sidebar

OutdoorGearLab Home

search
Review | Ratings | Buying Tips | Testing

The Best Backpacking Packs of 2017

The Best backpacking pack review
By Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
Tuesday
There are hundreds of backpacking backpacks from the ultralight to the ultra comfy. We researched roughly 65 packs and bought the 11 best for 210 hours of side-by-side tests in the mountains of Patagonia and the Pacific Northwest. Today's backpacks are more feature-rich than ever, but it's hard to distinguish what's useful and what just adds more weight. We'll help you find the right model for a 2-8 day trip, whether you're a minimalist or want as close to the feeling of backcountry luxury every time you clip your hip belt. Since no pack fits everyone perfectly, our mountain-guide-led testing team got fit feedback from friends and clients to more accurately score comfort and suspension. Read on to pick your perfect pack.

Best Overall Backpack


Arc'teryx Bora AR 63


Arc'teryx Bora AR 63
Editors' Choice Award

$548.95
at Backcountry
See It

Supportive
Pivoting waist belt
Comfortable
Innovative and effective adjustment system
Best lid pockets
Easily some of the best features of any pack in our review
Average weight
Expensive
The Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 is Arc'teryx's newest model in its long line of Bora packs and is the winner of our Editors' Choice award. It won our award for our favorite all-around backpacking pack because of its extremely robust frame and top-notch padding and shoulder strap articulation mixed with several other very useable features, all at a respectable, albeit average, five-pound weight. The foam used in this pack's shoulder straps are straight-up dreamy and they found an excellent balance of being cushy, but still supportive when loads were heavier. A fairly unique feature of the Bora is its pivoting waist belt that while gimmicky appearing at first, was extremely effective at transferring the load from our back to our hips (a feature that was even more apparent as the terrain became more rugged) Another cool design feature of this pack is how weather resistant this pack is. The Bora uses Arc'teryx's ACē fabric on most of the pack and even seam seals and uses watertight zippers on its back kangaroo-style pocket; despite using this pack over a dozen days in the wet Pacific Northwest Spring, items in this pocket never got wet. The primary downsides of the Bora are that it's average in weight (5 lbs) and at $550, it is $200 more than any other model we tested.

Read full review: Arc'teryx Bora AR 63

Best Bang for the Buck


Osprey Volt 60


Osprey Volt 60
Best Buy Award

$134.91
at Amazon
See It

Great price
Fits a broad range of people
Simple design but still has all the features the most people find most important
Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ lb) loads
The Osprey Volt 60 combines solid comfort and performance with excellent value. The $180 Volt 60, or the identical, but slightly larger $200 Volt 75, scored respectably well in most categories and scored better overall than several much more expensive packs. While the Volt 60 is not feature-heavy, it does have all the key features that backpackers care about the most, like two zipped lid pockets, dual entry water bottle pockets, stretchy beaver-tail pocket and a lower zippered access point (AKA sleeping bag compartment), among other things. The Volt is only sold in one frame size but features the most vertical adjustment of any pack we tested as well as an adjustable girth waist belt. Despite all of this, the Volt 60 only weighed a below-average 3 lbs 14 oz. What really pushed this pack over-the-top for us to win our Best Buy Award is how nicely padded and ergonomic its shoulder straps and waist belt were, along with nicer foam padding and better-feeling face materials than most other packs in its price range. Its only real downside is it is just okay at carrying monster loads (45+ pounds), but still comparable in its performance to other packs in its weight range. The Osprey Volt 60 appeals most especially to people who appreciate its simplicity; not tons of extra pockets or pouches, just the essentials with slightly above average padding, and ergonomics. The bottom line is that we don't think you can find a better pack for less money, though the REI Flash 65 comes close.

Read full review: Osprey Volt 60

Top Pick for Comfort and Ventilation


Osprey Atmos 65 AG


Osprey Atmos 65 AG
Top Pick Award

$194.40
at Amazon
See It

Comfortable
Packed full of features
Lots of awesome pockets offering excellent organization
Awesome ventilation
Lighter than average
Sweet adjustable hip belt
Not as supportive for super heavy (45+ lb) loads
Snow can get inside of the back panel
The Osprey Atmos 65 AG is a former Editors' Choice award winner and remains a Top Pick for short excursions and comfort. It's easily one of the best all-around backpacking packs because it's stacked with functional features, is MEGA-comfortable, ventilates fantastically, all at a lighter than average 4 lbs 6 oz. However, what edged it out for the best all-around backpacking pack is it just doesn't handle heavier loads (greater than 45 pounds) as well as several other models. If you pack on the lighter side or don't embark on extended trips as often, this pack is certainly one of the best. What sets the Atmos apart is its luxurious AG suspension that does a fantastic job of spreading the load out evenly across your body and makes your pack seem lighter than it is. For trips where we were carrying less than 40 lbs, this was hands down the most comfortable pack in our review for the majority of our testers. Another big advantage is the fit, ergonomics, and adjustability of the Atmos from the frame to the waist belt. Our testers raved about its refined design; every additional pocket is in the right place, is the right size, with few features our testers claimed to be useless. The only downfall: the Anti-Gravity suspension doesn't carry super heavy loads as comfortably as some of our other Top Picks, and it can fill with snow during winter or mountaineering objectives.

