The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2019

There’s no such thing as the perfect gear system, but there are options for every hiking style and preference. Your choice of pack will directly correlate to the choices you make with the rest of your gear. Lighter-weight packs are more conducive to higher miles in the backcountry, whereas heavier packs with more padding and suspension are better for people who enjoy extra amenities and comfort in the backcountry. We have a few new favorites this year for thru-hikers, but first, here are some tips for choosing the best pack for you, before we dive into the best backpacking packs of 2019.

How to Choose the Best Pack for You

There are a few key things to consider when choosing a pack, and we fully encourage you to do your research before committing to model or style.

Capacity: Backpacking packs typically range from 30 liters to 70 liters. Most people will need 45-60 liters for an extended hike. Be realistic about your gear before choosing a pack capacity.

Comfort: How much do you value comfort versus moving fast and light in the backcountry? Are you willing to not only forgo the padding of a fully featured pack, but the comfort of extra goods once you’re at camp?

Gear and Hiking Style: Lay out all of your gear. Now weigh it. Do you carry over 20 pounds as a base weight? You’ll need a burlier pack like the Osprey Atmos or Gregory Deva. Ten- to 15-pound base weight? A mid-weight pack like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa or Granite Gear Crown 2 will work swell. Less than a ten-pound base weight? You’re a candidate for smaller capacity, frameless pack like a Pa’lante Pack or ULA CDT.

Fully Featured, Ultralight, or Somewhere in Between?

Again… this boils down to your hiking style. We’ve written at length about the temptation of going ultralight (so hot right now), but if your hiking style and pack load aren’t conducive to a 35-liter frameless pack with no hip belt, you’ll be ditching it at the next road crossing and hitching a ride to the nearest gear shop. That said, the weight of a 70-liter, fully-padded pack can be six pounds or more empty. While these packs are great for carrying heavy loads, thru-hikers will ditch enough gear within the first few hundred miles to not warrant the extra suspension and padding. Like last year, this brings us to those middle-of-the-road packs. These packs have enough features and suspension to carry around 30-35 pounds comfortably, but without the beefy buckles, memory-foam hip belts, and enormous capacity to bring your base weight too high for happiness.

About Our 2019 Picks

Thru-hiking is gaining popularity, and the market is catching on. We’re seeing more instances of packs specifically designed for thru-hikers, with considerations on weight, comfort, and durability. Among this (still small) subcategory of outdoorsmen, thru-hikers run the gamut, so there are a variety of options within this niche. We’ve collected the best of the best, ranging from fast-and-light, to the middle-of-the-road, to the heftier classics. These packs are not listed in order of preference, and all base weight and total weight recommendations are just that… recommendations.

The Best Backpacking Packs of 2019

Mountainsmith Zerk 40

Weight: 1.75 pounds
Capacity: 40 liters
Price: $220
Best For: Thru-hikers with a base weight of no more than 15 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

Designed, built, and tested in collaboration with the Real Hiking Viking, the Mountainsmith Zerk 40 was created with thru-hikers in mind. Optimized for comfort over long-distance carries, access on-the-go, and the features thru-hikers look for, this pack sold out in its first run. The Zerk 40 is built to keep hikers moving, with accessible side pockets and wide shoulder straps for comfort during extended backcountry travel. It features the type of pockets we want in a thru-hiking pack: large capacity, plentiful, and durable.

Features

Foam / Mesh Back Panel: Instead of a standard internal frame, the Zerk 40 has a breathable mesh and rigid foam back panel, reducing the weight from a frame while still providing support.

Shoulder Pockets: The lack of shoulder pockets among backpacking packs recently has been dismal, but this pack provides in a big way. Both shoulders have two mesh pockets for a water bottle and fast-access for snacks or a phone, along with drawstring to keep the goods in place.

Giant Freaking Side Pockets: Durable, stretchy side pockets fit two standard Smartwater bottles and are positioned for accessing on the move.

Front Pocket: Easy access for extra layers or whatever you need during the day that doesn’t require stopping and opening the pack.

Nobody’s Perfect

Hikers looking for a hip belt won’t find it here. The shoulder straps are wide and comfortable, but some hikers will miss the weight distribution of a hip belt. The pack comes with removable 1.5″ webbing, but no padding.

