Need a new backpacking backpack? We researched the market's top 65 models before selecting and testing the best 14 for hundreds, if not thousands of hours on the trail. Our expert testers hiked the mountains of Patagonia, the High Sierra, and the Pacific Northwest, focusing on critical aspects that you'll find essential while out in the backcountry. We assessed the comfort of each model's shoulder straps and waist belt after an 8+ hour day and how evenly the load felt distributed across our body. We compared the weights and dissected each model's feature set while assessing how useful the pockets, access, and other attributes were. This review helps you decipher which pack best fits your needs for most 2-8 day excursions; whether you seek top-tier comfort, a lightweight, minimal pack, or a steal of a deal, we've got you covered. See also Women's Backpacking Backpacks.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated April 2018
Our experts perused the market for our new review, including 14 of the best models. The Arc'teryx Bora 63 remains our Editors' Choice and now has company with the Osprey Atmos 65. The Atmos also won our Editors' Choice award, providing our testers with pure, backpacking bliss. The new Gregory Baltoro also provided exceptional performance, and it was a very tough decision as to which packs should win our award. The Osprey Volt 60, at $180, takes the cake for the Best Bang for the Buck but it also faced stiff competition from the Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10, which only barely missed the award.
Since fit isn't universal, our team of mountain guides and avid backpackers used them personally and passed each model around to friends, co-workers, and clients to gain a more accurate and collective score for each models comfort, fit, adjustment options, and suspension. When it comes to features, some are well thought out while others are less functional. For each product, we determined if a given feature make specific tasks easier or were they simply added weight. Read our complete review below for side-by-side comparisons and more on each model.
Best Overall Backpacking Backpack
Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
The re-release of Arc'teryx's iconic Bora series was highly anticipated and for a good reason. While there were some excellent packs and the competition was as fierce as ever, this pack came away as the all-around favorite among our group of testers. The Bora 63 dominates the field when it comes to comfort and suspension, and scored exceptionally in adjustability and ease of use. The shoulder straps strike a dreamy balance of cushy comfort, yet aren't too soft; they are also incredibly supportive. Our testers also found many of the features of this model to be well thought-out and user-friendly. The pivoting waist belt is not a innovation for Arc'teryx, but it is for their Bora series of packs, and they've nailed it.
Pivoting waist belt
Innovative and effective adjustment system
Best lid pockets
Easily some of the best features of any backpacking backpack in our review
While the pivoting waist belt might appear gimmicky at first glance, it extremely efficient at transferring the weight from our back to our hips, especially in rougher or steeper terrain. This pack is also the most water resistant model reviewed, employing a proprietary AC² fabric on most of the pack, sealing some seams, and even integrating some watertight zippers. This combination kept our gear dry during wet springtime hikes in the soggy rain forests of Olympic National Park. The primary drawback to this pack is its slightly above average weight of five pounds and a review-high price tag. If you demand the best of the best, though, the winner of our Editors' Choice Award is your pack.
Read review: Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
Editors Choice for Comfort and Features
Osprey Atmos 65 AG
Improved for 2018 the Osprey Atmos 65 AG co-wins our Editors' Choice award winner for Shorter Excursions, features, and overall comfort. Not only was this pack the most comfortable model we tested but it's easily one of the best all-around pack-designs. It's stacked with functional features, is MEGA-comfortable, and ventilates fantastically - all at a lighter than average 4 lbs 8 oz. However, it shares the Editors' Choice award instead of winning it outright; while it is a top-notch all-around pack, it doesn't handle heavier loads (greater than 45 pounds) as well as several other models, including the Bora. While both are similar in comfort, we liked the Atmos' features better. With that said, if you pack on the lighter side or don't embark on extended trips often, this pack is certainly one of the best.
Lots of awesome pockets offering excellent organization
Lighter than average
Sweet adjustable hip belt
Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ lb) loads
Snow can get inside of the back panel
What sets the Atmos apart is its luxurious AG suspension, which does a fantastic job of spreading the load out evenly across your body. The suspension system makes your pack seem lighter than it is and the tapered foam design of the 2018 model's shoulder straps is simply dreamy. For trips where we are planning on carrying less than 40 lbs, this was hands down the most comfortable pack in our review. Other advantages of this pack include fit, ergonomics, and adjustability from the frame to the waist belt. Our testers raved about its refined design; every additional pocket is in the right place, is the right size, with few features our testers claimed to be useless (unlike many models). The only downfall: the Anti-Gravity suspension doesn't carry super heavy loads as comfortably as some of our other Top Picks, and it can fill with snow during winter or mountaineering objectives.
