From easy day hikes to multi-day treks, a good pack on your back can make carrying a load a joy (relatively speaking), especially if you draw the short straw and have to carry the extra beer on a five day expedition through Zion National Park. The perfect pack is a simple one: it carries everything you need and nothing you don’t. In practice, this is much harder than it seems and involves careful planning and design. Beware of the old trap. If you have the space, you’ll try to fill it with something. Whether you’re throwing gear together for a short hike to your favorite fly fishing spot or taking a month-long stroll down the Continental Divide, less is more. With that in mind, we’ve picked the best backpacks to put a few miles on this season. Features like load distributing-straps, rainflys and easy access to hydration all made the cut. Heavy materials, unneeded space, and dead weight? Not so much.
Geigerrig Rig 1210
Best Hydration Pack: Geigerrig is a relative newcomer to the pack world, but their innovative hydration bladder has been drawing praise and awards since its introduction. The dual-chamber bladder — designed to be pressurized and able to spray (as opposed to requiring sucking) initially drew us in; the pack design has made it our new favorite. Featuring 1,200 cubic inches of space, it can easily swallow all the gear you’ll bring for a day on the trail. The in-line filtration system means you’ll never run out of water in the backcountry: just dip the bladder in a stream or pond, pump up the pressure chamber, and the water is forced through a filter that removes 99.9% of cryptosporidium and giardia. The 840-denier ripstop nylon body and double-stitched seams will keep this pack in your arsenal for years to come. The coup de grace? The bladder is reversible and dishwasher safe. No more funky smells or cleaning by hand.
CiloGear NWD 30L Work Sack
Best Ultra-Light Pack: If you’re looking to shave every single ounce off your pack (guides call these people “weight weenies”), look no further than CiloGear. Their non-woven-dyneema is the same ultra-light material that the military uses to wrap their ballistic armor plates. Though it’s very labor intensive to manufacture, the end result is a backpack that can handle 40-50 pounds of gear and tips the scales at just under two pounds. Removable compression straps, hip belt and foam frame sheet allow you to further dial down the weight for those trips when an extra pound can mean the difference between making distance and bailing back to the car. If you’re planning on moving fast and light in the backcountry, you won’t find a better pack to take you to the summit — and farther — than the CiloGear Work Sack line.
GoLite Jam 50L
Best Weekend Backpack: GoLite prides itself on using environmentally friendly materials and processes to turn out some of the best backcountry gear on the planet. Their devotion is evident in the redesigned Jam 50L. Using a combination of dyneema for weight savings in crucial areas and ripstop nylon for elasticity and compression, the Jam series is not the compromise in weight and comfort that many lightweight packs are. The ComPACKtor system ensures your gear stays packed down whether you’re just out for a quick summit day or carrying enough for a long weekend through the Tetons. At 50 liters, it has more than enough space to pack a few creature comforts on your weekend getaway. After all, backpacking is supposed to be fun, not a forced march.
Arc’teryx Nozone 75
Best Gear Hauler: If your backcountry adventure is going to last longer than a week or you’ll be carrying specialized gear (mountaineering, pack rafting, BASE jumping, etc.) a 60-80 liter expedition-sized pack should be on your shopping list. The Arc’teryx Nozone is purpose-built for carrying huge loads of mountaineering and ski gear, along with everything you’ll need to set up a backcountry base camp. Arc’teryx packs have been hauled up mountainsides from the Canadian Rockies to the Himalayas, and the company’s attention to design is apparent in the Nozone line. A-frame connection points for ski gear, ice tools or just about anything you need to lash on the outside are capped off with dual haul loops for dragging the pack up cliff sides. The Arc’on frame system will save your back no matter how heavy that rack of climbing gear is. The bottom line? If you’re hauling a few weeks worth of technical gear, there’s no other pack that is designed for every eventuality.
Dakine Sequence 33L
Best Photo Pack: Hauling photography gear through the backcountry is a time-honored tradition. Ansel Adams carried his camera through Yosemite for decades. Rather than look like a tourist with a fanny pack and multiple lens bags around your neck, take a look at the Dakine Sequence. With a laptop sleeve that can double for a hydration bladder and removable, padded camera block, you’ve got enough space to fit all the gear you need to get that perfect sunset shot of El Capitan.
Simple Pack, Minimal Gear
A gear layout is a time-tested tradition from infantry grunts packing for a patrol in a combat zone to backpackers cramming the last few ounces into their hiking packs for a trek down the Appalachian Trail. An experienced packer can quickly make the decision on what gear is essential — and what stays behind. After spending time leading backcountry groups in the Wasatch, Uintah, La Sal, and Wind River Ranges, I developed a pretty good eye for that rare breed of hiker who can manage to fit 50 liters of gear in a 30 liter pack. At the same time, learning to pare down my packing list became almost an art form.