Read full review: Osprey Atmos 65 AG

Top Pick for Extended Trips


Osprey Xenith 75


Xenith 70
Top Pick Award

$245.95
at Amazon
See It

Comfortable
Carries heavier loads well
Superb external twin zippered pockets
Functional and easy to use stretch mesh zippered pockets
Difficult to search for items in lid pockets
Lumbar pack lid rarely useful
If you frequent trips that consist of 5-20 days or trips that require you to carry a lot of gear, then the Xenith is the pack for you. It comes in 75L, 85L, and 105L options, and the Xenith is tester Ian Nicholson's favorite Denali Pack (which is 22 days of arctic cold weather and HEAVY LOADS). The Xenith series also ranks as a favorite among many NOLS instructors for extended adventures. We think it just hits the sweet spot of a robust suspension and above average padding and ergonomics while offering sweet features and a nice assortment of pockets for extended trips. It remains relatively lightweight for a pack that carries so fantastically. While the Xenith was one of the best load hauling packs we have ever tested, it was a toss up as to which pack could carry monster loads better: the Baltoro or the Xenith. In the end, they both proved to be awesome packs; the only difference between the two came down to slight personal preferences.

Read full review: Osprey Xenith 75

Top Pick for Best Lightweight Model


Osprey Exos 58


Osprey Exos 58
Top Pick Award

$164.40
at Amazon
See It

Lightest pack in the review
One of the lightest framed packs available
Comfortable for loads under 40 lbs
Great pockets and features
Average durability
Not a ton of extra features
Not very adjustable
The Osprey Exos 58 was the lightest pack in this review by over a pound, but remained comfortable for moderate sub 40-pound loads. This is what's unique about the Exos; it almost blurs the line between traditional backpacking packs and ultralight packs. It's almost as light as many commonly frameless minimalist ultra-lightweight packs (being only 0.5-1 lbs heavier than most), but still has the essential features you'd expect in a traditional backpacking pack (including a frame). It's a great stepping stone for people who want to get into "ultralight" backpacking but can't get their load down to the 20-30 lbs necessary to make a sub 2-pound frameless pack comfortable. Or, it's for people who already pack on the light end, but want a little more suspension, comfort, and features that most frameless packs don't provide. If you like the idea of a lighter weight pack, but want a few more features and a slightly more substantial frame, consider the The North Face Banchee 65 or REI Flash 65 - both weigh 3 lbs 10 oz.

Read full review: Osprey Exos 58

Top Pick for Heavier Loads & Standout Suspension


Gregory Baltoro 65


Baltoro 65
Top Pick Award

$224.96
at MooseJaw
See It

Comfortable
Carries heavy loads well
Dual zippered lid pockets are awesome
"U" shaped opening provides easy access
Slightly heavier than average
Supportive foam can feel stiff initially
The new and improved Gregory Baltoro 65 is just as comfortable as ever and offers improved features and usability while somehow weighing eight ounces less than the previous model. The Baltoro remains the best pack in our review for carrying monster loads (more than 60 lbs) and offers a plethora of features. At 5 lbs 3 oz, it's a little heavier than other models, but not by much, especially if you need to carry a significant amount of weight or access is super important to you. It will last (nearly) forever and gives you a ton of features for your money.

Read full review: Gregory Baltoro 65

Notable Mention


Gregory Paragon 68


Gregory Paragon 68


Lighter than average weight
Many features
Supportive frame
One of the best lid designs in our review
Doesn't fit narrower shouldered users well
No additional access
The Gregory Paragon 68 is a straight-up rad pack. It's packed full of great features, is above average in comfort, and has the most robust suspension for a sub 4-pound pack. If you want a more supportive pack but are still looking for something on the lighter side, this is your pack.

Read full review: Gregory Paragon 68

Notable Mention


The North Face Banchee 65



$238.95
at Backcountry
See It


Lightweight
Comfortable to carry for long periods of time
Fantastic suspension
Useful and well thought out pockets
Hip belt adjustment
Compression straps
External lid pocket isn't easy to search through

The North Face Banchee 65 was very nearly our Top Pick for the best light weight option and was only barely edged out by the Exos 58, as the Exos is around a pound lighter. The Banchee is certainly more comfortable overall and has a plethora of easier to use features. It sports one of our review teams favorite all around pack designs.

Read full review: The North Face Banchee 65

up to 5 products
Score Product Price Our Take
84
Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 $549
Editors' Choice Award
A fantastic all-around pack that's comfortable, and has robust suspension, rad features, and top-notch weather resistance, making it at home on most backcountry adventures.
83
Osprey Atmos 65 AG $260
Top Pick Award
This is a mega comfortable pack as long as you aren't carrying too much weight; it's our favorite design and remains lighter than average.
82
Gregory Baltoro 65 $300
Top Pick Award
A excellent pack that handles loads exceptionally well, while offering a respectable weight that even folks carrying modest loads can appreciate.
82
Osprey Xenith 75 $330
Top Pick Award
An extremely supportive and comfortable pack that is packed full of some of our review teams' favorite features; it excels on extended outings and long range missions.
81
The North Face Banchee 65 $240
A sweet pack with lots of well-designed features and user-friendly pockets - all at a below average weight.
81
Gregory Paragon 68 $250
A solid, versatile, and low weight backpacking back that is a great option for a variety of trips.
80
Osprey Aether AG 60 $290
An extremely comfortable and feature-rich design that handles heavy loads, while only being marginally heavier than average.
78
Osprey Exos 58 $220
Top Pick Award
Bordering on a true "ultralight" pack, the Exos is perfect for folks who are still slimming down their kit or for those who want a light pack with the comfort and support of a frame.
77
Osprey Volt 60 $180
Best Buy Award
The Volt 60 is a great all-around pack that doesn't give up much in the way of features; it's also light and versatile.
76
REI Flash 65 $199
A well-designed and lighter than average pack that doesn't give up much in the way of features, comfort, or suspension.
71
Deuter Aircontact 65+10 $279
A comfortable and well padded pack that sports lots of features; it is heavier than average and has bulky padding.

