JanSport Big Bear 63
When the price for a weekend pack drops toward a hundred bucks, we get skeptical. So out of the box we overloaded the Big Bear with 55 pounds of rope and water just to test the suspension system. "Comfortable and stable," wrote our tester. "It rides as well as more expensive packs of comparable weight." You need to custom bend the frame stays for a proper fit, but that's simple enough. Bonus points: The small elasticized wand pockets are easy to reach with the pack on, and secure enough for energy bars and sunglasses. Biggest downside: The capacity is oddly overstated by about 1,000 cubic inches, making it best for small-load treks. Minor downside: The packbag lacks sleeping pad straps. $115; 3,600 cu. in.; 3 lbs. 4 oz.
Kelty Sector 46
This pack balances weight, features, and carrying ability in a smartly designed package that's great for trail hiking. Torso adjustment is easy and nearly instant, thanks to a harness yoke that slides up and down. But the system also causes some load wobble, making the Sector best for trails, not tricky terrain. Our tester praised the packbag details: "Digging out raingear was simple because of the big, U-shaped front zipper." It also has twin hipbelt pockets for sunblock and blister kits, as well as dual top lids (one is adjustable and removable, while a second, simpler lid deploys for lighter weight and smaller loads). Ultralighters can easily carry three to five days of supplies. $170; 2,800 cu. in.; 3 lbs. 9 oz.
Lafuma X Light 50+5
We all sit on our packs from time to time. Now you can do it without worrying about bursting your hydration bladder or crushing a camera. Lafuma has equipped this ultralight top-loader with a self-inflating sit pad that doubles as a backpanel. You can customize its inflation for added support, stability, and padding while carrying a load, then pull it out for trailside breaks. Sounds like a gimmick, so we overloaded the X Light with 50 pounds on principle, and found it carried comfortably, especially on the back and shoulders. "It has so-so load transfer to the hipbelt," said our tester, "but stability is superb, as is freedom of motion." The hipbelt and shove-it pockets, extendable top lid, waterproof zippers, and tough wire zipper pulls are all well-designed. Downsides: You have to wrestle the inflation tube loose, and the wand pockets are too shallow. $190; 3,350 cu. in.; 3 lbs. 4 oz.
Lowe Alpine Crossvent Centro 45+10
This versatile pack is light enough for foul-weather dayhikes (which we did in Scotland) and sturdy enough for overloaded weekends (ditto, on Mt. Rainier). "It handled 35 pounds comfortably, with plenty of places to lash on more," noted our tester, who then crammed it with 50 pounds of food and gear for a climb up Rainier's Emmons Glacier. On that trip, even with crampons stuffed in the front pocket, the pack suffered no rips or tears (though he did wish for slightly more internal capacity for such gear-intensive trips). The backpanel has separate pads to ventilate both across the back and vertically. Bonus features include a U-shaped front panel zip access and a large front shove-it pouch, liter-size side pockets, and a built-in rain cover. Oddity: The top pocket doesn't extend, but the pack collar does. $170; 3,300 cu. in.; 3 lbs.
Marmot Alpinist 55
This climber's rucksack is simple, stable, and has abundant attachment points. "It's plenty comfortable with 50 pounds if you load it right," noted one tester after scrambling on the Super Tour in Utah's Wasatch Range. But the comfort comes from ample shoulder strap padding, not load transfer to the hipbelt, since that would interfere with high-stepping and freedom of motion. The stripped-down frame is a molded foam backpanel augmented by a removable foam bivy pad (folded into thirds). The spindrift collar and extendable top lid make it easy to stack this pack high for overloaded approaches. A huge, pleated crampon/clothing pocket on the front keeps contents dry in rain. All straps are quick-release and extra-long, and the ends are captured so they don't slap in wind. Strip the lid, hipbelt, and backpad for summit dashes. $199; 3,400 cu. in.; 3 lbs. 2 oz.
Mountain Hardwear Diretissima
This utilitarian alpinist pack is a perfect companion on peakbagger weekends. Schlep a big load to basecamp, then strip the lid, hipbelt, and backpanel for summit bids. The large packbag swallows a surprising amount of gear–and on the outside you get quick-release compression straps, ski slots, ice axe loops, and a heavily reinforced front panel so you can strap on sharp toys without worrying about shredded fabric. "It hugged my back and stayed put even on boulder hops," said one tester after a heavily laden trek through Colorado's Elk Range. Smart: A separate zip compartment for hydration bladders lets you refill even with a full pack. Note: Get the same performance in a bigger version with the South Col, which impressed testers on Rainier and Whitney. $190; 3,200 cu. in.; 4 lbs. 4 oz.
Osprey Stratos 40
This overachiever is amazingly versatile for a sub-3-pound pack. On desert treks, it'll haul 6 liters sip-ready and in winter it'll carry either skis or snowshoes. "It's super stable, even when stuffed to capacity with 45 pounds of food, gear, and water," said one tester after a three-day trek in Capitol Reef National Park. Credit goes to the air-cooled trampoline-style backpanel, perfect-wrapping hipbelt, and judiciously padded shoulder straps. Two easy-access hipbelt pockets are big enough for three full-sized energy bars apiece. Minor complaints: The top lid's not adjustable, and routing hydration tubes from the inside pocket is a pain. $149; 2,400 cu. in.; 2 lbs. 14 oz.