(Inga Hendrickson)
2021 Summer Buyer’s Guide

The Best Backpacks of 2021

Technical bags for going the distance


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Granite Gear Perimeter 50 ($220)

The Perimeter was one of the most versatile packs in our test: equal parts big-load mule and gram-counter’s dream, and suited to a huge spectrum of body types. With a quick flick of two buckle latches, you can adjust the shoulder width and torso length to your frame. The pivoting waist belt also expands from 26 to 42 inches on the unisex version and 24 to 40 inches on the women’s version. (You can also opt for a larger belt that goes up to 52 inches.) Granite Gear is one of the few packmakers to deliver such a wide fit range while preserving comfort and capacity. On paper, the Perimeter is a 50-liter pack, but the top-loading, potato-sack-shaped hull simply devours cargo. Partial thanks goes to the frame, which is just curved enough to enhance fit without getting in the way. Compression straps, four stretch-woven pockets, and extendable top and bottom flaps for securing bulky items further broaden its capability. We easily stuffed in 40 pounds of gear, and the lightweight back panel still held its shape. That’s impressive for a pack that weighs almost half of some others in our test. Don’t expect luxuries, like extra cushioning or even a key clip. But if you’re looking for a pack that can fit both Mom and Dad and pivot from through-hiker to family wagon, the Perimeter is hard to beat. 3.1 lbs

Men’s Women’s

Gregory Kalmia 50 ($260)

(Courtesy Gregory)

Best for Hiking in the Heat

The Kalmia 50 (and men’s Katmai 55) utilizes the same trampoline-style mesh back panel that helped Gregory’s Deva/Baltoro, nab Gear of the Year honors in 2018. That breezy suspension does push the load a bit farther from your center of gravity, but its form-hugging shape and superior ventilation yield blissful comfort on the trail. This pack combines all of that with a host of niceties, like rugged 210- and 420-denier fabrics, six zippered compartments, a stashable water-bottle hip holster, extendable tongues that pad the waist buckle, and pivoting shoulder straps. Still, the pack somehow weighs in below the magic five-pound mark that so many other feature-rich models exceed. Polygiene anti-odor treatment quells stink on long trips. 4.7 lbs (men’s) / 4.4 lbs (women’s)

Men’s Women’s

REI Traverse 60 ($229)

(Courtesy REI)

Best for Backpacking on a Budget

The Traverse proves that fancy technology is never a substitute for smart design. This dual-compartment utilitarian workhorse may not have the high-tech fabrics or cutting-edge suspension of its competitors, but it excels in what matters most: carrying heavy loads comfortably, without fuss. A deep air channel bisects the back panel, which is made of thick mesh-covered foam and contoured to keep loads close to your spine. That and a meaty waist belt lend stability, which was handy on gear-intensive family outings in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. Still, the Traverse has plenty of extras, like a lid that doubles as a daypack (with padded straps) and forward-leaning water bottle pockets you can actually reach while hiking. 4.4 lbs (men’s) / 4.3 lbs (women’s)

Men’s Women’s

Osprey Aether Plus 60 ($340)

(Courtesy Osprey)

Best for Bringing the Kitchen Sink

Meet the everything bagel of backpacks. The new Plus generation of Osprey’s Aether (and women’s Ariel) line is so bedecked with features, pockets, and external storage mechanisms that you need GPS just to navigate them all. With thickly padded straps and a stout suspension system, this multi-day rig easily handled loads over 50 pounds. You can even shorten or lengthen the suspension on the fly, with a drawcord located near your kidneys. At camp, ditch your heavy gear and explore with the breakaway lid, which doubles as a 17-liter summit pack complete with a sternum strap and hydration sleeve. Accordingly, the Plus weighs almost six pounds, but for those who prize comfort under oxen loads, it’s pure decadence. 5.8 lbs (men’s) / 5.5 lbs (women’s)

Men’s Women’s

Gossamer Gear G4-20 42 ($180)

(Courtesy Gossamer Gear)

Best for Ultralight Backpacking

When it launched over two decades ago, Gossamer Gear’s G4 set a standard for shedding base weight while still fitting a full-size backpacking kit. That tradition continues with the new G4-20, an ultralight bag built with through-hikers in mind. The roll-top closure expands to fit gargantuan loads, then cinches down with side compression straps when you want to minimize your setup for lighter trips. We like the front stretch pouch and asymmetrical side pockets for water bottles and layers; but the left one is deep enough for a rolled tarp or sleeping pad. While the pack is frameless, with a removable closed-cell foam back panel that doubles as a seat pad, we comfortably carried up to 30 pounds. One downside: the unisex design offers little fit adjustability. 1.6 lbs

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Arc’teryx Aerios 30 ($190)

(Courtesy Arc‘teryx)

Best for Going Far Fast

Whether you’re loading up for a long day out in the mountains or stripping down your gear for a fast-and-light overnighter, the Aerios delivers big on technical details. The body fabric, a ripstop Cordura grid impregnated with liquid-crystal polymer, is supremely durable. In testing, it held up against snagging tree branches and even the occasional squeeze through a sandstone slot canyon. A heat-molded back panel breathes well, even on steep climbs in hot weather. Meanwhile, two zippered shoulder pockets and two padded pouches on the waist belt (one zippered and one stretch) hold on-the-go sundries like energy bars and sunscreen. Stretchy loops on each shoulder keep folded trekking poles at the ready. 2 lbs (men’s) / 1.9 lbs (women’s)

Men’s Women’s

Patagonia Altvia 22 ($119)

(Courtesy Patagonia)

Best for Day Hiking

Our ideal go-to daypack is just technical and featured enough to handle a big mission without needing an instruction manual to operate. The Altvia fits the bill. It’s simple yet covers all the most elemental needs, with a padded waist belt and shoulder straps, included rain cover, and stretch-mesh pockets on either side of the body. Aside from the main compartment, it has just one small zippered pocket that’s big enough to fit a trail map but not so big that you’ll need to mount a search and rescue mission to find your keys. Stretchy compression cords on the back are perfect for quickly stashing a spare jacket, while the main zippered interior area swallows more layers and a sizable lunch. We also love that the polyester-nylon body fabric is entirely recycled. 1.5 lbs

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From Summer 2021 Buyer’s Guide Lead Photo: Inga Hendrickson

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