For too long, the backpack has been associated with pain. Blame that on the mental residue of long-gone frame packs (which have been back in the spotlight recently, thanks to films like Wild and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and people who insist on pushing packs past their limits. The truth is, designers have figured out all sorts of ingenious ways to mimic the body’s natural curves. The trick is finding the right shape for you and the right size for your objectives. To help, we divided the packs here into three categories: multi-day beasts (60-plus liters), overnighters (40 to 50), and daypacks (20 to 30).
Gregory Baltoro 75
With a sturdy aluminum wishbone suspension system and independent pivots in the shoulder harness and hipbelt, the Baltoro ($319) is the comfiest big hauler we tested. It’s also brimming with user-friendly features. The reason we liked the Baltoro best? Read the full Gear of the Year review.
Cotopaxi Nepal 65
Best For: Keeping it simple.
The Test: A butterfly opening at the top of the main compartment lets you quickly access most of the pack, but we especially loved the side pockets: one has two compartments, making it easy to stay
organized on the trail, while the other gets you straight into the bottom of the pack. Like the Gregory, the Nepal ($229) has a hydration-bladder sleeve that pulls double-duty as a handy summit pack. Our only real gripe is that the pocket on the shoulder strap is so tiny that it barely fits anything bigger than a granola bar.
The Verdict: Not the lightest pack here, but it’s a dependable workhorse. 4.9 lbs; cotopaxi.com
Osprey Atmos AG 65
Best For: Long-haul backpacking.
The Test: The “AG” stands for Anti-Gravity, Osprey’s term for the Atmos’s ($260) swath of torso-conforming mesh that allows airflow while providing balance and support. “It fits more like a jacket than a pack,” said one tester. The unique design creates contact with your entire back (read: no pressure points), which, combined with tons of adjustability in the torso and hipbelt and four compression straps, allows you to stabilize loads both large and small. We stuffed it with 55 pounds of gear for a big, sweaty push on California’s John Muir Trail, and it never felt off-balance.
The Verdict: Ideal for humping loads in hot weather. 4.4 lbs; ospreypacks.com
Exped Thunder 70
Best For: The weight conscious.
The Test: The most stripped-down big pack here, the Thunder ($289) weighs just 3.5 pounds. (Most packs this size weigh at least four.) It’s not as cushy as the Osprey or Gregory, but the Thunder’s single-aluminum-stay suspension proved adequate, thanks to a quick-and-easy torso adjustment and plush hipbelt. And considering how light it is, the Thunder has an impressive array of features, including tons of pockets (two side, one front, and two hipbelt).
The Verdict: The best big ultralight we’ve seen. If you prize comfort over weight, it’s not for you. But the fast-and-light crowd will love it. 3.5 lbs; exped.com
Deuter ACT Trail Pro 40
Best For: Overnight sorties.
The Test: The Trail Pro ($169) just feels right. The anatomical shoulder straps and mesh back panel fit nearly every tester perfectly, and it was practically unfazed by heavy loads. “It seemed to bring the weight down to my center of gravity,” said one tester. Deuter’s trademark ventilation channel, which runs along the middle of the back panel, helps keep you cool, and there are attachments for everything, including an optional helmet holder. And while it looks stripped down, there are wet and dry storage compartments inside and plenty of exterior pockets.
The Verdict: Light, durable, and breathable. 3.4 lbs; deuter.com
The North Face Shadow 30 + 10
Best For: Summit days.
The Test: A daypack with the guts to go longer, this compact hauler is basically a sack with straps. Fully extended, the Shadow ($149) is just big enough for overnight missions. Rolled down, it keeps smaller loads from shifting around. And while it does feature a few extras, like hipbelt pockets and trekking-pole attachments, we liked it best for what you can remove: strip away the framesheet, hipbelt padding, and internal storage pocket, and you shave off over a half-pound without sacrificing carrying capacity.
The Verdict: The most versatile minimalist day-plus pack we’ve tested. 2 lbs; thenorthface.com
Thule Capstone 50
Best For: Smooth operators.
The Test: We’re huge fans of Thule’s sleek and sturdy travel luggage, so we weren’t surprised by how much testers liked the Capstone ($200). The torso-adjustment system moves up and down on a track, making it easy to tweak fit on the fly without futzing around with straps—you just push a button and slide. The fabric is thick Cordura, the suspension system is sturdy, and it’s so well built and comfortable to wear that we’d tell you to go ahead and overload it, except you can’t: the top lid is fixed in place.
The Verdict: “If Apple designed packs, this is what they’d look like,” said one tester. 3.3 lbs; thule.com
REI Trail 30
Best For: Long day hikes; the highly organized.
The Test: With a light steel frame, built-in rain cover, and thickly padded hipbelt, the Trail ($100) is the most feature-laden daypack here. Plus, unlike most packs this size, it zips all the way open for easy access to buried stuff. “It’s like REI simply shrank one of its big multi-day packs,” remarked one tester. Highly organized hikers will be in heaven, thanks to smartly crafted trekking-pole attachment points and four side pockets (three stretchy and one zippered), which make it easy to keep track of snacks, maps, a water bottle, and gadgets.
The Verdict: Great price for a daypack with all the fixins. 2.4 lbs; rei.com
Black Diamond Nitro 22
Best For: Scrambling; big days in the mountains.
The Test: A light, friction-free steel cable runs through the Nitro’s ($120) shoulder straps, allowing for play when you twist, and a flexible waist belt shimmies up and down along with your hips. It’s a well-designed system that keeps the pack close to your torso and subtly shifts with virtually every step. “I could do Zumba with this pack on,” remarked one tester. Black Diamond did not skimp on the details here, either. There are trekking-pole loops and a near pack-length stuff pocket, and you can access the hydration compartment from the outside.
The Verdict: Take it off-trail. 1.9 lbs; blackdiamondequipment.com
Granite Gear Virga 26
Best For: Short trips; travel.
The Test: With no framesheet or suspension of any kind, and with minimal padding, the Virga ($120) is amazingly light and rolls up to the size of a burrito when not in use. Which is why one of our testers was flat-out shocked that he was able to carry everything he needed for a bare-bones desert overnight trip. Even more surprising: if you pack it correctly, it’s comfier than it should be. Side straps and load lifters let you fine-tune the position, and the roll-top closure battens everything down into a tidy bundle. One gripe: the Virga is too floppy to support a topped-off hydration bladder.
The Verdict: Best pack this light we’ve ever seen. 1 lb; granitegear.com