The Best Backpacking Backpacks for 2019

We researched the best backpacking backpacks and aggregated that data. Here's our findings.

To identify the best backpacking backpacks, we researched and analyzed dozens of backpacking backpacks, interviewed backpackers ranging from weekend warriors to world-class long distance hikers, and relied on our own experience to identify the best backpacks for most people. After testing packs for hundreds or even thousands of miles, we developed criteria to whittle the list of 17 contenders down to the top seven backpacks specific to most people’s needs.

Your backpack is arguably your single most important piece of outdoor gear.  It is no longer necessary or preferable to carry a 5-7 pound backpack. In contrast to the heavy and painful burdens of old, our advice will help you choose a modern backpack that feels like an extension of your body. Small, innovative backpack manufacturers have revolutionized the outdoor industry.  In fact, there are a number of great packs with enough carrying capacity for multi-day adventures that weigh around two pounds. We recommend the seven best backpacks that will serve you on your backpacking adventures.

 

The Mariposa on the Sierra High Route with a hydration system in the right water bottle pocket and rain gear (yellow) in the mesh pocket.   Photo by Liz Thomas

The Mariposa on the Sierra High Route with a hydration system in the right water bottle pocket and rain gear (yellow) in the mesh pocket. Photo by Liz Thomas

The Best Backpacking Backpack for Most People


Gossamer Gear Mariposa


We think that the Gossamer Gear Mariposa is the best overall backpack for most backpackers. Although the Mariposa may qualify as an ultralight pack, we believe that it is the best pack for backpackers transitioning from a tradition 5+ pound pack. It offers backpackers all the utility, comfort, volume, and durability of a heavier, traditional pack. It’s intuitive, easy-to-use design and extra padding tipped it ahead of other backpacks in its weight class. We think it is the best choice for most people looking to lighten up their backpacking system.


Outdoor Gear Lab, when reviewing ultralight packs, rated it the #1 pack (of 20) for comfort, durability, and features. The Gossamer Gear Mariposa has long been a favorite of long distance hikers. The annual PCT survey reports that it has been one of the top five most popular packs for Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers for the last three years, with a greater than 90% satisfaction rate. It’s the top rated ultralight pack on Switchback Travel and Greenbelly. Section Hiker ranks the Mariposa as one of the top ultralight backpacks.


Professional and customer reviewers find that despite its two pound weight, its frame and hip belt are comfortable enought to carry up to 35 pounds. The Mariposa has 60 liters of capacity, more than enough volume for multi-day adventures. Backpackers especially liked that it has large, easy-to-access pockets, free of common failure points like zippers or pull-ties.


The Mariposa is secure and balanced for when you travel on uneven ground.  Photo by Liz Thomas

The Mariposa is secure and balanced for when you travel on uneven ground. Photo by Liz Thomas

Fit & Suspension


The Mariposa is a unisex pack that comes in three torso sizes and three hip belt sizes to accommodate a variety of body sizes.

Its suspension system is designed to carry up to 35 pound loads. The following are the key elements of the Mariposa’s fit and suspension system:


Hip Belt

The hip belt is wider than most lightweight packs, and well-cushioned for a snug and secure fit. The hip belt is sized separately (and sold separately) from the pack in order to customize the fit.


Frame

The Mariposa integrates the frame stay into the hip belt to improve weight transfer to your hips. The pack also comes with a removable sit pad to provide a cushion for your back with the ability to upgrade to an Air Flow pad or replace your sitpad should you accidentally sit somewhere you wish you hadn’t.


Shoulder Straps

The unisex shoulder straps are wider and more comfortable than most of the packs we considered--3” wide and extremely cushioned. Unlike many two pound packs, it has integrated load lifters to customize fit, as well as a sternum strap. We further discuss how to fine tune your fit in our story on How to Choose Backpacks.


The hip belt comes in three sizes as well and is sold separately. We believe that nearly everyone who uses the Mariposa will want a hip belt. Many ultralight hikers forgo a hip belt, but these are folks who typically use frameless packs (discussed below) and carry loads under 20 pounds.


A favorite feature of the Mariposa is the left side pocket (visible in this photo). It can fit a two-person tent or other items you may want to store on the outside of your pack.   Photo by Liz Thomas .

A favorite feature of the Mariposa is the left side pocket (visible in this photo). It can fit a two-person tent or other items you may want to store on the outside of your pack. Photo by Liz Thomas.

 

Features

The following features distinguish the Mariposa vs. the other backpacks we considered.


Removable sit pad

This is part of the pack’s frame we mention above. We note it again because we really like this dual use item and it’s a feature not found in any of the other packs we considered. The sit pad is easy to take out and put back into the frame. This makes it convenient to take out to sit on during breaks and to bolster your sleeping pad at night. The Mariposa comes with a sit pad or you can upgrade to the Air Flow sit pad.


Large Front Mesh Pocket

Gossamer Gear’s mesh is considered among the stretchiest in the pack industry, which is useful when you need to temporarily accommodate a lot of gear on the outside of your backpack, such as when packing a wet tent. This pocket is convenient for storing wet gear separate from your dry items. A good mesh front pocket is essential for items you want to access without opening your backpack, like rain gear or lunch.


Side Pockets

Unlike any other pack we considered, the Mariposa has three side pockets. On the right side is a water bottle pocket, big enough for two 1 liter bottles. Above the water bottle pocket is a 8” wide x 10” tall pocket, where some people keep their cookware or other items that are voluminous but lightweight. On the left side is a 8” wide x 16” tall pocket that would be great for a small tent (we were able to fit a Zpacks Duplex tent without its stuff sack into this pocket).