Read review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG
Top Pick for Heavy Loads and All-Around Performance
Gregory Baltoro 65
The new and improved Gregory Baltoro 65 is just as comfortable as ever. It offers improved features and usability while somehow weighing eight ounces less than the previous model. The Baltoro carries monster loads (more than 60 lbs) exceptionally well and offers a plethora of features. At 4 lbs 14 ounces, it's now inline to the weight of many other models that offer a similar level of suspension and comfort.
Carries heavy loads well
Dual zippered lid pockets are awesome
"U" shaped opening provides easy access
Supportive foam can feel stiff initially
Its new pocket layout is near perfect; few, if any of our testers would change anything. Its lid is user-friendly, and it even includes a rain cover. If we could give out three Editors' Choice awards, this model would get one, as it's fantastic in its own incredible way. For folks weary of sore shoulders, this extremely well-designed pack deserves a look.
Read review: Gregory Baltoro 65
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Volt 60
If you want an affordable pack that doesn't skip out on performance, take a long look at the Osprey Volt 60. This packs $180 price tag is the least expensive pack in our review. We were impressed by how capable and comfortable this model was under all loads, except for mega heavy ones. Unless you are regularly carrying over 45 lbs, this pack won't be an issue for you. While simple, the Volt includes all the essential features that most backpackers care about, such as two zipped lid pockets, dual entry water bottle pockets, stretchy beavertail pocket, and a lower zippered access point (AKA sleeping bag compartment), among other common features. The Volt only comes in one frame size, but the vertical adjustment was greater than nearly any model we tested (with only the Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10 offering more). The Volt also features an adjustable girth waist belt to boot.
Fits a broad range of people
Simple design but still has all the features the most people find most important
Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ lb) loads
All this, and the Volt 60 still weighs less than average among models in our review, coming in at an impressive and very respectable 3 lbs 14 oz on our scale. Pushing this model over the top for our Best Buy Award are the ergonomic and plush shoulder straps and weight belt, as well as high-quality foam padding and fabrics, especially for a product in this price range. The Volt doesn't have the pizazz other packs offer, like extra pockets and pouches, but it excels in its simplicity without forgetting the essentials and has comfy padding and an ergonomic design. We believe this is the best pack for the money, though the REI Flash 65 comes close and is lighter overall. The Deuter Aircontact Lite 65 + 10 was almost a winner of this award and remains a reliable option. It's a little more expensive and is potentially a better option for you if want additional volume or a more robust suspension.
Read review: Osprey Volt 60
Top Pick for Extended Trips
Osprey Xenith 105
If you frequently go on outings that consist of 5-25 days or trips that require you to carry a lot of gear, the Osprey Xenith 105 is the pack for you. It comes in 75, 85, and 105-liter options, and the Xenith is tester Ian Nicholson's favorite Denali Pack (which is a 22-day mountaineering trip with arctic cold weather and HEAVY LOADS). The Xenith series also ranks as a favorite among many NOLS instructors for month plus adventures. It hits the mega sweet spot of a robust suspension, above average padding, and ergonomics while offering rich features and a nice assortment of pockets - all without being too heavy.
Carries heavier loads ultra-well
Superb external twin zippered pockets
Functional and easy to use stretch mesh zippered pockets
Sweet lid-turned-day pack
While great for heavy loads the foam used is on the stiffer side and less "cushy feeling"
Difficult to search for items in lid pockets
It's easy to fill up even if you don't have too.
It remains relatively lightweight for a pack that carries so fantastically, and that has such a large volume and is only marginally heavier than a majority of packs in our review. While the Xenith was one of the best load hauling packs we have ever tested, it was an extremely close call as to which pack could carry monster loads better: the Baltoro or the Xenith. In the end, they both proved to be impressive packs; but in our opinion, the Xenith edged out the Baltoro 65 for heavy loads. Love the idea of the Xenith 105 but think that 105 liters is too big for you? Check our review of the Osprey Xenith 75 here.