Our Review

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest

Weight: 2 pounds
Capacity: 40 liters (also available in 55 liters)
Price: $310 (add-ons available)
Best For: Lightweight hikers with a base weight of no more than 12 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

The Southwest is one of Hyperlite’s keystone packs. Rugged, durable, and with a capacity of either 40 liters (2400 Southwest ) or 55 liters (3400 Southwest ), this pack has the ability for larger carries. A minimal internal frame keeps the pack close to your back and the wide hip belt is comfortable over long miles. The pack is built from Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), which is waterproof and abrasion resistant. The sealed zippers on the hip belt pockets keep items secure, and the pack has a lightweight mesh holder for a bladder, with hose ports for easy access. The roll-top closure means the pack size can be adjusted based on how much you’re carrying, and the load-lifters are easy to operate on the go.

Features

Foam Shoulder Straps: Straps are built with Hardline / Dyneema and have closed-cell foam padding.

Hip Belt Pockets: Critical and huge. Zippers are sealed, and the pockets are generous. A standard smartphone will easily fit, along with snacks.

Generous Front Pouch: The front pouch isn’t stretchy, but it has a built-in expandable bottom that gives it plenty of space. It’s also built from Hardline / Dyneema—highly durable for rough travel.

Nobody’s Perfect

Your back will get sweaty; there’s no getting around it. There is nothing keeping the DCF off your back, and while a damp back won’t kill you, sweatier hikers might want to opt for a pack with mesh or another type of suspension. The pack also doesn’t come with shoulder pockets, but you can buy them separately.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa

Weight: 2 pounds
Capacity: 60 liters
Price: $225 (add-ons available)
Best For: Midweight-carrying hikers carrying up to 25 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

The Mariposa saw a few updates this year. They revamped their pockets for better on-the-go access, and updated the hip belt as well. This is an ideal pack for those who are veering toward ultralight, but are not quite there. The pack has seven external pockets, and this year’s version comes with larger hip belt pockets than previous iterations. This pack is one of the more comfortable models for moderate load weights, and is a great option for hikers who can’t commit to an ultralight load, or have to worry about changing pack weight based on condition or regulations (bear canister, winter gear, etc.). This pack’s base cost does NOT include a hip belt, but if you choose to add it, Gossamer Gear updated the structure this year for increased comfort and load transfer. Gossamer Gear states this pack can comfortably carry up to 35 pounds, but we recommend keeping it in the 20s.

Features

Large-Capacity Pockets: Pockets have been updated for easier access while moving, including a more functional design on the hip belt pockets.

Updated Hip Belt: Their updated hip belt has an added stiffener for better load transfer and weight distribution.

Mesh Front Pocket: The stretchy mesh front pocket is ideal for wet items, easy-access rain gear, and anything else you want to be able to access without digging into the pack.

Removable “SitLight” Pad: This can be used as a sleeping pad, and also functions as added structure in the pack itself.

Light, Tough Materials: The pack is built with strategic use of 100D and 200D Robic high-tensile nylon.

Nobody’s Perfect

Jury’s out on Dyneema vs. Robic, but here’s a fun Reddit thread you can read to help make up your own mind. This pack is durable, but wear and tear reports are iffy, and it might not be quite as rugged as a DCF material. It’s not waterproof, but will shed water up to a certain point. Additionally, the padding in the shoulder straps has a tendency to compress after extended use, reducing the level of comfort and cushioning.

Gossamer Gear Gorilla

Weight: 1.75 pounds
Capacity: 40 liters
Price: $215 (add-ons available)
Best For: Minimalist ultralight hikers carrying no more than a 10-pound base weight

Why We Love This Pack

This is the smaller option for Gossamer Gear fans, and is best for hikers who have trimmed down their kit to the bare essentials. Despite the smaller size and capacity, the Gorilla features a large mesh pocket on the outside for wet items or anything you want easily accessible. For a smaller pack, the Gorilla has ample structure and a generous (yet removable) hip belt with large pockets. Gossamer Gear reverted to its old-style lid for this edition, with a zippered compartment on top for organizing smaller items. This pack is light and durable, good for hikers with a streamlined system who won’t need to worry about long water carries or excessive distances between resupplies. You can remove the hip belt and the aluminum stay, but this configuration provides the least support and has the potential to impact shoulder fatigue. Without the hip belt, the pack weighs just 19 ounces.

Features

Stretchy Mesh Pocket: Similar to the Mariposa, this pocket is located on the outside of the pack and is good for quick access to extra layers or a place to stash wet items.

Deep Side Pockets: These hold water bottles securely, but can be tough to maneuver while walking. They hold two one-liter Smartwater bottles.

