Backpack Review: 4 Perfect Packs

Midsize internal-frame backpacks that do everything--and do it well

When it comes to reviewing new gear, we're more Great Santini than Dr. Phil: stingy with praise and quick to drop-kick poor performers. But this review produced a remarkably strong crop of contenders. Each of the packs that survived our 6-month test is so comfortable and well-made that our editor-in-chief says "picking a favorite was the hardest call I've made in 30-plus BACKPACKER field tests."

Our goal was to find the perfect workhorse pack for every situation from overnights and weekends to streamlined summer weeks. After selecting six models that met our criteria, we turned five testers loose--four men and one woman. More than 1,000 miles later, after being lugged on trails from Washington's Hoh River to New Hampshire's Kilkenny Ridge, four packs remained. All of our selections are versatile, yet each is distinctive enough to appeal to a specific type of user--so choosing your favorite shouldn't be too grueling.

Osprey Aether 70/Ariel 65

A custom fit, great load control, and a competitive price push this pack to the head of its class.

Our map editor nailed it: "This is the ideal pack for hikers who have trouble finding the perfect fit." Credit goes to Osprey's IsoForm hipbelt, which comes in multiple gender-specific sizes and is custom-fitted to buyers' hips in the showroom with a heat-molding process unique to Osprey and its dealers. Props also go to the gender-specific shoulder straps and a choice of two suspension sizes per model; the suspensions are adjustable so you can fine-tune torso length. All of this leads to best-in-class comfort and carrying control. How do we know? I hauled 40 pounds straight up 4,000 feet in Washington's Olympics without soreness; other testers hauled 45 pounds without the hipbelt slipping south.

Given this pack's durable construction (you'll own it for years) and 5-plus-day capacity, its weight remains impressively low; the men's Aether comes in just an ounce heavier than the women's Ariel. Other plum features include the waffled foam back panel (which allows continuous cooling) and versatile wraparound compression (great for external lashing and controlling small loads). Plus, the recessed head cavity allowed me to gawk without whapping my noggin as I climbed Mt. Olympus. For all the bells and whistles, the price is pretty sweet, too.

Aether 70

Price: $239

Size: 4,200 cu. in.

Weight: 4 lbs. 9 oz.

Ariel 65

Price:$229

Size:4,000 cu. in.

Weight: 4 lbs. 8 oz.

Contact: (970) 564-5900; www.ospreypacks.com

Granite Gear Nimbus Access FZ 3800

Get all-terrain stability with this pack's best-in-class compression.

Imagine a baby koala hugging your back. Okay, too cute. But this pack is so snug and stable it'll feel like a small marsupial on your shoulders, even when you're scrambling uphill and off-trail. It starts with external, internal, and top compression straps that take the bounce out of any load. Then add a unique hipbelt/framesheet combo that enhances load control and comfort. The hipbelt is soft and conforming inside, but has a removable plastic exoskeleton for stiffness and support. The plastic framesheet uses variable rigidity to match the varying demands on your torso: it's flexible in the lumbar area to absorb shock and improve mobility, and stiff behind your shoulders for load transfer. The result: The FZ manhandled 45 pounds in our trials.

Like the Gregory, this pack uses foam lined with a wicking fabric that's soft enough for shirtless hiking. Its most distinctive feature, though, is a double-zipper front panel that lets you grab anything inside without undoing the internal compression; the panel's stretchy fabric also forgives overpackers. Durability is excellent--bushwhacking in New Hampshire's White Mountains inflicted no harm--yet weight is competitive. Two torso sizes and customizable men's and women's hipbelts and shoulder straps produced a comfortable fit on all five testers. Adjusting the shoulder straps requires a screwdriver, but once they're set, they never need further modification. If this pack has a downside, it's the smallish capacity.

Price:$270

Size:3,800 cu. in.

Weight:4 lbs. 12 oz.

Contact:(218) 834-6157; www.granitegear.com

Gregory Baltoro/Deva 60

If heavy loads loom in your future, or you want the perfect hipbelt, look no further than this sturdy pair.

Ultralight may be all the rage, but these two packs reach out to all of you kitchen-sink backpackers who are still hefting creature comforts every weekend. First, you get this field's best hipbelt, with a wrap that's noticeably superior the moment you click the belt buckle. You also get soft padding that holds its shape, a plastic exoskeleton for load transfer, and independent pivot points on each hip to permit a more natural walking motion. Throw in ergonomically curved shoulder straps, bounteous back padding, and a single-stay framesheet, and you've got a pack that hauls 50 pounds with shocking comfort and stability. One tester, after an off-trail hike in Colorado's Indian Peaks, voiced our consensus: "The suspension makes your load feel 10 pounds lighter."

With four men's and three women's sizes between the two models, fit is pretty much guaranteed. And since you're packing luxuries, Gregory has rolled out almost too many storage features: five pockets (including a bellow front pocket), front-panel access, excellent compression/lashing straps, and a removable lid pocket that's roomier than most (the Deva's doubles as a fanny pack). Lastly, both are the toughest packs reviewed here; the waterproof bottoms are duffel-worthy. Overbuilt for small loads, they're best for folks who haul 35-plus pounds.

Baltoro

Price: $269

Size: 4,300 cu. in.

Weight: 6 lbs. 2 oz.

Deva 60

Price: $249

Size: 3,700 cu. in.

Weight: 5 lbs. 3 oz. (S)

Contact: (800) 477-3420; www.gregorypacks.com

GoLite Perspective

This streamlined go-getter smartly combines our favorite ultralight and traditional pack features.

The Perspective surprised us. It's up to 3 pounds lighter than the other packs in the test, but its suspension handled nearly as much weight--35-plus pounds--in workouts ranging from 16-hour Adirondack days to off-trail scrambles in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness. The secret? A bare-bones suspension consisting of a curved plastic framesheet (easily removable for more ounce-shaving) and a wide, thinly padded hipbelt whose waiflike thickness belies its strength. Spacer mesh foam in the back and shoulder harness kept us cool all day.

The pack has more features than many ultralights, including decent compression (it cinches down to daypack size), a removable lid pocket, overlapping front compartments, and easy-to-reach side mesh pockets. On the downside, it didn't swallow as much gear--despite its stated capacity--as the Osprey and Gregory packs did, and its pocket layout isn't as useful. Three of five testers got a satisfactory fit from the unisex sizes, but the suspension doesn't adjust, so fine-tuning is out. It's also the only contender whose durability concerned us: Rough slickrock and Adirondack bushwhacking tore holes in the lightweight fabric, one zipper pull blew out, and the mesh pockets are vulnerable. It's best for trail hiking with 25 to 35 pounds when your priority is minimizing weight.

Price: $200

Size: 4,450 cu. in.

Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz.

Contact: (888) 546-5483; www.golite.com