By the Numbers: Backpacks on the Appalachian Trail

As one of the Big Three gear items, backpacks are a crucial gear purchase. As my trail namesake, my pack was dear to me from the start. But after I crammed it through the crevices of Mahoosuc Notch, catapulted it over the Lemon Squeeze, and attempting to cram a Oreo Family Pack into my limited space, I became even more appreciative of the importance of a trusty pack.

To gauge the backpack preferences of AT long-distance hikers, Appalachian Trials surveyed 116 2000-milers and 63 section hikers who trekked the Appalachian Trail in 2015. Two-thirds were men and one-third were women.1 Most hikers were 20-40 years old, with the 51-60 year-olds also representin’.

Hiker age

What we found

The typical backpack

Section and thru-hikers had roughly the same preferences in pack based on capacity, pack type, and likelihood of switching.2

Preferred type

Almost all hikers carried internal frame packs. A smattering switched their pack type during their hike, but ultimately internal frame packs were most common, while frameless packs had a small following (primarily ultralight, but one hiker slackpacked and carried a daypack). Major respect for the one hiker who carried an old-school external frame pack the whole way (three hikers switched from external to internal frame packs).

Related reading: The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking (2017)

On average, hikers started out with packs that could hold 62 Liters. The lowest starting capacity was 30 L and the greatest was 92 L.

Durability

Unlike sleeping bags and footwear, backpacks tend to last the duration of a thru-hike.

Switches2

In our survey, 70% of hikers said their backpacks lasted the duration of their trek. This was roughly the same for thru-hikers (67% of packs lasted) and section hikers (73%). For both section- and thru-hikers, approximately 6% of hikers replaced their packs at some point with the same exact model (many gear companies have warranties of a year or more, meaning they have good replacement policies for a long-distance hike).

One in five (20%) of hikers were at least somewhat dissatisfied with the pack they started with, and about a quarter (25%) switched to a different model during their time on the AT.

When hikers did switch packs,

Most hikers stuck to the frame type they started with.3 Hikers who used frameless packs from the start almost always switched to other frameless packs, and hikers who started with internal frames usually kept internal frame packs throughout.

Untitled

Hikers who switched pack models tended to switch to packs with a smaller capacity than their original packs. Pack capacity was significantly lower4 for the packs hikers ultimately ended up using compared to those they started with. Hikers who changed models started with an average of 62 L capacity and finished with an average of 56 L capacity.

Some of the reasons hikers said they switched up their backpacks mid-hike:

  • They wanted to reduce pack capacity when carrying less clothing in the summer (this would apply to only Northbound thru-hikers) or because they did not need such a large pack after getting a good shakedown.
  • They wanted to increase pack capacity when carrying more food as their hiker appetite grew, or because their ultralight packs were not supportive enough for pack weight over 30 lbs.
  • They changed their pack model because their initial packs did not fit well from the start, or their on-trail weight loss altered the fit of the pack.

Packs of choice

We also asked hikers about the brands they used on the AT, and their brand of choice if they used more than one.

Brands

The most popular brand was, unsurprisingly, Osprey, followed by Ultralight Adventure (ULA) Equipment, Granite Gear, and Gregory. Although many hikers carried ULA and Gregory packs and most liked the packs themselves, a number of them voiced frustration with the customer service and warranty policies of these companies.

The most prevalent models were of the Osprey Exos series, carried by 10% of hikers in the survey. It was followed by the Osprey Atmos and ULA Circuit, each carried by 7% of hikers. Many backpacks, particularly ultralight packs, are marketed as unisex, but some packs are designed for women’s proportions in particular. The most popular women’s pack was the Osprey Aura series, carried by 4.5% of hikers in our survey.

Backpacks 2015

The Osprey Exos , Osprey Atmos , and ULA Circuit

This is not to say that smaller companies or cottage industries do not produce quality backpacks for distance hiking! Some hikers who bought poor quality off-brand packs were not satisfied with their pack durability, but most hikers said they were satisfied with their backpacks. Specialty brands (e.g., GoLite, Gossamer Gear), smaller companies (e.g., Aarn, Mountain Laurel Designs), and brands known for other gear, like Black Diamond, were well-liked by most long-distance hikers who carried them.

