Osprey Aura AG 65

Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking

In Gear Reviews   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   12 Comments

By Michael Lanza

Backpacks come in many sizes and flavors 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 design, others a range of features and access. Everyone wants the best fit and comfort they can find, and almost everyone has a budget.

I looked at all the backpacks intended primarily (if not exclusively) for backpacking that I’ve tested and reviewed at The Big Outside, and selected for this article 10 top performers that stand out for reasons that make each appeal uniquely to a certain type of backpacker, including kids of all ages. I think one of them will be perfect for you—possibly even more than one if, like me, you prefer different packs for different kinds of trips.

I’ve listed the packs alphabetically rather than ranking them by some performance metric, because the one you choose will depend most on the type of pack you’re seeking and on your budget. I suggest you narrow your choices to two or three and try them all on. If you’re unsure what type of pack you need, you may want to first read 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.

Click on the name of each pack to read its complete review at The Big Outside.


BackpackPriceVolumeWeightSizesCarries Up To...Features
Arc'teryx Altra 65$47565L/3,967 c.i.5 lbs.2 men's, 2 women's50 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 7 pockets, pivoting hipbelt
Exped Thunder 50$24950L/3,051 c.i.3 lbs. 4 oz.1 men's and women's size, adjustable40 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 6 pockets
Gregory Baltoro 75 and Deva 70$31975L/4,577 c.i.6 lbs.3 men's, 3 women's50+ lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 8 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack, removable lid pocket/fanny pack
Gregory Stout 45 and Amber 44$16945L/2,746 c.i.3 lbs. 9 oz.2 men's, 2 women's35 lbs.5 pockets, durable fabric, integrated rain cover
Gregory Wander 70$18970L/4,272 c.i.3 lbs. 10 oz.1 adjustable25-30 lbs.4 pockets, adjustable torso length and hip pads, removable daypack
Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65$26065L/3,967 c.i.4 lbs. 11 oz.3 men's, 3 women's, adjustable45-50 lbs.Unique harness, 9 pockets, poles attachment
Osprey Ace 38, 50, 75$140-$18038-75L/2,319-
4,577 c.i.
2 lbs. 4 oz. - 3 lbs. 9 oz.1 adjustable size for each pack15-30 lbs.Fit wide range of kids, multiple pockets, integrated rain cover
Osprey Exos 58$22058L/3,356 c.i.2 lbs. 8 oz.3 unisex25-30 lbs.Removable lid, 9 pockets, poles attachment
The North Face Banchee 65$23965L/3,967 c.i.3 lbs. 12 oz.2 men's, 2 women's, adjustable40+ lbs.Floating lid, 9 pockets, sleeping bag compartment
The North Face Fovero 70$29070L/4,272 c.i.5 lbs. 7 oz.2 men's, 2 women's, adjustable45 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 9 pockets, adjustable torso length and hip pads


Arc'teryx Altra 65

Arc’teryx Altra 65

Everything But the Kitchen Sink
Arc’teryx Altra 65
$475, 5 lbs.

Designers strive to keep gear weights low these days, so rarely do you see a pack loaded with features for backpacking. But if you like all the bells and whistles, plus superior comfort, construction, and durability, look at the Altra packs. The suspension features a flexible framesheet with an aluminum stay for rigidity, and a molded hipbelt mounted on a pivoting disc to rotate with your hips, plus precision fitting right down to the positioning of the shoulder straps. A huge, U-shaped front zipper accesses the main compartment—a feature I love—and there are multiple pockets, from two spacious ones on the extendable, removable lid, to a deep front pocket. Lastly, 210-denier ripstop nylon throughout ensures against tears.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Arc’teryx Altra 65 at backcountry.com.

Exped Thunder 50

Exped Thunder 50

Versatile and Light All-Arounder
Exped Thunder 50
$249, 3 lbs. 4 oz.