Read review: Osprey Xenith 105
Top Pick for Load Hauling Prowess at Minimal Weight
Osprey Aether Pro 70
The Osprey Aether Pro certainly isn't your all-around backpacking pack; if you're someone who is looking to save a little weight but isn't willing to give up anything in the way of support or comfort, the Aether Pro is hard to beat. It's geared a little more towards mountaineering but is suitable for backpacking so long as the user knows that they are buying this pack for its functionality, low-weight, load-worthy suspension, and exceptional comfort - and not for an abundance of bells and whistles.
Nicely shaped shoulder straps
Several features are removable to further reduce weight
Handles heavier loads fantastically
Not a ton of extra features
On the more expensive side
Poor access options
The Aether Pro handles heavy loads easily and is the best of any sub-four pound pack we have ever seen. It's worth noting that despite its low weight, the Aether Pro is exceptionally durable and built with outdoor professionals in mind.
Read review: Osprey Aether Pro 70
Top Pick for Best Lightweight Model
Osprey Exos 58
The Osprey Exos 58 was the lightest pack in this review by over a pound, but despite its low weight remained comfortable for moderate loads of up to 35 or 40 pounds. This is what's special about the Exos: it blurs the line between traditional backpacking packs and ultralight models. It's near as light as many frameless, minimal, ultra-lightweight packs (often being only 0.5-1 lbs heavier than most, and these rarely have more than one or two pockets, let alone a lid), yet the Exos still has most of the essential features you'd expect in a traditional backpacking pack (including a frame).
Lightest backpacking backpack 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
It's both 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, comfort, and features that most frameless packs don't provide. If you like the idea of a lighter weight pack, but want a few more features and a slightly more substantial frame, consider the The North Face Banchee 65 or REI Flash 65 - both weigh 3 lbs 10 oz.
Read review: Osprey Exos 58
Top Pick for Travel
Thule Versant 70
The Thule Versant 70 proved to be a jack-of-all-trades model that was equally at home on the trail as it was on a train. With that said, it's a solid option for backpacking and has several desirable qualities that made it our Top Pick for Travel. These attributes included above, like average durability, will help it survive when checked or on far-flung adventures, and it has just the right amount of pockets to be useful, without feeling cumbersome. Its easy access made it the best pack for travel.
Excellent Access with huge "U" shaped opening
Carries heavy loads well
Lighter than average,
Built-in rain fly
Items can occasionally fall out of lid while you're looking through it
Thin shoulder straps
The Versant sports a huge upside-down "U" shaped zippered access panel. The panel more or less lets its user access nearly every part of this pack, essentially turning it into a duffel bag that is WAY more comfortable to carry than most traditional luggage options. It's also a sweet backpacking backpack. It sports pleasant, and ergonomically-shaped shoulder straps are exceptionally comfortable, has a built-in rain cover, and cool pockets. Most notable is the waist belt is removable, and the waist belt pocket is waterproof. To put the cherry on top, the Versant is a decent weight. The Gregory Baltoro was a very close second for this award.
Read review: Thule Versant 70
Top Pick for Huge Range of Adjustment
Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10
Weight: 4.4 lbs | Volume: 65+10 liters
The Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10 was very nearly our Best Buy Award winner and only barely lost out that award to the Osprey Volt 60. These two very comparable packs each have subtle advantages over each other, and the main reason the Bolt won our Best Buy Award is the fact that it's simply $30 less expensive rather than any performance characteristic or feature. While it barely didn't win our Best Buy award, the Aircontact Lite 65+10 remains a solid, durable, and comfortable pack that has enough rad attributes that it is worthy of a Top Pick.
Huge range of adjustment
Solid overall features
Great for folks with bonier hips
Not quite as many pockets as other models
Soft padding was less comfortable with super heavy loads
Warmest pack in the review
It features a stout frame and cozy padding; while on the softer side, they are exceptionally comfortable, easily taking the shape of several very different shaped users. While it doesn't boast nearly the number of the bells and whistles that many other models feature, it's still incredibly versatile with the majority of features that most backpackers look for. The Aircontact's padding was a favorite among thinner users of folks with bonier hips, and it was one of the most long-lasting packs in the review. Its vast range of adjustment coupled with its standout durability make it a perfect option for growing kids. While it doesn't have an over-the-top number of features, we feel it has all the most important ones.