There is elastic along the top of all the pockets to secure them; however, we would have prefered a cinch to better secure the pockets. Another minor criticism is that there is not a great place to hold a full size umbrella (popular with many hikers for sun and rain protection). The umbrella will fit in the large side pocket, but there is no side compression strap or cord to secure items that stick out above the pocket.


Hip Belt Pockets

Two large pockets are integrated into the hip belt. These pockets are larger than the other lightweight packs we considered--something we consider a bonus for folks who like to have their phone/GPS, camera, snacks, and/or maps within hands’ reach.


Over The Top Closer System

The Mariposa's top closure system securely covers the pack’s main compartment and has a zippered pocket. The zippered pocket on top makes it easy to access items like a first-aid kit, where you always want to know where it is, but also want it out of the way most of the time.


Trekking Pole and Ice Axe Attachment Loops

Your trekking poles and ice axe can be securely attached to the front of the pack. (Read our trekking pole guide here).


Hydration Sleeve

There are loops to secure the drinking tube to either shoulder strap.


Adaptability

The hip belt, frame, and sit pad (back support) can be easily removed converting the pack into frameless pack weighing close to one pound. This is weight-wise on par with our frameless pack pick, the Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet.


The Mariposa has trekking pole and ice axe attachment loops on the bottom. The stretchy mesh can fit many items you may want to easily access throughout the day, like snacks.   Photo by Liz Thomas

The Mariposa has trekking pole and ice axe attachment loops on the bottom. The stretchy mesh can fit many items you may want to easily access throughout the day, like snacks. Photo by Liz Thomas

 

Some folks prefer the trade off of a heavier pack for a more substantial suspension system and padding. The Osprey Exos / Eja 58 is a good option for these folks. The Exos is the men’s version and the Eja is the women’s version of the same pack. The Exos/Eja 58 has 58 liters of capacity and weighs a bit more than one-half pound than the Mariposa. The Exos/Eja has a 40 pound load rating (the Mariposa has a load rating of 35 pounds, but is most comfortable at 30 pounds or less).


The Osprey Exos / Eja has an alloy frame, breathable mesh back frame, well padded hip belt and shoulder straps. Andrew Skurka in his review of the Exos found it to be one of the most comfortable packs he has used, as long as the total carried weight is kept under 40 pounds.


The Osprey Exos / Eja 58 is a worthy competitor for our top pick, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, but there are a few things that kept the Exos/Eja from being out top pick (besides being more than one-half pound heavier):

  • The are no hip belt pockets. We consider hipbelt pockets an essential pack feature. If you want hip belt pockets you can buy clip-on attachment pockets from another manufacturer like Gossamer Gear.


  • The front mesh is smaller and less usable than the front mesh pocket on the Mariposa.


  • The side pockets are big enough for tent poles or other longer items, but they are not well designed for easy access to a water bottle while on the move. While it’s possible with the Exos, it requires some practice and skill. We dismissed the Exos / Eja because hydration is important for backpackers and easy access to water is essential to ensure you will drink enough.


The dual side pockets on the Gossamer Gear Mariposa.   Photo courtesy Roger Carpenter.

The dual side pockets on the Gossamer Gear Mariposa. Photo courtesy Roger Carpenter.

 

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa is the best backpack for most backpackers because of its balance of weight, features, and comfort. It’s mix of utility and intuitive design mean you can spend more time backpacking and less time worrying about your pack.


Gossamer Gear Mariposa

 

The Katabatic Liteskin in Jasper National Park on the Great Divide Trail. Note how the shock cord along the side secures the umbrella. The water bottle pocket on the right is holding a Smartwater Bottle with a Sawyer water filter on top. The strap on top holds down an foam sit pad.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The Katabatic Liteskin in Jasper National Park on the Great Divide Trail. Note how the shock cord along the side secures the umbrella. The water bottle pocket on the right is holding a Smartwater Bottle with a Sawyer water filter on top. The strap on top holds down an foam sit pad. Photo by Mike Unger.

The Best Backpacking Backpack - Upgrade Pick

Katabatic LiteSkin® Onni 65


The Katabatic LiteSkin® Onni 65 is our upgrade backpack because of its comfort, quality, and durability. The Katabatic Gear’s Onni line of backpacks is notable for simplicity and comfort carrying heavy loads. We like that the LiteSkin® fabric version of the Onni because it has a generous 68 liters of capacity, a comfortable and supportive frame that can handle 35 pounds, and that it weighs under two pounds. It’s more expensive our main pick, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, so best suited for backpackers who are willing to spend more for water resistant fabric who prefer a simpler, sleeker design. (Note: despite being water resistant, we strongly recommend you use additional methods to protect your gear. See our section on how to keep your gear dry.)


Katabatic Gear is a small, Colorado-based outdoor gear manufacturer best known for high quality backpacking quilts. We found that their Onni backpacks have the same quality and attention to detail that make it worth paying a premium for their gear.


While the Onni is available in three kinds of fabric, we recommend the version made of LiteSkin® for its balance of durability, lightness, water resistance. LiteSkin® is a rugged sailcloth that is abrasion resistant and waterproof to 160psi, about the same as a fly on a three-season tent (more on how waterproofing is measured here). Katabatic Gear is one of the first backpack manufacturers to use LiteSkin® as a pack material. Because LiteSkin® is a new material for backpacks, and there are few reviews available. We spoke with the owners of Katabatic Gear about the fabric. Co-owner Aaron Martray said it’s their most popular backpack fabric because it offers a great balance of weight and performance. We expect to see this fabric used more by other manufacturers in the future.


