Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide. We’ll do our best to update it accordingly.
The most important piece of gear you need to go backpacking is—you guessed it—a backpack. Your pack will hold all your overnight gear, and, if it’s a good one, feel comfortable all the while. Luckily, we carry a whole bunch of good ones at REI. But which is right for you?
Well, that depends. The first thing you’ll want to nail down is how long you expect to be out. From there, you can determine the right capacity for your needs. Then it’s about picking and choosing the right features for you and finding the right fit. Check out our How to Choose a Backpack article to learn more, then read on for our favorites. We’ve selected load haulers for every trip from quick overnights to week-long epics, plus a few top picks for multisport pursuits, ultralight adventures and more.
Best Backpack for Overnight Trips
- Versions: Maven 45: XS/S (14–17 in. torso; 2 lbs. 13 oz.), S/M (15–19 in. torso; 3 lbs. 1 oz.); Paragon 48: S/M (15–19 in. torso; 2 lbs. 15 oz.), M/L (18–22 in. torso; 3 lbs. 3 oz.)
- Price: $199.95
“If you can fit your stuff into a 40-something-liter pack, you cannot do better than the Gregory Maven 45 (or Gregory Paragon 48),” declares an Expert Advice editor. It’s not lip service, either: This is our editor’s go-to pack for any adventure that’s fewer than three days for its best-in-class organization, paired with a snuggly fit (“like a koala-bear hug”).
It starts with a giant packbag that has a separate, zippered sleeping bag compartment for overnight gear. Hiking accoutrements have their place in the stretchy side pockets (accessible while on the move) and giant, stuff-it pouch on the front (perfect for an easy-access rain or insulation layer). Smaller sundries fit neatly inside the two-pocket top lid or blessedly oversize zippered hipbelt pockets, which easily swallow a smartphone and snacks.
Suspension systems can take a backseat when it comes to smaller-volume packs, but that’s not the case with the Maven 45. It showcases super thick hipbelt straps, which wrap the wearer comfortably and swivel independently from the pack itself. That keeps the Maven 45 centered even when high-stepping or moving quickly—a welcome feature for a pack that weighs only about 3 pounds. Buy here.
Best Backpack for Weekend Trips
- Versions: Aura AG 65: XS (14–17 in. torso; 4 lbs. 4 oz.), S (16–19 in. torso; 4 lbs. 5 oz.), M (18–21 in. torso; 4 lbs. 7 oz.); Atmos AG 65: S (16–19 in. torso; 4 lbs. 8 oz.), M (18–21 in. torso; 4 lbs. 9 oz.)
- Price: $270
One surefire way to identify a good pack: Take note of what you see on the trail. The beloved Osprey Aura AG 65 and Atmos AG 65 are about as common as dandelions, and for good reason. Devotees sing praises of the innovative AntiGravity (or “AG”) suspension system, which makes bigger loads disappear on your back. In lieu of a thick foam back panel like others in this lineup, the Aura AG 65 uses a trampoline-style mesh all the way from the perimeter and through the lumbar and hipbelt. This allows for complete contact across your back with no pressure points and superb load transfer to your hips. It also gets the packbag off your back for standard-setting airflow.
You can remove the top lid and cinch down the Aura AG 65 with various compression straps to reduce bulk on quicker trips, but this pack really shines on the long haul, not just for its suspension. Its harness can be adjusted on the fly, and it has a medley of features that hikers will appreciate like on-the-go trekking pole storage and a water-bottle holder with multiple access points. Like the Gregory Maven 45, it has organization options galore, which should please Type-A packers. Buy here.
Best Backpack for Weeklong Trips
- Versions: Women’s: XS (13–18 in. torso; 5 lbs. 10 oz.), M (16–22 in. torso; 6 lbs. 2 oz.); Men’s: S (15–20 in. torso; 6 lbs. 2 oz.), L (17–24 in. torso; 6 lbs. 6 oz.), XL (17–24 in. torso; 6 lbs. 7 oz.)