Read review: Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10
Notable Mention for Low Weight, Features, and Suspension
Gregory Paragon 68
Weight: 3.88 lbs | Volume: 68 liters
The Gregory Paragon 68 is a straight-up rad pack. It's packed full of great features, is above average in comfort, and has the most robust suspension for a sub-four-pound pack. If you want a more supportive pack but are still looking for something on the lighter side, this is your pack.
Lighter than average weight
One of the best lid designs in our review
Doesn't fit narrower shouldered users well
No additional access
Read review: Gregory Paragon 68
Notable Mention for Features
The North Face Banchee 65
Weight: 3.63 lbs | Volume: 65 liters
The North Face Banchee 65 was very nearly a winner of a Top Pick for its overall design coupled with top-tier comfort, and a relatively low weight. While this model didn't win an award, it is worth considering for folks who go out for less than 5-6 days and carry less than 45-50 pounds. For these types of trips, the Banchee offers plenty of comfort and support with one of our favorite and most user-friendly pack-designs with plenty of options to keep you organized.
Comfortable to carry for long periods of time
Useful and well thought out pockets
Hip belt adjustment
External lid pocket isn't easy to search through
Read the review: The North Face Banchee 65
Analysis and Test Results
There are many factors to consider when selecting the new backpacking backpack, whether it's your first backpacking backpack, you're updating an old model, or you're just adding to the quiver. In this review, we directly compare the best and most popular men's backpacking backpacks and attempt to present it in an easily digestible manner as to why each aspect is important.
The backpacking packs included in our review are the type of models that most people will be drawn toward and will use for day-in-day-out backpacking. While the contenders we chose to review could be utilized for travel, such as "backpacking" through Europe or Southeast Asia, and most are versatile enough for some general mountaineering applications, these packs aren't necessarily geared specifically for those activities. Certain types of travel mean it can be easier to use a backpacking pack over a more traditional piece of luggage. We compared each model for travel purposes and selected a best overall model for travel uses, which still offers respectable performance while out on the trail.
There are hundreds of backpacking packs currently available. We carefully considered our selection after strongly considering nearly 65 products before choosing the models now included in our review. We carefully compared them in five different categories.
With the most expensive model in our fleet topping the charts at $550, many will have their hopes set on a model that won't break the bank. Which models are the most wallet-friendly, you ask? Which will provide the best value for the price? Which trade-offs are you willing to sacrifice? In a review of 14 contenders, we've awarded a series of awards. At $180, the Osprey Volt offers a serious level of value for the price point, and is the winner of our Best Buy Award. Our fleet includes a decent number of packs that fall between the $180 and $220 range; in the chart below, the highest value is represented in the bottom right corner.
For our comfort category, we took some factors into consideration. We compared how comfortable and supportive each pack's shoulder straps both in shape/ergonomics but the padding as well. We also compared each model's back panel and waist belt for days at a time and carried each with a variety of pack weight. We compared these packs with more common 30-45 lb loads that most backpackers might carry for a 3-6 day trip. We also loaded each contender with 55-60 lbs for a little longer than our hips, back, and shoulders would have liked to simulate what long range or more heavily laden trips might feel like.
We paid extra attention to how the waist belt and shoulder straps felt on each pack after wearing them for long days and with heavy loads. We took into account other feedback from OutdoorGearLab Editors, their friends, and climbing and backpacking partners (thanks to everyone who contributed) and tested these packs more than three hundred user days. This helped give us a broader perspective on body types and what it takes in choosing the most comfortable contender.
After extensive testing with "average" 30-40 lb loads, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG scored at the top for comfort, with the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 also proving its place near the very top of the review. All of our testers agreed, the Atmos provided such a cozy ride with its trampoline-style suspension that spread the load evenly across our body. With the Atmos, our testers rarely got hot spots on their backs and hips, even after extended cross-country travel in warmer conditions. The newest version of the Atmos is even better, as it features heavily-tapered padding, which provides thicker, cushier padding where you want it most (on-top-of and near your shoulders) and less where you may not need it.
The Bora AR 63 was also notably comfortable, complete with dreamy foam that was soft feeling and acted as a therapeutic mattress. It struck an excellent balance between being soft and comfortable, while effectively conforming to the shape of its wearer's shoulders and hips. In turn, the load was better distributed, and the straps weren't too soft or bottoming out. It's also worth noting that for lighter weights, we did like the low profile and slimmer shoulder straps of the Thule Versant 70. Despite the Versant being thinner than all the other models in our review, it proved to be exceptionally comfortable thanks to its impressive ergonomics, provided the pack wasn't too heavy.