Treeline co-founder Naomi Hudetz bought and owns the 50 liter version of the Katabatic LiteSkin® Onni. She used the pack on a Great Divide Trail thru hike. This 700 mile route involved rugged bushwhacks and many days of heavy rain and snow. She reports that the LiteSkin® Onni carried heavy loads extremely well. The pack showed no visible signs of wear and effectively resisted several hours of heavy snow and a week straight of rain. She did get two small punctures in the LiteSkin® fabric. But, these small punctures were easily repaired with a piece of Tenacious Tape. (Note: we consider Tenacious Tape an essential item to carry on every backcountry trip).


Katabatic Gear’s Onni line of ventilated frame packs are available in two volumes (51 and 68 liters) and three material types. All the packs have a 35 pound load rating. With six choices, it can be confusing to choose the best model for you. To make it easier to understand the differences in the Onni line, we created this table to summarize the specifications of each model.


A summary table of the Katabatic Onni packs.
 

Katabatic’s lightest Onni is constructed with a lightweight ripstop high-tenacity nylon similar to the fabric used by Gossamer Gear or ULA. This ripstop nylon is lighter than LiteSkin®, but it is not as durable or water resistant. The V40 version is made from a very heavy duty 420D Nylon with laminated 0.5 mil PET film.


I own the V40 version of Katabatic’s Onni backpack. I used the V40 Onni for 1,500 miles of hiking in the desert southwest, a 700 mile hike through the Canadian Rockies, and several hundred miles in the Pacific Northwest. I occasionally had 5-6 liter water carries with 6-7 days of food that exceeded the 35 load rating of the Onni. I found the pack remained comfortable under the heavy loads. I was also impressed by the Onni’s quality workmanship. The pack has no visible signs of wear after 2,500 rugged miles. I showed my Katabatic V40 Onni to an executive at a large, well regarded backpack manufacturer. His first comment was on the quality of the Onni’s stitching.


Based on Treeline Review’s writers’ and editors’ extensive experience with the V40 and LiteSkin® version of the Onni packs, we think that you can’t go wrong with whatever fabric you choose. We think the more durable V40 is a good option for folks who travel off-trail or who are rough on their gear. But we think the LiteSkin is the best upgrade choice because most backpackers stick to trails and the fabric weighs less. The LiteSkin® can still be a good choice for folks who have experience “babying” their ultralight gear and are willing to take care to prevent punctures and abrasion.


 
The Katabatic Liteskin Onni pack in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on the Great Divide Trail in the Canadian Rockies. It’s waterproof fabric serves as an extra layer of protection against rain. Most notably, it doesn’t absorb water like many other pack materials, so it keeps your pack lightweight and dry feeling at the end of the day.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The Katabatic Liteskin Onni pack in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on the Great Divide Trail in the Canadian Rockies. It’s waterproof fabric serves as an extra layer of protection against rain. Most notably, it doesn’t absorb water like many other pack materials, so it keeps your pack lightweight and dry feeling at the end of the day. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Fit & Suspension System

The Katabatic LiteSkin® Onni 65 is a unisex pack that comes in three torso sizes. The hip belt comes in a single size fitting waists 28” and up (the hip belt on the small size pack fits 26” and up).



Frame

There is ventilated back panel with a full framesheet and removable stay. I found that ventilated back panel kept my back relatively cool even in hot desert conditions with heavy loads. In our side-by-side comparison of the two packs, we believe Katabatic’s Onni line has a more substantial and supportive frame sheet than the Gossamer Gear Mariposa (our top overall pick). We think this may be one reason why the Onni is better at carrying heavier loads, even though both packs are listed as having a 35-pound load rating on their manufacturer website.


Hip Belt

The padded hip belt is integrated with the frame stay to transfer loads to your hips. You can customize your pack by adding integrated hip pockets similar to those found on the Gossamer Gear Mariposa (adding 2 ounces to the weight and costing an additional $25). The pockets are functional; however, we would have preferred slightly larger hip belt pockets.

Section Hiker in their review of the V40 version of the Onni 65 noted that the hip belt had a tendency to buckle under heavy loads. A reviewer on the Katabatic website described a similar problem. Neither Naomi Hudetz or I have experienced problems with the hip belt.

We raised the “buckling” issue with Aaron Martray, co-owner of Katabatic Gear. Aaron said that they were aware that some folks prefer a stiffer hip belt. Katabatic purposely kept the hip belt flexible to conform to and move with the body without restricting your movement or causing pressure points. Aaron noted that backpacks are like clothes or shoes: what works for one person may not work for someone else (see our How to Fit a Backpack section for more information on this). He strongly recommends that folks try out a pack in their house to determine whether it fits well before taking it in the backcountry.


Shoulder Straps

The ribbed foam shoulder straps with load lifters and a sternum strap proved effective and comfortable under load. Shoulder knots are a common problem for me if I carry too much weight with other packs. However, with the Onni, I never experienced shoulder pain or knots even when carrying loads above the recommended weight.


The Katabatic Liteskin pack has a suspension system and center of gravity that makes the pack ride comfortably when hiking.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The Katabatic Liteskin pack has a suspension system and center of gravity that makes the pack ride comfortably when hiking. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Features

Roll Top Enclosure

The large main compartment has a roll top enclosure. One of Katabatic’s innovations is to use small magnets to keep the two sides of the enclosure together. We think the magnets are an improvement over a Velcro enclosure some pack manufacturers (like Zpacks and Hyperlite Mountain Gear) use because Velcro has the annoying habit of sticking to things like clothes and plants.


Side Pockets

The pack has two large side pockets. Each pocket will hold two 1 liter water bottles plus some snacks. We were easily able to reach a water bottle while on the move. Unlike most of the side pockets on the Mariposa, the Onni’s pockets can be cinched tight to secure carried items.


