3 lbs 10 oz (around a pound lighter than average). The Deuter Air Contact has nearly as many pockets as the packs above, but we felt that they weren't as useful and neither were easy to access. It's worth noting that the REI Flash 65 had nearly as many usable pockets and close to as many access points, featuring a "J" shaped opening; the cost is also only $200.
Top Lid Pocket
There aren't a lot of universal features for packs, but one thing that nearly every pack sports is a zippered top lid pocket (some folks call the lid the "brain" of the pack). This common feature is one of the best places to store small items, like sunglasses, sunblock, and bug spray, among other things, wanted close at hand. Many packs featured a separate, smaller pocket on the underside of the lid, offering a secondary storage spot for small items. Our testers liked this feature, as it's a great place to put items you want access to but not as frequently.
Of all the packs tested, our favorite top lid pockets belonged to the Arc'terx Altra 65 and Gregory Baltoro 65. They were the most usable. Both featured two pockets on the top of the pack that made finding items easier and these items were less likely to fall out while we rooted around. The rest of the packs had zippers on the front or back of the pack. None of these packs were as easy to get into as the Altra and the Baltoro, but not all are created equal. The large zippered lid pockets of the Atmos 65 AG and the Banchee 65 are the next top scorers. They had nearly the same volume as the Altra and had a longer than average zipper that made access good, but not as great as the Altra 65).
Pack access is part of our "Ease of Use" category and refers to how easily we could access larger items without having to unpack the pack. While access is nice, its importance depends on you. Ease of access is a useful feature for folks using their backpack for travel, where they might otherwise use a suitcase or a duffel bag, to go "backpacking.". Everyone wants more access, but zippers add weight and aren't always essential. It's a balance. Consider your priorities before saying "I want more access." Is the increased weight from zippers worth it?
All the packs tested were top loading, and many had side access zippers, sleeping bag compartments, or panels that opened to allow access. Of all the packs tested, we loved the Arc'teryx Altra and Gregory Baltoro the most for its "U" shaped opening that travels nearly the entire length of the pack's back. It opened almost as large as a suitcase and makes an excellent pack for anyone "backpacking" through Europe, Southeast Asia, or anywhere where access is important. The REI Flash 65, with its "J" shaped zipper, had above average access for our review, but not as good as either of these two packs.
While not a must, most of our testers appreciated having at least one zippered pocket on the hip belt that was big enough for a small camera or a handful of snacks. The North Face Banchee 65, along with the Osprey Volt 75, Xenith 75, and Atmos 65 AG all had some of our favorite hip belt pockets.
All the packs reviewed have a spot for a hydration bladder that fits most brands and models. Rather than use the same brand bladder as the pack, we recommend reading our Hydration Bladder Review and picking the reservoir for your needs and budget. One cool feature among packs we tested was found in the Gregory Baltoro, which came with a removable and functional hydration pack that doubled as its hydration sleeve when used inside the pack.
The lightest pack reviewed was the Osprey Exos 58. At 2 lbs 8 ounces, it straddles the line between a backpacking pack and an ultra-light pack.
For a lighter but still rugged and more featured pack, we like The North Face Banchee 65 or the REI Flash 65 (both 3 lbs 10 oz) and would certainly consider the Osprey Volt 75 (3 lbs 12 oz). They all hit a balance between being lightweight, comfortable and fairly full-featured.
Among the full-featured packs, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG (4 lbs 6 oz), Osprey Aether 60 (4 lbs 11 ounces), and the Arc'teryx Altra 65 (4 lbs 13 oz) remain lighter than average and give up little in comfort, load hauling ability, and features.
Adjustability and Fit
A pack's ergonomics and the sizes it is offered in typically translates to a better fitting pack. Check out the chart below to see how each pack ranked in the adjustability metric.
A handful of manufacturers will swap out shoulder straps and waist belts for different sizes (for example, if you want a medium frame and a small waist belt), something that many stores and websites offer for free. The Deuter Air Contact and the Osprey Volt 75 has the most vertical adjustability for yoke (shoulder straps) positioning, not only helping it fit a wide range of people but also making it a good choice for growing children. Despite this feature, our testers didn't think the either pack had the best overall fit.
Our testers liked the adjustment of the Arc'teryx Altra. While it didn't have as much range, we loved that the shoulder straps could adjust independently side to side (width-wise), as well as up and down. The North Face Banchee 65, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Atmos, Xenith, and Osprey Aether 70 all had a respectable amount of adjustment. Our testers appreciated each of the packs' ergonomics and gave all of these packs high scores in the "fit" metric.
None of these backpacks are waterproof. Using a garbage bag will get you through in a pinch. But if you are planning a lot of time in the rain, consider a pack cover designed for your pack.
Here are a few options:
— Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
Table of Contents
You Might Also Like