Hiking Backpacks Review
Backpacks Field Tested by Active Junky
Active Junky lives by the motto "More Amazing Days," promoting active and outdoor lifestyles of all kinds. Their experts field-tested and evaluated each of the products in the following guide. Check out the guide for selecting the best hiking backpacks for men and for women, as well as testers' top picks.
Lead Reviewer: Drew Zieff
Editor: Melanie Ott
When trekking on a trail, no matter if it’s a day hike or week-long backcountry adventure, a quality backpack should be at the top of your gear list. Backpacks have come a long way over the past few decades, with new material making for lightweight frames and innovating strap suspension systems creating a more comfortable journey with weight dispersed evenly and appropriately across your body.
There are dozens if not hundreds of backpacks to choose from, and while many options and many brands provide quality products, Active Junky took the time to test and evaluate some of the top choices from the most popular brands to help you choose the best backpack for you based on your adventure of choice, capacity need, features and gender-specific design.
Hiking Backpack Brands Tested:
- Granite Gear
- The North Face
How to Choose a Hiking or Backpacking Backpack
When considering what to look for when choosing the best backpacking backpack for your needs, ask these three questions:
What Size & Capacity Do You Need?
When you see a backpack named “Coyote 80” or “Volt 75,” the corresponding number represents the cubic liters in that particular model, which is how companies size backpacking and hiking backpacks. Considerations for the appropriate size should be made based on the length of your trip and the gear you need, not to mention the size of your gear itself, which take up more room if bulky.
Most commonly, a 50-liter to 65-liter pack will be a good size for overnighters or weekend-long trips. You can fit a small sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, food and other needs within the pack or strapped to the outside with some models. This size is also a good choice for day hikes that require more technical gear, such as a mountaineering pursuit where you’ll need crampons and gaiters at some point along the trail. Further, some minimalist backpackers can make due for weeks with only 50 liters.
Many models have exterior straps where you can easily attach a small backpacking tent. Packs of 65 liters and more are good choices for multi-day or weeklong trips for the typical backpacker. These allow for more gear, food and water storage, particularly important if water sources are scarce on your trip. Passionate nature photographers may also choose a larger pack for advanced gear to get that perfect shot.
What Is Your Weight Goal?
Weight comes into play in two cases. The first is simple and straightforward: the weight of the empty, unpacked pack itself. Many packs are made from nonrip nylon and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) reinforced material, which are both durable and lightweight. In general, the smaller the capacity of the pack, the lighter weight the pack will be – though there are exceptions to that rule. Many 50-liter packs weigh under 4 lbs., such as the Osprey Viva 50 that weighs around 3 lbs 11 oz. On the other side of the weight spectrum, the Osprey Coyote 80 comes in at 5 lbs 5 oz.
The other weight element is the capacity of the packed bag. Companies provide a packed weight range for optimal performance and to avoid stress tearing. Some lightweight packs may only accommodate around 30 lbs of gear, while larger packs like the Osprey Ariel 75 can handle loads up to 60 lbs.
What Is Your Budget?
When it comes to pricing for hiking and backpacking backpacks, you can certainly find a good pack for around $200, while the best lightweight backpacks can cost several hundred dollars. How much you spend on a backpack depends on the size, quality and overall longevity you want out of a bag. Active Junky testers looked at both top-of-the-line packs that are pricier and some that are still great choices for those shopping on a budget.
The Difference Between Men’s & Women’s Backpacks
While in some gear categories, there are little to no difference between men- and women-specific options, backpacks are not one of those categories. In general, men’s packs are taller and skinnier, being able to disperse more weight throughout a longer torso. Women’s backpacks are shorter with more attention and emphasis on the hip belts. Many companies also curve and pad shoulder and hip straps designed to fit women better as well. Many brands are starting to have male and female versions of the same pack that have their subtle differences to better fit the user.
Finding the Right Sizing Fit
When deciding on the right size backpacking pack, you want to consider the torso length and hip belt length. To measure your torso, you start from your C7 vertebrae, which you can locate by bending your neck forward and feeling for the vertebrae that protrudes about level with your shoulders. Measure from C7 to the top of your hip bone, or iliac crest.
