Backpacking is a great way to drop crowds, get off the grid, and observe wilderness at its most wild. Plus, it gives you a chance to hone your survival skills, in case you secretly have been harboring a desire to make it on Survivor. Regardless, we’re not here to judge—just to help you find a backpacking pack that will help you enjoy your destination and your trek. The right backpack should have enough space for your haul, fit like a glove, and ideally include all the features you want. Read quick reviews of the top four performers from our test, then keep scrolling for helpful buying advice and in-depth reviews about these and other great backpacking packs.
Gregory Maven 65
The Maven lets you move through the mountains or woods in comfort.
REI Co-op Flash 55
The Flash’s customizable features won’t cost an arm and a leg.
Best for Weekend Trips
Osprey Archeon 45
This retro-inspired pack is ready for your weekend adventures.
Hyperlite 3400 Junctionhyperlitemountaingear.com
Get 55 liters of space in a sub-2-pound pack.Choosing the Right Backpack
The two most important considerations when choosing a backpacking pack are capacity and fit. Ideally, you should store all your gear inside your pack so you can move with the greatest efficiency (if you have to attach any gear to the outside, be sure to secure it tightly so it doesn’t fall off). Because of this, the capacity you need is often determined by the length of your trip. The longer you plan to be in the backcountry, the more space you need (though you’ll also need more room on winter trips when you’ll want to bring more clothing and a sleep system built for cold weather). Most companies offer the same backpack style in two or three capacity sizes. You can get away with a 40- to 45-liter model for a quick overnight when you have less to haul. But choose a pack between 45 to 60 liters for weekend trips or between 65 and 80 liters for extended multiday treks. If you aren’t sure how much space you need or want to invest in one pack that can handle anything, look for a model with an expandable design.
How a pack fits you is equally important to whether it has all the space you need. “On the trail, what you’re going to feel is directly related to whether the pack is right for you and the load, but also does it fit you?” says Erik Hamerschlag, a senior product manager at Osprey who, in his nearly 17-year tenure, has worked on almost all the brand’s merchandise categories, including backpacking packs. When loaded and properly adjusted, the pack should lie flat against your back with the hip belt wrapping around your hip bones. It should move with your body, instead of jiggling around, and you shouldn’t have to hunch over to keep your balance. Pain points usually are easiest to identify if you’re carrying heavy loads, when you want the most precise fit for the greatest hiking efficiency. As you test out a pack at home or in a store, make sure you weigh it down first to get a better sense of how it will feel on the trail.
Backpacks are sized according to torso length (as measured from your bony C7 vertebrae at the base of your neck to your iliac crest at the top of your hip bone) and hip belt width. Many companies offer the same pack in men’s and women’s versions with designs that are tailored to anatomical differences. Women’s packs have smaller torso lengths and can have slightly less capacity than their men’s equivalents. Also, the hip belts and shoulder straps on women’s styles are more curved, and the shoulder straps sit closer together than those on men’s. Aside from sex-specific sizing, some models have adjustable torso harnesses and hip belts so you can hone in on the perfect fit. These adjustable features often cost more, but it’s an investment you should consider making. An ill-fitting pack can put unnecessary strain on your body that results in bruising, chafing, or general discomfort—three things guaranteed to throw a wrench in your backpacking trip.How Suspension Systems Offset Load
Suspension systems create a backpack’s structure and dictate how the load is distributed across the pack. The frame is the central component of the system, but it works in conjunction with the back panel, hip belt, shoulder straps, and load lifters, which are adjustable straps that move the load closer to your body. Nearly all the packs available today have internal frames. “The intent is to shift the load off of your shoulders and onto your hips where your legs can do most of the work,” Hamerschlag says. Having your legs do the heavy lifting reduces strain that would otherwise be subjected to your spine and shoulders.This suspension system with a foam back panel keeps the pack close to your body.
This trampoline suspension system has a mesh back panel that keeps the bag from touching your body.
