Gear Review: The 8 Best Packs For Backpacking
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 eight top performers that stand out for reasons that make each appeal uniquely to a certain type of backpacker. 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. The comparison chart offers a quick look at stats and features that distinguish these packs from one another.
Click on the name or photo of each pack to read its complete review at The Big Outside.
|Backpack||Price||Volume||Weight||Sizes||Carries Up To…||Features|
|Arc’teryx Altra 65||$449||65L/3,967 c.i.||5 lbs.||2 men’s, 2 women’s||50 lbs.||Zipper accessing main compartment, 7 pockets, pivoting hipbelt|
|Exped Thunder 50||$249||50L/3,051 c.i.||3 lbs. 4 oz.||1 men’s and women’s size, adjustable||40 lbs.||Zipper accessing main compartment, 6 pockets|
|Gregory Baltoro 75 and Deva 70||$319||75L/4,577 c.i.||6 lbs.||3 men’s, 3 women’s||50+ lbs.||Zipper accessing main compartment, 8 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack, removable lid pocket/fanny pack|
|Gregory Stout 45 and Amber 44||$169||45L/2,746 c.i.||3 lbs. 9 oz.||2 men’s, 2 women’s||35 lbs.||5 pockets, durable fabric, integrated rain cover|
|Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65||$260||65L/3,967 c.i.||4 lbs. 11 oz.||3 men’s, 3 women’s, adjustable||45-50 lbs.||Unique harness, 9 pockets, poles attachment|
|Osprey Exos 58||$220||58L/3,356 c.i.||2 lbs. 8 oz.||3 unisex||25-30 lbs.||Removable lid, 9 pockets, poles attachment|
|REI Flash 45||$129||45L/2,745 c.i.||2 lbs. 3 oz.||2 unisex||20-25 lbs.||6 pockets, minimalist design|
|The North Face Banchee 65||$239||65L/3,967 c.i.||3 lbs. 12 oz.||2 men’s, 2 women’s, adjustable||40+ lbs.||Floating lid, 9 pockets, sleeping bag compartment|
Everything But the Kitchen Sink
Arc’teryx Altra 65
$449, 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.
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 summithut.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Bargain Ultralight Pack
REI Flash 45
$129, 2 lbs. 3 oz.
While the Exos 48 or 58 delivers more support and comfort (which becomes more noticeable with every mile hiked), if money’s tight and you don’t plan to load more than about 25 pounds into this ultralight sack, the Flash 45 is a great pick. Available in two, non-adjustable sizes, the Flash sports a basic aluminum, internal frame and a flexible, lightly padded hipbelt, and all the organization most ultralighters need. Plus, this top-loader swallows a bear canister and has the capacity for a four-day, summer hike, as well as some convenient features like big, mesh pockets on the sides and front and spacious hipbelt pockets.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an REI Flash 45 at rei.com.
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 this link to buy a The North Face Banchee 65 at moosejaw.com.
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“Why and When to Spend More on Gear: Part 1, Packs and Tents, and Part 2, Rain Jackets, Boots, and Sleeping Bags”
“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”
“My 10 Most-Read Gear Reviews”
“Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?”
“10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System”
NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.
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