Removable Sit Pad: Like the Mariposa, the Gorilla comes with a removable sit pad as the back support, which can be taken out and used as a partial-length sleeping pad.

Extension Collar: Capacity can be expanded to fit a bear canister or add more bulky gear to the top of the pack, but given the weight limits on this pack, this isn’t something we would always recommend.

Removable Hip Belt: Sure, the hip belt adds weight, but it also adds load-bearing capabilities and takes weight off your shoulders.

Nobody’s Perfect

Be aware of durability issues with this pack, especially abrasions on the bottom material and holes in the mesh pockets… anywhere it might be dragging along rough terrain or rocks. Gossamer Gear has legendary customer service, but it’s better to keep the pack in one piece. For its weight, this is a durable pack, but wear and tear straight through the fabric isn’t unheard of. The side pockets can be difficult to grab water bottles from on the go, and the weight limits on the Gorilla are pretty strict.

Our Review

ULA Ohm 2.0

Weight: 2.15 pounds
Capacity: 63 liters
Price: $225 (add-ons available)
Best For: Higher-volume (but still lightweight) loads. A base weight of no more than 15 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

The ULA fabric is as durable as always, and the stretchy front pocket provides ample room for layers or quick-grab items. Stretchy side pockets are perfect for water bottles, and the suspension is adjustable and offers fantastic load transfer.  As the majority of this pack is made up of one giant main compartment, this might not be the one for thru-hikers who like to keep their small items organized. While this pack has a capacity of over 60 liters, it is not optimized for base weights over 12-15 pounds, with a maximum load limit of 30 pounds.

Features

Durable Face Fabric: All packs except the (Multicam Camo option) are built with ultra-durable ULA 400 Robic Fabric.

Load-Transferring Champ: The Ohm 2.0 uses the same hip belt and shoulder straps as ULA’s larger-capacity packs, which means the design can handle your gear load with ease.

Customizable Top Closure: This pack is highly customizable. Buyers can choose between a cinch-top or roll top closure.

Front Mesh Pocket: You know the drill. Stretchy mesh for wet or quick-access gear.

Full Compression: The zig-zag compression cinches from the bottom to the top, compressing the load and keeping it close to body.

Nobody’s Perfect

Like other more minimalist packs, the 30-pound weight limit is pretty strict, and the pack will become a lot less comfortable beyond that. If you sweat buckets during hikes, this might not be the best bet either. The Ohm sits right against your back (as opposed to mesh suspension) so sweatier hikers might feel damp and uncomfortable.

ULA CDT

Weight: 1.5 pounds
Capacity: 54 liters
Price: $145
Best For: Ultralight hikers who have a base weight of no more than ten pounds, and won’t have to worry about long carries

Why We Love This Pack

This frameless pack is great, as long as you have your pack weight pared down enough and won’t need the support of an internal frame for longer food or water carries. This pack has enough capacity for a bear canister, extension options for the top of the pack, and is optimized for comfort and full range of motion while still staying on the low end of the scale. The CDT cinches down for smaller loads but comfortably expands for higher volume. As with all ULA packs, this pack is rugged and durable, from the main compartment fabric to the tough mesh pockets. The maximum load for the CDT is 18 pounds, so be weight conscious or risk some serious shoulder misery.

Features

Huge Side Pockets, Mesh Front Pocket: Can you tell we’re big fans of large pockets? These side pockets can easily carry two Smartwater bottles, or a two-liter bladder. The mesh front pocket also has elastic lashing to strap more gear (or a bag of potato chips) to the outside of the pocket.

Internal Foam Frame: The structure of the pack comes from a lightweight metal “hoop” and a dense foam pad, keeping the pack stable and tight against your back.

Roll-Top Closure: Secure roll-top closure is ideal for pack loads that expand and decrease. The pack also has a strap over the top to cinch down, compacting the load even more.

Side Compression Straps: The pack can be compressed from all sides. These durable webbing straps compress on the sides on the top half of the pack.

Nobody’s Perfect

Like the Ohm, the CDT does not have elevated suspension, so sweaty backs beware. Since it doesn’t have a frame, hikers can use a Z-fold (closed-cell foam) pad as an insert for some additional support, but know that it won’t replace the support and load-bearing abilities of an internal frame.

