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.)
If you consider 10 miles a good warmup, get the Exos. It's made for hikers who want to travel light, fast, and far. The pack weighs less than a bottle of water, yet comfortably hauls enough gear for monster-day summit bids. "I stuffed it to capacity and hiked all day without feeling any hot spots on my shoulders or hips," said one hiker after carrying 22 pounds on New Hampshire's Mt. Cardigan.
The key to comfort? Curved aluminum rods reinforce a tensioned nylon framesheet–an ounce-shaving innovation that distributes the payload to the hips and helps the pack ride like it's glued in place. A mesh backpanel and hipbelt reduce weight further and enhance ventilation, and the shoulder straps (made of mesh-covered perforated foam) are similarly airy.
But packbag fabrics aren't flimsy; the Cordura bottom still looked new after we repeatedly dropped the Exos onto the ground. The top-loader has a huge floating lid and a stretchy stuff-it pouch, plus fast-access hip pockets and a shoulder strap pocket for a GPS unit or phone. Mesh side pouches hold a water bottle or tent poles, and elastic cords on the shoulder strap let testers secure trekking poles on the go (pole tips tuck into a loop on the pack's side).
Gripes: The ultraskinny compression straps place a lot of tension on just a few stitches; they didn't fail during testing but could be a weak point during prolonged wear and tear. The cavernous lid doesn't compress, so gear stashed there tended to shift when the pack was sparsely loaded. And the wispy hipbelt and shoulder straps can chafe when worn over the thinnest fabrics.