For more substantial loads, the Atmos lost a lot of its prowess and became a lot less comfortable once loads exceeded around 40-45 lbs. The highest performing contenders for more heavily laden adventures were the Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Aether Pro 70, Arc'teryx Bora AR, Osprey Xenith 105, and the Osprey Xenith 75. All these packs use high-quality foam that achieve a solid balance of support and comfort, with each model offering subtle, different advantages; the advantages include foam stiffness, shoulder strap shape, and waist belt shape, which allow them to fall into our load-hauler category.
While each model had slightly different qualities to help it perform well with heavy loads (such as the Bora's pivoting waist belt), the shoulder straps featured on all these packs had top-notch padding and ergonomics. There was more of a difference in waist belts, and different body types worked better with different designs. The consensus favorites for our testers include the Osprey Xenith, Aether Pro 70 and Gregory Baltoro, which all feature across-the-board comfort. For the heaviest of loads (60+ lbs), we appreciated the Baltoro's robust and customizable lumbar pad, which made a difference in providing the much-needed support for carrying weights of this magnitude.
While just barely outperformed by the models above, it is worth noting that the Deuter Aircontact Lite 65+10 can also handle reasonably robust loads, thanks to the comfortable, cozy shoulder straps. Not far behind in our comfort comparison was the Gregory Paragon 68 and Osprey Aether AG 60. While these models weren't quite as some, they weren't very far behind either. For medium and lighter weight loads of around 30-40 lbs, we noticed almost no difference between these packs and the ones we listed above. It was only once we crested 40-45 pounds that the highest rated models began to stand out.
Our testers loved the face fabric (the fabric on the outside of the shoulder strap that makes contact with its wearer's body) on inside of the shoulder straps of the Osprey Xenith 75. The Osprey Aether Pro 70 was also 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. A lot of people ask about the heat moldable waist belt featured on the Aether among other models of Osprey packs. After extensive testing, we found there was little, if any difference, between molding it in a convection oven or just breaking it in the old fashion way (AKA using it). After side-by-side testing a molded waist belt and one that had been used for a three-day trip, there was almost no difference in our findings.
The Deuter Aircontact's shoulder straps and waist belt were excellent for thinner testers with bonier hips, as long as pack weights weren't too heavy. Several other models, like the Baltoro 65, Aether Pro, Xenith 75 and 105L had much stiffer foam which was great with heavier loads. Lighter weight users found the softer "cushier" padding of the Aircontact, Atmos 65 AG, and the Banchee 65 to be more comfortable - as long as we didn't overload them. These backpacking backpacks felt decent up to 40 lbs; above 50 pounds, the Xenith and Baltoro were superior, while the Bora struck a nice middle group being reasonably pleasant at both.
The suspension category encompasses how effective the suspension was at supporting our backs and how well the frame transferred the load from the pack into the waist belt. We also measured the transfer of the load onto the front of our shoulder straps rather than the top, helping to avoid our shoulders feeling crushed. The suspension is tied in with a pack's overall comfort, but we specified unique criteria for each category. We also focused on the back panel and how nicely it provided support to our spines, back, and shoulders.
The Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Aether Pro 70, Osprey Xenith, and Arc'teryx Bora AR all featured substantial suspensions; as a result, they performed exceptionally, providing support when carrying a considerable amount of weight. We did think while super close, the Baltoro, Aether Pro, and the Xenith just barely edged out the Bora because of how nicely the frame transferred the load to the waist belt and our hips. All three of these packs were noticeably superior at carrying weights when compared to the rest of the backpacking backpacks in our fleet.
As a result, the load hauling prowess, the Xenith and Baltoro, are our Top Picks for extended trips and monster loads, with the Xenith 105 winning our award for this category. Osprey beefs up several things including the diameter of this model's wire frame and padding with this pack - and it shows. If we knew huge loads were in our future, we wanted the Xenith by our side. Thus, the Xenith is tester Ian Nicholson's go-to Denali pack, in which he embarks on 22 days of arctic cold temperatures. That said, our entire review team was impressed by how supportive the frame was on the Bora, combined with the amount of comfort that the foam provided. The pivoting hip belt also transferred weight to our hip-belt fantastically.
