Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs of 2018
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. (In addition, I point out below two excellent packs for 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 pack reviews below in order of weight because that’s the metric that most defines and influences a pack’s design and functionality; the pack you ultimately choose will depend most on the type of pack you’re seeking and on your budget. Each pack review in this article links to that pack’s complete review at The Big Outside. I suggest you narrow your choices to two or three and try them all on.
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.
|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.||7 pockets, poles attachment, ventilated suspension, removable lid, rain cover included|
|Osprey Exos 58||$220||58L/3,356 c.i.||2 lbs. 8 oz.||3 unisex||25-30 lbs.||Removable lid, ventilated suspension, 9 pockets, poles attachment|
|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|
|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 65||$239||65L/3,967 c.i.||3 lbs. 12 oz.||2 men's and women's, adjustable||40+ lbs.||Floating lid, 9 pockets, sleeping bag 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 75 and Deva 70||$330||75L/4,577 c.i.||5 lbs.||3 men's and women's||50+ lbs.||Zipper accessing main compartment, 8 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack, removable lid pocket/fanny pack|
|The North Face Fovero 70||$290||70L/4,272 c.i.||5 lbs. 7 oz.||2 men's and women's, adjustable||45 lbs.||Zipper accessing main compartment, 9 pockets, adjustable torso length and hip pads|
Tough, Waterproof Ultralight
Many ultralight packs lack the support for carrying more than about 25 pounds comfortably. HMG’s 3400 Windrider handles 30 to 35 pounds well, has the capacity for going several days between resupplies, and weighs much less than some best-selling competitors. 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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack at hyperlitemountaingear.com.
Protect your expensive backpack when traveling. See my review of the best gear duffles.
Ultralight With Extras
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. 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 allow air movement across your sweaty back. These are well-designed, comfortable packs for ultralighters who want some organizational features of traditional backpacks.
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 moosejaw.com, a Gregory Optic 48 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, a Gregory Octal 55 at moosejaw.com or campsaver.com, or a Gregory Octal 45 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, rei.com, or campsaver.com.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
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 that includes camera equipment; 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.
Read my complete review of the Osprey Exos 58.
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—impressive 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.
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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a men’s or women’s REI Flash 45 at rei.com.
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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 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 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.
Read my complete review of The North Face Banchee 65.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a men’s or women’s Banchee 65 at moosejaw.com.
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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.
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 an Osprey Atmos AG 65 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, or an Aura AG 65 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.
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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.
Get the right tent for you. See my “Gear Review: The 5 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 with a flexible center divider for larger items; a removable, Sidekick internal hydration bladder that doubles as an ultralight summit pack; top attachment points for a solar panel and 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 65 ($300), Baltoro 85 ($350), and Baltoro 95 Pro ($380), and the Deva 60 ($300) and Deva 80 ($350).
Read my complete review of the Gregory Baltoro 75 and Deva 70.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to buy a Gregory Baltoro 75 or other sizes at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, or a Deva 70 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 the Backcountry.”
Super Organization For Big Loads
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.
Read my complete review of The North Face Fovero 70.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy The North Face Fovero 70 men’s or women’s pack at moosejaw.com.
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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.
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