Front Mesh Pocket

There is a huge (9 liter) front pocket. I found the mesh held up very well despite many bushwhacks through prickly brush. In Section Hiker’s review of the V40 version of the Onni, the author noted that the mesh on Katabatic packs is tougher than the mesh on the HMG Windrider packs. In our side-by-side comparison between the mesh on the Onni and the HMG, we agree with Section Hikers assessment. The mesh on my Onni has not ripped after 2,500 miles of rough use.


Compression Cords

There are compression cords on the sides of the pack. These cords are convenient for securing an umbrella, tent poles, or trekking poles (read our trekking pole guide here). The Mariposa lacks side compression cords which we consider a minor flaw.


Attachment Options

There are trekking pole and ice axe attachment loops on the front of the pack. In addition, there are removable gear tethers on the shoulder straps for a water bottle or gear pouch. We prefer the Mariposa's ice axe and trekking pole loops because there is a sturdy nylon loop for an ice axe and plastic loops for trekking pole tips. Katabatic uses a flimsier cord for an ice axe or trekking poles.


 
The Katabatic Onni Liteskin in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The Katabatic Onni Liteskin in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

For the Upgrade Pick, we considered the Hyperlite Mountain Gear (HMG) Southwest and the Zpacks Arc Blast, both made from Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), formally cuben fiber. We own all these packs. But of the three, the Katabatic Onni LiteSkin® is the best pack. The Onni has more volume and weighs several ounces less than the HMG. The Zpacks Arc Blast is about eight ounces lighter than the Katabatic; however, it is constructed with a lighter weight DCF material than the HMG packs (or the Mountain Laurel Design DCF packs, which we discuss in the frameless pack pick). We’ve found that Zpacks’ DCF fabric is not very durable. We also experienced significant internal fraying on the Zpacks Arc Blast. In addition, we and others have experienced issues with Zpack’s customer service the last couple of years.


Treeline co-founder Naomi Hudetz used the Katabatic LiteSkin® Onni 50 (the 51 liter version of this pack) on a 700-mile long thru-hike of Great Divide Trail across the Canadian Rockies. She hiked the same route two years ago at the same time of year carrying the Zpacks Arc Blast. Although she carried the same gear with the same weight on both thru-hikes, the Katabatic LiteSkin® was much more comfortable and durable than the Arc Blast.


One downside of the Katabatic backpack is that they sometimes have a wait period during early spring before backpacking season. Because they are a small company, your pack is often made to order. If you need your pack sooner than the wait period, we suggest the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest, which has similar volume, water resistant fabric, and a frame (although we don’t find it as comfortable because, among other reasons, it doesn’t have load lifter straps).


The Katabatic Onni is an upgrade pick for the backpacker that values lightweight and simplicity in pack design. The LiteSkin® Onni lacks some of the features of the Gossamer Gear Mariposa like a third side pocket, a removable sit pad, or hydration sleeve (although a hydration sleeve is an add-on option). It also costs more than the Mariposa. Nevertheless, the Onni is our Upgrade Pick because we appreciate the simplicity, comfort, quality, and the benefits provided by the lighter, water-resistant LiteSkin® fabric.


Katabatic Gear Liteskin Onni

 

The Granite Gear Crown2 60 is our budget pick. The side pocket holds a 1 liter water bottle and a full size hiking umbrella.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The Granite Gear Crown2 60 is our budget pick. The side pocket holds a 1 liter water bottle and a full size hiking umbrella. Photo by Mike Unger.

The Best Backpacking Backpack - Budget Pick

Granite Gear Crown2 60


Our budget pick, the Granite Gear Crown2 60, is an excellent backpack and at less than $200 (and often found on sale for $150), is a great value. The Crown2 has 60 liters of capacity, a 35 pound load rating, and weighs less than two and half pounds. Despite the light weight, it has many of the features found in a traditional five-pound backpack including a plastic internal frame, and well-padded shoulder straps. It also has many removable parts, so it has the versatility to become a lightweight frameless pack as you you can lighten your pack If you are interested in ditching the old five pound pack and trying a more lightweight approach to multi-day backpacking, this could be the perfect pack.


The Granite Gear Crown2 60 has a great reputation in the hiking community. It’s ranked in the top five most popular packs for Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers for the last three years. The pack also receives high marks in the Reddit hiking forums. It also has high ratings on Section Hiker, Switchback Travel, and Green Belly.


 
The generous mesh pocket on the Crown2 60 can be used to store items you need throughout the day without requiring you to open your backpack. The voluminous pack lid is removable.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The generous mesh pocket on the Crown2 60 can be used to store items you need throughout the day without requiring you to open your backpack. The voluminous pack lid is removable. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Fit & Suspension

Unlike many of the packs we considered, the Granite Gear Crown2 60 is available in men’s and women’s versions (see our gender specific section for more information). Each version comes in three torso sizes and has a one-size, adjustable hip belt. Below are details of pack’s fit and suspension system:

Frame

The Crown2 uses a molded plastic frame sheet that is integrated with the hip belt to transfer weight to your hips. The frame sheet can be removed to reduce the pack’s weight by six ounces. There is also a foam back panel that is molded to allow air flow to your back.


Hip Belt

The pack has a thickly padded hip belt with large zippered pockets. The single size hip belt is sized for 26” to 42” waists. The hip belt uses Granite Gear’s patent pending “Re-Fit” system to allow for precise sizing for different body types. Section Hiker in their review of the pack found that the adjustable hip fit comfortably and did not slip or buckle under loads that exceeded the Crown2’s recommended 35 pound load limit. We also found the hipbelt to be well-padded and appreciated the large zip pockets.