Analysis and Test Results


There is a lot to consider when selecting the right backpacking backpack, whether it's your first bag or you're just adding to the quiver. In this review, we compared the best and most popular men's backpacking backpacks.

There are many factors to take into consideration when purchasing a pack for backpacking. We looked at nearly 70 packs and then took close to a dozen of the top models  pitted them head-to-head  and reported our findings here. Photo: Backpack testing in the Oregon Cascades.
There are many factors to take into consideration when purchasing a pack for backpacking. We looked at nearly 70 packs and then took close to a dozen of the top models, pitted them head-to-head, and reported our findings here. Photo: Backpack testing in the Oregon Cascades.

These packs are the type of packs that most people will be drawn toward and will use for day-in and day-out backpacking. While the packs we chose to review could be used for travel, such as "backpacking" through Europe or Southeast Asia, and most are versatile enough for some general mountaineering applications, these packs aren't necessarily geared specifically for those activities.

Considering what types of trips you'd like to take as well as the duration are good first steps to ask yourself when purchasing a pack We conducted side-by-side backpacking backpack comparisons with a REI Flash 65 shown here in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Considering what types of trips you'd like to take as well as the duration are good first steps to ask yourself when purchasing a pack We conducted side-by-side backpacking backpack comparisons with a REI Flash 65 shown here in Mt. Rainier National Park.

There are literally hundreds of backpacking packs currently available. We carefully considered our selection after strongly considering nearly 65 packs before choosing the models now included in our review. We carefully compared them in five different categories. The chart below shows the overall performance score of each pack we tested.


Comfort


For our comfort category, we compared how comfortable and supportive each pack's shoulder straps, back panel, and hip belt felt by field testing each pack for days at a time. We compared these packs mostly with more common 30-45 lb loads that most backpackers might carry for 3-6 day trips, however; we also loaded them to see how each pack performed with 55-60 lbs for a little longer than our hips and shoulders would have liked to simulate what even further extended outings of more heavily laden trips might feel like.


We paid extra attention to how the waist belt and shoulder straps felt on each pack after wearing them for long days and with heavy loads. We took into account other feedback from OutdoorGearLab Editors, their friends, and climbing partners (thanks, guys) and tested these packs in excess of three hundred days. This helped give us a broader perspective on body types and what it takes in choosing the most comfortable pack.

Comfort is one of the most important features of a backpacking pack. Good fit is obviously important  but even with a good fit  not all packs are created equal. Below we discuss the differences in ergonomics  padding  and the design differences that affect each model's performance. Photo out on a 5-day trip with the Osprey Volt and the Deuter Air Contact.
Comfort is one of the most important features of a backpacking pack. Good fit is obviously important, but even with a good fit, not all packs are created equal. Below we discuss the differences in ergonomics, padding, and the design differences that affect each model's performance. Photo out on a 5-day trip with the Osprey Volt and the Deuter Air Contact.

After extensive testing with normal 30-40 lb loads, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG scored at the top for comfort in addition to the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63. All of our testers agreed, the Atmos provided such a cozy ride; its trampoline style suspension effectively spread the load evenly across our body. With the Atmos, our testers rarely got hot spots on their backs and hips, even after extended cross country travel in warmer conditions. The Bora AR 63 was notably comfortable, complete with dreamy foam that was soft feeling and acted like a therapeutic mattress. It struck an excellent balance of being soft and comfortable while conforming to our shoulders and hips; in turn, the load was better distributed without being too soft or bottoming out.

The shoulder straps of the Aether are well articulated  nicely padded  and featured a pleasant face fabric. Most of our review team thought these features were more comfortable than average and the pack was soft enough to wear  even with only a tank top or while going shirtless.
The shoulder straps of the Aether are well articulated, nicely padded, and featured a pleasant face fabric. Most of our review team thought these features were more comfortable than average and the pack was soft enough to wear, even with only a tank top or while going shirtless.

For heavier loads, it was a slightly different matter with the Atmos losing its top spot once loads exceeded the 40-45 lbs range. The highest performing contenders for these heavily laden adventures proved to be the Gregory Baltoro 65 and the Osprey Xenith 75, with the Arc'teryx Bora AR still earning a spot here. All three of these packs use high-quality foam that achieves a nice balance of support and comfort, with each model offering subtle advantages in this category. Our testers thought that the Bora AR's pivoting waist belt performed fantastically and did an excellent job of transferring weight from our pack to our hips; overall, we felt this feature saved some fatigue on our bodies at the end of a long day more than others in our fleet.

The shoulder straps featured on all three of these packs are certainly top notch, as they sport excellent ergonomics and padding. However, we did notice a small difference with the waist belts; our testers like the foam padding on the waist belts of the Osprey Xenith and Gregory Baltoro slightly more than the Bora's as the Bora's was almost slightly too soft feeling when traveling with monster loads (50+ pounds), though again, this was only slight difference. For the heaviest of loads (60+ pounds), we really appreciated the Baltoro's robust and customizable lumber pad, which made a difference in providing the much needed support for carrying weights of this magnitude.

