The Best Hiking Backpacks

July 18, 2017

  • by
  • Drew Zieff
  • Melanie Ott

On the trail, a quality backpack is essential. And there are a ton of quality options on the market. Technologies like suspension systems and customizable fits are improving every year, and conveniences like built-in rain flies and circumference zippers for easy access are becoming standard in certain brands.

Photo: Drew Zieff

With all the options, Active Junky chose some of the best backpacks on the market for both men and women ranging from 50-liter to 80-liter packs, some tried and proven models and some brand new players. We put them to the test to help you narrow down your purchasing decisions. Check out our top picks, and don’t forget to sign up for Active Junky for exclusive deals and cashback on your gear purchases.

Backpack Brands Reviewed

  • Deuter
  • Granite Gear
  • Kelty
  • Mountainsmith
  • My Trail Company
  • Osprey
  • The North Face

How to Choose the Best Backpack

Backpacks come in all shapes, sizes and volume, and with any variety of technology. While the finer details will be a personal preference, and depend on how much you’re willing to spend, here are three questions to ask yourself to start narrowing down your options:

Photo: Drew Zieff

Who is using the backpack?

While this seems like a simple question, it’s a big one. Most backpacks are no longer gender neutral, as many brands have women specific models. Men’s backpacks are taller and skinnier, while women’s packs are shorter and place more emphasis on hip belts and curved straps. Many companies will make both men’s and women’s versions of the same model.

What size or volume do you need?

Depending on the duration of your trek and how much gear you’ll pack will determine what size backpack you’ll need. Common naming of backpacks includes the volume in liters – Osprey Volt 75 or Kelty Coyote 70 – so it’s simple to determine the backpack’s size. In general, 50-liter to 65-liter packs offer enough room for an overnight or weekend trip, whereas 70 liters or more would be better suited for a weeklong trip. In the minimalist, light-and-fast packing world, 50 liters is a common volume, as well.

What is your budget?

This may be a deciding factor for some, and luckily there is a huge range of backpack prices on the market. A brand new, state-of-the-art pack could cost several hundred dollars while one a few seasons old could be picked up for under a hundred. While a cheaper backpack will get the job done, you pay for what you get with materials and tech.

Photo: Drew Zieff

Universal Attributes

Backpacks were evaluated against five attributes, and testers selected one key attribute for each backpack tested, listed in each backpack review below.

Performance: How well does the backpack do its job? Does it adequately pack the specified volume and carrying capacity? High performing backpacks go above and beyond the specs.

Fit: Is the fit customizable? Is the backpack remarkably comfortable? Has the manufacturer offered a wide enough range of adjustments to allow multiple users with different body types to enjoy the same model?

Durability: Does the backpack show signs of wear and tear? Did it get torn up by tight canyon walls and thorny thickets? A durable bag is your best bet when it comes to longevity.

Versatility: Is the backpack a one-trick pony or can it perform multiple tasks? Can it double up as, say, a backpack for ski touring or international travel?

Features: How well conceived are the features? Does the bag bring an innovative edge to the table (trail, actually)?

Photo: Drew Zieff

Men’s Osprey Volt 75

Osprey volt 75 1 Osprey Volt 75 Backpack $180.00 - $186.00

Best Value Men’s Backpack

In the backcountry, the Osprey Volt 75 was a top performer. Osprey’s attention to detail was clear after several days on the trail with a full backpack (including heavy camera gear). And after returning home, testers were then pleasantly surprised by the Volt’s price tag.

Pros: While the hip belt isn’t as generous as some other Osprey backpacks, Volt’s firm yet form-fitting hip belt performed even with the pack fully loaded. The adjustable harness and customizable back panel accommodated both our 5’10” and 6’5” testers with quick adjustments.

Cons: Testers noted that while Volt is overall very durable, stretchy stuff pockets on the back and sides began to show wear and small holes over time.

Tester Comment: “Given the price, this backpack is a thing of beauty. Osprey’s comfort and dedication to quality came through from the start. There wasn’t a thing that I’d change about this pack after a three-day testing trip in Canyonlands.”

Bottom Line: Osprey’s Volt is a great choice for beginners and experienced backpackers alike with its simple and intuitive design and comfortable harness.

