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  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Best Packs

    This year's top haulers got the Six Million Dollar Man treatment—they're better, stronger, and faster than ever before

    —Doug Schnitzspahn

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Granite Gear Nimbus Trace Access 70

    We tested lighter and sexier packs, but none of them did everything as well as this big-trip hauler ($350). Even when we overstuffed it with 65 pounds of gear, it felt balanced and easy on our backs. It could be the wood. The composite-plastic framesheet features a maple core, which gives it a sturdy but pliant backbone (think wood-core skis). On the outside, dobby-weave Cordura endured tight squeezes through sharp granite and fended off light rain (we loved the drybag-style roll-top closure), while a special coating on the rugged zippers kept dirt and grime from getting lodged in the teeth. Put it all together and you have a pack that will outlast a lifetime of adventures. 4.3 lbs

    COMFORT: 4 

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Eddie Bauer First Ascent Sorcerer

    BEST FOR: Doing it all.

    THE TEST: They should have named this pack the Shapeshifter. It quickly expands from 40 to 55 liters without adding top-heavy bulk. Or you can pull out the back support—a foam insert that also serves as a minimalist sleeping pad or emergency splint—and it lightens up to a scant two pounds ten ounces.

    >>Read the full review

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 Windrider

    BEST FOR: Serious minimalists.

    THE TEST: By employing Cuben fiber, a bantam-weight fabric that's waterproof and nearly impossible to rip, Maine-based Hyperlite achieves an impressive weight-to-carry-capacity ratio: the Windrider ($345) offers up to 70 liters of space but weighs just over two pounds. Even more impressive: it's not (completely) stripped down. Three big mesh pockets swallow layers, hip pockets hold snacks, and the roll-top closure is simple to batten down. It's also comfier than we expected. "The well-cushioned shoulder straps and hipbelt kept me free from bruises, even after 40-mile days," said one tester. "I fell in love with this pack."

    THE VERDICT: A dream pack for ounce shavers and a great option for the rest of us. 2.3 lbs 

    COMFORT: 4 

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Black Diamond Element 60

    BEST FOR: Weekend backpacking.

    THE TEST: Light, simple, and comfortable, this top-loader rated high with testers heading into the mountains to fish, tag summits, or just get away. It's lighter than the typical multi-day hauler and uses a nifty suspension system that Black Diamond originally created for smaller packs. Thanks to a system of nearly frictionless cable wires in the shoulder straps and a floating hipbelt, the Element ($220) has lots of play in the torso and moves with your body. "I crammed it full, but it didn't feel top-heavy when I was scrambling up a rocky ridge off-trail," affirmed one tester. Nice touch: the removable top lid doubles as a lumbar pack for quick missions.

    THE VERDICT: Feels nimble even with a big load. 3.6 lbs 

    COMFORT: 4 

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Deuter AirComfort Aera 30

    BEST FOR: That fine line between minimal overnighter and oversize daypack.

    THE TEST: It's rare for a pack to impress both the fast-and-light crowd and the bring-it-all overstuffers. The former will find that the Aera 30 ($119) has just enough room for overnight essentials, as one tester did on a trip to the top of Yosemite Valley. The latter will insist the pack isn't overkill on a big day hike—if you want to hump in a bottle of wine, a picnic blanket, and a grocery bag full of chow for the kids. And everyone will appreciate the plush suspension system, which utilizes a steel frame, mesh to move air, and the best shoulder-strap padding we've ever seen. Deuter also did a nice job on the extras, including a built-in rain fly, roomy mesh side pockets, and trekking-pole loops.

    THE VERDICT: As small as you can go for an overnight adventure. 3.1 lbs 

    COMFORT: 5

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45

    BEST FOR: Alpine minimalists.