Not far behind in our comfort comparison was the Gregory Paragon 68 and Osprey Aether AG 60. While these models weren't quite as comfortable as the models listed above, they weren't very far behind either. For medium and lighter weight loads of around 30-40 lbs, we noticed significantly less of a difference between these packs. Once we crested 40 pounds, additional weight was exponentially challenging for packs to handle.

Along with your pack's suspension  there is likely no feature or function that will have a bigger impact on your backcountry experience (than a given model's comfort). All the models we chose or this review performed respectably well in this category. However  remember to consider you'll likely have your pack for years to come and will wear it for hundreds of hours; so on day 5 of 8  when your hips are swollen and your shoulders hurt  how much more would you spend in that moment for a more comfortable pack?
Along with your pack's suspension, there is likely no feature or function that will have a bigger impact on your backcountry experience (than a given model's comfort). All the models we chose or this review performed respectably well in this category. However, remember to consider you'll likely have your pack for years to come and will wear it for hundreds of hours; so on day 5 of 8, when your hips are swollen and your shoulders hurt, how much more would you spend in that moment for a more comfortable pack?

The fabric Osprey uses on the inside of the shoulder straps of the Osprey Xenith 75 and Osprey Aether AG 60 was incredible, while the feeling of the Atmos 65 AG was our favorite on bare skin; the shape and articulation of these packs was second to none. A lot of people ask about the heat moldable waist belt featured on the Aether among other models of Osprey packs. After extensive testing, we found there was little, if any difference, between molding it in a convection oven, or just breaking it in the old fashion way (AKA using it). After side-by-side testing a molded waist belt and one that had been used for a three-day trip, there was almost no difference.

OutdoorGearLab Editor Ian Nicholson testing packs and leading a group out after a successful trip up Denali  shown here 3 hours away from the airstrip  with a 60 pound pack and a 30 pound sled after nearly 20 days in the field.
OutdoorGearLab Editor Ian Nicholson testing packs and leading a group out after a successful trip up Denali, shown here 3 hours away from the airstrip, with a 60 pound pack and a 30 pound sled after nearly 20 days in the field.

The Aircontact's shoulder straps and waist belt were exceptionally comfortable, but not quite as comfortable as the Xenith 75 and Baltoro 65. The Air Contact's padding was noticeably bulkier and hotter, and the shoulder straps were not shaped quite as nice for most of our testers. If you feel like you carry more than 40-45 lbs on a regular basis, we would recommend the Xenith 75, Bora AR, or the Baltoro 65. If you rarely carry 40 or more pounds, we loved how the Osprey Atmos 65 AG and The North Face Banchee 65 felt - as long as we didn't overload them. These packs felt good up to 40 lbs; above 50 lbs, the Xenith and Baltoro were superior.

Comparing the buckles on two backpacking backpack waist belts. The upper uses a redirected strap which is much easier to pull on while the lower is the traditional "push and pull".
Comparing the buckles on two backpacking backpack waist belts. The upper uses a redirected strap which is much easier to pull on while the lower is the traditional "push and pull".

Suspension


The suspension category encompasses how effective the suspension was at supporting our backs, how well the frame transferred the load from the pack into the waist belt, and to a lesser extent, onto our shoulder straps. The suspension is obviously tied in with a pack's overall comfort, but we specified unique criteria for each category. In addition, we focused more on the back panel and how nicely it provided support to our spines.


The Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith and Arc'teryx Bora AR all featured substantial suspensions; as a result, they performed exceptionally, providing support when carrying a considerable amount of weight. We did think while super close, the Baltoro and the Xenith just barely edged out the Bora because of how nicely the frame transferred the load to the waist belt and our hips. All three of these packs were noticeably superior at carrying loads when compared to the rest of the packs in our fleet. As a result, the load hauling prowess, the Xenith and Baltoro, are our Top Picks for extended trips and monster loads. That said, our entire review team was impressed by how supportive the frame was on the Bora, combined with the amount of comfort that the foam provided. The pivoting hip belt also transferred weight to our hi-belt fantastically.

While the Atmos 65 performed well when carrying loads below 40 pounds, it wasn't as comfortable for loads above that weight. In fact, its anti-gravity trampoline-style suspension would feel mushy and less supportive. It is worth noting that the Osprey Aether AG 60 features a similar "AG" suspension but was noticeably more supportive. After extensive testing, we felt it that the Deuter Air Contact's suspension was only a little less robust than the Xenith and Bora. The Air Contact featured thick and comfortable padding and a supportive frame — however, some testers just thought it felt a little bulky and hot.

Comfort not only included how well the pack felt on even ground and nice trails  but also how the pack moved with us on difficult cross-country terrain  like bushwhacking and log crossings. Comparing packs in the North Cascades  WA.
Comfort not only included how well the pack felt on even ground and nice trails, but also how the pack moved with us on difficult cross-country terrain, like bushwhacking and log crossings. Comparing packs in the North Cascades, WA.

Trampoline or Suspended Suspension System
Trampoline-style or suspended suspension systems use a mesh back panel over a more traditional frame. The advantages of this type of frame are that it allows more air to ventilate, making these backpacks cooler and less sweaty and more importantly, they tend to produce less hot spots on the users because the weight is spread out or "suspended" over a larger area of the wearer. More and more packs are using a similar design at least on the back panel portion of a pack.

