By Michael Lanza
Backpacks come in many sizes and designs for a reason: so do backpackers. Some of us need a pack for moderate loads, others for heavy loads, while still others want a pack designed for lightweight or ultralight backpacking. Some prefer a minimalist pack, others a range of features and access. Everyone wants the best fit and comfort they can find, and almost everyone has a budget.
This review covers my picks for the 10 best backpacks intended primarily (if not exclusively) for backpacking—covering a range of designs, each one a standout for different reasons. In addition, I point out below two excellent packs for kids of all ages. My judgments draw from my experience of many thousands of miles of backpacking over three decades and a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear—first for Backpacker magazine, and now for this blog. I think at least one of these packs will be perfect for you—plus you’ll find some at great sale prices now (and links to those online retailers below).
I’ve listed the pack reviews below in order by weight because that’s the metric that most defines and influences a pack’s design and functionality. The pack you ultimately choose may depend partly on weight, but also on design and on your budget. Each pack review in this article links to that pack’s complete review at The Big Outside.
Not sure what type of pack you need? Start with my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
The comparison chart below offers a quick look at stats and features that distinguish these packs from one another.
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|Backpack||Price||Volume||Weight||Sizes||Carries Up To...||Features|
|Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider||$345||55L/3,400 c.i.||1 lb. 15 oz.||4 unisex||30-35 lbs.||Waterproof, very durable, 5 pockets|
|Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55||$210||58L/3,539 c.i.||2 lbs. 7 oz.||3 men's and women's||30-35 lbs.||6 pockets, poles attachment, ventilated suspension, removable lid, rain cover included|
|Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60||$200||40-60L/2,550 to 3,650 c.i.||2 lbs. 9 oz.||2 men's||35-40 lbs.||Unique expandable capacity range of 40-60 liters, 5 pockets|
|Osprey Exos 58/Eja 58||$220||58L/3,539 c.i.||2 lbs. 11 oz.||3 men's and women's||30-35 lbs.||Removable lid, ventilated suspension, 5 pockets, poles attachment|
|REI Flash 45||$149||45L/2,868 c.i.||2 lbs. 14 oz.||2 men's and women's, adjustable||25-30 lbs.||Unique compression system, 6 pockets|
|The North Face Banchee 50||$230||50L/3,051 c.i.||3 lbs. 1 oz.||2 men's and women's, adjustable||40 lbs.||On-the-fly torso adjustment, self-equalizing load lifters, 9 pockets|
|Granite Gear Blaze 60||$270||60L/3,660 c.i.||3 lbs. 4 oz.||3 unisex and 2 women's, adjustable||45+ lbs.||Versatile load capacity, 6 pockets, adjustable torso length and hipbelt, zipper accessing main compartment|
|Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65||$270||65L/3,967 c.i.||4 lbs. 11 oz.||3 men's and women's, adjustable||45-50 lbs.||Unique harness, 9 pockets, poles attachment|
|Arc'teryx Bora AR 50||$499||50L/3,050 c.i.||4 lbs. 13 oz.||2 men's and women's sizes, adjustable||40 lbs.||Rotating hipbelt, widely adjustable fit, tough, waterproof, 7 pockets|
|Gregory Baltoro 65 and Deva 60||$300||65L/3,966 c.i.||4 lbs. 15 oz.||3 men's and women's||50 lbs.||Zipper accessing main compartment, 8 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack|
Tough, Waterproof Ultralight
When the 3400 Windrider was delivered to my house, the box looked much too small to contain a backpack. Comparable to the best sub-three-pound, ultralight packs, the 3400 Windrider handles 30 to 35 pounds well, but weighs anywhere from a half-pound to nearly a pound less than those competitors. It has the capacity for going several days between resupplies. Its tough Dyneema Composite Fabrics is fully waterproof. The fixed suspension comes in four sizes—more than offered by most high-end pack makers—and the simple harness system works.
Three big, external mesh pockets add nearly 10 liters of capacity, and the roomy, zippered hipbelt pockets offer convenience. A top-loader with a roll-top closure, the 3400 Windrider is noticeably bereft of features found on many other packs. But its minimalist design, durability, capacity, comfort, and low weight will appeal to many backpackers who prefer hiking over simply hauling.
Read my complete review of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider.
