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Time-Tested Gear: Backpacks

You can't be a backpacker...without a backpack.



Tried and True

Kelty Trekker 3900 Backpack

Stand up and walk like a human. That’s the promise of Kelty’s original external-frame design, which enables hikers to carry big loads without leaning forward, as most internal frames encourage. In 1979, our testers took Kelty’s Tioga for a trial in New York’s Catskills, and reported they could stand perfectly straight without the harness causing pinching or tugging.

Nevertheless, internal-frame packs started dominating in the mid-1980s, as they delivered better stability for scrambling, climbing, and skiing; they’re also easier to check when you’re flying. But for no-nonsense trail packing, the external still delivers. One tester took the latest iteration, the Trekker, up a Colorado Fourteener, and says, “It was comfortable with a 35-pound load and the weight was evenly distributed.” And standing up straight, she reports, meant her back felt great at day’s end. $140; 5 lbs. 6 oz.;

Photo by Jen Lewon


Veteran Pick

Dana Design Direct Backpack

“It’s compact enough for weekends, but so sturdy I’ve carried it on two-week treks with 75 pounds aboard. In 10 years, including five summers of guiding weeklong treks and hikes on three continents, not so much as a piece of webbing ever broke. The packs have outlasted the company, but you can still find them on eBay ($150 at press time). Or get the 4,200-cubic-inch Trance XXX by Mystery Ranch ($350,, which shares some of the Direct’s DNA and is made by Dana Design founder Dana Gleason.” —Executive Editor Dennis Lewon (and tester since 1999)

From the Vault

Space age or spaced out? In January 1984, we called these packs “streamlined” and put them, inexplicably, on naked aliens hiking through the Milky Way. But there was true innovation that year: Marmot’s Makalu had the first single-stay/ framesheet design.


Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame

Of the 28 packs that have earned our highest award over the past 13 years, Gregory’s Baltoro 70 (and women’s Deva 60) from 2008 reigns as one of our all-time favorites. The packbag is near perfect (with just the right balance between features and lightweight simplicity), but it’s the “miracle suspension system—with its auto-canting hipbelt and shoulder straps—that makes even a 50-pound load feel manageable,” says one tester. $290; 5 lbs. 9 oz.;

Field Notes

“While testing a pack along Vermont’s Long Trail, I quickly realized that the hipbelt wasn’t cutting it. The padding was too short to wrap around my iliac crest. I made do by placing soft items—a hat and neck gaiter—between the belt and my hips. This technique also works if you have an old pack with hard padding—and not enough in the budget to replace it.” —Kristin Hostetter, Gear Editor (and tester since 1994)

Expert Wisdom

1. Buying one do-it-all pack? Size up. Bring your gear to the store and look for a model that will handle your biggest trip, then make sure it has an effective compression system so you can shrink it down for overnights and big dayhikes, too.

2. Get the right torso length. Tall people can have short torsos (and vice versa), so measure your back (see how at and get a pack that fits.

3. Fine-tune load control. Learn to adjust hip, shoulder, and load-lifter straps to shift the weight up and down. Over the course of a long day, hips and shoulders will need some relief.

4. Line your pack with a trash compactor bag for cheap, effective waterproofing.

5. Pack your load symmetrically and with heavier items closer to your back for the best balance.

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