If you want one do-it-all pack that’s relatively lightweight, but hits a sweet spot with support for lightweight to moderately heavy loads, the Thunder 50 fills that niche nicely. Weighing less than most competitors, it nonetheless carries up to 40 pounds comfortably. And access is outstanding: The design takes a classic, no-frills, European-style rucksack and gives it a huge, U-shaped, dual-zipper front panel opening into the main compartment, and six exterior pockets. Plus, it has external attachments options and fabric durable even for climbing. The Thunder comes in men’s and women’s versions and a 70-liter model ($289).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Exped Thunder 50 at moosejaw.com.

The Big Outside is proud to partner with these sponsors. Please help support my blog by liking and following my sponsors on Facebook and other social media and telling them you appreciate their support for The Big Outside.


Gregory Baltoro 75

Gregory Baltoro 75

Big-Load Hauler
Gregory Baltoro 75 and Deva 70
$319, 6 lbs.

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 fill the big-pack role extremely well. The suspension sports an independently pivoting shoulder harness and hipbelt that let the pack move with your body, and the thermo-molded back panel and lumbar pad deliver serious cushioning. Features include a weatherproof hipbelt pocket for electronics; a removable, Sidekick internal hydration bladder that doubles as an ultralight summit pack; a lid pocket that converts to a fanny pack; a U-shaped zipper to access the main compartment; and multiple pockets. The Baltoro also comes in 65-liter ($299) and 85-liter ($349) versions, and the Deva in 60-liter ($299) and 80-liter ($319) versions.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking one of these links to buy a Gregory Baltoro 75 at backcountry.com or a Deva 70 at backcountry.com.


Gregory Stout 45

Gregory Stout 45

Killer Value
Gregory Stout 45 and Amber 44
$169, 3 lbs. 9 oz.

For a backpacker who travels fairly light, may wander into rugged terrain, and pursues adventures on a budget, it’s hard to beat the men’s Stout and women’s Amber packs. With the support for carrying up to 35 pounds, the Stout 45 and Amber 44 have design features you’d expect in more-expensive backpacks: an ample lumbar pad; an adjustable hipbelt with good rigidity; a steel alloy, perimeter frame; wicking mesh in the back panel, and a curved shape that allows some air flow over your back. The fixed, non-adjustable harness comes in two sizes (not the usual three sizes of other Gregory models). The Stout also comes in 65-liter ($199) and 75-liter ($219) versions, and the Amber in 34-liter ($149), 60-liter ($199), and 70-liter ($219) versions.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking one of these links to buy a Gregory Stout 45 at backcountry.com or an Amber 44 at backcountry.com.


Gregory Wander 70

Gregory Wander 70

For Kids and Small Adults
Gregory Wander 70
$189, 3 lbs. 10 oz.

Two types of people often have trouble finding a backpack that fits them: young teenagers and small adults, especially women. Both my teenage son (five feet, four inches, 110 pounds, 15-inch torso) and a woman friend (five feet, one inch, 107 pounds, 14.5-inch torso) found the Wander 70 comfortable for backpacking. Gregory’s Versafit suspension adjusts for torso lengths from 13 to 18 inches, and the movable Aeromesh hip pads can be repositioned to fit a wide range of smaller waists. Barely north of 3.5 pounds, it’s light enough for weekend trips and spacious enough for weeklong outings, with good organization, including a U-shaped front panel zipper that provides instant access to virtually everything inside.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Gregory Wander 70 at backcountry.com.


Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by a USA Today Readers Choice poll and others. Subscribe for updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, at the top of the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.


Osprey Atmos AG 65 harness.

Osprey Atmos AG 65 harness.

Ultimate Carrying Comfort
Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65
$260, 4 lbs. 11 oz.

The men’s Atmos AG and women’s Aura AG (lead photo at top of story) 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.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking one of these links to buy an Osprey Atmos AG 65 at backcountry.com or an Aura AG 65 at backcountry.com.


Osprey Ace 38 kids backpack.

Osprey Ace 38

For Kids of All Sizes
Osprey Ace 38, 50 & 75
$140-$180, 2 lbs. 4 oz. to 3 lbs. 9 oz.

