Hiking and Backpacking Pack Buyer’s Guide

March 17, 2015

  • by
  • Peter Reese

Strolling, striding, scrambling and summiting require different clothing and gear. Active Junky simplified pack buying around three common scenarios: day hiking, overnight packing and distance backpacking. Find yours and zoom in on the pack that’s right for you.

Scenario #1: Day Hiking

Hydration is a requirement, a change in weather is likely and on-trail snacks are a smart idea. Allowing adequate volume (commonly measured in cubic liters) for an additional insulator or wind layer plus emergency essentials equals 12 to 35 liters (in more extreme weather conditions). Total payload ranges from 10 to 20lbs whenever the hike extends beyond three miles from the parking lot.

Scenario #2: Overnight Packing

Overnights take the hiker three or more miles down (or up) the trail; day hiking essentials are supplemented with shelter, a sleep system (pad and bag) and a lightweight stove for boiling water. An additional set of top and bottom layers – plus socks – is included, along with more calories and the provisions for carrying or purifying water. Pack volume pushes up to 50L for two- to three-night outings; weight typically ranges between 20 and 35lbs.

Scenario #3: Distance Backpacking

Stretching from 50 to 2,000 miles or more, trekkers create their own, highly personalized packing list where weather, trail, camping and water availability are likely erratic at best. Except for fast-packers adhering to overnight packing volume and weight parameters, most backpackers succeed with volumes from 60 to 80L; carry weights start as low as 25 and can approach 50lbs (without technical climbing or professional camera gear).

Universal Attributes

Comfort: goes beyond initial fit. The pack’s all-day adjustability is important to keep shoulders, waist and hips fresh. Bonus points accrue to sized packs or those designed for fine-tuning torso length to individual hikers.

Convenience: connects to the packability of the model being considered. Can it fit what’s being carried and accommodate cramming and jamming during the day as clothing layers change? Access to flaps, pockets and compartments matters as well.

Durability: reflects abrasion resistance, seam strength and weatherproofing. While lower-volume daypacks aren’t bearing significant weight, they still need to wear well with hardware (zips, straps and clips) of superior reliability.

Style: includes the pack’s allowance for arm and head movement as well as its appearance. Day and overnight packs commonly double as commuting or travel packs; a clean profile and easily managed straps contribute to a more desirable model.

Value: aggregates the other four attributes along with the product’s retail pricing. A generous warranty and repair policy increases the long-term value of the product, one Active Junky measures at a minimum of five to seven years of moderate to heavy use.

Note:  Each of the twelve packs selected possesses the five attributes, with one selected as distinctive.

Osprey Atmos AG EX 65/Aura AG EX 65

Osprey atmos ag ex sqr Osprey Atmos AG EX 65 Starting at: $228.77 Osprey aura 6 Osprey Aura AG EX 65 Starting at: $236.60

Getting a zero G experience takes connections and cash.  Osprey puts hikers’ all-day comfort expectations into affordable orbit with this duo.  Active Junky first experienced the Anti-Gravity suspension system at an industry event.  Ready to float up to 50lbs via a continuous panel of lightweight mesh, Atmos and Aura look more like avy packs than plodding, high-capacity rucksacks; the word “delight” comes to mind upon first wearing.  As much high performance apparel as game-changing pack, every body-contoured model in the AG series (including 50L variations) is ready for launch.  Some hikers will deploy the system to go longer, others to push higher or tackle more technical terrain.  No matter; Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee is long on customer satisfaction – and short on drama.

Key Attribute: Comfort

Best For: Ambitious hikers, those previously discouraged from making miles due to poor pack comfort

Best Day Hiking Packs

Camelbak Women’s Helena 22

Camelbak helena sq Camelbak Women’s Helena 22 Starting at: $95.04

Non-chafing, velvetex-lined straps and an S-shaped harness are simply the start.  Created for comfort but equipped for serious adventure, Helena’s one of the best pure hiking packs Camelbak’s offered.  No surprise that hydration starts at 3L and exterior attachment points permit plenty of clipping and strapping.  Active Junky favors the four-point compression straps for superior load management in a compact footprint model.  Detach the waist belt during around-town errands for more utility.

Key Attribute: Comfort

Best For: Active women who want on the fly, city-to-trail flexibility

Patagonia Blackhole Daypack 25L

Patagonia blackhole sq2 Patagonia Blackhole Daypack 25L $117.39 - $122.55

Get through blustery, damp days intact with a simple pack anchored by heavyweight duffel fabric.  Active Junky willingly trades a few more unloaded ounces for the weather resistance Patagonia’s built into this model, one with a wide-mouth, cram-and-jam compartment.  Jump between hydration and laptop inside the padded sleeve as a concealed front panel pocket guards phone, keys and cards.  Aside from pounding squalls, Blackhole repels nastiness to see the blue sky in all of life’s on- and off-trail moments.

Key Attribute: Durability

Best For: Short hikes, adventure travel and commuting

Bergans Of Norway Rondane 26L

Bergans rondane 2 Bergans Of Norway Rondane 26L Starting at: $109.00

This one’s the closest thing to a universal pack as Active Junky’s seen.  With surprising durability in fabric and build, Rondane’s QuickAdjust system fits multiple body types while the zipped top and front pockets are 100% practical.  A detachable hip strap and front compression strap adapt to the day’s objectives as do multiple exterior attachment points.  Testers favor this model as a tuck-in travel pack for longer trips where short trail or shopping outings are expected.  Fun colors keep it light; other Rondane models boost capacity up to 65L if 26L proves insufficient.