While the Atmos 65 performed well when carrying loads below 40 pounds, it wasn't as comfortable for loads above that weight. In fact, its anti-gravity trampoline-style suspension would feel mushy and less supportive. The Osprey Aether AG 60 features a similar "AG" suspension but was noticeably more supportive. The Thule Versant 70 and the Deuter Aircontact Lite 65 + 10 also both had featured robust suspensions and weighed only a little over four pounds - a feat our testing team was impressed by.
Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System
Trampoline-style or suspended suspension systems feature a mesh back panel suspended/tension between stiffer points (like a trampoline) over a more traditional frame single stay or "Y" shaped frame. The advantages of this type of frame are that it allows more air to ventilate, making these backpacks cooler and less sweaty feeling. More importantly, they tend to produce less hot spots on the users because the design does an outstanding job at evenly spreading the weight out or "suspending" it over a larger area of the wearer. More and more packs are using a similar design, at least on the back panel portion.
We like trampoline-style suspension because of the reasons mentioned above; however, when it comes to massive loads, having the weight closer to your back and not having a gap will be more supportive and as a result more comfortable. For example, the Gregory Baltoro 65 doesn't feature a trampoline suspension system, but that's one reason it carries such massive loads as efficiently as others. All suspension style systems come with a weight limit where the suspended mesh is pressed so tightly against the wearer that it either bottoms out or causes a hot spot. Why? Because it's tensioned to a point where it can't evenly spread the weight out.
Features and Ease of Use
This category delves into how easy a given backpack was to pack and retrieve equipment and consists of an examination of the design of the main compartment, access, additional pockets, and other more specific or individual features. We compared the number and location of extra pockets (and most importantly how useful our testers found them), as well as how helpful the lid (or brain) of the pack was at providing easy access to a handful of items and keeping the user organized. Lastly, we assessed access points to the interior of the backpack.
For each pocket on the pack, we asked ourselves, "Did that pocket make my life easier or help keep me more organized, or is it just adding weight to the pack?". We also looked at access points and evaluated whether they were handy at retrieving items or if they were just for show.
We also broke down the level of usefulness of additional features and evaluated them during real-world use in the field. 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 overall versatility. We gave higher scores to models with better weather resistance, ice axe attachments, and easy to use waist belt buckles.
Overall Organizational Ability
For folks who liked a good assortment of compartments and pockets for organization, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith 75, and The North Face Banchee 65 have by far the best and most useful pockets designs. These models had our review teams favorite overall organizational designs. The REI Flash 65, Thule Versant 70, and Baltoro had the best access of any pack in our review. These competitors provide great options for folks who like a lot of organization or the ability to get inside easily without having to take much out.
Our favorite collection of pockets came in the Xenith, Atmos, and the Baltoro 65. While we loved these packs, it's worth noting that these models were only average in weight, clocking in around 4.5 to just over 5 lbs. The Banchee 65 has a very similar overall design and is one of the lighter packs in our review at 3 lbs 10 oz (around a pound lighter than average). The REI Flash 65 sported a pretty darn good design (nearly as good as the above packs), a sweet "J" shaped opening, and only costs $200 (the Banchee is $240).
Top Lid Pocket
There aren't a lot of universal features that every pack has; however, one thing that a vast majority of models include is a top lid with a zippered pocket (some folks call the lid the "brain" of the pack). With good reason, this ubiquitous feature is one of the best places to store small items that users might want easy access to: like sunglasses, sunblock, bug spray, or any other thing that may be desired close at hand. A majority of backpacking oriented packs also feature a separate smaller pocket on the underside of the lid, offering a secondary place to store small items that don't need to be accessed quite as frequently.
Of all the packs we tested, our review team's favorite top lid designs belonged to the Gregory Baltoro 65 and to only a slightly lesser extent, the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63. Both of these models featured lid-pockets with zippered access on the top of the pack rather than the more common zipper on the side. Having the zipper on the top of the pack it hands down easier to locate items but also the unexpected benefit of these items being less likely to fall out while we searched around.