Best for: Backpacking on a budget

Key Attribute: Performance

Men’s Kelty Coyote 80L

Kelty coyote 80l 1 Kelty Coyote 80 Pack $134.97 - $139.47

Best Men’s Multi-Day Pack

Kelty’s 80L Coyote is enormous for some backpackers, but the cushy frame and feature-heavy pack had even our ultralight, fast-packing photographer questioning his typical setup after cruising trails for a few days.

Pros: Tester’s favorite feature was the AirMesh—comfortable and breathable, especially when the days heated up. Ample pockets (hips, brain, front, sides, etc.) make for easy and accessible storage and organization. The Perfect Fit Suspension system is ideal for novice backpackers as it’s incredibly easy to adjust and dial down.

Cons: Durability was the sole concern for testers. Features such as the shoulder joint, the body and mesh fabric particularly weren’t as burly as we’d like to see.

Tester Comment: “I usually backpack with an ultralight Black Diamond 50L pack. Coyote has so many useful features it’s making me question being ultralight!”

Bottom Line: This Kelty backpacking pack is versatile and stacked with features more than most packs we’ve reviewed. That while remaining relatively affordable. High storage capacity with a comfortable mesh suspension system gained Coyote 80 thumbs up from all testers.

Best for: Entry-level backpackers, backcountry organization, week-long treks

Key Attribute: Features

Women’s Osprey Ariel AG 75

Arielag75 Osprey Ariel AG 75 $297.00 - $306.90

Best Women’s Backpacking Pack

Testers had experienced the previous version of this Osprey backpack and raved about its performance and design. Then Osprey went and added their Anti-Gravity technology to the Ariel 75, and our opinion of this backpack has only increased.

Pros: The Ariel 75 has plenty of storage space and organizational features: stretch mesh stuff pockets, dual hip belt pockets and removable brain top for day hikes, to name a few. This backpack is also ready for technical adventures with dual ice tool loops and trekking pole attachments. The Anti-Gravity system is comprised of lightweight mesh suspended from shoulder blades to lumbar keeping the pack off your back and weight on your hips.

Cons: The Ariel, while exceedingly adjustable, isn’t easy to tweak as the Velcro back panel is finicky to make minor adjustments. However, once properly dialed, the Osprey maintains adjustment until the wearer is ready to make changes.

Tester Comment: “One of the best packs I’ve ever carried including an older model of the Ariel used for the past 5+ years. To say it’s treated me well is an understatement. I’ve loved my old one so this year’s updates make a great pack better.”

Bottom Line: If your budget permits, the Ariel AG is worth considering, whether the 75-liter model or a smaller version. Down to every zipper and stitch, the Ariel was a clear winner on the trail.

Best for: Longer trips, hauling a bunch of gear into the backcountry, international travel

Key Attribute: Performance

Women’s Osprey Sirrus 50

Sirrus 50l Osprey Sirrus 50 $171.00 - $176.70

Best Women’s Weekend Warrior Pack

While 50 liters is teetering on the edge of being too little for multi-day treks, the Osprey Sirrus 50 is the perfect pack for short adventures, and we definitely recommend the 24- and 36-liter versions for day hikes. The Airspeed Suspension System is completely customizable, and the hip belt placement keeps the weight off your back.

Pros: The Airspeed system is a thing of beauty. While the torso is not incredibly easy to adjust (held tight by Velcro), every other angle and point of pressure can be dialed. The hip belts are extremely comfortable, even with a fully loaded pack. Duel hip belt zippered pockets were appreciated, but testers noted their volume is less than other packs reviewed. Brain, side stuff and front stuff pockets provide quick access, and an additional zippered pocket on the front of the stuff mesh pocket was a clever addition.

Cons: The sleeping bag compartment seems a bit small, so unless you have a compact, low insulation bag, you may have to repurpose that compartment—which is rarely a huge problem. The pick-me-up handle is awkwardly placed and rendered all but useless when the brain is closed.

Tester Comments: “I can’t believe how compact this 50-liter pack is—it looks like the same size as my 30-liter. And can we talk about the suspension system? It’s pretty amazing. The hip belts sit perfectly, and this is the best I’ve ever tighten and dialed down a backpack. This is one of the most comfortable backpacks I’ve ever worn.”

Bottom Line: This 50-liter Osprey backpack is the perfect size for one or two nights, especially with a full pack, as the suspension system is top-notch.