Shoulder Straps

The Crown2 has wide, thickly padded shoulder straps with load lifters and a sternum strap.


Features

Removable Pack Lid

The pack has a lid with a large zippered pocket. For those looking to reduce weight on their pack, the pack lid can be removed to reduce the pack’s weight by approximately two and a half ounces. There is a roll top main compartment opening with a buckle closure to secure the main compartment when the lid is removed.


Side Pockets

There are stretch woven pockets on each side of the pack. The pockets are deep enough to accommodate tall water bottles (like Smartwater bottles). Lower side compression straps can be used to further secure items in the side pockets.


Front Mesh Pocket

The Crown2 has a large stretchy mesh pocket in the front of the pack. The front pocket is big enough to accomodate a wet tent or spare clothes.


Suspension Straps

There are both front and side compression straps to allow you to more snugly carry less than full volume loads. While we think the all the straps clutter the pack, customer reviews note that they are convenient for for securing items such a Z-Lite Sol sleeping pad, snow shoes, or trekking poles (read our trekking poles guide here).


Hydration Sleeve

The pack has an internal sleeve for a hydration system. The hose port is location in the top center of the pack so that hose can be located on the right or left shoulder.


Adaptability

As we previously noted, the Granite Gear Crown2 60 has a removable lid (.16 LB) and frame sheet (.38 LB). The hip belt can also be removed (.41 LB). While we think most users will want to keep these items intact, the adaptability means that if/when you want a lighter weight frameless pack, you can modify your Crown2 instead of having to buy a new pack. The Crown2’s weight (regular torso size) can be reduced to less than a pound and a half, comparable to our frameless pack recommendations. You will probably want to use a hip belt if you are carrying more than 20 pounds.


Granite Gear Crown2 60

 

The ULA Catalyst has the capacity to carry a bigger volume than almost all the packs we recommend, which means it is well-suited for use on winter trips.   Photo by Eric Weeks.

The ULA Catalyst has the capacity to carry a bigger volume than almost all the packs we recommend, which means it is well-suited for use on winter trips. Photo by Eric Weeks.

The Best Backpacking Backpack - Volume Capacity

ULA Catalyst


Sometimes you need to carry a large load. Guides, troop leaders, or folks with children may have to carry extra food, first aid kits, or other people’s gears. The ULA Catalyst has 75 liters of capacity, a 40 pound load rating, but only weighs 3 pounds. The Catalyst was the most popular and highest rated backpack among the 2018 Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hiking class according to the annual survey of PCT hikers. It also receives positive reviews from Section Hiker and the All Outdoors Guide.


We liked the Catalyst because it is a lightweight pack that is actually designed to take bigger volumes and somewhat heavier loads. The ULA Catalyst is a full-featured pack designed for folks that want to haul fishing gear, extra camera equipment, or large food carries. We also think it’s a good choice for lightweight backpackers with kids who may want to carry some of their children’s gear. The Catalyst can fit a full size bear can vertically or horizontally. In contrast, our top backpack pick, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, can only fit a bear can vertically.



The following is a list of other pack features that we like on the Catalyst:

  • Internal frame with a twin stay framesheet designed to handle heavier loads

  • Contoured and padded hip belt and shoulder straps

  • Dual hip belt pockets

  • Adjustable side pockets to secure different sized water bottles (or other items you may want to keep on the outside)

  • Large front mesh pocket with front shock cord (this allows you to easily secure a foam sleeping pad on the outside)

  • Side and top compression straps

  • Hydration Sleeve to secure a hydration bladder inside your pack

  • Internal Stash Pocket to secure items you rarely will use but don’t want to lose, like your keys and wallet

  • Water bottle holsters

  • Handloops. These loops on the shoulder straps allow you to hang your hands. If you’re like me and hold trekking poles while hiking, they can be removed to save about one ounce of pack weight. (Read our trekking pole guide here)

 
The ULA Catalyst has a mesh pocket as well as suspension cord.   Note the slanted side pockets which make it easier to access water bottles.   Photo by Eric Weeks.

The ULA Catalyst has a mesh pocket as well as suspension cord. Note the slanted side pockets which make it easier to access water bottles. Photo by Eric Weeks.

 

ULA also offers a number options to customize your pack:


  • You can choose a “roll-up” closure for the top of the pack instead of the standard “cinch-top”

  • You can choose “J” or “S” curved shoulder straps. “S” curved straps are designed to go around instead of directly over one’s chest. According to ULA, “J” work best for men with average builds; “S” straps work best on almost all women and men with square shoulders and good posture. ULA encourages folks to contact them if you have fitting questions. They are able to customize shoulder straps.

  • There are nine pack colors to choose from. For a cost, ULA will even let you select a different color for every part of the pack (for and additional cost).

  • You can even have your name embroidered into the pack (this costs an extra $15).


Despite the Catalyst's ability to take larger volumes, it is rated to 40 pounds. This means it is well-suited if you are carrying your own gear plus large volume items that tend to not weigh much, like your kids’ sleeping bag. If you suspect that you’ll be carrying heavier items that also take up a large volume--like enough food to supply the whole scout troop for several days--you may want to consider our recommendation for best pack for heavy loads, the Osprey Aether/Ariel.


