This workhorse is our top pick for all-around performance.
We were hard-pressed to find anything the M.U.L.E. couldn't do after taking it on trail runs, hikes, and mountain-bike rides. The M.U.L.E. (the L.U.X.E is the women's version) boasts the best organization of the packs here—including a tunes pocket with water-resistant zipper—and the capacity to handle a light-load dayhike (10—15 pounds). While it's the priciest of the four, it comes with a 100-ounce reservoir that's tougher than any we've tested. $85; 549 cu. in.; one size; 1 lb. 9 oz. (800) 767-8725; camelbak.com.
Choose this ultralight for long dayhikes or short adventure races.
The Rush carries 15—20 pounds comfortably, yet weighs less than many packs with half its capacity. Stability was excellent even during mountain-bike rides, thanks to a wide webbing waistbelt and shoulder straps that wrap cleanly and distribute weight evenly. The huge waistbelt pockets—they'll hold a few bars or a small camera—and accessible side pockets kept numerous items within easy reach. $70; 1,100 cu. in.; two men's and women's sizes; 1 lb. 5 oz. (888) 546-5483; golite.com.
Mountain Hardwear Riff
In a hurry? Get rock-solid stability and easy access.
At barely north of a pound, with compression straps to squash it practically flat against your back, the Riff was almost unnoticeable on trail runs. But it swallowed two light layers, two liters of water, and snacks for side hikes during a float trip down the Green River. The Riff also proved the most stable pack tested, and the shaped shoulder straps and padded back panel scored high marks on comfort even with 10 pounds on board. The Nalgene-size mesh side pockets are more useful than the shallower pockets usually found on small packs. $65; 900 cu. in.; one size; 1 lb. 1 oz. (800) 953-8375; mountainhardwear.com.
The North Face Gulper/Dusky
This compact pack includes a clever hydration system.
Eliminate that annoyingly bouncy hydration hose. A magnet on the sternum strap of the Gulper (Dusky is the women's version) holds the bite valve securely in place. The small, lightweight pack is ideal for trail runs and rides when you need only bars, water, and a shell. Perforated foam in the back panel and shoulder straps helps keep things cool. Bonus: The 70-ounce Nalgene reservoir (included) has a "quick connect hose" that makes it easy to refill the bladder without rethreading the hose. $75; 550 cu. in.; one size; 1 lb. 1 oz. (800) 447-2333; thenorthface.com.