Key Attribute: Style

Best For: Grab-and-go utility, secondary use as a travel pack

The North Face Angstrom 28

Tnf angstrom 2 The North Face Angstrom 28 $113.05 - $115.43

A favorite among avid hikers, this model (and volume) lands at the center of Active Junky’s SCENARIO #1 target. Angstrom integrates a rain cover as part of a reality-based design.  Stretch woven pockets retain bottles and wind shells competently without snagging in heavy brush.  Minimalists take this one overnight in moderate conditions; AJ votes for more conservative use as a premium daypack.  The high-vis Brushfire Orange color keeps you on the radar in foggy conditions.

Key Attribute: Value

Best For: All-terrain hiking, multisport outings including recreational cycling

Best Overnight Packs

Mammut Creon Light 45

Mammut creon 1 Mammut Creon Light 45: Starting at: $170.95

Chimney ventilation up the back plus adjustable torso length ices the deal here.  Mammut’s big mountain insights create a well-balanced load-and-carry system for going fast, high and strong over three days (or more).  Mammut’s attention to detail translates into stay-put strap and suspension tuning.  Creon readily adapts to both men and women; internal and external pockets streamline pack organization and access.  The brand’s stellar line-up of first ascent athletes contributes to the DNA of this mammoth-embroidered piece.

Key Attribute:  Comfort

Best For: Taking on technical, challenging terrain even in hot and humid conditions

Gregory Stout 45

Gregory stout 1 Gregory Stout 45 $140.76 - $145.56

Stout equals access both to contents and trail options.  Active Junky gravitated to the alternate bottom access zipper to load and pull essentials during the day.  This pack swings smoothly into position when loaded; hopping on and off Guatemalan chicken buses and storming the Paris Metro are faits accomplis.  Evaluators relished the idea of keeping this compact, rain cover-equipped model close in transit to trail, town or desert outpost.  Elegant styling balances the duty-ready performance of yet another winner from Gregory.

Key Attribute: Convenience

Best For: Trail and travel

Jansport Katahdin 50L

Gretargre Jansport Katahdin 50L Starting at: $54.58

This brand’s seen more miles than nearly any brand, from hitchhiking the American West to trekking India.  With few exceptions, JanSport is a solid value play; Katahdin’s a great example.  At $100, few competitors bring a workable suspension system, torso adjustment from 13” to 19” and a fully padded hip belt.  Lid and side compression shape loads while a zippered, protective sleeping bag compartment aids packing.  Weighing slightly over 2lbs, Katahdin is ready to wander, no matter the budget.

Key Attribute: Value

Best For: Moderate distances under reasonable conditions and loads

Eagle Creek Women’s Deviate 60L

Eagle creek deviate 3 Eagle Creek Women’s Deviate 60L Starting at: $217.49

Without apology, Active Junky includes this hybrid pack.  The companion 15L clip-on backpack bumps total capacity beyond the core 45L of ultra light stowage.  Anti-theft features and electronics protection let destination travelers arrive safely.  Prepared for serious hiking with a molded polycarbonate frame sheet and legitimate hip belt, Deviate goes off the grid on demand.  Now’s the time to go through life unencumbered, with the next steps completely up to you.

Key Attribute: Convenience

Best For: On-trail hiking, adventure and destination travel

Best Distance Packs

Deuter Aircontact 65+10

Deuter aircontact 2 Deuter Aircontact 65+10 Starting at: $253.89

Deuter knows how to effortlessly tag additional capacity on to solid pack platforms.  The 65+10 is among Active Junky’s favorites for unencumbered scrambling on marginal trails, glaciers and ridgelines.  Main compartment access is through a U-zipper or top loading; testers agreed on this combination’s efficacy.  Hollow aluminum frame stays cut weight, flexing to manage heavy loads on steep and off-camber trail gradients.  While crammed with tech, Aircontact is an easy choice for above-tree line travel; ten extra, on-demand liters anticipate every scenario.

Key Attribute:  Durability

Best For: Technical trails, trekking to adventure basecamps

Granite Gear Nimbus Trace Access 70

Granite gear trace access001 Granite Gear Nimbus Trace Access 70 $209.30 - $307.96

Expedition-grade.  Guide-approved.  The crew in Two Harbors, Minnesota puts it all out there from North to South Pole.  Access 70 adheres to practical, hard-won principles of personalized fit, instant access and elevated load carrying (up to 60lbs in this case). At the framesheet’s center is a breathtaking layer of maple that sways – and stays – as benefits the hiker.  Dual front zippers allow accelerated access to deploy clothing layers, make camp or render aid in wilderness emergencies.  Going backcountry means choosing the right companions. Here, at last, is a pack that has your back.

Key Attribute: Convenience

Best For: Life List Treks, Backcountry Objectives Over Harsh Terrain

Mountainsmith Apex 80

Mountainsmith apex 80 1 Mountainsmith Apex 80 $152.80 - $215.96

As Active Junky proved on Mexico’s Orizaba, this pack excels when heavier loads are inescapable.  As with other Mountainsmith gear, Apex 80 sets aside notions about pricing to reach 96L of extended volume for about $200 (no typo here).  Extreme loads are tamed by the ICS (Illiac Crest Shelf) Cup hip belt in tandem with lumbar-hugging Delta Wing Compression.  Dual density shoulder straps fight off fatigue while airflow’s maintained (and perspiration minimized) via the Anvil Airway.  If all of this proprietary technology seems overwhelming, simply load the pack and hit the trail.  All you need to know is the name “Apex” is no coincidence.

Key Attribute: Value

Best For: Self-supported hikes, moving specialized gear including climbing kits, inflatables and pro-level photo/video systems

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