 

ULA Catalyst

 

The suspension of the Osprey pack is designed to carry heavy loads.   Photo by Mike Unger

The suspension of the Osprey pack is designed to carry heavy loads. Photo by Mike Unger

The Best Backpacking Backpack for Carrying Heavy Loads

Aether AG 85 and Ariel AG 75


Sometimes you need to carry a big and heavy load. Backcountry ski trips, mountaineering, basecamp adventures, or trips that require more than a week between resupplies are situations that may call for a backpack designed for heavier items. Some guided trips or instructional courses, like NOLS, require you to have a pack that can carry bigger loads. Trail crew workers and volunteers may need a larger pack to accommodate tools and many days out. The Osprey Aether AG 85 (men’s version) and Ariel AG 75 (women’s version) is a pack specifically designed for these situations.


Both the Osprey Aether AG 85 and Ariel AG 75 weigh over five pounds, but they are specifically designed to carry up to 60 pound loads. The Aether 85 has an 85 liter capacity (70 and 60 liter versions are also available). The Ariel 75 has 75 liters of capacity (65 and 55 liter versions are also available). All versions have a 60 pound load rating. For comparison, our top pick, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, has 60 liters of capacity, a 35 pound load rating, and only weighs about two pounds.


Fit/Suspension

The Gear Institute found that these packs perform best when heavily loaded. To accommodate heavy weights Osprey has developed a specialized fit and suspension system:


Hipbelt

The hipbelt can be heat molded for a more personalized fit. A mesh bridge between the pads pulls in the lumbar to support heavy loads.


Suspension System

The peripheral frame transfers the load to your hips.


Harness (Shoulder Straps)

Interchangeable sizes are available for a better fit.


Back Panel

Suspended mesh wraps the shoulders, back, and hips. Backcountry Skiing Canada, in their review of the Aether 85, found that the mesh and air channels in the back panel do a good job dissipating back heat (a real issue if you’re carrying 60+ pounds).


The Ariel (older model shown here) is made of an ultra-durable material that makes it suitable for checking in as luggage on international flights or train rides. This photo was taken on a cross-country train ride in Southern Africa.   Photo by Valerie Overley.

The Ariel (older model shown here) is made of an ultra-durable material that makes it suitable for checking in as luggage on international flights or train rides. This photo was taken on a cross-country train ride in Southern Africa. Photo by Valerie Overley.

Features

Removable top lid converts into a day pack Large front J-zip access to main compartment of the pack Large front mesh pocket Large hip and side pockets Separate lower compartment for a sleeping bag. The divider can be removed to combine the main and sleeping back compartments Front and side compression straps Dual ice axe loops Trekking pole attachment Removable sleeping pad straps


Folks who need to carry heavy loads really love the Osprey Aether AG 85 and Ariel AG 75 packs. The reviews on REI’s website are overwhelmingly positive -- 23 of 24 of the reviews are 5 star. Reviewers frequently praised the pack’s weight distribution and carrying comfort.


In our experience, the Aether and Ariel packs are very durable (they are, afterall, designed to carry 60 pounds). This means that they can work as checked-luggage on international flights---something we would not recommend for most of the other packs we considered.


Treeline Review co-founder Liz Thomas took this pack to climb Kilimanjaro and backpacking around Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. Like many packs of its weight class, you can sit on it, not worry about it while bushwhacking, and can even load it up on a crowded train. She says the advantage of this pack vs. other packs of similar weight is that it carries your load more comfortably.


We hope you don’t have to carry a 60 pound load, but if you do, the Osprey Aether AG 85 / Ariel AG 75 is a good choice.


Osprey Aether / Ariel

 

The MLD Prophet has straps to secure an umbrella and a generous mesh to store snacks and essential items on the outside of the pack.   Photo courtesy Liz Thomas.

The MLD Prophet has straps to secure an umbrella and a generous mesh to store snacks and essential items on the outside of the pack. Photo courtesy Liz Thomas.

 

Are You Ready for a Frameless Pack?

It depends on whether you can keep your overall carried weight under 25 pounds.  The Reddit ultralight forum is full of discussions about whether someone is ready to go “frameless.”  It almost always comes down to keeping your total carried weight below 25 pounds.  The Mountain Laurel Designs packs are well built enough to carry more weight, but it won’t be comfortable and over the long term and it will increase the wear on the pack.  


How you load your pack is more critical with frameless backpacks.  Cam “Swami” Honan, a longtime MLD Burn owner, recommends using your inflatable or foam sleeping pad as a framesheet. A little air in your inflatable sleeping pad will increase your cushion.  We provide recommendations on how to load your pack later in the article.

The MLD Prophet on the Appalachian Trail.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The MLD Prophet on the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Mike Unger.

The Best Backpacking Backpack - Frameless

Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet


Our writers and editors own multiple frameless packs and we think the Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Prophet is our favorite frameless pack. It weighs about a pound, is very well made, customizable, and has perfect volume for multi-day, lightweight adventures. Frameless backpacks are not for everyone, but they are a great alternative for ultralight hikers that have reduced their base weight below 10 pounds. Not sure whether to get a frameless backpack? Here’s our take on how to decide whether it’s a good idea to go frameless.


Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) has long held a revered place in the ultralight community because of their high quality gear (i.e. excellent stitching and attention to detail). MLD makes three ultralight multi-day backpacks:


The three packs are the same, except for the weight and volume. We believe the Prophet at 48 liters is the best size choice for most. All of these packs are available in Dyneema X or Dyneema® Composite Fabric (DCF), formerly cuben fiber. The DCF version adds $55 to the cost. The advantage of DCF is that it is lighter (about an ounce) and waterproof. (Note: we still recommend extra protection from rain. See our section on how to keep your gear dry.)


We recommend the MLD Prophet because we believe it is the perfect size for most folks transitioning to a frameless pack. The smaller Burn is best for people with considerable ultralight experience for trips that will not require big food and water carries. The Exodus is nearly as large as our overall pick, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, at half the weight. We selected the Prophet as our top frameless pick because we think it is big enough to accommodate larger food and water carries, but not so big to encourage carrying too much weight.