Your hip measurement is determined again around the iliac crest and top of your hip bones. You want to measure where the hip straps sit for the most comfort and support. Many companies have a measuring guide online as well so you can ensure you buy the correct size backpack.
Backpacking Technologies to Keep an Eye On
Adjustable & Customizable Fit
Many companies are making their bags more adjustable for a more customized and comfortable fit. Rather than choosing a specific size that fits a range of measurements, many bags are one-size-fits-all but can be adjusted to a number of different torso lengths with adjustable support systems. Some Osprey models, for example, have Velcro back panels that can be fine-tuned to the perfect height.
Suspension or Flat Fit
The old go-to flat fit design keeps the backpack snug to your back, which is secure and stable. However, a newer take on backpacks focused on a suspension design, with harness and straps that pull the bag close to your center of gravity, but away from your actual back. In these cases, weight is shifted more onto the hips to give the back a break as well as allow for more ventilation. The REI Flash is a perfect example of this progressive suspension technology.
Some backpacks take a minimalist approach and focus on the basics. Other designs have handy little bonuses that can be convenient and improve your time on the trail. Active Junky testers noted a few of their favorites:
- Hip strap pockets: these are the most accessible of storage spaces and are convenient for on-trail needs when removing your pack is either inconvenient or not possible, depending on the situation you find yourself in.
- Hydration sleeve: while many day packs have incorporated this handy little feature, not all backpacking packs do, but a hydration sleeve allows for water to be at your fingertips whenever you need a sip.
- Compression straps and pockets: many times, bulkier gear can be compressed down into a smaller package, so you can fit more gear than originally thought.
- Brain: the top pocket on a pack that flips on and off is known as its brain, and it makes for quick access to certain essentials you want access to without having to unpack your entire bag. Many newer-designed brains can also detach and become handy smaller day packs.
How We Evaluated Hiking Backpacks: Key Attributes
When testing backpacks in the field, Active Junky testers focused on key attributes. While all packs exhibited these traits to some degree, each backpack stood out for a specific characteristic:
Performance considers how well the backpack does what it is supposed to do. A large part of this was if the pack could easily be filled to its volume and weight capacity. Top performers went above and beyond the bare minimum.
Fit comes down to the customizability of the pack to best fit the testers, the ease of adjustment and the comfort of the fit. Particularly in one-size-fits-all models, testers noted the sizing range as well.
Durability means strong construction and materials that will last. It should not show signs of wear or tear, get torn up by thorny thickets, or be worn through by tight slot canyon walls.
Versatility in a backpack means that it can be used for more than activity or purpose. More than just hiking, can the backpack be used for backcountry ski or a snowboard adventures or make a solid international bag?
Features plays into both design and innovation. Does the bag have numerous bonus features that add ease to your trekking?
Best Hiking Backpacks: Top Testers’ Choices
Active Junky testers took five backpacks for men and five backpacks for women out into the field. Check out the reviews for each, and read on for the testers’ and editors’ top picks for each.
Best Value Backpack for Men: Osprey Volt 75
This Osprey Volt model is a straightforward basic but quality hiking backpack. It is ideal for the average backpacker with its simplistic and highly functional design. Active Junky testers were further impressed by the price tag.
All-Around Best Backpack for Men: REI Flash 65
The REI Flash 65-liter backpack won favor with testers with the lightweight frame and build, innovative features, and comfortable straps and hip belts, though others outperformed it in the realm of durability.
Best Value Backpack for Women: Kelty Coyote 70
The Kelty Coyote line in general was a favorite of testers, and female testers appreciated the well-padded hip and shoulders in a pack designed for women’s bodies. At 70 liters, this backpack is on the heavier side but remains a comfortable pack.
All-Around Best Backpack for Women: Osprey Ariel 75
When you’re packing a lot of gear, the Osprey Ariel 75 is Active Junky’s top pick for women. It can handle up to 60 lbs packed, so it is a perfect choice for longer trips when you’ll be bearing a heavier load.
If you need some lightweight gear for your next camping or backpacking adventure, check out Active Junky’s Sleeping Bags buyer’s guide or reviews for Backpacking Tents. For even more gear reviews, have a look at activejunky.com.