- Volume: Women’s: 70 liters; Men’s: 71 liters
- Price: $350
If multiday epics are your quarry, you can’t go wrong here. The MYSTERY RANCH Glacier is taller than a 4-year-old, but a lot less squirmy. Squeeze a ton of gear in its confines, and don’t worry about it folding over or stressing your shoulders and back: The Glacier has four vertical stays (rather than the usual two) for the sort of rigidity and transfer you need when hauling massive loads. Two stays on the outside shift pack weight to your hips, while the inner two help focus it on your lumbar. So, assuming you pack it correctly with heavier items closer to the bottom and middle, the Glacier should keep big ol’ loads centered on your back and riding on hips. “It’s the Cadillac of backpacking packs,” says one staffer.
The Glacier is a top-loader, but it has a convenient side entry, so you can pull out items without unpacking. It also has a number of pockets, including two on the front and two in the top lid for quicker-access items. You can detach the shoulder harness and affix it to the removable top lid to create a smaller daypack for shorter adventures from camp. Buy here.
Best Backpack for Multisport Trips
- Versions: Bora AR 61: Regular (16.75–18.75 in. torso; 4 lbs. 13 oz.), Tall (18.25–20.25 in. torso; 4 lbs. 15 oz.); Bora AR 63: Regular (18.25–20.25 in. torso; 5 lbs.)
- Price: $360
“Backpacking” is a somewhat narrow term. If you’re the sort of well-rounded outdoor enthusiast who plans to use your backpack for backpacking as well as any activity that necessitates a backpack, the ultradurable, ultracomfortable Arc’teryx Bora AR may be for you. “It’s my choice for everything from backpacking to climbing to mountaineering to backcountry skiing to traveling,” says one editor, who’s used her Bora AR 61 for the past four years.
The Bora AR has a unique, pivoting hipbelt that swivels as your hips rotate with every step (like other hipbelts), but also slides a couple inches up and down. That vertical play keeps the load centered on your back when you reach overhead or high step. The continuous load transfer, paired with the packbag’s narrow profile, serves the Bora AR well on backpacking trips, but also activities where you move a little bit more awkwardly or unpredictably because the load stays tight and compact and out of the way.
Durability and protection also favor the Bora AR, which is waterproof without a rain cover. It’s made from extremely rugged 420- and 630-denier nylon and covered with waterproofing in more exposed areas. Our editor, whose Bora AR has housed crampons and carried skis and axes, says her pack is no worse from the wear after four years of adventuring. Note: This pack has a front zippered pouch and a top lid compartment, plus a couple of stuff-it pockets. If you need more organization, look elsewhere. Buy here.
Best Backpack for Ultralight Trips
- Versions: S (15–17 in. torso; 2 lbs. 2 oz.), M (17–19 in. torso; 2 lbs. 3 oz.) L (19–21 in. torso; 2 lbs. 4 oz.)
- Volume: 55 liters
- Price: $355–$375
If you’re in the business of counting ounces, the featherlight Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest should help you make your desired weight. The majority of its weight savings come in its barely-there suspension system (two aluminum stays transfer weight to a simple hipbelt) and Dyneema® composite fabric. The space-age material is super strong for the weight (hence the steeper price of this pack) and inherently waterproof, so you don’t need a cover.
The 3400 Southwest obviously isn’t rife with features, but it has enough for longer-haul trips. Keep your overnight stuff in the main packbag (called “the black hole” by one happy tester who stuffed 10 days’ worth of gear in its maw), then arrange accessories and gear you want while hiking in its three front stuff-it pouches. The pack has two waterproof, zippered hipbelt pockets, too—a welcome addition at this weight. An assemblage of compression straps let you squeeze the pack down for shorter trips or lash on extras like camp shoes or wet gear. Buy here.