Our testers like the trampoline style suspension because of the aforementioned reasons; however, when it comes to massive loads, having the weight closer to your back and not having a gap will be more much comfortable. For example, the Gregory Baltoro 65 doesn't feature a true trampoline suspension system, but that's one reason it carries such massive loads so effectively. With all suspension style systems there comes a weight limit where the suspended mesh is pressed so tightly against the wearer that it either bottoms out or just causes a hot spot. The ventilation area that's so wonderful in summer can fill with snow during mountaineering or wintertime trips, making the pack much less pleasant to wear.

The AG or "Anti-Gravity" frame of the Osprey Atmos 65 AG pack is shown here. Frames like this one are often referred to as a trampoline suspension or suspended suspension systems. The idea is that instead of having your back right up against the pack  your back is against a mesh back panel that is suspended over a more traditional frame. The advantage of this type of frame is that they tend to produce less hot spots on the user because the weight is suspended over a larger area. It also allows more air to ventilate  making these backpacks cooler and less sweaty. Their only disadvantage: they don't handle super heavy (45+ pounds) as well before they start to feel mushy and the suspension sort of half collapses.
The AG or "Anti-Gravity" frame of the Osprey Atmos 65 AG pack is shown here. Frames like this one are often referred to as a trampoline suspension or suspended suspension systems. The idea is that instead of having your back right up against the pack, your back is against a mesh back panel that is suspended over a more traditional frame. The advantage of this type of frame is that they tend to produce less hot spots on the user because the weight is suspended over a larger area. It also allows more air to ventilate, making these backpacks cooler and less sweaty. Their only disadvantage: they don't handle super heavy (45+ pounds) as well before they start to feel mushy and the suspension sort of half collapses.

Features and Ease of Use


This category includes how easy a given backpack was to pack and retrieve equipment, and includes an examination of the design of the main compartment and additional pockets. In regards to pockets, we compared the number and location of additional pockets (and most importantly how useful our testers found them), as well as how helpful the lid (or brain) of the pack was at providing easy access to a handful of items and keeping the user organized. Lastly, we assessed access points to the interior of the backpack.

Having two straps for a sleeping pad or other oddly shaped items is a small but excellent feature to have. We particularly liked how long the Atmos' straps were and found they were able to fit around pretty much any sleeping pad (something that can't be said about the majority of backpacking packs).
Having two straps for a sleeping pad or other oddly shaped items is a small but excellent feature to have. We particularly liked how long the Atmos' straps were and found they were able to fit around pretty much any sleeping pad (something that can't be said about the majority of backpacking packs).

For each pocket on the pack, we asked ourselves, "Did that pocket make my life easier or help keep me more organized, or is it just adding weight to the pack?". We also looked at access points and evaluated whether they were truly useful at retrieving items or if they were just for show.


We also broke down the level of usefulness of additional features and evaluated them during real world use in the field. We favored packs with a handful of straps for crampons, ice axes, sleeping pads, or other items because we felt it added to the pack's overall versatility. We gave higher scores to packs with better weather resistance, ice axe attachments, and user-to-use waist belt buckles.

On extended trips  you likely will have a lot of gear; a few features to stay organized can be nice  as long as they don't add too much weight. Photo shown here is after a long day of backpacking pack testing and over 5 000ft of vertical gain. We were rewarded with an amazing camp and fantastic views of the Southern Pickets.
On extended trips, you likely will have a lot of gear; a few features to stay organized can be nice, as long as they don't add too much weight. Photo shown here is after a long day of backpacking pack testing and over 5,000ft of vertical gain. We were rewarded with an amazing camp and fantastic views of the Southern Pickets.

Overall Organizational Ability
For folks who like a lot of compartments and pockets for organization, the Osprey Atmos 65 AG, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Xenith 75, and The North Face Banchee 65 have by far the best and most usable pockets designs, while the REI Flash 65 and Baltoro had the best access of any pack in our review. These packs provide great options for folks who really like a lot of organization or the ability to get inside their pack easily without having to take much out.

The rad twin pocketed design that was among of our favorites for ease of use and organization on the Banchee 65. These were great for water bottles  water filters  snacks  a light jacket  or simply anything else we wanted easily accessible.
The rad twin pocketed design that was among of our favorites for ease of use and organization on the Banchee 65. These were great for water bottles, water filters, snacks, a light jacket, or simply anything else we wanted easily accessible.

Our favorite collection of pockets came in the Xenith, Atmos and the Baltoro 65, though with the exception of the Atmos (4 lbs 6oz), are on the heavier side of packs in our review at a little over 5 lbs. It's worth noting that we like the overall design of the Banchee 65 nearly as much and it is one of the lighter packs in our review at 3 lbs 10 oz (around a pound lighter than average). The Deuter Air Contact has nearly as many pockets as either of the packs above, but we felt that unfortunately many of them weren't as useful nor were super easy to access. It's also worth also noting that the REI Flash 65 sported a pretty darn good design (nearly as good as the above packs) as well as a sweet "J" shaped opening and only costs $200.