What made our testing staff like the Baltoro the most is it had two pockets on the top of the lid, both accessed from above, that were shaped in a way that made searching slightly easier. The Gregory Paragon 68 also featured a lid pocket that was very similar and nearly as easy to find items in; it was darn sweet except we had to be a little more careful that our gear didn't fall out.
The rest of the packs had zippers on the front or back of the lid. None of these contenders were as easy to get into as the Bora, Paragon and the Baltoro; however, not all of the lid's side zippered pockets are created equal. The large zippered lid pockets of the Atmos 65 AG, Aether AG 60, Xenith, and the Banchee 65 are the next top scorers. They had nearly the same volume as the Baltoro and had a longer than average zipper that wrapped slightly around the sides. This made access better, but not as great as the Baltoro or Bora.
Different ways to access the primary compartment of our bag was part of our "Ease of Use" category and refers to how easily we could access specific items without having to unpack our entire bag. While having easy access is excellent and no-doubt convenient, its level of importance depends dramatically on the user and the volume of the pack. As pack volume gets larger, small (or even large) items become easy to lose track of. This makes unpacking a significant portion of your pack to track down a particular something a bit of a pain.
For non-travel purposes, it isn't uncommon for people to overemphasis their perception of how important access is. We have seen many people think they need more access, placing it higher on their priority list than it really should be. We have seen far too many people select a given model because it has a huge zippered access panel, only to rarely use it. Why does it matter? Access requires zippers, and zippers add weight; often, the zippers aren't essential or even that helpful. It's a balance. Consider your priorities before saying "I want lots of easy access" and ask yourself if the increased weight is worth it for your personal preferences, activities, and the volume pack you are considering purchasing.
Ease of access is an especially useful feature for people who want to use their pack for travel. This is a common tactic for folks going to more far-flung or less urban area who will find it easier and more comfortable to bring a backpack over a suitcase or a duffel bag to go "backpacking" through specific regions.
All the backpacking backpacks in our review were top loading, and a little more than half had some side or panel access zippers, and a nearly all had a sleeping bag compartments. These openings allow access to a portion of the interior of the pack that the primary top opening may not have good access to. Among all the models we tested, both the Gregory Baltoro and the Thule Versant 70 had the best access. Both of these models feature a huge "U" shaped opening that travels nearly the entire length of the back of the pack.
With both of these models, their zippered access panel opened almost as large as a suitcase and opened larger than many duffel bags. This makes them an excellent option for anyone "backpacking" through Europe or Southeast Asia easier, as you can carry your luggage rather than wheel it. The REI Flash 65, with its "J" shaped zipper, had excellent and nearly-as-good access and was above average for our review. While it offers top-notch access from a backpacking pack perspective, we don't think its quite as good as the previously mentioned models because the fabric is just a little lighter weight, less tear resistant, and not quite as durable.
While hardly essential, nearly all of our testing team appreciated having at least one zippered pocket built into the hip-belt of their pack that was big enough for a small point-and-shoot camera, smartphone, or a few snacks. The Osprey models all had large or in the case of the Aether Pro 70, huge zippered pockets that were easy to access while hiking. We also like the Gregory Paragon and The North Face Banchee 65 pockets a fair amount as well, but they just weren't as easy to use as those found on the Osprey models. It's also worth noting that the Baltoro features a single weather resistant model, which is particularly helpful for folks who want their smartphone close-at-hand for taking photos. This weather resistant is in addition to a secondary mesh zippered pocket.
All of the models were reasonably weather resistant. However, the Arc'teryx Bora stood out being noticeably better than the rest of the models we tested. It consistently kept our gear drier during spring hikes in Washington's Olympic rainforest and some garden hose tests. The Bora uses Arc'teryx's AC² fabric (all the non-black fabric on the Bora AR packs) which is exceptionally weather resistant, bordering on waterproof from the fabrics perspective. The Arc'teryx models even have taped seams near exposed areas like the back kangaroo-style pocket (which also sports a watertight zipper) because this location will likely see the most water while hiking or placing it on the ground.
All the packs in this review have a location to store a hydration bladder where it is kept upright and thus feeds out better. All the models we tested should work with just about any brand's 2-3 liter hydration bladder model, and it should fit into most models hydration bladder sleeve.
Rather than use the same brand bladder as the pack, we recommend reading our Hydration Bladder Review and picking the best reservoir for your needs and budget. One super cool bonus feature among packs we tested was that the Gregory Baltoro came with a removable and relatively functional hydration pack that also doubled as its hydration sleeve (when used inside the pack).
