Warning: We Test On Humans
We go to great lengths to find the best new backpacks of the season because we know where they're going to take you. 164 testers, thousands of backcountry miles, and countless testing hours later, here are the 18 packs that stood up to every challenge we threw at 'em.
Pack smart. To achieve the best balance and load transfer, place heavy, dense items like water, fuel, and food close to your spine and centered in the pack.
Know your torso length. Pack sizing depends on the length of your spine (not your height). Learn how to measure yours here.
Be realistic. Don’t buy a pack bigger than you actually need “just in case.” You’ll end up filling it with unnecessary stuff, increasing weight.
Check side pockets. When pack shopping, bring your favorite water bottle. Does it fit? Can you reach it without help? Bend over. Does it stay put?
Readjust on the trail. Fit your pack at home but refine it as you hike. Experiment with hipbelt, shoulder, and load lifter straps to find your comfort zone as weight settles and terrain changes.
Trending: Smart Pockets
Living out of a backpack for days on end has challenges. One is staying organized and keeping your valuable stuff protected from the elements. The current boom in gadgets has sparked designers to rethink organizing and protecting gear.
“The consumer wants pockets that are item-specific— tablet, laptop, smartphone, goggle pouch—in a pack that still has a streamlined, simplified look,” says Jayson Yagi, JanSport Senior Product Developer.
Look for external pockets for electronics and technical tools, like the detachable iPhone/ camera sleeve on the Kelty Capture 25. Inside pockets provide better solutions for storing sharp or delicate items like crampons and cameras (case in point: the Salomon S-Lab X Alp 20 and The North Face Cobra). The Thule Guidepost 65 sports a waterproof front pouch that fits an iPad; Gregory’s Baltoro has a seam sealed, waterproof hipbelt pocket.
“These purpose designed compartments allow you to keep your electronics close at hand on the trail but not worry about rain showers or setting your pack down in mud or dust,” says John Sears, Director of Product Development at Gregory.
Trending: Custom Fit
Packs, like shoes, require proper fit. But several factors can get between you and the right size. First, most packs have traditionally been small, medium, and large (at best), and you may fall somewhere in between. And even when pack companies make multiple components (hip belts and shoulder straps), stores might lack stocking space or trained employees to fit them. The solution: built-in adjustability. More companies are incorporating hipbelt, torso-length, and yoke-width adjustability directly into packs, so people can get a decent fit in the store, then dial it in at home or on the trail. Plus, companies are discovering lighter, less obtrusive ways to enable customization.
“We incorporated a ratcheting technique from our bike carriers,” says Graham Jackson, Thule’s technical pack general manager. “It’s easy, durable, and offers torso adjustment while the pack is loaded and on the back.”
The downsides to adjustability? Moving parts can reduce stability and introduce weak points, and the extreme ends of the range can be awkward for smaller hikers. As always, load it up and try it out.