There aren't many universal features out there; however  one thing that most backpacking packs have is a lid with a zippered pocket. This exceptionally common feature is one of the best places to store small a variety of small items that the users might want easily accessible. Photo: Backpacking in the Oregon Cascades.
There aren't many universal features out there; however, one thing that most backpacking packs have is a lid with a zippered pocket. This exceptionally common feature is one of the best places to store small a variety of small items that the users might want easily accessible. Photo: Backpacking in the Oregon Cascades.

Top Lid Pocket
There aren't a lot of universal features that every pack has, however, one thing that a vast majority of packs sport is a zippered top lid pocket (some folks call the lid the "brain" of the pack). This exceptionally common feature is one of the best places to store small items that the users might want, like sunglasses, sunblock and bug spray, or other things wanted close at hand. Many packs featured a separate smaller pocket on the underside of the lid, offering a secondary place to store small items. Our testers liked this feature, as it's a great place to put those items you want access to, but don't need as frequently.

Our testers loved the dual zippered lid pockets on the Baltoro 65. It was easily our review teams' favorite lid design of any model in our review. These pockets not only helped users to stay more organized  but because of their upward orientation  they were both easy to access and search through.
Our testers loved the dual zippered lid pockets on the Baltoro 65. It was easily our review teams' favorite lid design of any model in our review. These pockets not only helped users to stay more organized, but because of their upward orientation, they were both easy to access and search through.

Of all the packs we tested, our favorite top lid pockets belonged to the Gregory Baltoro 65 and to a lesser extent, the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63. Both featured pockets on the top of the pack that made finding items easier and less likely to fall out while we rooted around. What made our review team like the Baltoro more is it had two of these pockets that were shaped in a way that made searching slightly easier. The Gregory Paragon 68 featured a top access zippered pocket that was pretty sweet and easy to find items in, but we had to be a little more careful that our gear didn't fall out.

The lid of the Gregory Paragon 68 (shown here) features a large "U" shaped zipper that made searching for items easy; but  unlike the Baltoro or Bora models  we had to be more careful to make sure items didn't fall out unexpectedly. This problem was slightly worse when the pack was super full.
The lid of the Gregory Paragon 68 (shown here) features a large "U" shaped zipper that made searching for items easy; but, unlike the Baltoro or Bora models, we had to be more careful to make sure items didn't fall out unexpectedly. This problem was slightly worse when the pack was super full.

The rest of the packs had zippers on the front or back of the lid. None of these packs were as easy to get into as the Bora, Paragon and the Baltoro, however not all of the lid's side zippered pockets are created equal. The large zippered lid pockets of the Atmos 65 AG, Aether AG 60, Xenith, and the Banchee 65 are the next top scorers. They had nearly the same volume as the Baltoro and had a longer than average zipper that wrapped slightly around the sides. This made access better, but not as great as the Baltoro or Bora.

This is the lid featured on the Osprey Aether 60 AG  which boasts a relatively common design  with the zipper being on the side. While the Aether is better than normal because the zipper wraps around slightly to each side  making searching for items easier  we didn't like it quite as well as either of the Gregory or Arc'teryx Models.
This is the lid featured on the Osprey Aether 60 AG, which boasts a relatively common design, with the zipper being on the side. While the Aether is better than normal because the zipper wraps around slightly to each side, making searching for items easier, we didn't like it quite as well as either of the Gregory or Arc'teryx Models.

Pack Access
The pack access part of our "Ease of Use" category refers to how easily we could access certain larger items without having to unpack our entire pack. While access is nice, its level of importance depends a lot on the user and the volume of the pack. As pack volume gets bigger, unpacking a majority of your pack to track down a specific item becomes more of a pain.

The Arc'teryx Bora doesn't feature a traditional "sleeping bag compartment zipper" and instead features a small side-access zipper (shown here). While this wasn't as easy to use of a design for use of the pack like a suitcase  we found that when we packed the Bora with larger items we thought we might want easily accessible near this zipper  it wasn't a big deal.
The Arc'teryx Bora doesn't feature a traditional "sleeping bag compartment zipper" and instead features a small side-access zipper (shown here). While this wasn't as easy to use of a design for use of the pack like a suitcase, we found that when we packed the Bora with larger items we thought we might want easily accessible near this zipper, it wasn't a big deal.

Ease of access is an especially useful feature for folks using their backpack for travel, where they might otherwise use a suitcase or a duffel bag to go "backpacking" through certain regions. Many think they want more access, but zippers add weight and aren't always essential. It's a balance. Consider your priorities before simply saying "I want more access" and ask yourself if the increased weight is worth it.

The Gregory Baltoro had one of the best access points in our review. Not only was it the largest  but it was also just well-designed and allowed us access to a large portion of the pack. It offered a big enough opening that we could take items out (like a tent) without having to unpack our entire pack.
The Gregory Baltoro had one of the best access points in our review. Not only was it the largest, but it was also just well-designed and allowed us access to a large portion of the pack. It offered a big enough opening that we could take items out (like a tent) without having to unpack our entire pack.

All the packs we tested were top loading and many had side access zippers, sleeping bag compartments, or entire panels that opened to allow access to the interior of the pack. Among all the models we tested, the Gregory Baltoro had the most access with its huge "U" shaped opening that travels nearly the entire length of the back of the pack. It opened almost as large as a suitcase and makes an excellent pack for anyone "backpacking" through Europe, Southeast Asia, or anywhere else where access is the most important. The REI Flash 65, with its "J" shaped zipper, had superb access and above average for our review, but not quite as good as the Baltoro.

