Criteria: 1,800-2,500 cubic inches; 3 lbs or less; $150 or less; hydration compatible Test Numbers: 44,100 total vertical feet ascended; 735 total pounds carried; 44 hours of rain and snow endured Ratings Scale: 5=Perfect, 1=Save your money (Overall rating is not an average of other scores.)
Sybarites, rejoice: If you like to pack serious poundage–a bottle of bubbly on the summit, anyone?–get the Z35 (or Jade 35, the women's version). "Even if you're carrying bricks, it'd be hard to overload this workhorse," reported a tester who toted it through Arizona's McDowell Mountains.
The suspension uses two tubular steel stays that flex like tent poles and reinforce a tensioned nylon framesheet; its curved shape supports 30 pounds and effectively distributes the weight to your hips. The well-padded hipbelt proved sufficiently cushioned under maxed-out loads, and it never sagged. "While hopping boulders during a steep descent, I noticed no slippage thanks to the sticky lumbar pad," reported one hiker.
The trampoline-style mesh backpanel allows superior ventilation. The top-loader has excellent organizational features: A zippered pouch stashes flat items like gloves or a journal; a U-shaped zipper provides access to the main compartment; two small hipbelt pockets hold snacks (cameras don't fit); two shock-cord attachments hold trekking poles; and webbing loops on the bottom make it easy to lash on a sleeping pad. But the Z35 isn't light, and capacity is cut when you load the pack with a full hydration bladder.