Implications for future AT long-distance hikers

Unlike sleeping bags, most hikers will keep the same backpack the whole way. So, it is important to pick the best pack you can!

Unlike footwear, distance did not affect pack preference or satisfaction for most hikers. This means that the pack you try out on test trips for a few days will likely work well for you over thousands of miles.

When packs did not work well for hikers, it was usually because of poor fit, insufficient capacity for their supplies, or over-capacity for their supplies. To eliminate these problems:

  • On your test runs, fill your pack with full supplies and 4-5 days of food (or your estimated re-supply interval) to make sure it is comfortable on your body at this weight.
  • To make sure your pack capacity is just right, go your local outfitter for a gear shakedown. Also check out Appalachian Trials’ recommended gear list.
  • Most people lose weight on a long-distance hike, so be aware that this will alter pack fit. Most packs are adjustable, so get a pack for which you are currently at the upper size limit and have room to tighten the hip-belt and straps.

Not all thru-hikes and not all thru-hikers have the same needs. Ultralight works for some, but not others, and seasoned backpackers will tailor their preferences as they gain experience. If you are a novice backpacker unsure of what you are looking for, stick to a pack close to the typical type that most hikers carry (50-60 L capacity, internal frame).

If you are unfamiliar with backpacking gear, the popular brands and models listed above are a good place to start. However, if you’re interested in smaller, quality brands, check out these recommended packs.

Thank you!

We are so grateful to all 2015 hikers who participated in our survey! Congratulations to you all!

Many thanks as well to Zach Davis for helping me put this together.

Notes for the Nerds

  1. N = 179, nmen = 112, nwomen = 67.
  2. I conducted a binary logistic regression predicting section- vs. thru-hiker based on initial pack capacity (entered in Step 1), preferred pack type (entered in Step 1), and pack switching (Step 2). No model was significant (all > .05).
  3. I conducted Pearson’s chi-square of independence, comparing initial pack type (internal frame or frameless) vs. ultimate choice in pack type (internal frame or frameless).  c= 4.74, df = 2, p = .09.
  4. I conducted a paired samples t-test including the whole sample, not just hikers who switched packs. = -3.4, df = 177, < .001.
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Comments 11

  • The Chief : Nov 12th

    Great information! Thank you!

    Reply
  • Doug Layne : Nov 12th

    This is great information. Always interesting to see what is used on a long trail.

    Reply
  • Quoc Nguyen : Nov 12th

    I’m surprised about the people who expressed frustration with ULA’s customer service. From my and other people’s experience, we had nothing but great things to say about ULA. For example, I get a response within minutes EVERYTIME I contact them via e-mail.

    Disclaimer: I’m a big ULA fan and have rocked the same ULA pack on three long-distance trails so far.

    Reply
    • Marci Weber : Nov 12th

      I will clarify that only three out of 25 ULA users and 1 out of 15 Gregory users mentioned customer service problems. This wasn’t even a question explicitly asked in the survey; it was something they deemed worth mentioning in our “anything else you’d like to add” section.

      However, consider that 2.5 times as many people used Osprey compared to ULA and almost 4 times as many people used Osprey compared to Gregory, yet NOT EVEN ONE hiker in our sample said they had customer service problems with Osprey (same with Granite Gear, for that matter). One even said she got an Osprey replacement for fit reasons despite a lack of warranty.

      I will add that I have never owned an Osprey, ULA, or Gregory pack and I don’t have a personal opinion or preference for any of them. I have only ever owned/used Gossamer Gear, of which I am an avid fan, and REI packs. I am just trying to lay out our results as objectively as I can, including both the pros and cons, for the benefit of future hikers.

      I’m glad you and many other hikers in our survey enjoyed your ULA packs and that you found something that works so well for you!