Some internal frames are constructed with a framesheet, a piece of foam or molded plastic that shapes the back panel, commonly made of foam. To add more shape and stability, some companies install thin curved plastic or metal strips, called stays, into sleeves on the framesheet. Packs with this type of suspension system sit close to your back, but other designs have a trampoline back panel, created by a bolt of mesh fabric that’s stretched across curved spring steel or aluminum rods installed along the perimeter of the pack’s back. Trampoline panels offer the best ventilation because there is space between the mesh panel and the pack. But under heavy loads, some people find they are not stiff enough to support the weight comfortably. Instead, look for an expedition-style pack that has a framesheet and perimeter wire framing. This combination creates the most rigid construction that effectively transfers weight across the suspension system.
Fit and capacity should be top of mind, but you should also think about the other features you want. Hydration sleeves and compression straps are standard, and most packs also have a lid with storage pockets—or a brain, to seasoned backpackers—and at least one hip-belt pocket. These quick-access compartments are a great place to store essentials like your phone or satellite communicator, chapstick with SPF, first aid kit, and for one of our testers, a cookie. Many lids are removable, so you can use them as a day pack or leave them at home if you don’t need the extra space.
Having a zippered sleeping bag compartment, usually created by a removable fabric divider within the main compartment, can make for easier loading and unloading, but this is less important on smaller packs and those with front-loading access when you don’t need to stick your whole arm in a pack just to fish out your sleep system. Premium backpacks can also have a zipper on one side of the main compartment that gives you quicker access to gear mid-hike. These models often include a waterproof rain cover, too. If price is a concern, look for a pack with fewer bells and whistles. And remember, some features can be substituted with additional purchases later on. For instance, you can buy waterproof bag liners or rain covers, a packable day pack, or compression storage bags to keep your gear tidy.How We Tested
To find the best backpacking backpacks, we evaluated the capacity, weight, construction, features, and cost of more than a dozen models. Then, we loaded up the most promising picks and hit the trails. These packs hauled our gear on the Appalachian Trail, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and throughout several state parks in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Combined, our test team hiked 85 miles, paying attention to how easy it was to load and adjust the packs as well as how they felt when fully loaded.―EDITORS’ CHOICE―Gregory Maven 65
Capacity: 65 liters | Weight: 3 lb. 9.6 oz. | Loading Access: Top and side | Adjustable Torso: Yes
Fine-tuning the fit of your pack is typical after a few miles on the trail, but when we slid on the Maven 65, it glommed onto our back, feeling almost like a second skin that moved in the same direction and at exactly the same time as we did. That meant more comfortable trekking, even on high-mileage days. Gregory accomplishes this superb fit with a new suspension system for the 2020 model of the Maven and its men’s equivalent, the Paragon. The adjustable FreeFloat Hybrid has two flex panels in the lower back that offer a more dynamic carry than other close-to-back designs. Plus, cutouts in the foam hip belt relieve pressure and reduce the chance of bruising. The back ventilation could have been better, but we’ll take sweat over an unwieldy pack any day.
Also available in 45- and 55-liter models, the Maven has all the standard features you’d expect to see on a premium pack, including a rain cover that stows within the lid and secondary gear access through a left-side zipper. We were happy with the storage, but it was tough to access the lid compartment while we were wearing the pack because the zipper wraps around like a U instead of running straight across. Luckily, pockets on the hip belt still allowed us ready access to trail snacks, a phone, and other necessities.
Shop Women’s | Shop Men’s―BEST VALUE―REI Co-op Flash 55
Capacity: 55 liters | Weight: 2 lb. 9.6 oz. | Loading Access: Top | Adjustable Torso: No
The REI Co-op Flash 55 is one of the most competitively priced backpacks around but still manages to offer a good fit and nice set of features. Like many backpacks at this price point, the torso isn’t adjustable, but we still found a good fit. The foam back panel has raised portions that spread the weight across our back and created enough airflow so we didn’t get excessively sweaty. And like the Maven, cutouts on the hip belt padding boosted comfort. The Flash also has several customizable features. We easily slid the chest strap up and down the shoulder straps to our desired height, and the compression straps and pockets on the hip belt and shoulder strap are removable. It’s worth noting that large phones (like our tester’s Google Pixel 1) or those with bulky cases won’t fit in the hip belt pockets.
