The Top Backpacks on the Appalachian Trail: 2016 AT Thru-Hiker Survey
Unless you’re making the rest of us jealous by slackpacking the whole way, your backpack is one of the most important pieces of gear you take on a long-distance hike. Whether you come to hate it or you come to feel like it’s a part of your body, it’s critical to wear the right pack for your body size and the weight you’re carrying.
Like we did last year, Appalachian Trials surveyed long-distance hikers about their backpack choices. In addition this year, we also asked about the load hikers carried and the items they “shook down.” If you don’t want the details, I’m offended (just kidding – you can skip to the TL;DR at the bottom).
For details on hiker demographics, check out the post with an overview of general information from the 2016 survey. One hundred fifty people who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 provided information about their backpacks, so not all hikers in the total sample were included in the analysis for this post.
For the backpack sample, the median age of hikers who took the survey was 28 years old. Half of all hikers (50%) were in their twenties. A little over half (56.7%) of hikers who took the survey were men; slightly less than half (42.7%) were women.
Three quarters of hikers in the survey (75.3%) were thru-hikers or had walked over 2,000 miles in 2016; a quarter of them (24.7%) were section hikers. There were no age or gender differences between section hikers and thru-hikers.1
Most hikers had done backpacking trips just a few days long, prior to their thru-hikes. Extensive experience and utter lack of experience were both uncommon.
The typical backpack
About one in five hikers (21.3%) switched out backpacks at some point. About 15% replaced their pack with another one of the same model, while about 7% switched to a different model (more on this later).
Regarding the primary pack that hikers used, 84.7% were internal frame packs, 7.3% were frameless, and 6.7% had traditional external frames.
The two backpacks counted as “other” were because one hiker used an ultralight, external frame pack, and one removed the frame from his pack.
Backpacks ranged in capacity from 30 liters to 80 liters. The average capacity was 57 liters, plus or minus 9 liters.
“Base weight” refers to how much a backpack weighs when it is filled with everything except food and water. This often fluctuates during a long-distance hike, but it is more stable than total pack weight with food and water. Hikers in our survey reported the typical base weight during their 2016 AT hike. Their average base weight was 20 lbs., plus or minus 5 lbs.2 Base weights ranged from 7 lbs. to 32 lbs.
The average base weight for section hikers was 22 lbs., while the thru-hiker average base weight was 19 lbs. Furthermore, there was a slight association between distance hiked and base weight, meaning hikers with lower base weights were more likely to have walked further.3 This could be because thru-hikers “shook down” their packs more, invested more money in lighter gear, or it could be that a lower base weight helped people stick with it.
Problems with weight and capacity
Base weight and backpack capacity were related, meaning that people with a heavier base weight were more likely to be using larger capacity packs, most of the time.4 However, surprisingly, hikers with frameless packs were no more likely than other hikers to have lower base weights.5 This means that, despite carrying ultralight packs or extra large packs, many hikers in our survey were still carrying the same weight as hikers with standard packs.
In fact, in the comments they provided, fifteen people (10%) said their packs were too big or heavy in proportion to the load they carried, while five people (3.3%) said their packs were too small and light in proportion to the load they carried. Two hikers said their low-capacity pack helped to keep them from carrying too much.
So, long-distance hikers on the AT in 2016 were roughly carrying loads proportionate to their pack capacity, although many were carrying ultralight frameless packs filled with a more-than-ultralight load. The real question is, does that actually pose a problem?
Apparently, it does. We found that type of frame, backpack capacity, and distance hiked didn’t contribute to hiker satisfaction with their backpacks. However, hikers with more experience backpacking and those with a lower base weight were more satisfied with their backpacks.6
This means that, while hikers may have attributed the quality and comfort to the backpack itself, the weight of the load inside it is really what affects satisfaction. Of course, the relationship between hiker experience and satisfaction basically means the more practice you get, the more you’ll narrow down what works for you.
Top Brands & Models7
Most hikers were at least somewhat satisfied with their packs, and no particular brand was disproportionately problematic. Still, when we asked hikers the brand of their favorite pack they used. Here are the results:
Most Popular Pack Brands
We also broke down the most popular backpacks, by model or series.