To ensure my kids liked backpacking, I’ve always gotten them good gear. Now 16 and almost 14, they have carried Osprey Ace backpacks on trips from Southwest canyons to Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and Canada’s Kootenay National Park. The adjustable Ace packs fit torsos from 11 to 19 inches—from the youngest you’d want to put a pack on to bigger teenagers. The Ace 50 and 75 use Osprey’s Fit-on-the-Fly adjustability in the hipbelt—same as found in the men’s Atmos AG and women’s Aura AG packs—which extends the fit range for waists by five inches. These top-loaders have a basic, functional feature set that includes a large, stretch-mesh front pocket and an integrated rain cover.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Osprey Ace 38, 50, or 75 at backcountry.com.

Osprey Exos 58

Osprey Exos 58

Lightweight Pick
Osprey Exos 58
$220, 2 lbs. 8 oz.

When I’m not carrying extra gear for either my family or a gear-intensive trip like climbing, I keep my pack weight, even with food for several days, to around 25 pounds or less (and it’s only that heavy partly because of camera equipment, but also because of personal choices; see my ultralight backpacking tips). But I also walk many miles and hours each day, so I don’t want to sacrifice comfort by getting a pack with no real suspension or support. The Exos series demonstrates that a backpack weighing a mere two-and-a-half pounds can carry 25 to 30 pounds comfortably, thus serving the needs of everyone from weekenders to longer-distance backpackers and thru-hikers. The Exos also comes in 48-liter ($190) and 38-liter ($160) versions.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Osprey Exos 58 at backcountry.com.

This blog and website is my full-time job and I rely on the support of readers. If you like what you see here, please help me continue producing The Big Outside by making a donation using the Support button at the top of the left sidebar or below. Thank you for your support.


The North Face Banchee 65

The North Face Banchee 65Pound-For-Pound Standout

The North Face Banchee 65
$239, 3 lbs. 12 oz.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect a pack weighing under four pounds to carry upwards of 50 pounds comfortably, but the Banchee 65 did that—albeit just for a few hours—when I had to haul extra water for my daughter and myself in the Grand Canyon. While I don’t put it in the same weight class as the Gregory Baltoro/Deva, Arc’teryx Altra, or Osprey Atmos/Aura AG packs, the Banchee 65 certainly hauls 40 pounds quite comfortably all day. A top-loader, it excels for organization, with nine pockets from the hipbelt to two 16-inch-long, zippered front pockets. With its modest weight and good compression, the Banchee 65 is legitimately all the pack you need for trips from overnighters to weeklong wilderness treks, as long as you don’t routinely load more than 40 to 45 pounds inside.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to buy a men’s The North Face Banchee 65 at backcountry.com or a women’s Banchee 65 at backcountry.com.


The North Face Fovero 70

The North Face Fovero 70


The North Face Fovero 70

The North Face Fovero 70

Super Organization For Big Loads
The North Face Fovero 70
$290, 5 lbs. 7 oz.

For hauling around 40 pounds or more, I want a pack that’s built for heavy loads and has a high degree of organization. Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains with my teenage son and two of his new-to-backpacking buddies, I found the Fovero 70 delivered exceptional comfort and access. The adjustable harness in the men’s and women’s models has five inches of range for dialing in a good fit for your torso length, and the hipbelt pads are adjustable. Most distinctively, this top loader has better access and organization than many packs in this category, starting with nine pockets—including on the hipbelt, mesh side pockets, two roomy, zippered front pockets, and a voluminous “beaver-tail” (AKA stuff-it) front pocket. And a J-shaped, two-way zipper runs down one side and around the bottom, giving quick access to much of the main compartment.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to buy The North Face Fovero 70 men’s model at backcountry.com or the women’s model at backcountry.com.

See my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” “Video: How to Load a Backpack,” all of my reviews of backpacks, and these stories:

Why and When to Spend More on Outdoor Gear
The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun
Buying Gear? Read This First
5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear

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.

Subscribe to the Big Outside

Enter your e-mail address for updates about new stories, reviews, and gear giveaways!

12 Responses to Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking

  1. Aaron Martin   |  September 21, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    For someone that is beginning to the transition into lighter gear but wants a pack for weeklong trips, would you suggest the Altra or Atmos? From this I can’t quite tell which you think is more comfortable.