Ultralight With Extras
Gregory’s attention to comfort in its first ultralight backpack is reflected in the aluminum perimeter wire with an HDPE framesheet and leaf-spring lumbar pad, which distributes most of the pack’s load across the hips and delivers support for carrying 30 to 35 pounds; and the trampoline-style Aerospan suspension, a tensioned, highly ventilated back panel that allows air movement across your sweaty back. These are well-designed, comfortable packs for ultralighters who want some organizational features of traditional backpacks.
Backpackers who want to go ultralight without switching to a stripped-down style of backpack will like the traditional design of the top-loading men’s Optic and women’s Octal. They sport six external pockets, including two on the hipbelt and a large, stretch-mesh front pocket, and useful features like a quick attachment on the left shoulder strap for trekking poles or sunglasses.
Read my complete review of the Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Gregory Optic 58 at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, a Gregory Optic 48 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, a Gregory Octal 55 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or campsaver.com, or a Gregory Octal 45 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, rei.com, or campsaver.com.
Want a well-priced, adjustable pack with a good fit and more access and features than these ultralight packs? See my review of the Gregory men’s Zulu 55 and women’s Jade 53.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, or other parks using my expert e-guides.
Two Packs In One
Many avid backpackers eventually find themselves facing an expensive quandary: the need for a second or even third pack to better handle the range of trips they take. Sierra Designs confronts that challenge with the Flex Capacitor, which changes size in a range from 40 to 60 liters to cover trips from weekends to a week or even a thru-hike.
I found it comfortable carrying up to 35 pounds on the Tour du Mont Blanc—solid performance for a pack weighing slightly more than two-and-a-half pounds—and I suspect many people would find it hauls 40 pounds well. While organization and access don’t match other packs on this list, there are five external pockets, including roomy hipbelt pockets, and it’s durable for its weight class.
Read my complete review of the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Redesigned for 2018, the classic Exos still sets standards for ultralight backpacks—and Osprey rolled out a women’s version, the Eja. Available in three torso lengths, its alloy perimeter frame has a pronounced bell shape that helps focus the load more directly onto the hips—an improvement in comfort that’s noticeable, allowing the pack to carry 30 pounds or more comfortably. And the trampoline-style back panel permits cooling air circulation.
The Exos 58 and Eja 58 have the capacity for weeklong trips and ultralight thru-hiking. At just over 2.5 pounds, they have smart features like a removable lid, voluminous exterior pockets, and a handy trekking poles attachment on the left shoulder strap. The Exos and Eja also come in 48-liter ($200) and 38-liter ($180) versions.
Read my complete review of the Osprey Exos 58 and Eja 58.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase any men’s Osprey Exos backpack at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, appoutdoors.com, or rei.com, or any women’s Osprey Eja backpack at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, appoutdoors.com, or rei.com.
Need a pack for a kid or small adult? See my reviews of the Gregory Wander 70
and the Osprey Ace 38, 50, and 75.
REI’s latest iteration of the men’s and women’s Flash 45 does two things rarely seen in a quality backpack: It weighs in under three pounds and costs less than $150.
It carries 25 to 30 pounds comfortably, has some adjustability in the shoulder harness, and sports REI’s proprietary UpLift Compression system, ratcheting straps that pull the pack load upward and inward to both make the load more stable and shift it closer to your center of balance.
A basic top-loader, it has the capacity for a three- to four-day trip, plus six external pockets. You can find packs that are more comfortable, feature-rich, minimalist, or capable of hauling more weight, but you will be challenged to find one that compares with the Flash 45 at a better price.
Read my complete review of the REI Flash 45.
Get the right daypack for your hikes. See my “Gear Review: The 8 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
‘Almost Ultralight’ Standout
TNF’s updated-for-2019 version of the Banchee 50 falls squarely into a category I’m calling “almost ultralight:” barely over an unofficial ceiling weight of three pounds for ultralight packs, but more tricked-out than ultralight competitors, and with a greater weight-bearing and volume capacity than many. Plus, TNF’s unique new Dyno Lite suspension allows for on-the-fly torso adjustment and one-hand dialing in of the self-equalizing load lifters.
A top-loader, it excels for organization, with nine pockets from the hipbelt to two capacious, zippered front pockets. With its modest weight, abundant features, and good compression, the Banchee 50 may be the only pack you need for outings ranging from weekends to wilderness treks up to about five days (with lightweight, compact gear), as long as you don’t routinely load more than about 40 pounds inside.
