Ask Me: What’s the Best Thru-Hiking Backpack?
I’m looking for a backpack for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I am considering some Osprey packs and others. What to you recommend as the best thru-hiking backpack?
Congratulations on your plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I hope it goes really well for you.
As I wrote in my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” when ultralight backpacking, as you’ll do on a thru-hike, I want a lightweight backpack, which means minimal features like pockets and zippers. Still, I like the convenience of quick access for some items, like a lid, side, and/or hipbelt pockets for snacks, map, sunglasses, and sunblock, and a mesh front pocket where I can stuff a jacket.
Packs made for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking, typically weigh between two and 2.5 pounds, and have support for carrying 20 to 30 pounds—and as you probably know, you should only carry the upper end of that weight range on longer stretches of trail where you have several days’ worth of food. Get a pack somewhere between 40 to 60 liters capacity. You’ll want gear that is light and compact. (See all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear, backpacking tents, hiking shoes, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads, and my Gear Reviews page for numerous stories with my picks for best gear and tips on buying gear.)
The pack you choose will depend on some personal preferences regarding design features, price, weight, and capacity. There are several backpacks that stand out in this category.
For a good thru-hiker pack, especially if you like Osprey, I suggest you look at the Osprey Exos 58 or Exos 48 ($190). I used the Exos 58 on a four-day, 86-mile backpacking trip in Yosemite, carrying up to 25 pounds, and on a weeklong hut trek in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Read my review. (My friend, Todd, is carrying the first generation of the Exos 58 on the Pacific Crest Trail at Glen Aulin in Yosemite National Park in the lead photo, above.) I’ve liked that pack a lot since the first version of it came out in 2008.
I’ve been using and plan to review the new for 2017 Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 ($190), whose signature feature is a compression system that allows you to alter the pack’s capacity to fit whatever you’re carrying, making it more stable with a small load. At 2 lbs. 9 oz., it’s one of the heaviest listed here, but I’ve already found it comfortable hauling 35 pounds of climbing gear, thanks in part to a sturdier (though still streamlined) hipbelt than is found in some ultralight packs. It has quick, one-zipper access to the main compartment, and five external pockets (lid, side, and hipbelt).
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The REI Flash 45 ($129), newly updated for 2017, is not only a steal, but it sports nice design features for ultralight backpacking, including six external pockets, while still weighing just a few ounces north of two pounds. A steel, internal perimeter frame with one horizontal stay, plus a contoured hipbelt and well-padded shoulder straps make it comfortable carrying 25 to 30 pounds, and REI’s UpLift compression system squeezes the load from the bottom to draw it closer to your hips. Read my complete review of the Flash 45.
I used the Bergans of Norway Helium 55 ($189), which comes in a 40L version ($168), on a 34-mile backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and while it weighs just 2 lbs. 3 oz., I found it carries up to 25 pounds comfortably. It has five inches of torso adjustability, rare among ultralight packs, and men’s and women’s versions. I like the full-length, vertical front zipper accessing the main compartment.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($340) weighs just two pounds, has removable aluminum stays and a hipbelt and shoulder straps designed for carrying about 25 pounds, and is made with waterproof (and practically bulletproof) Dyneema fabric. Its minimalist design features three roomy, exterior mesh pockets and zippered hipbelt pockets, and a roll-top closure with top and side compression for stabilizing under-filled loads.
The ULA Circuit ($235) weighs in at 2 lbs. 9 oz., but it’s spacious at 68 liters, and its roll-top closure extends farther than many competitors, giving you more capacity when needed. With a carbon fiber and Delrin suspension, a dense foam frame and an aluminum stay, it will carry up to 30 pounds comfortably, and the hipbelt and shoulder straps come in multiple sizes for customizing the fit for men or women. ULA’s 210 Robic fabric is highly durable, and the pack has a huge external front pocket.
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 ($215-$260) has more capacity than many two-pound packs, comes in a wide range of torso lengths and hipbelt sizes, and has side pockets made of more-durable fabric, rather than mesh. It has a removable internal frame and seven pockets, while weighing under 2 pounds, and comes in three torso and three hipbelt sizes.
If you scroll through all of my backpack reviews and my review of the 10 best packs for backpacking, you’ll find other models I really like, but most range from around three-and-a-half pounds to five pounds.
Good luck with your thru-hike. I’d love to hear what you pick for a pack and how the trip goes for you.
Tell me what you think.
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