Best for: Overnighters and weekend warrioring

Key Attribute: Fit

Men’s Granite Gear Lutsen 55

Granite gear lutsen 55 01 Granite Gear Lutsen 55 $132.97 - $197.96

We pushed the Granite Gear Lutsen 55 close to its 40-lbs load rating, lugging multiple gallons of water into a desiccated zone in Canyonlands National Park.

Pros: Lutsen’s skinny straps and buckles improved customization and fit without increasing weight, and at 50 ounces, it’s one of the lightest backpacks Active Junky reviewed. The harness is also customizable, and along with a firm foam framesheet, this backpack is ready for fast, light and functional missions. Further, the DWR-treated nylon eliminates the need for a rain cover in moderately wet weather.

Cons: Of concern to testers was this Granite Gear backpack’s durability as one of the buckles snapped on the first trip, a downside to smaller buckles.

Tester Comment: “I usually hike with a 65-liter. This 55-liter felt slick and speedy—I could really crank up the pace with this backpack. Definitely one of my top picks and a solid choice if 55 liters is the right volume and you aren’t lugging over 35 lbs.”

Bottom Line: The feature-loaded Lutsen 55 gets the job done, but it’s much better as a fast and light pack than a heavy load carrier.

Best for: Ultralight hikes, thru-hiking, fast and light hiking

Key Attribute: Features

Men’s Mountainsmith Lariat 65

Mountainsmith lariat 65 2 Mountainsmith Lariat 65 Backpack $206.96 - $220.76

When there’s a deviation from the normal, it stands out. Which was the case with the Mountainsmith Lariat—no brain? Our Active Junky testers were skeptical when they first packed this 65-liter backpacking pack, but after a few days on the trail with the Lariat, they appreciated the roll-top closure and detachable daypack.

Pros: The detachable daypack won testers’ vote for favorite feature—comfy and the perfect size for smaller hikes from basecamp. Although this backpack is on the heavier side, it’s also one of the most durable backpacks in our review. And while it’s a one-size-fits-all men’s backpack, it’s easily adjustable to fit waists from 28” to 48” and torsos from 16” to 21”.

Cons: While testers learned to appreciate the roll-top design, the lack of a brain was a tough adjustment. It’s also heavier than similar 65-liter packs: at 80 ounces unpacked, it’s nearly a full pound over similar models.

Tester Comment: “Mountainsmith tries a lot of different things. Different H20 water bottle holders on each side, different hip belt pockets. In doing so, they prove some notions wrong. New things can work. No brain doesn’t equal brainless.”

Bottom Line: The adjustability, durability and versatility of this Mountainsmith backpack suggest it will survive many years, owners and challenging trips.

Best for: The first pack for a growing kid, entry-level backpackers, international travel

Key Attribute: Durability

Women’s Deuter Aircontact Pro 65+15 SL

Deuteraircontactpro65 Deuter Aircontact Pro 65+15 SL $314.10 - $324.57

Deuter adds a lot to their backpacks. Case in point, the Aircontact 65-liter backpack, starting with +15, a separate 15-liter day pack ready for adventuring from basecamp. This backpack features Deuter’s VariFlex suspension system that is easily adjustable and completely customizable to dial in a perfect fit.

Pros: The torso was one of the easiest we’ve ever adjusted thanks to the VariFlex system: lift the handle and slide accordingly. The Aircontact Pro is full of features and room for storage, starting at the top with three separate zipping pockets in the brain alone, to the bottom with a sleeping bag compartment that’s larger than ones in similarly sized packs. Rain cover, day pack, zippered front access, ice tool loops, trekking pole tie downs: this backpack is stacked.

Cons: At just over 7 pounds, this is the heaviest backpack we reviewed, even more than the men’s Coyote 80 liter. Testers felt the padding on the shoulder straps could be softer, and some of the compontents were tight, but both would likely break in over time.

Tester Comments: “I’m a huge fan of pockets and organization, so clearly this backpack grabbed my attention. Also I loved the adjustable torso—it’s intuitive and smooth. And while the shoulder straps aren't the softest, they are some of the best shaped for women that I've ever worn. Over all the women's fit is excellent.”

