From day hikes in canyon country to soggy treks in the Cascades to dusty trail runs in New Mexico, more than a dozen testers carried loads big and smalland everything in betweento find the best packs of the year. In every category, we discovered daypacks and overnighters that strike a near-perfect balance between weight and performance: No pack that made the final cut weighs more than 4.5 pounds, yet none requires TLC when the going gets rough. Exhibit A: Gear of the Year winner Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian, which is as comfortable as it is tough.
Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian (3.7 lbs, 3,800 cu in) $250 granitegear.com
1. Comfort: Go ahead, try and overload it. On treks in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness and even ski touring in the Tetons, testers were unanimous: The Meridian carries like a champ. Credit the firm yet flexy composite frame-sheet that moves with your body, dual-density foam in the hipbelt that cushions luxuriously, and a precision fit (both torso-size and interchangeable suspension parts) that you can dial in with a few turns of a screwdriver.
2. Versatility: It's light enough to use as a weekend pack yet big enough for a week's worth of suppliesand you won't feel you're compromising in either case. How? An array of compression straps means you can under- and overload to your heart's content, a panel zip allows instant rummaging in the main compartment, and the top lid converts to a lumbar pack for base-camp duty. Stretchy side pockets will accommodate a small sleeping pad.
3. Durability: The Meridian may weigh less than four pounds, but there's nothing gossamer about the construction. There's no easily abraded mesh to be found, and its big-toothed, water-resistant zippers are sturdy and easy to operate. Siliconized ripstop nylon shaves ounces and makes the pack extremely weather-resistantwhile a few key high-stress areas, like the bottom and compression panels, are made with tough 210-denier Cordura.