Best Value Backpack
- Versions: Women’s: XS (15–17 in. torso; 4 lbs. 2 oz.), XS Torso with M Hipbelt (15–17 in. torso; 4 lbs. 3 oz.), S (16–18 in. torso; 4 lbs. 3 oz.), M (17–19 in. torso; 4 lbs. 4 oz.); Men’s: S (17–19 in. torso; 4 lbs. 3 oz.), M (18–20 in. torso; 4 lbs. 4 oz.), L (19–21 in. torso; 4 lbs. 5 oz.), L Torso with XS Hipbelt (19–21 in. torso; 4 lbs. 4 oz.)
- Price: $229
The bigger a pack, the more burly a pack, the more features a pack has—the more expensive the pack is. That might as well be Backpacks 101, which we touch on below in our Buying Advice section. But then there’s the newly redesigned REI Co-op Traverse 60, a unicorn in its right. It’s big, it’s burly, it’s feature-rich—and it’s one of the least expensive options at this weekend-friendly, 60-liter volume available at REI.
The hoop-style stay curves around the perimeter of the pack’s back panel like a horseshoe, concentrating the load onto your lumbar and center of gravity. The wide, padded hipbelt hugs the wearer securely, keeping that weight off the shoulders. It’s a recipe that makes loads of 40 pounds or so totally manageable.
As for features, the Traverse 60 has plenty. The generous packbag fits three days’ worth of overnight gear, while approximately one million outside pockets allow for all sorts of organization configurations and keep things handy. Nice touch: The pack is made with recycled, bluesign®-approved ripstop nylon, so you can feel good about buying it. Buy here.
When shopping for a backpacking pack, there are three primary considerations: volume (or capacity), features and fit.
Most packs list their claimed capacities in their name: The Gregory Maven 45, for instance, carries 45 liters of stuff. You want a pack that’s as small as your desired backpacking trips will allow. Too-big packs will add weight and bulk, which can make your hike uncomfortable. As with all things “backpacking,” remember the old thru-hiker adage: Ounces make pounds, and pounds make pain.
1-3 Days: In general, assume that for one to three nights out, you can get away with a smaller pack in the ballpark of 30 to 50 liters. Packs in this range can easily hold essentials like a sleep system, a change of clothes, some layers and food and water for a few days. It requires some discipline to fit your gear in a pack this small, but that can also be a good insurance policy against overpacking.
3-5 Days: For multiday trips (or shorter trips where you intentionally want to pack a little more luxuriously), aim for something in the range of 50 to 80 liters. This gives you a bit more wiggle room (literally) and is the most versatile option.
5+ Days: For gonzo epics, you need at least 70 liters or more. These packs not only fit the most gear, but tend to have the most robust suspension systems, which are designed for 50-plus-pound loads.
The only pack in this guide that falls in this category is the MYSTERY RANCH Glacier.
There are too many pack features to go over in this guide than you have choices for, but it tends to come down to organizational preferences (read: pockets and access) and, for lack of a better term, random stuff.
Regarding organization, you can consider things like whether you load the backpack from the top or side, whether you can access the outside pockets while wearing the pack, whether you can attach extra gear to the outside if it won’t fit inside, whether the pockets zip shut or are stuff-its—the list is truly endless.
As for random features, consider things like: Do I drink from a water bottle or hydration bladder? Is there space for a reservoir? Do I want the ability to adjust the back panel to fit another hiker in my family? Do I want loops for trekking poles or an ice axe?
Most packs come in multiple versions and sizes to accommodate different bodies, so it’s important to know your torso length and hip circumference. Learn how to measure both in our How to Size and Fit a Backpack article.
We polled Expert Advice staffers and backpack sales leads across the co-op for their favorite backpacks for everything from overnight adventures to multiday epics. These are their top choices.
Article by Maren Horjus. Maren Horjus is the at-large gear editor for REI’s Co-op Journal, Expert Advice and Uncommon Path, presently chasing powder and a humidity-free lifestyle in Boulder, Colorado. She worked as an editor at Backpacker magazine for six years and wrote some books before joining the squad. She thinks winter camping is underrated. REI member since 2012.