Bottom Line: While not a great choice for light-and-fast packing in the weight department, the Deuter Aircontact 65+15L is solid for a multi-day or even weeklong trips

Best for: Multi-day backpacking and technical treks to basecamp

Key Attribute: Fit

Women’s Kelty Coyote 70

Kelty coyote 70 1 Kelty Women's Coyote 70 Pack $137.97 - $139.47

The Kelty Coyote 70 quickly won over testers with its comfortable straps and belt and its abundance of organization and storage potential. Across the mesas of Utah and scrambling down technical staircases of stone, this Coyote didn’t shy away from a challenge.

Pros: The frame, hip belt and shoulder straps of the Coyote are marked by pockets of an almost gelatinous concoction, the apparent work of an outdoor enthusiast moonlighting as a chemist. This padding is cushy, luxurious, and welcome. On long hauls, testers valued this Kelty backpack’s HDPE-reinforced suspension system, lumbar support and storage capacity.

Cons: At 70 liters, this is a bit much for one or two nights.

Tester Comment: “The padding on the hips and shoulders was extremely comfortable. The shape was clearly designed for a woman’s body, and the pocket space was truly phenomenal.”

Bottom Line: This backpack has a winning combination of elements to make it a formidable pack for extended adventures. Multiple testers were surprised and impressed by the intelligently designed Kelty backpacks this year, and the Coyote led the pack.

Best for: Extended trips, hauling a bigger load without feeling weighed down

Key Attribute: Features

Women’s The North Face Banchee 65 Backpack

The north face banchee 65 1 The North Face Banchee 65 Backpack $222.23 - $231.83

After embarking on a multi-day trip in Utah, The North Face Banchee impressed testers unfamiliar with this TNF model, and solidified its place for those testers who knew the line. A well-ventilated frame and water-carrying capacity won over our testers while venturing through the desert.

Pros: The winner was Banchee’s best-in-class airflow. The Optifit frame and suspension system keep weight balanced on the hips and away from the body to avoid sweaty backs, and vented-foam cushioning on the back and straps allow moisture to escape—all of which testers loved in the sweltering desert. Ample pockets increase carrying capacity and convenience, especially dual hip belt zippered pockets.

Cons: A few components seemed a bit weak, including the buckles and plastic fasteners. While the padded hip belts were comfortable, testers noted the shoulders could use more cushioning, especially when its packed to capacity.

Tester Comment: “I could comfortably fit all of my gear into this backpack on multi-day trips. And I liked the organization of the 8+ pockets as two outside zip pockets and the stretchy main outer pocket are great for wet or dirty gear.”

Bottom Line: At 65 liters, this The North Face backpack is the perfect volume for a range of adventures and trip lengths. With Optifit suspension and top-notch ventilation, we recommend this for summer backpacking.

Best for: Summer backpacking, 3-season pursuits, trips from one to seven days

Key Attribute: Performance

Unisex My Trail Company Backpack Light 50L

Mytrailco50l My Trail Company Backpack Light 50L Starting at: $100.80

My Trail Company may not be a brand you’re familiar with, but their growing line of outdoor gear is innovative and functional, including the 50L Backpack Light. Its simple design is deceptively high performing and it held its own on hot days. Though it wouldn’t be our first choice for most backpacking trips, minimalists may find its space and light weight attractive.

Pros: At just over 2 pounds, this is the lightest backpack in this review, making it a great light-and-fast pack with its 50-liter volume. The Dyneema threads it’s made from are three times stronger than Kevlar, so this lightweight backpack should hold up to years of abuse. The hip belt pockets are some of the largest we’ve seen, which is always a nice bonus, and the air mesh lining on the straps and back helped keep testers cool.

Cons: Beside the hip belt pockets, there are only the two main compartment areas, and neither offer much in the way of organization. And while there are two mesh water bottle pockets, there’s no additional exterior storage or stuff pocket, especially where this roll-top model is lacking a brain.

Tester Comments: “A brain-free design always catches me off guard, but the roll-top design makes it easier to pack it down when there’s less in this backpack. The hip belt pockets are my favorite I’ve seen on any other backpack—they’re actually large enough to fit my cell phone, case and all. And the hidden mesh pouch in each is a nice touch!”

Bottom Line: The Backpack Light 50L is an extremely simple pack, without all the bells and whistles you’ll find on similar sized bags, but also at about half the weight and half the cost.

Best for: Day hikes, summit pursuits, minimalist backpacking

Key Attribute: Durability

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