The REI Flash 65 had the second best access among any pack we tested with a large "J" shaped zipper; however  what's nice about the Flash is it has a solid number of features but is still a pretty reasonable weight and is around 1.5 pounds lighter than the Baltoro.
The REI Flash 65 had the second best access among any pack we tested with a large "J" shaped zipper; however, what's nice about the Flash is it has a solid number of features but is still a pretty reasonable weight and is around 1.5 pounds lighter than the Baltoro.

Extra Features
While hardly essential, most of our testing team appreciated having at least one zippered pocket on their hip-belt that was big enough for a small point-and-shoot camera, smart phone, or a few snacks. The Osprey models all had large zippered pockets that were easy to open and close while hiking and were our testers favorites. We did like the Gregory Paragon and The North Face Banchee 65 pockets a lot, but they just weren't as easy to use as those found on the Osprey models. It's also worth noting that the Baltoro features a single weather resistant model, which is particularly nice for folks who want their smart phone close-at-hand for taking photos.

Hip belt pockets are a smaller feature but are surprisingly nice once you step out onto the trail. They help provide easy access to a camera  snacks  a GPS  sunblock  or any number of other items while barely having to break stride. In our experience  they are certainly a feature that a lot of people don't look for  but love once they own a pack that has them. The Osprey Aether 60 AG's zippered pockets shown here which were among our favorite designs in our review.
Hip belt pockets are a smaller feature but are surprisingly nice once you step out onto the trail. They help provide easy access to a camera, snacks, a GPS, sunblock, or any number of other items while barely having to break stride. In our experience, they are certainly a feature that a lot of people don't look for, but love once they own a pack that has them. The Osprey Aether 60 AG's zippered pockets shown here which were among our favorite designs in our review.

All of these packs were reasonably weather resistant, but the Arc'teryx Bora truly stood out. It was a cut-above all the other models we tested for how consistently it kept our gear dry during spring hikes in Washington's Olympic rain forest. The Bora uses Arc'teryx's ACē fabric (all the non-black fabric on the Bora AR packs) which is exceptionally weather resistant. These Arc'teryx models even have taped seams near exposed areas like the back kangaroo-style pocket (which also sports a watertight zipper).

The Bora was by far the most weather resistant pack in our review. It uses Arc'teryx's proprietary AC2 fabric (all the non-black areas of the Bora packs sport this fabric). Not only do they use a weather resistant fabric  but these models also seam tape a handful of more exposed areas  including this beavertail style pocket  which sports a watertight zipper. We used this pack on several VERY wet trips and found that these features did a perfect job at keeping the our gear (that was in this pocket) dry.
The Bora was by far the most weather resistant pack in our review. It uses Arc'teryx's proprietary AC2 fabric (all the non-black areas of the Bora packs sport this fabric). Not only do they use a weather resistant fabric, but these models also seam tape a handful of more exposed areas, including this beavertail style pocket, which sports a watertight zipper. We used this pack on several VERY wet trips and found that these features did a perfect job at keeping the our gear (that was in this pocket) dry.

Hydration
The Baltoro 65 comes with a fairly functional hydration pack that doubled as the bladder sleeve/holder when used inside the pack. Here we show a  shell jacket and 70-ounce Platypus bladder for size reference. This separate pack is designed to be taken on a summit push or day-hike from camp but is just good enough to use around town or going to the gym.
The Baltoro 65 comes with a fairly functional hydration pack that doubled as the bladder sleeve/holder when used inside the pack. Here we show a shell jacket and 70-ounce Platypus bladder for size reference. This separate pack is designed to be taken on a summit push or day-hike from camp but is just good enough to use around town or going to the gym.

All the packs in this review have a place for a hydration bladder and just about any brand and model will fit in any backpack hydration sleeve. Rather than use the same brand bladder as the pack, we recommend reading our Hydration Bladder Review and picking the best reservoir for your needs and budget. One super cool bonus feature among packs we tested was that the Gregory Baltoro came with a removable and fairly functional hydration pack that also doubled as its hydration sleeve (when used inside the pack).

Most of the packs in our review featured two water bottle pockets one found on each side. However  a handful of models from Osprey and Gregory tweaked the common design to point the water bottle forward  making it much easier for the wearer to be able to access and stow their water bottle without assistance. Most of these models have another opening near the top of this pocket to securely hold oblong shaped items on the outside of your pack  like tent poles or a snow picket.
Most of the packs in our review featured two water bottle pockets one found on each side. However, a handful of models from Osprey and Gregory tweaked the common design to point the water bottle forward, making it much easier for the wearer to be able to access and stow their water bottle without assistance. Most of these models have another opening near the top of this pocket to securely hold oblong shaped items on the outside of your pack, like tent poles or a snow picket.

Pack Weight


The lightest pack in our review, by a pretty significant margin, is the Osprey Exos 58. At 2 pounds 8 ounces, it straddles the line between a backpacking pack and an ultra-light minimalist pack. While heavier than most ultra light frameless backs (which typically weigh 1.5-2 lbs), it isn't WAY heavier and is certainly more comfortable for folks who don't yet have their pack weight down to below 20-25 pounds. The Exos is also a great option for folks who want to go super light, but simply desire a more comfortable and supportive pack with an actual frame and more robust padding. Despite being a little on the heavy side of ultralight packs, we know several people who have used the Exos (mostly in its smaller sizes) on the PCT and the AT.