With a hydration sleeve and four water bottle pockets at the sides, you should never run out of H2O, though it’s more likely that you might use a few of the pockets to stash gear without sacrificing bottle space. Two of these pockets are angled, which made it easier to take a quick drink on the move. We also liked the Flash’s roll-top closure with a locking buckle, a diversion from the more traditional drawstring opening. Given its relatively affordable price, we’d recommend it for entry-level and occasional backpackers, who might find the 45-liter Flash to be the best option.
Shop Men’s | Shop Women’s―BEST FOR WEEKEND TRIPS―Osprey Archeon 45
Capacity: 45 liters | Weight: 4 lb. 9.6 oz. | Loading Access: Top and front | Adjustable Torso: Yes
New for 2020, the Osprey Archeon sports a retro aesthetic and sustainably focused construction, two things that we dug before we even put the pack on. When we did, we found a comfortably fitting backpack that was easy to tailor to our specifications. It didn’t feel too heavy while on our back, but at just over 4.5 pounds, it isn’t light. Some of that weight is due to the durable 1,880-denier recycled nylon canvas and the metal hooks that replace plastic buckles in most places on the pack. These features should last for years to come, though the elastic on the fixed lid might not. Loading and unloading was simple because the Archeon opens at the top and in the front with a dual zippered panel. Because it’s easier to unfurl this panel than to release the drawstring top, there’s an internal buckle that connects the sides of the pack to keep your gear from spilling out on the trail. In terms of organized storage, it’s a mixed bag. The front-access doesn’t allow for a stuff pocket, but inside the panel, there is a zippered mesh pocket with a middle divider for small goods. At 45 liters, the Archeon is comfortable for an overnight or weekend trip, if you pack carefully. But if you plan to be out for longer, it also comes in a 70-liter model (or 65-liter, for women).
Shop Men’s | Shop Women’s―BEST ULTRALIGHT PACK―Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Junction
Capacity: 55 liters | Weight: 1 lb. 12.8 oz. | Loading Access: Top | Adjustable Torso: No
For light and fast missions, choose the 3400 Junction from Hyperlite Mountain Gear, which boasts an excellent weight-to-capacity ratio. It clocks in under 2 pounds (or slightly more for the black color), and you can save even more weight by removing the aluminum stays. Not surprisingly, the unisex pack has sparse features and minimal padding throughout, but we didn’t experience any hotspots while wearing it. We liked the large exterior mesh pocket, often using it to store a shovel and probe on our backcountry ski tour in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Snow didn’t soak our gear thanks to the seam-sealed construction and the waterproof Dyneema Composite Hybrid fabric, which combines lightweight polyester and ultra-tough woven Dyneema with a composite laminate backing. There’s plenty of compression straps throughout the pack, too. We appreciated that these kept the Junction slim, but the long straps left excess material swinging around, which was a minor annoyance at times. If you will be hauling less stuff, pick the 40-liter pack instead. It’s not cheap, and most people will probably prefer more features or at the very least more padding, but for ultralight adventurers, the Junction is a solid pick.―BEST FEATURES―The North Face Banchee 65
Capacity: 65 liters | Weight: 3 lb. | Loading Access: Top | Adjustable Torso: Yes
A contender for our Editors’ Choice award, the feature-rich Banchee is a great choice for multiday backpacking trips when you have a lot to haul. The pack has so much space, the question you’ll face won’t be if your gear will fit, but rather where to put it. The large main compartment has a sleeping bag pocket and is topped with a spacious lid. And though many packs just have one stuff pocket on the front, The North Face adds two more overlapping zippered compartments to the exterior. Both of the oversize mesh water bottle pockets can be unclipped from the frame and have top and side openings. For shorter expeditions, consider the 50-liter version.