      Happy hiking,
      Mariposa

      Reply
      • Rick DiVita : Apr 5th

        “I am just trying to lay out our results as objectively as I can, including both the pros and cons, for the benefit of future hikers.” Amen! Thank you!

        Reply
  • A J MacDonald Jr : Nov 12th

    Very interesting and informative! Thanks! : )

    Reply
  • Paul Wayne Dominy : Nov 19th

    I’m doing section by section, so far I’ve gone from Ami-cola falls – Nell’s gap with my light Field line Pack,I carry 1 M.R.E for each day ,a half gallon of water and sleep bag ,one man tent,lite wet weather gear,and ect. my pack weight for 4 days ranges between 25-30 lbs. I am a Retired Army Grunt and had done a lot of Humping Yumas in my day,I love the A/T/ plan on being across the N.C. line before the 1st of the Year, Lord Willing,as I said due to Ministries work and the Wife I’m doing it with 4 and 1 day sets ,this is P.W.D. Kept it lite Baby.. ,

    Reply
  • Chris : Apr 6th

    I’d like to share my personal experience going gung-ho after a 22 hour Amtrak ride and a good nights sleep in Gainsville the previous day; and hitting the Lodge at Amicola Falls at around 12:30, and like the sign says; if memory serves 6 hours from the beginning of the Approach Trail, 12 miles to Springer to the official start of the AT. I had an Osprey Aether 70 (which in June took me on a free tenting trek through Normandy and Ibiza), stacked. I mean stacked, because I was a fool and was thinking ‘Into the Wild’. I think I was so hung ho with adrenaline that at 6:30 I arrived at the AT placard; it was warm that day, February 7, and that night my first night camping at the Springer Mountain Shelter (I tented next to it), was freezing. The following two days went slow; into Three forks into Hawk Mountain area. I was maintains, around 5-12 miles a day; when I hit right before Horse Gap; and I literally couldn’t go a few yards without having to stop. I did, wait for it; two miles, maybe 3 a day; my body was Kufic it’s psyche and adrenaline; reality has set in. I had a 0 sleeping bag and a tropical with me; my osprey had my two person tent (wal mart and it rocked for four years of use worldwide), 11 inch chromebook, cooking gear, tarp, and my clothes. One winter parka, a sweater, and the rest ALL under armor first layers and basic thermals with 7 pairs of wool socks and lightweight socks. Also brought a pair of dress pants lol, two pairs of shorts and nylon shorts for the warmer days and it was warm in feb in Georgia in the days. I had a pair of Nike cross trainers which I prefer over heavy leg lugging of boots and a thick pair of D.C. Skate shoes (trust me on that one).

    By the time I hit Cooper Gap I was finished; and that wAs four days later from the lodge at AFalls lol. I hobbled to blood mountain through pickups and hitching and new my mcl needed a brace. At any rate, I know now how to pack and what to pack, but I can’t see myself not going with at least 45 liters of gear. I usually do long long days; I don’t intend to want to leave the trail often unless I have to re-supply, pick up a mail drop or if I really need it a hot shower. I like to wander and fish and thus while others are bee lining it to (not) even get to NC because they will fail from bravado, it takes me days to finish what some do in a few hours. 😉

    So next week, after losing literally 18 pds the time I was on the AT, I gained a bit back. Done day hikes locally with different weights of the pack, used food that is mostly powder rather than solids, ditched my two main wal mart for a solo tunnel sleeper, and got a 20 degree instead, I will now reattempt going from the base of Cooper Gap to Gatlinburg. Spend a day with distant family, have a pizza and continue from there.

    I can’t pack ‘light’, but I won’t pack heavy either again not after that he’ll. But two things i can certainly advise 1. Walking sticks are critical for so many reasons and trust me again on packing skate shoes; it’s all in the soles. 😉

    My one gripe about the AT so far, the noise. You never really feel like you are separated for the chaos of civilization; but there sure are a lot of guns going off lol

    Best,

    D.C.

    Reply

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