For a lighter but still rugged, and more featured pack, we like The North Face Banchee 65 or the REI Flash 65 (both 3 lbs 10 oz) and would certainly consider the Gregory Paragon 68 both Osprey Volt 60 (3 lbs 14 oz).

The Exos 58 is a surprisingly comfortable pack  especially considering its 2.5 pound weight. We thought it was fantastic to 30 pounds  and decent to 40 lbs  but we wouldn't want to carry much more than that.
The Exos 58 is a surprisingly comfortable pack, especially considering its 2.5 pound weight. We thought it was fantastic to 30 pounds, and decent to 40 lbs, but we wouldn't want to carry much more than that.

All of these hit a nice balance of being lightweight, but still comfortable. They are fairly full featured and are still a pound or more lighter than the majority of backpacking packs on the market - all while not giving up a lot in the way of features or comfort.

Proper pack fit is essential to making any pack feel good. OutdoorGearLab Friend Mark M. putting in his two cents on the Northside of Mt. Baker
Proper pack fit is essential to making any pack feel good. OutdoorGearLab Friend Mark M. putting in his two cents on the Northside of Mt. Baker

Adjustability and Fit


In this comparison category, we considered each pack's overall ergonomics as well how adjustable each model is. We also looked at the number of sizes each pack is offered in, as more sizes typically translates to a better fitting pack. Check out the chart below to see how each pack ranked in the adjustability metric.


A handful of pack manufacturers will swap out shoulder straps and waist belts for different sizes than the frame they are typically sold with (for example, if you want a medium frame and a small waist belt), something that many stores and websites offer for free. The Deuter Air Contact and the Osprey Volt 60 have the most vertical adjustability for the yoke's (shoulder straps) positioning. Not only does this help a given pack fit a wide range of people, but also making them a good choice for quickly growing children and teenagers. Despite this best-in-review adjustment, our testers didn't think that either pack had the best overall fit.

We really liked the "GridLock" system featured on Arc'teryx's new Bora packs. What makes it fairly unique is that packs constructed with this design can have their shoulder straps adjusted both vertically and horizontally to best fit their wearer. Despite looking pretty simple and sporting a lot of plastic  we found this design to be BOMBER design  and we never experienced the shoulder strap coming prematurely undone.
We really liked the "GridLock" system featured on Arc'teryx's new Bora packs. What makes it fairly unique is that packs constructed with this design can have their shoulder straps adjusted both vertically and horizontally to best fit their wearer. Despite looking pretty simple and sporting a lot of plastic, we found this design to be BOMBER design, and we never experienced the shoulder strap coming prematurely undone.

Our testers found the adjustment of the Arc'teryx Bora to reign surpreme. While it didn't have quite as much range, we loved how you could adjust the shoulder straps independently side to side (width-wise), as well as up and down. The North Face Banchee 65, Gregory Baltoro 65, Osprey Atmos, Xenith, and Osprey Aether 70 all had a respectable amount of adjustment (all have around four inches) along with being available in a number of sizes; this led them be fine-tuned to a user very nicely. Our testers greatly appreciated each of these packs' overall ergonomics, which earned them higher scores in the "fit" metric.

Most backpacking packs are available in multiple frame sizes  but even on top of that  all the models we tested feature some level of adjustability to help further fine-tune the fit to the user. The Osprey Xenith (shown here) features the most common style of adjustment  with the shoulder straps attached to a Velcro covered flap that can be slid into place behind the back panel - giving the user roughly 4 inches of adjustment. We gave extra points to backs with adjustable girth waist belts or the ability to adjust the shoulder straps both vertically (far more common) as well as horizontally.
Most backpacking packs are available in multiple frame sizes, but even on top of that, all the models we tested feature some level of adjustability to help further fine-tune the fit to the user. The Osprey Xenith (shown here) features the most common style of adjustment, with the shoulder straps attached to a Velcro covered flap that can be slid into place behind the back panel - giving the user roughly 4 inches of adjustment. We gave extra points to backs with adjustable girth waist belts or the ability to adjust the shoulder straps both vertically (far more common) as well as horizontally.

Rain Covers


None of these backpacks are waterproof (though the Bora AR is pretty dang weather resistant). Using a trash compactor bag or garbage bag will work fine for shorter trips and will get you through in a pinch. However, on an extended trip, a true rain cover is tough to beat. If you are planning on a lot of time in the rain, consider a pack cover designed and fitted for your pack. It is worth noting that the Gregory Baltoro and the Gregory Paragonb both come included with rain covers.

The pack cover (AKA rain cover) included with the Baltoro 65. While small  we really appreciated that it came with this feature which only added to this pack's value and could be left behind when the weather allowed.
The pack cover (AKA rain cover) included with the Baltoro 65. While small, we really appreciated that it came with this feature which only added to this pack's value and could be left behind when the weather allowed.

Here are a few options:

Conclusion


While carrying your gear on a backcountry trip from points A to B might seem like simple enough goal. It can be almost be overwhelming with so many models to choose from and figuring out which pack is right for you might seem complicated than it did at first glance. Our hope is that our review and test results help you narrow down to one or two packs that fit your situation. Focus on the duration of trips you typically embark on as well as an objectives you may dream about. It can also helpful to list 2-3 features you really want your pack to have and prioritizing specific aspects like cushy shoulder straps or a sub 4-pound weight. If you are still not sure, consider taking a look at our buying advice article.

Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
  • Share this article:
You Might Also Like