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.
Size: 4,200 cu. in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 9 oz.
Size:4,000 cu. in.
Weight: 4 lbs. 8 oz.
Contact: (970) 564-5900; www.ospreypacks.com