Most Popular Pack Models
- Osprey Exos
- Osprey Aura
- ULA Circuit
- Osprey Atmos
- Z-Packs ArcBlast (tie)
- Gossamer Gear Mariposa (tie)
The most popular backpack model or series was the Osprey Exos, which is a unisex backpack built for a typical load (20-40 lbs. total, so a base weight of around 15-30 lbs).
The most popular pack specifically designed for men was the Osprey Atmos, a similar size pack.
Backpack repair and replacement
As mentioned earlier, 21.3 % of hikers replaced their backpacks at some point. Compared to sleeping bags and footwear, this is a relatively small number of hikers replacing their packs.
In their open-ended comments, 14 hikers in the survey (9%) said they had at least 1 pack fall apart or break. In all 14 cases, the gear company replaced or repaired the packs free of charge.
Shakedown and “shakeup”
Considering the role of base weight in hikers’ satisfaction with their backpacks, it’s also relevant to see what items hikers discarded during their hike (i.e., a shakedown) and what they decided to bring with them (what I’m calling “shakeup”).
We didn’t get a comprehensive list of the items hikers brought the entire way, but we did see what items hikers discarded or eventually added to their packs.
Some items were commonly added AND removed, like water treatment and pack covers. Some items, like stoves, were high on the shakedown list, although most hikers probably bring them the whole way. Other items, such as pillows, were high on the shakeup list, although most long-distance hikers do not bring them. So, the utility of the chart is limited, but it could be useful if you’re on the fence about bringing something. Similarly, it could provide you with ideas if you really need to lower your pack weight.
- Most likely, one backpack will last you a full thru-hike. And if it breaks, you can get a free replacement, so don’t worry about budgeting for more than 1 pack.
- For inexperienced backpackers, know that the more practice you can get, the more likely you won’t have problems with your pack. For practice hikes, make sure to fill it with the amount of weight you anticipate carrying.
- Again, for inexperienced backpackers, aim for a base weight of about 20 lbs, plus or minus 5 lbs. This was the typical base weight for most thru-hikers and long-distance section hikers.
- If your base weight is 20 lbs or higher, make sure to use a standard pack. A minimalist or ultralight pack will not be your friend. This may seem obvious, but considering how many people used packs that were not designed to carry such a heavy load, it’s worth saying again.
- If your base weight is higher than 20 lbs. and your pack feels uncomfortable, keep in mind that the load, not the backpack itself, is most likely the problem. Try shaking down your pack rather than replacing it.
- If you’re unsure what to shake down, the items on the chart above might be a good place to start. In particular, extra sets of clothing or special clothes for sleeping in are probably redundant.
- Support cottage industries and small businesses when you can! But if you don’t know where to start regarding a pack to buy, try one of the common brands/models shown above: the Osprey Exos for a standard pack, the Osprey Aura for a women’s pack, and the ULA Circuit for a lightweight pack.
Many thanks to all the hikers who participated in the survey! Congratulations for walking so far! Also, many thanks to Zach Davis for his input on this survey and for getting the word out.
More AT gear “By the Numbers”
Check out the overview post for this years’ survey and the post on footwear. Up next will be sleeping bags, pads, shelter systems, and food/cookware. For now, check out last years’ posts on shelter systems, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads.
Notes for the Nerds
- Bivariate Pearson correlation with age and distance hiked was not significant (r = -.122; p = .139). Chi-square between sex and distance hiked was not significant (X2 = .349; p = .840).
- “+/-” refers to standard deviation from the mean.
- Bivariate Pearson correlation showed a weak but significant correlation between distance hiked and base weight (r = -.184; p = .026).
- Bivariate Pearson correlation showed a moderate, significant correlation between base weight and pack capacity (r = .350, p < .001).
- Bivariate Pearson correlation showed the correlation between pack type and base weight was non-significant (r = .093, p = .267).
- Satisfaction with primary backpack used was substantially negatively skewed (skew = -1.68), so this variable was Log10 transformed. A linear regression was conducted to predict satisfaction. Prior experience significantly predicted backpack satisfaction (β = -.023, t (145) = -3.24, p = .002). Likewise, base weight significantly predicted backpack satisfaction (β = -.182, t (145) = -2.103, p = .037). Together, prior experience and base weight explained 12.9 percent of the variance in backpack satisfaction (R2 = .129, F(4,135) = 4.99, p = .001).
- I have not been paid by any gear company, nor do I have any other reason to endorse one.
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