The lightest pack in our review, by a pretty significant margin, is the Osprey Exos 58. At 2 pounds 8 ounces, the Exos starts to straddles the line between a backpacking backpack and an ultra-light minimalist pack. While heavier than most ultralight frameless backs (which typically weigh 1.5-2 lbs), it isn't WAY heavier and is certainly more comfortable for people who don't yet have their pack weight down below 20-25 pounds. The Exos is also a great option for folks who want to go super light, but still, want a more comfortable and supportive pack with an actual frame and more robust padding. Despite being a little on the heavy side of ultralight packs, we know several people who have used the Exos (mostly in its smaller volumes) on the PCT and the AT.
For a lighter but still rugged and featured pack, our review team recommends The North Face Banchee 65 or the REI Flash 65 (both 3 lbs 10 oz) and would certainly consider the Aether Pro 70, Gregory Paragon 68, or both Osprey Volt 60 (3 lbs 14 oz).
Every model strikes a balance between weight and comfort; it's hard to have both, or at least have both and have much in the way of features. That is one category where the new Osprey Aether Pro 70 climbs into a much-needed niche. The Aether Pro is relatively low weight (3.9 lbs) but still has one of the most robust suspensions. The Aether Pro is one of the most comfortable models in our review, thanks to its top-tier foam, heavily articulated shoulder straps, and top-notch feeling face fabrics. The Aether Pro strikes this balance by having a super basic pack-design as far as minimal pockets and access.
Adjustability and Fit
For the Adjustability and Fit category, we took into consideration each backpacking backpack's overall ergonomics in addition to how adjustable each model was. We also looked at the number of torso lengths each pack is offered in, as more sizes mean it has the potential to work for a wider range of users. Check out the chart below to see how each pack ranked in the adjustability metric.
A handful of pack manufacturers will swap out shoulder straps and waist belts for different sizes than the frame they are typically sold with (for example, if you want a medium frame and a small waist belt), something that many stores and websites offer for free. If you feel like this would be helpful for your body type, it's worth seeking out a pack from one of these manufacturers.
The Deuter Aircontact Lite 65 + 10 and the Osprey Volt 60 have by far the most vertical adjustment of any pack in our review. Both of these models can move the pack's yoke's (shoulder straps) position up or down a range of nearly 10 inches. Not only does this help fit a wide range of people and let it truly be tailored to its wearer, but also makes them an excellent choice for quickly growing children or teenagers.
While it came to straight-up vertical adjustment the Volt and Aircontact had the advantage, but when it comes to pure tailor fitting of a backpack to fit its user best, our testers found the adjustment options of the Arc'teryx Bora to reign supreme. While it didn't have quite as much pure vertical adjustment range, we loved how you could adjust the shoulder straps 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 (all have featuring approximately four inches of vertical adjustment) along with being available in some sizes. Lastly, we took into account a pack's overall ergonomics, which earned them higher scores in our "fit" metric.
None of these backpacks are waterproof (though the Bora AR comes pretty dang close). Using a trash compactor bag or garbage bag will work fine for shorter trips and will get you through in a pinch. However, on an extended trip, a true rain cover is tough to beat, particularly if you are facing a long stint of bad weather. If you are planning on a lot of time in the rain or considering going somewhere with a wet reputation (Patagonia, New Zealand, Pacific Northwest, BC Coast ranges), consider a pack cover designed and fitted for your pack. It is worth noting that the Gregory Baltoro, Thule Versant 70, and the Gregory Paragon all come included with rain covers.
Here are a few options:
While traveling from points A to B on a backcountry trip might seem like simple enough goal, choosing the model that will work best for your needs and goals can be overwhelming. Figuring out which backpacking backpack is right, or better yet perfect for you, might seem hard. You might not even know the best place to start. We hope that our review and the findings from our testing will help you narrow down your potential options to one or two models that fit your needs.
When selecting a model, first focus on the duration of trips you typically embark on as well as any goals or objectives you might have. It can also be helpful to come up with 2-3 features that you'd like your pack to have and prioritize specific designs like cushy shoulder straps or a sub 4-pound weight. If you are still not sure, we would recommend taking a look at our buying advice article.
— Ian Nicholson
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.