Best Backpacking Backpack – How to Choose

Hitching a Backpacking Ride
Jennifer doing her best to flag down a ride to get us and our backpacking gear from one end of Canada’s Tonquin Valley Trail to the other.

Backpacks are obviously an essential piece of gear when setting off on a multi-day trip into the wilderness and you want the best backpacking backpack you can afford. This is one area where skimping on gear because of the price isn’t recommended. Backpacks need to be made of quality materials to hold up to rigorous activities, but they also need to be constructed of lightweight materials. It is very easy for the heaviest piece of backpacking gear to be your backpack and that shouldn’t be the case.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify backpacks and rain covers as essential pieces of gear, but also give them a rating. You need a backpack to go backpacking so its essential-ness is fairly obvious. Our rating of A to F is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. The best backpacking backpack can last you a lifetime and there is usually a quality, comfort, and weight tradeoff with cheaper ones. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all the gear in one place.

Best Backpacking Backpack

  • Classification: Essential Gear
  • B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.

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Getting Fit

Tongariro North Face
Jennifer takes on New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing with her reliable North Face Backpack.

Backpacks are designed to fit different body types and so we recommend going to REI or some other sporting goods store and trying on different packs to get a feel for the bag and a proper fit. The associates can usually help you with fitting the pack. They will have sandbags available to simulate the pack weight. A backpack should be worn so that the load is transferred to your hips with the strap belt clasping just below your belly button. A backpack should be packed so that the heaviest items are close to your body and/or low to the ground.

Size of the Pack

The size of a pack, measured by interior volume in liters, will inevitably vary depending on how many days/nights you intend to be on the trail and the amount of gear (good vs. bad) you intend to carry. Good backpacking gear will be lighter and often more compact. This allows you to carry a smaller pack. Again, ounces add up to pounds so the best backpacking backpack is often the lightest one that fits your needs.

What You Need/ Don’t Need

Steep Descent
Having the right backpack is essential, especially when the trail looks like this.

The best backpacking backpack is lightweight with a few essential pockets and good padding, especially in the hip and shoulder straps. I like having a hip strap pocket. This gives the backpacker an easily accessible place to carry things that might be needed throughout the day. Although it isn’t a deal-breaker, I’m not a fan of a divider between the sleeping bag compartment and the rest of the backpack. I typically do not pack a sleeping bag in that compartment, because I want to pack heavy items lower in the bag. Our sleeping bags aren’t that heavy.

Less is More

Backpack at Merlin Lake
A good backpack will allow you to visit some of the most amazing places.

The best backpacking backpacks are designed with a way of carrying a water bladder inside the pack and close to the body. Water is one of the heaviest items that needs to be in your pack. I like one top pocket for carrying essential gear that can be found quickly but this can also be accomplished with a plastic baggy or dry sack that is packed near the top. Those top pockets aren’t essential and they can add a lot of unnecessary fabric weight. Tiedowns and built-in bungee cords are nice to have for strapping on extra gear, but if you buy the right size pack very little will need to be strapped on. These often add unnecessary weight as well. The moral to this is that less is often more. The more dividers and pockets a bag has the heavier it will be.

Osprey Exos 58 (REI) or Atmos AG 50 (Backcountry, REI)

I loved my Osprey Atmos AG 50 backpack until a rouge porcupine ate most of the shoulder strap. Osprey is a great company and stands behind its product. They offered to fix the bag but because it was an older model ended up offering to replace it free of charge. I only had to pay for the shipping. I decided to change things up and choose the lighter Exos 58 model which holds more gear but has a lighter base weight. The trade-off is in less padding and a set frame.

I prefer the Exos to the Atmos in almost every way. It is lighter. The fit frame (not adjustable) hugs me like a glove. The “anti-gravity” system on the Atmos was a vast improvement over every other pack I’ve ever used but it is even better on the Exos because it doesn’t wrap through the hips. The Atmos tends to rub and chaff my hips slightly after days on the trail. The Exos even holds 8 liters more should I need to add in a little extra gear for longer journeys. The only drawback is that the hip strap doesn’t have pockets which I had grown accustomed to having on my Atmos. I removed the hooded pocket and relied solely on the hip pockets for small items like headlamps and my neck gator. However, Osprey just introduced the new model of the Exos which has hip pockets. With this addition, the Exos 58 is the best backpacking backpack for men.

The Exos is manufactured in a 48 liter as well as the 58 liter version. The backpack is so light weight I decided that having the extra capacity for longer trips was prefered. I rarely fill the pack but the bags built-in straps easily draw in my pack weight making it very comfortable.

North Face Terra 55 (Backcountry)

Jennifer used a North Face Terra 55 from 2012 through 2020. It was a workhorse of a backpack and a great choice for those new to backpacking. The newer model has different color selections and is lighter making it an even better option. In 2012 the 55L volume was perfect as I was carrying and filling a 65L pack back then. These days we have upgraded our backpacking gear so much that the 55L pack is a little too large. In order to compensate, Jennifer would carry the larger but lighter items while I carried the smaller but heavier ones. One of the many benefits of backpacking together is being able to share the load. Regardless the Terra 55 is a great option for anyone looking for a reliable, and lightweight pack.

Deuter Aircontact Lite 45 + 10 SL (Backcountry, REI)

In early 2021 Jennifer upgraded her backpack to the smaller and lighter Deuter Aircontact Lite 45+10SL. This bag fits her very well transferring the load to her legs. The smaller 45L pack is perfect for the type of 3-5 day backpacks we prefer and the smaller lighter gear we have upgraded to. The bag also has an expandable section that allows it to fit another 10L of gear should we need it on a longer journey. This bag also comes in two larger sizes, the 50+10L and 60+10L for those who prefer to carry more gear into the backcountry. It even comes in a smaller 35+10L size.

Backpack Rain Covers

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • F-Rating: Save money as this product often needs to be replaced regardless of the quality.

The best backpacking backpack will not come with a rain cover. None of the high-end manufacturers include them. I will never understand the idea that quality products come with fewer needed accessories. I suppose manufacturers can list the bag as slightly lighter without a rain cover. That being said most high-end backpacks do have designer rain covers available. But, unless you just really want to display a giant logo via an overpriced rain cover, try one of the listed $8 rain covers from Amazon. I find that the straps and reflective tape are better than the branded covers. Also, know that no rain cover remains rainproof for the life of a backpack. Expect to have to buy a new one about every five years. This makes saving a few bucks on a generic rain cover even better.

Choosing the Best Backpack

Best Backpacking Backpack
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The best backpacking backpacks are designed to carry heavy loads and transfer the weight. This way your body feels as little of the weight as possible. Strategically placed padding and a limited number of pockets, along with innovative materials and designs that help with airflow, make many modern-day backpacks lightyears better than their competition.

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