Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs of 2018

May 24, 2018  |  In Gear Reviews   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   12 Comments
Osprey Exos 58 backpack in Glacier National Park.

Testing the Osprey Exos 58 backpack in Glacier National Park.

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.

From the many backpacks intended primarily (if not exclusively) for backpacking that I’ve tested and reviewed at The Big Outside, I’ve 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 by 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.

 

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BackpackPriceVolumeWeightSizesCarries Up To...Features
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider$34555L/3,400 c.i.1 lb. 15 oz.4 unisex30-35 lbs.Waterproof, very durable, 5 pockets
Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55$21058L/3,539 c.i.2 lbs. 7 oz.3 men's and women's30-35 lbs.7 pockets, poles attachment, ventilated suspension, removable lid, rain cover included
Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60$20040-60L/2,550 to 3,650 c.i.2 lbs. 9 oz.2 men's35-40 lbs.Unique expandable capacity range of 40-60 liters, 5 pockets
Osprey Exos 58/Eja 58$22058L/3,539 c.i.2 lbs. 11 oz.3 men's and women's30-35 lbs.Removable lid, ventilated suspension, 5 pockets, poles attachment
REI Flash 45$14945L/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$23965L/3,967 c.i.3 lbs. 12 oz.2 men's and women's, adjustable40+ lbs.Floating lid, 9 pockets, sleeping bag compartment
Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65$27065L/3,967 c.i.4 lbs. 11 oz.3 men's and women's, adjustable45-50 lbs.Unique harness, 9 pockets, poles attachment
Arc'teryx Bora AR 50$49950L/3,050 c.i.4 lbs. 13 oz.2 men's and women's sizes, adjustable40 lbs.Rotating hipbelt, widely adjustable fit, tough, waterproof, 7 pockets
Gregory Baltoro 65 and Deva 60$30065L/3,966 c.i.4 lbs. 15 oz.3 men's and women's50 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 8 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack
The North Face Fovero 70$29070L/4,272 c.i.5 lbs. 7 oz.2 men's and women's, adjustable45 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 9 pockets, adjustable torso length and hip pads

 

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider front.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider.

Tough, Waterproof Ultralight

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider
$345, 55L/3,400 c.i., 1 lb. 15 oz.
hyperlitemountaingear.com

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.

 

The Gregory Optic 58 ultralight backpack in the Grand Canyon.

The Gregory Optic 58 ultralight backpack in the Grand Canyon.

Ultralight With Extras

Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55
$210, 2 lbs. 7 oz.
moosejaw.com

Gregory Optic 58 front.

Gregory Optic 58.

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.comems.comrei.com, or campsaver.com.

 

Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.


 

Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 backpack.

The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 backpack on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Two Packs In One

Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60
$200, 2 lbs. 9 oz.
moosejaw.com

Flex Capacitor 40-60 front filled.

Flex Capacitor 40-60 front filled.

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.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to buy a Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 at moosejaw.com or campsaver.com.

 

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Testing the Osprey Exos 58 in Glacier National Park.

The 2018 Osprey Exos 58 in Glacier National Park.

Ultralight Classic

Osprey Exos 58 and Eja 58
$220, 2 lbs. 11 oz.
moosejaw.com

Osprey Exos 58 backpack.

Osprey Exos 58.

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, with 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—while 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 new for 2018 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 moosejaw.comems.com, appoutdoors.com, or rei.com, or any women’s Osprey Eja backpack at moosejaw.comems.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 Flash 45 backpack

The REI Flash 45 backpack in Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness.

REI Flash 45.

REI Flash 45.

Best Price

REI Flash 45
$149, 2 lbs. 14 oz.
rei.com

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.

 

Get the right daypack for your hikes. See my “Gear Review: The 7 Best Hiking Daypacks.”

 

The North Face Banchee 65

The North Face Banchee 65.

Pound-For-Pound Standout

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

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, Arc’teryx Bora AR 50, 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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A woman backpacker on the Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.

The Osprey Aura AG 65 on the Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.

Ultimate  Comfort

Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65
$270, 4 lbs. 11 oz.
moosejaw.com

Osprey Atmos AG 65 harness.

Osprey Atmos AG 65 harness.

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 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.comems.com, or rei.com.

 

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Arc'teryx Bora AR 50 backpack.

Arc’teryx Bora AR 50 backpack in the North Cascades.

High-Tech Comfort, Tough, and Waterproof

Arc’teryx Bora AR 50
$499, 50L/3,050 c.i., 4 lbs. 13 oz.
moosejaw.com

Arc’teryx Bora 50.

Arc’teryx Bora 50.

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 either 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 or rei.com.

 

Get the right tent for you. See my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents
and my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”

 

Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack

The Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

Big-Load Hauler

Gregory Baltoro 65 and Deva 60
$300, 4 lbs. 15 oz.
moosejaw.com

Gregory Baltoro 65 front.

Gregory Baltoro 65 front.

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.comems.com, or rei.com, or a Deva 60 or other sizes at moosejaw.comems.com, or rei.com.

 

Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”

 

The North Face Fovero 70

The North Face Fovero 70 in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

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.
moosejaw.com

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.

See my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” “Video: How to Load a Backpack,” all of my reviews of backpacks at The Big Outside.

 

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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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12 Responses to Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs of 2018

  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

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