    • Michael Lanza   |  September 21, 2016 at 5:17 pm

      Hey Aaron, good question. When you say “lighter gear,” your pack choice will depend on what you really mean by that in terms of total weight. You could have a total pack weight of 25 pounds (or less), including food and water for a weeklong trip; certainly under 30 pounds isn’t hard to achieve. The Altra and Atmos are both very comfortable with 45+ pounds, and that’s what they’re made for. If your regularly carrying that much weight, I would try them both on loaded with some weight and see which feels better on you, and also consider which feature set you prefer.

      When choosing a pack, I always tell people to find a few options that look good and try them on. See my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack:” https://thebigoutside.com/5-tips-for-finding-the-right-backpack/

  2. Joey Alcala ن (@JoeyDoulos)   |  August 30, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Which of these packs would fit as a carry on?

    • michaellanza   |  August 30, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      Hi Joey, I’ve used the REI Flash 45 as a carry-on; its frame is flexible. I think the Gregory Stout 45/Amber 44 might be borderline, but would probably fit on larger jets. Exped Thunder 50 is probably a little too large, but I haven’t tried it. The rest are bigger packs.

  3. Brad   |  April 18, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Where are the lightweight packs made by smaller companies? I would not buy any of these packs. They are all overpriced and weigh too much. Hyperlight Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, ZPacks and ULA are making the best backpacks. My big HMG pack can handle the weight that these packs do, and weighs less and feels better.

    • michaellanza   |  April 20, 2016 at 9:35 am

      Hi Brad, those are good brands, I’ve used packs made by some of them and may test and review a pack from at least one of these companies in the future. Then I’ll judge whether it deserves to be on this list, which covers the best packs for backpacking that I’ve used so far. I’ve tested and reviewed dozens of backpacks over the past two decades, and I’ve liked some ultralight packs; but they may not be as ideal for many users as they are for you, based on my personal experience and the clear demands of consumers.

  4. Joe   |  March 30, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the article. I recently purchased an AARN pack and found it excellent, was wondering where your thoughts lay with this brand of backpack,

    Many thanks

    • michaellanza   |  March 30, 2016 at 5:44 pm

      Hi Joe, I’ve seen AARN packs but haven’t had the opportunity to try one out yet. So while I can’t really comment on that brand specifically, I did, for many years, use sizable front packs for carrying camera equipment, which is a setup similar to the way AARN packs distribute weight front and back. I eventually decided that I don’t like having a fairly large pack on my chest, because it’s hot and obstructs my view of where I’m walking. By the way, I now carry my camera equipment and small incidentals (like a map and snacks) in a Ribz Front Pack, which is much less obtrusive: https://thebigoutside.com/gear-review-update-ribz-front-pack/

  5. Garry Hall   |  March 30, 2016 at 9:20 am

    I like Ospery Aether, Xenith packs they just Carrie much better than the packs you have on your list I have been to EMS stores and REI and many of the packs that you list have a lot of returns but Aether and Xenith packs are the ones they push and I must say I tried the packs you talked about but after days hiking with them I always go back to the Ospery Aether ,Xenith these packs just feel so much better on my back they make the weight disappear and after days of hiking that is the key to enjoying backpacking .

    • michaellanza   |  March 30, 2016 at 9:31 am

      Hi Garry, I’ve used both the Aether and Xenith (and reviewed the Xenith here: https://thebigoutside.com/gear-review-osprey-xenith-88xena-85-backpacks/). Yup, they’re very good. The Xenith is obviously built for heavy loads, and there’s no reason to carry a pack that heavy for lighter loads. I think Osprey has improved on its harness technology with the AG harness in the Atmos and Aura packs, which can handle pretty substantial loads. The other packs reviewed here have a variety of strengths and are designed for different loads and styles.

  6. Rob McKay   |  December 22, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Re Rod’s comment on AARN Packs – another New Zealand success story.

  7. Rod Myers   |  December 21, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Nice packs but AARN packs are the bes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *