The 10 Best Backpacking Packs of 2021

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, and still others for lightweight or ultralight backpacking. Some prefer a minimalist pack, others a range of features and access. Everyone wants the best possible fit and comfort, and almost everyone has a budget. But no matter which type of backpacker you are, this review covers the best packs in each of those categories.

Each of my picks for the 10 best backpacking packs stands out for different reasons. I also point out two excellent packs for kids. My judgments draw from many thousands of miles and three decades of backpacking and a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear—including formerly the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. Few reviewers have lugged as many packs around the backcountry as me.

I’m confident at least one of these packs will be perfect for you—plus you’ll find the best prices for them through the affiliate links to online retailers below. Purchasing gear through my affiliate links supports my work on this blog. Thanks for doing that.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A backpacker above Liberty Lake on the Ruby Crest Trail, Ruby Mountains, Nevada.
My wife, Penny, using the Osprey Aura AG 65 on the Ruby Crest Trail, Ruby Mountains, Nevada. Click photo to read about that trip.

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 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack.” See also my picks for “The Best Ultralight Backpacks.”

The comparison chart below offers a quick look at stats and features that distinguish these packs from one another.

If you have a question for me or a comment on this review, please make it in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.

The 10 Best Backpacking Packs

BackpackScore (1-5)PriceVolumeWeightSizesCarries Up To...Features
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider4.2$35555L/3,400 c.i.1 lb. 15 oz.4 unisex30-35 lbs.Waterproof, very durable, 5 pockets
Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 554.2$21058L/3,539 c.i.2 lbs. 7 oz.3 men's and women's30-35 lbs.6 pockets, poles attachment, ventilated suspension, removable lid, rain cover included
Osprey Exos 58/Eja 584.1$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
The North Face Banchee 504.3$23050L/3,051 c.i.3 lbs. 1 oz.2 men's and women's, adjustable40 lbs.On-the-fly torso adjustment, self-equalizing load lifters, 9 pockets
Granite Gear Blaze 604.5$27060L/3,660 c.i.3 lbs. 4 oz.3 unisex and 2 women's, adjustable45+ lbs.Versatile load capacity, 6 pockets, adjustable torso length and hipbelt, zipper accessing main compartment
Gregory Paragon 58 and Maven 554.2$23058L/3,539 c.i.3 lbs. 8 oz.2 men's and women's35-40 lbs.6 pockets, poles attachment, ventilated suspension, removable lid, rain cover included
Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 654.8$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 504.5$32050L/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
Mystery Ranch Sphinx 604.6$26960L/3,662 c.i., 4 lbs. 14 oz.4 men's and women's, adjustable 45-50 lbs.Unique front zipper access and compression, 7 pockets, highly durable
Gregory Baltoro 65 and Deva 604.8$30065L/3,966 c.i.4 lbs. 15 oz.3 men's and women's, adjustable50 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 9 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.

Tough, Waterproof Ultralight

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider
$355, 55L/3,400 c.i., 1 lb. 15 oz.
backcountry.com

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider front.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider.

When the 3400 Windrider was delivered to my house, the box looked much too small to contain a backpack. Like 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.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack at backcountry.com or hyperlitemountaingear.com.

 

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, or other parks using my expert e-guides.

 

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.
backcountry.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 air movement across your sweaty back. That support and comfort made a difference when I started a 4,600-foot ascent to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim with 13 pounds of water in this pack on the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop. 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Gregory Optic 58 or Optic 48 at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com or a women’s Gregory Octal 55 or Octal 45 at backcountry.com or moosejaw.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.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

 

The 2018 Osprey Exos 58 in Glacier National Park.
The Osprey Exos 58 in Glacier National Park.

Ultralight Classic

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

Osprey Exos 58 backpack.
Osprey Exos 58.

On a six-day, 94-mile, north-south traverse of Glacier National Park, I found the Exos—a classic since its introduction in 2008 and redesigned in 2018—still sets standards for ultralight backpacks. And Osprey rolled out a women’s version, the Eja. Available in three torso lengths, these packs have an alloy perimeter frame with a pronounced bell shape that helps focus the load more directly onto the hips—an improvement that’s noticeable on the trail, 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase any men’s Osprey Exos backpack at ospreypacks.com, backcountry.com, or moosejaw.com, or any women’s Osprey Eja backpack at ospreypacks.com, backcountry.com, or moosejaw.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.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.

 

The North Face Banchee 50 in Yellowstone National Park.
The North Face Banchee 50 in Yellowstone National Park.

‘Almost Ultralight’ Standout

The North Face Banchee 50
$230, 3 lbs. 1 oz.
backcountry.com

The North Face Banchee 50.
The North Face Banchee 50.

TNF’s updated-for-2019 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—as I discovered on a five-day backpacking trip in Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon area. Plus, TNF’s unique new Dyno Lite suspension (also used in TNF’s larger Griffin packs) 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the men’s or women’s The North Face Banchee 50 or Banchee 65 at backcountry.com or Moosejaw.com, or The North Face men’s or women’s Griffin 65 or Griffin 75 at backcountry.com or Moosejaw.com.

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. 
Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide!

 

The Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack in the Grand Canyon.
The Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack in the Grand Canyon.

Most Versatile

Granite Gear Blaze 60
$270, 3 lbs. 4 oz.
backcountry.com

The Granite Gear Blaze 60.
The Granite Gear Blaze 60.

How many pounds can a lightweight backpack carry comfortably? The Blaze 60 pushes those boundaries. At just a half-pound heavier than some ultralight packs, it has hauls 40 pounds or more comfortably, I discovered during a rugged, six-day, 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon.

The Air Current framesheet flexes slightly, allowing the pack to move with your torso, especially in steep or difficult terrain. The ventilated back panel fits closely but has channels for air circulation and the Re-Fit hipbelt felt great even on long, arduous days. 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 zipper into the main compartment, and six external pockets. It comes in three unisex and two women’s sizes, all adjustable, and the fabric is bombproof. The Blaze 60 ranks among the top all-purpose backpacks.

Read my complete review of the Granite Gear Blaze 60.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or a women’s-specific Granite Gear Blaze 60 backpack at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or the short version of the Blaze 60 at moosejaw.com.

Hike all of the “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

 

The Gregory Paragon 58 backpack.
The Gregory Paragon 58 backpack on Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail.

All-Around Good Value

Gregory Paragon 58 and Maven 55
$230, 3 lbs. 8 oz.
backcountry.com

The Gregory Paragon 58 harness.
The Gregory Paragon 58 harness.

Two very different backpacking trips of 77 miles in five days (averaging over 15 miles and 8,000 vertical feet per day) on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier and a more leisurely, four-day, 36-mile family hike on the Ruby Crest Trail convinced me that, for many backpackers, Gregory’s well-featured men’s Paragon 58 and women’s Maven 55 might offer everything they want in a pack for every kind of trip they take—at a good price.

Updated in 2020, they have support for carrying around 35 pounds comfortably, thanks to an alloy perimeter frame with a fiberglass cross-stay and Gregory’s FreeFloat Suspension System. Adjustable for torso and hipbelt length in two sizes, both packs have breathable mesh and foam throughout the harness and a trampoline-style back panel that allows air flow over your back and hips. They sport six external pockets, including two on the hipbelt and a large, stretch-mesh front pocket, and useful features like shoulder-strap attachments for trekking poles and sunglasses.

Read my complete review of the Gregory Paragon 58 and Maven 55.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Paragon 68, 58, 48, or 38 at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or a women’s Maven 65, 55, 45 or 35 at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.

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

The Osprey Aura AG 65 in Canada's Kootenay National Park.
The Osprey Aura AG 65 in Canada’s Kootenay National Park.

Ultimate  Comfort

Osprey Atmos AG 65 harness.
Osprey Atmos AG 65 harness.

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

These packs feel very different, in a good way, the first time you put one on, and that positive first impression bore out as I carried the Atmos AG 65 on two treks in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park and other backpacking trips. The Anti-Gravity suspension feels more like putting on a jacket than a backpack. Consisting of a panel of lightweight, tensioned mesh extending from the top of the back panel to the hipbelt, it fully wraps around your back and hips while delivering ample air movement.

Adjustable for fit, including the hipbelt, they carry 45 to 50 pounds with supreme comfort and come loaded with features like nine pockets, a convenient trekking poles attachment on the left shoulder strap, and an integrated cover panel to replace the removable lid. Weighing well under five pounds, they’re 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to buy a men’s Osprey Atmos AG 65 or Atmos AG 50 at ospreypacks.com, backcountry.com, or moosejaw.com, or a women’s Aura AG 65 or Aura AG 50 at ospreypacks.com, backcountry.com, or moosejaw.com.

Be comfortable on your hikes. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”

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 50.
Arc’teryx Bora 50.

Arc’teryx Bora AR 50
$320, 50L/3,050 c.i., 4 lbs. 13 oz.
backcountry.com

The 9.6-mile, 3,000-vertical-foot climb to Park Creek Pass, on the second morning of a five-day, 80-mile backpacking trip in North Cascades National Park seemed endless and relentlessly steep at times. But for me, it was softened by the carrying comfort of the Bora AR 50. The generously padded, removable Rotoglide hipbelt rotates side to side and slides up and down, eliminating fatigue and soreness that some packs cause in the shoulders and back over hard trail miles.

The 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 this high-tech hauler 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate 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 backcountry.com or rei.com.

Get the right tent for you. See “The 7 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents
and my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”

The Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60L backpack.
Testing the Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60L backpack in Hells Canyon.

Excellent Fit, Features, Durability, and Value

Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60
$269, 60L/3,662 c.i., 4 lbs. 14 oz.
backcountry.com

The Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60L front zipper.
The Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60L front zipper.

Of the three big packs for big loads on this list, the Sphinx 60 stands out for its full-length front zipper that completely fillets the pack bag open and coming in four sizes in men’s and women’s packs, along with substantial adjustability to dial in the fit. Mystery Ranch’s Adventure Frame carries 45 to 50 pounds comfortably. Access is excellent in the top-loading Sphinx 60, with seven external pockets, including two deep, large front pockets with two-way zippers.

Two more notable features: dual side compression straps that can mate with buckles on the opposite side, wrapping completely around the pack; and 330-denier Robic fabric in the pack bottom and front pockets.

For an extended wilderness hike requiring a week or more of food, parents carrying food and gear for young kids, trip leaders and others, the Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60 ranks among the very best big packs for comfort, access, and features.

Read my complete review of the Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Mystery Ranch Sphinx 60 at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.

Get the right daypack for your hikes. See my review of “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”

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.
backcountry.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 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to buy a Gregory Baltoro 65 or other sizes at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or a Deva 60 or other sizes at backcountry.com, or 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.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

Was this review helpful?

If so, would you like to support my work by clicking here to leave a tip for The Big Outside?

Please also consider sharing it using one of the buttons at right and leaving a comment or question at the bottom. Thank you, I really appreciate it.

 

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.

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. 
Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide!

Previous

How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is

The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park

Next

22 thoughts on “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs of 2021”

  1. Hey Michael thanks for your brilliant comparisons and reviews on backpacks. Among these which one will be suitable for girls as I want some lightweight and withstand able backpacks?

    Reply
    • Thanks, Julie. I don’t know if you mean young girls or teenage girls, but if you want a pack for young girls, see my links (below the Osprey Exos and Eja review, above) to my reviews of the Gregory Wander 70 (which also fits many smaller women well) and the Osprey Ace packs. For bigger girls/teenagers who are approaching or at the size of an adult, nine of the pack models reviewed here come in women’s sizes or women’s-specific models.

      So depending on the build of the girl, almost any of those could fit best; it’s difficult for me to make that judgment without knowing a person’s torso length and other measurements. I think women’s-specific models generally are preferable for any teenage girl or woman who finds she doesn’t easily fit into standard sizes.

      I would also take into consideration whether the girl is likely to grow more, and perhaps buy a pack that can accommodate her as she gets bigger.

      I hope that’s helpful. Thanks for the good question.

      Reply
  2. Hi Michael- really great article and I especially appreciate the decision matrix and testing trip reports!

    What’s your take on large pockets at the bottom to store heavier items- like bear cans?

    I’ve been backpacking for a couple decades at this point and I used to appreciate the storage spot at the base of an external frame pack to strap on a heavy bear can where it’s comfortable for a lower center of mass. These days I’ll just pack the can first to the bottom of my top-loader and hope I grabbed everything for the day. Sometimes those sleeping bag bottom pockets worked well for this- but seems like those have been phased out.

    Thanks!

    Ps- wasn’t thunder springs amazing? One of my favorite parts of the canyon.

    Reply
    • Hi Joel,

      Thanks for the compliment and the good question. Bear canisters are definitely tough to fit conveniently in packs. Only fairly large backpacks (60 liters or larger) are wide enough to lay a canister in horizontally, which I think is the best way to fit a canister inside a pack. Mid-size (under 60 liters) aren’t wide enough to do that, meaning you have to stand it up and cram stuff in the tight spaces around it. That works, but it’s not an easy fit.

      By the way, for a day on the trail, I do carry food I intend to eat during the day elsewhere in my pack and stuff my canister only with food I don’t need until dinnertime or later, and fill in any unfilled space in the canister with cooking gear or clothing I won’t need during the day. That way I don’t have to dig out and open that canister every time I want food, especially if it’s lying flat. If the canister is standing up in my pack, it’s easier to access anything inside it.

      Your point about external-frame packs having the convenience of storing a large, heavy item like a full canister at the bottom is true, but was also more unique to the design and carry of external-frame packs. You could stand upright with them and have the center of balance of a pack lower. With internal-frame packs, the recommendation is to pack the weight more in the middle of the pack, and the middle of your spine, for better carrying comfort. So, no, I don’t place a canister in the bottom of a pack. That’s where you want to place your sleeping bag, perhaps tent rainfly, air mat, and other fairly light, bulky stuff you don’t need on the trail. Which is why I’ve long found a zipper accessing the bottom of a pack to be largely superfluous weight. Arguably, in bad weather, you could grab a rainfly and tent more quickly, but you can also pack those in external stuff pockets or the top of your pack if you know it’s going to be raining when you pitch it.

      And yes, the Thunder Springs on the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek loop is amazing, as are the waterfalls on Deer Creek. Super trip.

      Hope that helps. Get in touch anytime and thanks for reading.

      Reply
  3. I am just starting to get into backpacking and am looking for a pack that can function in a variety of trips, from a weekend to 5 days. I have been looking at your blog and reading your pack reviews but am not sure 100% the things I should be looking for in a pack. A few of the packs that I was looking at were the North Face Banshee 50, the Granite Gear Blaze 60, or the Osprey Atmos AG 65. Would just like to hear you opinion on what would be the best investment. Thank You!

    Reply
    • Hi Colin, thanks for that question. You have focused on the three packs I would describe as the best all-around models for someone who’s new to backpacking or simply wants one pack that can handle just about any trip and amount of weight you might carry. They’re all midweights, supportive enough to carry substantial weight and light enough to not be overkill for a weekend trip.

      As I suggest in my “Top 5 Tips for Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” choosing a pack comes down to some personal preferences on design and questions like how much weight you expect to put in the pack, so without knowing those details about you, I’ll just try to help you make a choice. If you’re routinely going to carry well over 40-45 pounds, I’d say go with the Osprey Atmos AG 65. If it’s going to be more like around 35-40 pounds, but occasionally a bit more, I’d choose the Granite Gear Blaze 60. And if it’s regularly under 40 pounds and a reasonable volume, The North Face Banchee 50 is a great pack, and $40 cheaper than the others—but don’t overlook the fact that it has less volume. (There is a larger model, The North Face Banchee 65.)

      You will also find many stories at my blog with tips on backpacking, plus many gear reviews, as you’ve already discovered.

      Good luck and get in touch anytime.

      Reply
  4. Hello Michael thank you for the great reviews.
    Which one of the sub 3lb bags would you say carries heavy loads better? Would you please list?

    Reply
    • Hi Carlo, I know you’d probably prefer a simple answer, but I think the truth is that, with these models, weight-carrying capacity and comfort are a little different, and comfort will likely be dictated by the one that fits you best.

      If they all fit you equally well—which isn’t likely, but speaking hypothetically—the pack capable of carrying the most weight may be the Flex Capacitor. The Optic and Exos are fairly similar, and the significantly lighter HMG pack will carry as well as those two—assuming it fits you, and it comes in four sizes, so it should fit. (Interestingly, a good friend and regular backpacking partner of mine had an Exos for years, and didn’t like that the new version lacks hipbelt pockets, so at my recommendation he got the Optic and loves it.)

      By the way, the Banchee probably beats them all for weight-carrying capacity, and it’s just 3 lbs. 1 oz. And the Blaze is just a few ounces heavier and more tricked out, super comfortable, and has the best weight-carrying capacity of every pack I’ve mentioned.

      I think you should contemplate whether you’re going to regularly push the weight capacity of these packs or remain within their range, and after that, choose the design you prefer. I think backpackers who aren’t going to keep their pack weight light can be disappointed with an ultralight pack when they’re overloading it.

      Hope that’s helpful.

      Reply
    • Hi Jeff, thanks for that question. Since REI no longer carries the Flash 65 backpack, you must have an older model. I used and liked the previous version of the Flash 45, too, which is very similar to the pack you have if you have the same generation of that pack series. The latest Flash packs have some improvements, most notably REI’s UpLift compression system, mentioned in my review above. Click on the link to the complete review (linked in the above story) for more details on the new model. If you’re considering a new pack and liked the previous Flash, you may like the new one even more.

      Reply
  5. 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.

    Reply
    • 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 Arc’teryx Altra is no longer available, but the Osprey Atmos AG is very comfortable with 45+ pounds, and that’s what it’s made for. If your regularly carrying that much weight, I would try it and other big packs in this review 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.”

      Reply
    • Hi Joey, I’ve used the REI Flash 45 as a carry-on. The smaller versions of the Gregory Optic and Octal and the Osprey Exos and Eja would probably work, as well as the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor.

      Reply
  6. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  7. 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

    Reply
    • 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/

      Reply
  8. 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 .

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

Leave a Comment