Read my complete review of The North Face Banchee 50.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase The North Face men’s Banchee 50 at Moosejaw.com, The North Face women’s Banchee 50 at Moosejaw.com, The North Face men’s Banchee 65 at Moosejaw.com, or The North Face women’s Banchee 65 at Moosejaw.com. You can also support my blog by clicking any of these links to purchase The North Face men’s Griffin 65 at Moosejaw.com, the men’s Griffin 75 at Moosejaw.com, or the women’s Griffin 65 at Moosejaw.com.
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How many pounds can a lightweight backpack carry comfortably? The Blaze 60 may have redefined that. At just a half-pound heavier than some ultralight packs, the Blaze 60 has the comfort and support to haul 40 pounds or more, as I discovered on long days during a 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon. Coming in three unisex and two women’s sizes, all of them adjustable for torso length, it fits nearly all of humanity.
It has the capacity and support for long trips and the compression and low weight for short trips, plus super access with a wide top-loading mouth, a panel zipper into the main compartment, and six external pockets. On top of all that, the fabric is bombproof. The Blaze 60 deserves a place among the top all-purpose packs for trips of any length.
Read my complete review of the Granite Gear Blaze 60.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or rei.com, or a women’s-specific Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or rei.com.
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The men’s Atmos AG and women’s Aura AG packs feel different the moment you put one on: The Anti-Gravity suspension feels more like putting on a jacket than a backpack. And they carry 45 to 50 pounds with supreme comfort, wrapping around your back and hips while allowing air to move across your back.
These packs are available in three sizes with an adjustable harness and hipbelt, and come loaded with features including multiple pockets and a convenient trekking poles attachment on the left shoulder strap for tucking them away on the go. And it weighs well under five pounds. It’s a great choice for backpackers who usually carry moderate to heavy loads.
Read my complete review of the Osprey men’s Atmos AG 65 and women’s Aura AG 65.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to buy a men’s Osprey Atmos AG 65 or Atmos AG 50 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Aura AG 65 or Aura AG 50 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.
Gear up smartly for your trips. See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.
High-Tech Comfort, Tough, and Waterproof
The generously padded, removable Rotoglide hipbelt in the Bora packs—which come in 63- and 50-liter versions for men, and 61- and 49-liter versions for women—rotates side to side and slides up and down, eliminating fatigue and soreness that some packs cause in the shoulders and back as trail miles accumulate.
The very light, thermo-molded Tegris framesheet with two aluminum stays provides support for carrying at least 40 pounds, while the shoulder straps are widely adjustable for both shoulder width and torso length. Add to that superior comfort features like a wide mouth and bright interior for loading, a huge front pocket, four more pockets on the sides and hipbelt, and bombproof fabric that’s waterproof in high-exposure areas, and you have a high-tech hauler that could be the last backpack you own.
Read my complete review of the Arc’teryx Bora AR 50.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to buy a men’s Arc’teryx Bora AR 63 or AR 50 or women’s Bora AR 61 or AR 49 backpack at moosejaw.com, arcteryx.com, or rei.com.
Get the right tent for you. See my “Gear Review: The 7 Best Backpacking Tents”
and my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”
For carrying loads of 50 pounds or more, I want a pack that’s supportive, comfortable, and more tricked out than I prefer in a lighter pack. In every respect, from the suspension to the feature set, the men’s Baltoro and women’s Deva packs—updated and a pound lighter for 2018—fill the big-pack role extremely well.
The suspension allows both shoulder straps and both sides of the hipbelt to pivot independently, letting the pack move with your body, while the high-strength aluminum perimeter frame and the ventilated, moisture-wicking mesh back panel and foam lumbar pad deliver serious support, cushioning, and comfort. Features include a U-shaped zipper that opens up the entire main compartment; multiple pockets, including a weatherproof hipbelt pocket that holds a smartphone, and a dual-pocket lid; a removable, Sidekick internal hydration bladder that doubles as an ultralight summit pack; a quick attachment for sunglasses on a shoulder strap; widely adjustable compression straps that cross over the pack bag; and a rain cover included. Other capacity options are the Baltoro 75 ($330), Baltoro 85 ($350), and Baltoro 95 Pro ($380), and the Deva 70 ($330) and Deva 80 ($350).
Read my complete review of the Gregory Baltoro 65 and Deva 60.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to buy a Gregory Baltoro 65 or other sizes at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, or a Deva 60 or other sizes at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”
Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of that story for free, or click here to download that full story without having a paid membership.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.