    THE TEST: Crafted for climbing, ice climbing, and ski mountaineering, the 45-liter Alpha FL ($239) (the letters stand for fast and light) is little more than a tube with shoulder straps and a webbing belt. Start using it, however, and the subtle design details, like the unique ice-tool hooks, quickly prove themselves. One pro climber raved about the ability to segment the pack into two chambers by securing the roll-top closure of the inner bag. "I could separate my wet layers from my dry stuff," he explained. The suspension, though sparse, wasn't harsh, and the ripstop nylon, while not waterproof, shrugged off a freak spring snow-and-rain storm in the Cascades and showed zero wear after being dragged over cliff edges on a Utah canyoneering trip.

    THE VERDICT: It's not quite as simple as it looks—but it's close. 1.4 lbs 

    COMFORT: 3 

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Osprey Exos 38

    BEST FOR: Lightning-fast backpacking.

    THE TEST: The reboot of Osprey's popular Exos series has larger versions (48 and 58 liters), but this top-loading hauler ($160) became the bag of choice for testers who carry only the barest of essentials. The standout design feature was the suspension—a mesh back panel and foam hipbelt that offered ventilation while dispersing weight. "I normally don't like ventilating systems, but this one let in air without making the pack feel top-heavy," reported one tester. The ample stuff-it pockets in the back and sides swallowed up the items we wanted handy, and the accessory straps secured trekking poles and a sleeping pad. Going super, super light? Remove the top compartment; an alternate lid flap covers the main body of the pack.

    THE VERDICT: If you like spartan camping, this is your bag. 2.2 lbs

    COMFORT: 4.5 

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Bergans of Norway Rondane 6L

    BEST FOR: Tough hikes, rides, and trail runs.

    THE TEST: Hold on loosely but don't let go? More like hold on tightly and go forever. Four sets of straps in the suspension system combine to eliminate bounce when you're bounding down the trail. In addition to a waist strap, there are two chest straps and another pair that route from the shoulder pads under the armpits to the sides. Even with the two-liter hydration bladder topped off, the pack ($99) didn't throw us off our rhythm when we were sprinting up steep, rocky scrambles. At just six liters, it's smaller in volume than most fanny packs, but it's still big enough to contain a beefy rain shell, a first-aid kit, and lunch. (A bungee net on the back can accommodate a layer and other small items, if you must.)

    THE VERDICT: A snug hydration pack for training sessions. 1.3 lbs 

    COMFORT: 4

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    CamelBak Pursuit 24LR

    BEST FOR: Peak bagging.

    THE TEST: We've tested lumbar hydration reservoirs in bike packs, but this was our first chance to check out how a water reservoir would feel pressed against our lower backs in a hiking pack ($150). Our conclusion: Why has no one done this before? Moving the water weight down not only eliminated the annoying slosh of a three-quarters-empty bladder, but it also added to the balance of the pack. Plus, it was easier to refill, because we could access it through the back panel, dispensing with the nearly impossible task of stuffing a full bladder into a crammed main compartment. The big mesh and foam suspension was overkill for short outings but much appreciated on longer missions.

    THE VERDICT: A serious, well-balanced pack for ambitious single-day adventures. 
3 lbs

    COMFORT: 4

  • Photo: Inga Hendrickson

    Next Up:The Best Jackets of 2014

    Gregory Miwok 18

    BEST FOR: Everyday hikes and scrambles.

    THE TEST: The Miwok ($99) proved tough, dependable, and highly functional, whether we were jamming up local high points in fall, exploring a side canyon in the midst of a river trip, or mountain-biking Sedona desert trails in spring. At 18 liters, it carried the perfect amount of water and gear. "There was almost as much room in the front pocket as in the main pack, and it was ideal for stuffing layers and maps on the fly," noted one tester. The suspension system offers play in the shoulder and hip straps, so it doesn't slam into your back when you pick up the pace. Internal mesh pockets help organize the little and loose stuff, and the stretchy front pocket with its bungee closure is big enough for a bike helmet.

    THE VERDICT: The Subaru of daypacks. 
1.5 lbs 

    COMFORT: 4