A simple pack with minimal gear took on a new sense of urgency on an ominous day during late summer in 2004. I guided a large group of Boy Scouts into the 20 Lakes Basin area of the Wind Rivers. The first day on our trek in, the worst-case scenario happened. Four boys decided to race to the next lake and got separated from the group in some of the roughest terrain in the country — and at a time when we had been warned about grizzly incidents in the region. Another group leader and I got the main group to a safe campground and then shaved everything but the essentials — safety gear, emergency rations, and water supplies — from our small day packs and set off into the twilight in search of the missing boys. After 29 hours of travel, and nearly 50 miles of hiking, half of it above 10,000 feet, we were lucky enough to find the four boys, and none of them had become bear bait. Traveling fast and light like we did was no longer just a matter of convenience, but one of life and death. Fortunately, my pack and my gear list were dialed in and I knew what was needed to spend an all-nighter on a search and rescue mission.
Unfortunately, my favorite pack, the Ultimate Direction SpeeDemon, hasn’t survived (although after carrying it for eleven years, to seven countries and three continents, it has better stories to tell than my worn out ski touring boots), but I’ve kept the lesson of “simple pack, minimal gear” to heart since then.
Osprey Escapist 30
Best Mountain Biking Pack: Seeing the backcountry from the saddle of a mountain bike is as rewarding as a long trek — and can take half the time. Osprey’s Escapist line is designed to fit better on a bike than when hoofing it, and the subtle differences will save your back and legs for those long climbs on the Porcupine Rim and Kokopelli or just a quick afternoon ride on your local trails. Using a perforated EVA foam Osprey calls Biostretch, the shoulder straps and back panel are so well ventilated you might just forget you’ve got a day’s worth of gear on your back. The pack sits close enough to your body that you won’t notice any shift in your center of gravity, especially important if that soft landing is a little more sandy than you thought and going over the handlebars becomes a reality. Enough pockets and organizers to carry all the spare tubes, tools and snacks you’ll need will keep you on the trail far longer than you thought possible.
Deuter Traveler 80 +10
Best Travel Pack: The Traveler is an 80-liter gear hauler with air and train travel in mind, but it also features a small 10-liter detachable daypack for those excursions off the beaten track. Adventure travel doesn’t have to be all about military-style duffel bags and uncomfortable “ergonomic” bags. The rigid structure of the main bag will easily support loads up to 60 pounds, so feel free to pack a few extra souvenirs and trinkets on your train tour across Europe. When you’ve settled into your hotel and the mountains around Chamonix or Zermatt are calling, just detach the daypack and disappear for a few hours on the trail.
The North Face Hot Shot
Best Outdoor Commuter Pack: Built to hold your laptop and any work or school material for the week, The North Face Hot Shot is so much more than a simple book bag. Pulling its features from more technical packs, the Hot Shot is equally at home traversing campus on the way to that pesky biology class or crossing the wilderness in search of your favorite climbing spot. The airmesh back panel will keep you cool and dry; bungee side pockets and a daisy chain on the back help secure any extra gear you may need on that long trek from your backcountry cabin back to civilization and your 9 to 5.
Sea to Summit Carve 24L Dry Pack
Best Dry Pack: TPU laminated nylon and the same rugged seal system that Sea Summit builds on all their dry bags make the Carve 24 the perfect pack for summer or winter water sports. With a design heritage hailing from the shores of Australia and a testing ground on expeditions from the mouth of the Ganges to the highlands of Nepal, Sea to Summit dry bags set an industry standard. The slim design fits easily into the storage compartments on a kayak or whitewater raft and also lends itself well to canyoneering and hiking in wet spaces. The top-loading main chamber is rugged enough to stand up to a lifetime of hard use. Aluminum buckles won’t degrade, even after a few seasons of hard use on the river or at the beach. Convenient shoulder straps are quickly adjustable, so they remain comfortable over a wetsuit or life jacket.
Salomon Skin Pro 10+3
Best For Traveling Light: So your backcountry miles will be more of a race than a casual stroll? You’re planning on carrying just the bare essentials? The Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 has enough room to carry the bare necessities on your next adventure race or trail run without the bouncing and shifting that most packs have when you’re bounding like a gazelle. Stretchy mesh panels move with you and allow your load to hug your back and sides so you can crank up the mileage and stay comfortable. 800 cubic inches of space is just enough to carry an extra layer, first aid kit, and snacks for the day so you can hit the trail confident you’re ready for whatever the backcountry throws at you.