I own both the Dyneema X and DCF version of the MLD Exodus. I can attest to the quality and durability of MLD packs. My Dyneema Exodus has over 5,000 miles of use and my DCF version has nearly 3,000 miles of use. We’ve found that MLD’s description that they comfortably fit “loads up to 25 pounds” is accurate. The packs hold up when carrying greater loads, but are not comfortable. My DCF Exodus continues to be my primary backpack for trips not requiring large food and water carries.


The MLD Prophet has a sleek build that makes it easier to balance on uneven terrain or during river crossings.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The MLD Prophet has a sleek build that makes it easier to balance on uneven terrain or during river crossings. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Features

Although the MLD Prophet is a simple, minimalist pack, it has a number of innovative features:


  • Curved side panels to help distribute the weight higher in the main pack body for better comfort.

  • “S” shaped, unisex shoulder straps. The shoulder straps are 3” wide (2.5” for the small size) and well padded. The shoulder straps are daisy chained to add additional pockets or water bottles.

  • A well padded, supportive waist belt.

  • Two large side pockets can fit two Smartwater bottles (i.e., narrow bottles) or a 2 liter Platypus and are angled for easy access while on the move. The pockets are adjustable and securable with an integrated bungee and cord lock.

  • A large mesh front pocket, big enough to accomodate a wet tent. The bottom 5” of the front mesh pocket is solid Dyneema X to protect against abrasion, but with drainage holes.

  • Dual trekking pole/ice axe loops.

  • Volume reduction bottom system: Two clips and spectra loops connect to reduce volume 30% for day pack use and small loads. In addition, the pack has side compression straps.

 
The MLD Prophet’s mesh pocket has abundant room for items you want to easily access.   Photo by Mike Unger.

The MLD Prophet’s mesh pocket has abundant room for items you want to easily access. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Customizability


MLD offers a number of options to customize your pack. And if you have some special requests, MLD will work with you to further modify your backpack. For instance, many ultralighters with very low base weights will have MLD remove the hip belt. The following are the available “add-on” options:


  • Hip and shoulder strap pockets (1 ounce each).

  • Pack lid with zippered pocket (2.5 ounces).

  • Hydration sleeve (1.1 ounce). The hydration sleeve also converts to a small day pack.

  • Stow pouch (.4 ounce) that can be attached inside the pack or on the sternum strap.


The author scrambling unsteady boulders on the Appalachian Trail near Lehigh Gap with the MLD Exodus.   Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

The author scrambling unsteady boulders on the Appalachian Trail near Lehigh Gap with the MLD Exodus. Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

 

One major downside of the MLD is that they often have a wait period. Because they are a small company, your pack is often made to order. If you need your pack sooner than the wait period, we suggest the ULA CDT as a frameless backpack option as it is usually in stock.


Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet


The ULA is an affordable, durable, compact frameless pact.   Photo by Whitney LaRuffa

The ULA is an affordable, durable, compact frameless pact. Photo by Whitney LaRuffa

The Best Backpacking Backpack - Budget Frameless

ULA CDT


Are you frameless curious, but don’t want to spend nearly $300 for a fully loaded MLD Prophet? The ULA CDT is a great option. The CDT has over 50 liters of volume (slightly more volume than the MLD Prophet) and only weighs 24 ounces. The best part is that it costs $145, about half the cost of the MLD Prophet with some add-on features. The ULA CDT has a recommended maximum load of 18 pounds (7 pounds less than the MLD). So this pack is is only recommended for folks with a sub 10 pound base weight (all your stuff minus food and water is less than 10 pounds).


ula

Features


The ULA CDT is a full-featured frameless pack capable of multi-day adventures. The following is a list of pack features:


  • Internal pad holster and thin foam pad. This will provide some back cushioning, but should not be considered a frame. Like all frameless packs, it can be supplemented with your sleeping pad (and in the case of this pack, we highly recommend it).

  • Contoured and padded hip belt and shoulder straps

  • Large hip belt pockets

  • Adjustable side pockets

  • Hydration Sleeve

  • Internal Stash Pocket

  • Water bottle holsters

  • Hand Loops. These are loops attached to the shoulder straps where you can hang your hands if you’re not using trekking poles (read our trekking pole guide here). If you, like me, would never use handloops, they can be removed to save about one ounce of pack weight.

 
The CDT is well-suited for shorter backpacking trips or longer trails that don’t require very long resupply sections.   Photo courtesy Liz Thomas.

The CDT is well-suited for shorter backpacking trips or longer trails that don’t require very long resupply sections. Photo courtesy Liz Thomas.

 

Customizability


ULA also offers a number of options to customize your pack:


  • You can choose a “roll-up” closure for the top of the pack instead of the standard “cinch-top”

  • You can choose “J” or “S” curved shoulder straps. “S” curved straps are designed to go around instead of directly over one’s chest. According to ULA, “J” work best for men with average builds; “S” straps work best on almost all women and men with square shoulders and good posture. ULA encourages folks to contact them if you have fitting questions. They are able to customize shoulder straps.

  • You can skip the hip belt (and save $10)

  • There are nine pack colors to choose from. For a cost, ULA will even let you select different color for every part of the pack.

  • You can even have your name embroidered into the pack (this costs an extra $15)

 

ULA CDT

 

Liz Thomas with her Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet backpack.
 

Other Packs Considered


In preparing this article, we considered many other excellent backpacks. Below is a list of some of the other backpacks we considered, but ultimately did not choose as our top picks.


Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest

(Capacity - 65L; Weight - 2lbs; Cost - $345)

HMG is known for making Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), formally cuben fiber, gear. DCF is waterproof, lightweight, and durable. HMG packs have been a favorite of Pacific Crest Trail hikers for years. We considered the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 as a contender for the overall or upgrade pick. Ultimately, we chose the Gossamer Gear Mariposa as our top pick because the Mariposa is a similar weight and volume and is $65 less expensive. We choose the Katabatic Onni LiteSkin® as our upgrade pick because it has has a more substantial frame sheet and load lifters to better handle heavier carries with a similar weight and price point (but it was a tough choice).


Zpacks Arc Blast

(Capacity - 55L; Weight - 1.31lbs; Cost - $325)

This is Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) backpack that is perhaps the lightest, mid-size volume pack, with a frame. We love the light weight and frame system that allows air flow to the back. Treeline Review co-founder Naomi Hudetz used an Arc Blast for two years. While she did find that the pack was substantially waterproof, she experienced significant material fraying on the inside of the pack. We have met other long distance hikers that have had quality issues with Zpacks gear. We and a whole thread on Reddit have also noticed that Zpack’s customer service is not nearly as good as it was several years ago.


Osprey Exos and Eja 58

(Capacity - 58L; Weight - 2.65lbs; Cost - $220)

The Exos is the men’s version and the Eja is the women’s version of the same pack (note: the Eja, size medium weighs 2.56lbs). Andrew Skurka in his review of the Exos found it to be one of the most comfortable packs he has used. The Osprey Exos/Eja 58 is a worthy competitor for our top pick. We choose the Mariposa over the Exos / Eja because the Mariposa weighs less while also having easy-to-use features that make backpacking more comfortable like a removable sit pad/frame sheet and additional exterior pockets (which make accessing everyday items easier).


ULA Circuit

( Capacity - 68L; Weight - 2.65lbs; Cost: $235)

The ULA Circuit, along with its larger sibling the Catalyst (our pick for large capacity packs) has been a favorite of long distance hikers for years. The Catalyst has a more substantial frame system; therefore, it’s a better choice for heavier loads. The ULA Circuit is a great pack and an excellent value.


REI Flash 55

(Capacity - 55L; Weight - 2.63lbs; Cost $199)

The REI Flash 55 is a good value at under $200 and was a contender for our budget pick. However, we chose the Granite Gear Crown2 60 over the Flash 55 because it has a larger volume, higher load rating (30lbs vs. 35lbs), and is several ounces lighter. We’ve also seen the Flash have fabric durability issues. Customer reviewers particular took issue with the sewing quality, especially around the shoulder straps, and the sternum strap breaking off.


A line up of some of the packs we tested for this story.   Photo by Mike Unger.

A line up of some of the packs we tested for this story. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Author’s Expertise

Mike Unger is a Double Triple Crowner having hiked twice the entire lengths of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. In addition, he has backpacked numerous other on-trail and off-trail routes including the Grand Enchantment Trail and Great Divide Trail. Over the course of his backpacking, he’s purchased and owned an embarrassingly large number of backpacks. He has tracked and researched pack technology for the past 20 years.

Mike Unger is not and has never been a sponsored athlete, ambassador, or influencer for a backpack company.


The author with his Katabatic Onni V40 65 pack.

The author with his Katabatic Onni V40 65 pack.

 

How we judged which backpacks to include


To judge backpacks, we set the following criteria. You can read more about each of the criteria, how to choose a backpack for your hike, how to fit a backpack, and keeping your gear dry visible in our How To Choose Backpacks guide.

All the packs we considered met these criteria, including our runner-ups.


Pack weight

All of our recommended backpacks are three pounds or less, with the exception of our “expedition” pack, the Osprey Aether / Ariel packs. In the past, packs of these weights may have seemed extreme. Now, we believe technology has advanced such that there are exceptional backpacks with plenty of capacity for most backpackers that weigh under three pounds. Most of the packs we recommend are not for mountaineers, alpinists, climbers, ski tourers, or people who need to carry heavy loads of gear. They are designed for folks who want to enjoy the outdoors on a overnight hiking trip.


Carried weight

For our Overall, Upgrade, and Budget picks, we considered packs that can comfortably carry 35 pounds. For our Large Volume and Heavy Load picks, we considered packs that can comfortably carry 40 or more pounds. For our frameless pack picks, we considered packs that can comfortably carry 20 pounds.


Pack Volume

With the exception of the Heavy Volume and Heavy Load picks, all the packs we considered can carry 50-68 Liters.


Essential Pockets

All the packs we considered have the following pockets: hipbelt pockets, front mesh pocket, water bottle pockets. We find these pockets essential to finding and accessing everyday items.


Can fit a bear can

Many US National Parks require backpackers to carry a bear can. That’s why we think that if you’re only going to buy one backpack, the pack that you carry should be able to fit a bear can. This doesn’t mean that your backpack needs to be huge. It just means that the opening to get inside your pack is wide enough to fit the canister.


Attachment Points

All the packs we considered, at minimum, must have an ice axe loop. Having this feature makes it much easier for you to carry an ice axe and thus, make safe decisions when traveling in snowy conditions.


The Gossamer Gear Mariposa on the Sierra High Route.
 

 

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Read how to choose the backpack for you

 

Table of Contents

Best Backpack for Most People: Gossamer Gear Mariposa

Best Upgrade Backpack: Katabatic Gear Onni LiteSkin 65

Best Budget Backpack: Granite Gear Crown2 60

Best High Volume Backpack: ULA Catalyst

Best Heavy Load Backpack: Osprey Aether/Ariel 65

Best Frameless Backpack: Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet

Best Budget Frameless Backpack: ULA CDT