The Banchee had the easiest suspension adjust system because The North Face ditches traditional Velcro for a series of straps. To change the torso length, we only had to tug on the discreetly placed pulleys at the bottom right side of the pack. The one-strap load lifting system operates similarly, allowing for a unilateral adjustment. We also appreciated the trampoline back panel, which offered the best ventilation of any pack in our test. Even small details impressed us enough to mention. Straps snake up the full length of the pack for superior compression, and the loops used to open the drawstring main compartment are well-positioned and large enough to fit our fist around, making it a cinch to access our stuff at the end of the day. But for all its successes, we found we couldn’t quite nail the fit on The Banchee, so it’s especially important that you try on this pack at home before taking it out into the field.
Shop Men’s | Shop Women’s―MOST VERSATILE―Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60
Capacity: 40-60 liters | Weight: 2 lb. 9.6 oz. | Loading Access: Top | Adjustable Torso: No
Expandable backpacks give you the leeway to pack heavy or light, depending on the occasion. But when you stuff some chockfull of gear, it can sometimes feel like the pack is wearing you, instead of the other way around. The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor changes that by offering an expandable design that fills out horizontally, not vertically. If that sounds like a recipe for a trek that you spend hunched over, think again. We were able to hike upright and keep the pack and its contents from swaying around with the help of the many compression straps and the large Y-shaped stay that’s made from lightweight DAC Pressfit aluminum. What’s more, the Flex Capacitor offers a shocking amount of extra space—up to 20 liters—by pulling on a few straps. By comparison, most other expandable designs give just 10 or 15. (To be fair, the additional space in the smaller and larger capacity models is more on pace with these competitors.) The unisex design does not have an adjustable torso, but you can select both the torso length and hip-belt width that’s best for you to achieve a comfortable fit. As for the pack’s organization, we could have stood for one or two additional pockets on the main compartment, but both shoulder straps have drawstring pockets that can fit a plastic water bottle, sunglasses, or other incidentals.―MOST INNOVATIVE DESIGN―Mystery Ranch Terraframe 3-Zip 50
Capacity: 50 liters | Weight: 5 lb. 3.2 oz. | Loading Access: Top and front | Adjustable Torso: Yes
Mystery Ranch disrupts the traditional look and feel of backpacking packs with its Terraframe line, a convertible, heavy-duty hauler with a tactical flair. The Bozeman, Montana–based company borrows the Terraframe’s hybrid internal-external suspension system from its hunting and military packs. This OVERLOAD feature allows for additional cargo space when you have bulky gear in tow. Simply unclip the bag, slip the frame out of fabric flaps near the shoulder, extend the fabric sling at the bottom, load up, and clip back in. It was the perfect place to put our tent when we ran out of room in the main compartment during one weekend trip. When you plan to use the pack in external-frame mode, it’s best to have a hydration reservoir for your water, as we had difficulty reaching the side water bottle pockets. And no matter how we positioned the frame, we also couldn’t access the lid pockets while wearing the pack because of the straps connecting the top of the frame to the front of the pack. This would have been less of an issue if the hip belt had pockets; unfortunately, they don’t.The Terraframe expands to carry larger loads.
Trevor RaabBuilt for heavy loads, the Terraframe is a rigid pack that weighs more than 5 pounds, but we still found it to be comfortable enough, given the plush padding on the shoulder straps, hip belt, and back panel. We stayed on trail while wearing the pack, but should you find yourself bushwacking your way forward, the tough 330-denier Lite Plus Cordura fabric shouldn’t snag or rip. The unisex Terraframe also comes in 65- and 80-liter models, where Mystery Ranch swaps the three-way zipper (which we found most helpful when it was time to unload) for a more traditional buckle closure and adds on two exterior pockets. Thanks to a U-shaped zipper on these models, you’ll still have front-loading access.