MLD Prophet

Weight: 1 pound
Capacity: 48 liters
Price: $230 (add-ons available)
Best For: Ultralight hikers who have their systems pared down and will be carrying no more than 20 pounds at any time

Why We Love This Pack

Mountain Laurel Designs has gained steady popularity on long-distance trails over the past few years, based on their customization options, customer service, and made-in-the-US designs. Hikers can customize pretty much anything their heart desires, but again… be sure you’re ready to commit to a UL, frameless pack before taking the dive. The hip belt provides ample cushion for a pack of this weight, and the generous pockets allow for external organization. The pack can hold a standard bear canister, and has a roll-top closure with a Y-strap to secure gear on top of the pack. It sits close to your back for stability, and the 2017 update to the side panels increased the curve to keep it fitted more closely to hikers’ torsos. The pack is unisex, but the curved shoulder straps fit comfortably on most men and women, and the pack offers enough sizing options that finding the right fit isn’t an issue. The Prophet is built with reinforced 210D coated nylon ripstop, with added reinforcement on high-abrasion areas.

Features

Side Mesh Pockets: Pockets are deep and can hold water bottles as well as bladders.

Padded Shoulder Straps: For a UL pack, the Prophet has some seriously comfortable shoulder straps. Straps are three inches wide, made of SuperWick mesh lined with foam padding.

Roll-Top Closure: A Y-strap cinches down over the top of the closure, compressing the load as it decreases between resupplies

Hybrid Design on Front Pocket: The classic large front pocket on ultralight packs is a hybrid between durable ripstop and mesh for draining.

Nobody’s Perfect

Plan ahead when ordering and customizing this pack. Lead time can be up to two months depending on season. Also, we’ve noted this, but this pack is for ultralight hikers. Heavier pack loads won’t feel as supported.

Zpacks Arc Haul

Weight: 1.4 pounds
Capacity: 62 liters
Price: $299 (add-ons available)
Category: Ultralight pack with elevated suspension system, good for hikers carrying no more than a 12-pound base weight

Why We Love This Pack

Zpacks owns a deep section of the ultralight market for a good reason, in both their packs and their shelters. This durable, lightweight pack is built with their Gridstop fabric, which can be more durable than other UL pack materials and is also coated with a waterproofing finish on the inside. Seams are taped, which helps keep this pack as watertight as possible, though it is not categorized as waterproof. For a lightweight pack, there are plenty of options for adjusting load carry and fit, from the easy-to-use load lifters to the adjustable hip belt to the tension adjustment on the mesh frame. The pack weighs just two ounces more than the Arc Blast, but is built with beefier fabric and has seven liters more capacity.

Features

Flexed-Arc Frame: This proprietary adjustable frame keeps the pack off your back while providing support. Users can adjust the fit and tension of the mesh panel as well.

Roll-Top Closure: This is a popular way to close ultralight packs, and lets hikers shrink their pack down or expand it depending on load size.

Mesh Front Pocket: Expansive pocket is perfect for stashing wet clothes or other items you don’t want touching the rest of your gear.

Cushioned Shoulder Straps and Hip Belt: Shoulder straps are 2.5 inches wide, and are textured to help prevent sliding.

Nobody’s Perfect

The shoulder strap positioning can be wide for hikers with narrower shoulders.

Osprey Aura 65 | Atmos 65

Weight: 4.5 pounds
Capacity: 65 liters
Price: $270
Best For: Hikers with heavier loads who value comfort over ounce-counting

Why We Love This Pack

The trend is lighter weight, simpler packs, and each year, even new thru-hikers are leaning in that direction. However, for backpackers looking for more comfort, padding, and organization options, this is a great option and continues to be one of the most popular fully featured packs on long-distance trails. Osprey’s classic suspension system comes into play for bigger loads, and the ultra-padded hip belt and shoulder straps mold to your body for added comfort. The Aura comes in 65 and 50-liter options. The Atmos is the men’s version of this pack, and comes in 50 and 65-liter options.

Features

Front Opening: The front opens vertically for easy access to the main compartment.

More Pockets Than You Can Shake a Stick At: A pack that weighs 4.5 pounds comes flush with pockets and organizational options.

Top Lid: Two zippered pockets are ideal for stashing quick-access snacks and small items.

AntiGravity Suspension: The mother of all comfort for beefier packs.

Nobody’s Perfect

The main detraction from this pack is the fact that it weighs 4.5 pounds empty, which is hefty. The side pockets aren’t super stretchy, and can be difficult to maneuver bottles in and out of.

Osprey Exos | Eja

Weight: 2.75 pounds
Capacity: 58 liters
Price: $220
Category: Mid-range pack for hikers with lighter loads (no more than 15-pound base weight) but will be carrying up to 30 pounds.

Why We Love This Pack

Despite Osprey’s recent questionable choices with their 2017 update (why remove the hip belt pockets?), this pack remains one of the most popular thru-hiking packs and an ideal middle-of-the road model. It strikes a nice balance between luxe and lightweight, built with lighter materials and some pared-down features. Durability increased with their update on both the face fabric and the mesh pockets, one of the issues with previous iterations. The Exos’s suspension is famously comfortable, with the ventilated system keeping your back cool while holding the pack tight against your body. The Exos also comes in a 48L variety, and the women’s version can be found here. Even though the Eja was released a few seasons ago, the Exos has worked well as a unisex pack since its initial release.

Features

Removable Top Lid: The “brain” is a luxury we don’t often get with the lighter weight packs. This version has two zippered pockets. It can be removed to save weight, and hikers can instead utilize the flap underneath for protection over the top of the pack.

AirSpeed Suspension: Osprey’s proprietary suspension system is comprised of tensioned mesh with generous space for airflow in every direction.

Adjustable Hip Belt: Osprey’s update to this pack came with an adjustable hip belt, good for hikers dropping serious pounds on a thru-hike.

Nobody’s Perfect

We’re all wondering where the hip belt pockets went, and some of us (me) are wondering where the shoulder pockets went. Additionally, the updated material on the side pockets can be tight and tough to get water bottles in and out of while moving.

Our Review

Osprey Lumina | Levity

Weight: 1.8 pounds
Capacity: 60 liters (also comes in a 45L capacity)
Price: $270
Best For: Lightweight hikers carrying no more than a 12-pound base weight, looking for a pared-down backpack that still has Osprey’s suspension system

Why We Love This Pack

Osprey has their suspension dialed, and this lightweight option is no exception. The frame provides plenty of support and the mesh panel on the back allows airflow between your back and the pack. The capacity and layout is user-friendly, and our PCT hikers carrying the Levity and Lumina haven’t seen anything that they would believe compromises the durability. This pack didn’t take off like we thought it might, but it’s a worthy, lightweight addition to Osprey’s backpacking line. Pack body is 30D Cordura Silnylon Ripstop fabric, with accents on areas of higher abrasion made of 30D Cordura Silnylon Ripstop fabric.

Features

Removable Top Lid: A nice feature to have on a lightweight pack, the top lid is useful for organizing smaller items and things you’d like to grab without digging through your pack.

Large Side Pockets: The side pockets can fit two liters of water on each side in Smartwater (or similar) bottles

Airspeed Suspension System: This might be one of Osprey’s lightest offerings, but it still features their suspension system, working to keep the pack elevated from sweaty backs while staying tight and not dragging on shoulders.

Nobody’s Perfect

Like the Exos, the Levity and Lumina don’t come with hip belt pockets, something we will continue to question until they add them back in. Our tester had issues with fit, and found the pack hitting the back of her head no matter how she positioned it. Also, this pack fabric is not waterproof, so be sure to use a pack liner or cover if that’s what you’re about.

Our Review

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Comments 4

  • GB : Aug 15th

    Again no Superior Wilderness Designs? Totally customizable down to the fabric type and in-line price wise with everyone.

    Reply
  • Duane : Aug 15th

    Where have all the external frame packs gone? Molle attachments? Anything to make my backpack more customizable and easier to use. I cut my teeth on the military ALICE packs, and have been unable to find anything to compare to those for years. Internal frame rails get bent and cease to function correctly within 1000 miles, and it’s time for a new pack. How about something durable? Instead of spending thousands every year on a piece of equipment that will inevitably fail me, I spend fifty bucks on a Walmart special 65L backpack that works just fine.

    Reply
  • WD : Aug 15th

    I would like to know how you spec’d your base weight assumptions, because they seem low. Most of the packs don’t even list a base weight vs max weight. Is this “your” estimate?

    Reply
  • Quiet Man : Aug 17th

    @WD, I am curious about this base weight spec as well. Estimating a base weight “limit” seems to be quite subjective. Osprey specs the Exos 58 at a load range of 20-40 lbs. While no one really wants to carry 40 lbs, I suppose you could with this pack – at least according to the manufacturer. Of course, data from the field would likely put that max closer to @thetrek’s estimate of 30 lbs. So, the max load spec is the relative factor – in my neophyte opinion – regardless of base weight. A higher base weight just means you’ll be able carry less consumables to reach the max weight.

    Reply

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