The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2023
Your backpacking pack is one of the most important components of your backpacking setup. Your style of pack goes hand in hand with your style of hiking. They need to complement each other, regardless of whether you’re a luxury camper or an ultralight fast packer. The best backpacks for thru-hiking are the ones that fit your specific wants and needs.
We based our 2023 list of the best thru-hiking backpacks on recommendations from Trek writers, our gear testing team, our annual Appalachian Trail thru-hiker survey, and an extensive comparison of price, weight, features, durability, and intended use.
That said, there’s no one-size-fits-all. There are a lot of styles of backpackers, and a lot of styles of packs. Remember that gear trends come and go, and ultimately it’s up to you to decide what works best for your packing style and intended use. Did we leave out your favorite? Feel free to yell at us in the comments. We’re always open to testing new gear.
A note on pack volume: where available, we broke the pack capacity down into the volume of the main compartment + volume of exterior pockets. This wasn’t possible in all cases as some manufacturers (looking at you, Osprey and Granite Gear) only report the overall volume.
Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking:
- ULA Circuit (PCT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)
- LiteAF 40L Curve Full Suspension (Prettiest Pack)
- Osprey Exos (AT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)
- Osprey Aura/Atmos (Best Fully-Featured Backpack)
- Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra (Best Ultralight Suspension System)
- Nashville Cutaway (Best Fast and Light Pack)
- SMD Swift V (Best Pack for Back Injuries)
- Gossamer Gear Mariposa (Best Midweight Pack)
- Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet (Best Frameless Pack)
- Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul (Best Custom Backpacking Pack)
- Granite Gear Blaze (Lightest Fully-Featured Pack)
- Gossamer Gear G4-20 (Best Budget Ultralight)
Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking FAQs:
- What Capacity Do You Need?
- Features to Look for in the Best Thru-Hiking Backpacks
- Ultralight, Midweight, or Fully-Featured?
- Torso Size
- More of the Best Backpacking Gear of 2021
Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2023
ULA Circuit (PCT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)
Weight: 37 ounces
Capacity: 39 + 29 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds (per manufacturer)
Why We Love This Pack
The ULA Circuit has been the highest-rated pack according to Halfway Anywhere’s annual PCT thru-hiker survey for four years running, and for good reason. While it might not be the lightest pack on the list, it makes up for this in comfort, carrying capacity, and durability. The pack has an excellent carrying capacity, coming in at 68 liters and a max load of 35 pounds, making it one of the roomiest packs you can get—perfect for longer carries or dry stretches common on the PCT or CDT.
An aluminum stay, carbon fiber loop, and dense foam panel form a rigid frame that molds to your back over time. This makes the pack incredibly comfortable, keeping weight stable and as close to your back as possible. The circuit is made from 400D Robic Fabric, ULA’s fabric of choice due to its toughness per ounce. ULA’s famous customer support also means that once you’ve given your pack a thorough beating by means of a thru-hike, you can send the pack back for a free tune-up to get it back to full health.
- Roll-top closure and compression straps: The roll-top closure, paired with the top and side compression straps, gives this bag flexibility based on the volume of your bag. This allows for big carries out of town, but a more snug pack when returning to civilization.
- Dual hip belt pockets: The large hip belt pockets are big enough for the largest of phones and the hungriest of snackers.
- Large side pockets: The side pockets are big enough to carry two SmartWater bottles each, can be cinched down with the built-in drawstrings and are positioned well for easy reach when hiking.
- Large mesh front pocket: The elastic front pocket and drawcords allow for easy access to rain-gear or storage of bulky items.
- Padded contoured shoulder straps and back: The padded back panel and shoulder straps are very comfortable, if not a little sweaty.
- Hydration bladder, hand loops, stash pocket: The pack comes with a few extra features that can be removed to save about three ounces (85 grams) of weight.
This pack isn’t the best in wet conditions as the fabric soaks through and gets heavy, in addition to the need to carry a bag liner/trash compactor bag. The back panel and shoulder straps can get very sweaty and are dirt magnets so make sure to put the pack down on its front/bottom.
READ NEXT – ULA Circuit Backpack Review
LiteAF 40L Curve Full Suspension (Prettiest Pack)
Weight: 25 – 34 ounces
Capacity: 40 + 15 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds
*These specs are for the stock 40L Curve. One of LiteAF’s primary selling points is that all packs can be customized (including your choice of 21 unique Ultra colors/patterns) and all are made to order.
Why We Love This Pack
LiteAF has gone all-in on Ultra fabric, DCF’s more abrasion-resistant ultralight successor. The Curve 40L is now exclusively made from Ultra 200 (that is, there’s an Ultra version and an XPac version but no more Dyneema). It was updated for 2023 with taller side pockets, easy to adjust webbing, new adjustable shoulder strap pockets, and Ultra Stretch upper side pockets. Ultra Stretch now comes standard with all Curve packs.
The pack retains its classic five-point side compression, S-curve shoulder straps, generous padding, and broad selection of funky colors. The 40L main pocket has plenty of capacity, but should you need more storage, the packs’ ample pockets, shock cord, and trekking pole loops accomodate up to 15L of extra stuff.
Jeff Garmire used the Curve (back when it was still a Dyneema pack) to hike the John Muir Trail and the Long Trail. “Despite experiencing inclement weather on both thru-hikes, I never had an issue with the contents of the pack getting wet. After over 2,000 miles, the pack is still watertight,” he reported at the time.
- Removable frame: The pack can be converted from an internal frame to a frameless style by removing two curved aluminum support stays (5 oz.)
- Back foam panel: Quarter-inch closed-cell foam is incorporated into the back of the pack to offer more comfort, especially when packing a bear canister. The back panel support is not removable.
- Adjustable hip belt: Four-inch-wide hip belt with the same quarter-inch closed-cell foam as the pack allows substantially more weight to be carried than the customizable option without the hip belt.
- Wide shoulder straps: The wider shoulder straps keep the pack in place when less weight is carried and more comfortable when it is fully loaded. The S shape mimics the natural curve of the body and is designed to stay put.
You’ll need to plan ahead if you want one of these bad boys as LiteAF is currently working with a nine-week lead time for custom Ultra packs (pretty standard for them). “Also, throughout months of use, I have never used the shock cord on the back and have since removed it,” said Jeff Garmire of the Curve.
Osprey Exos (AT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)
Weight: 44 – 46 ounces
Capacity: 48 liters (also comes in 38 and 58L)
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds
Why We Love This Pack
Osprey redesigned this popular pack in 2017, using a more durable face fabric and updating the mesh front pocket, but removing the hip belt and shoulder pockets. Still, this pack remains a perennial favorite among thru-hikers (it’s been ranked most popular pack for—spoiler alert—four years running in our AT hiker survey). It’s an ideal middle-of-the-road model, striking a nice balance between luxe and lightweight, built with lighter materials and some pared-down features.
Durability has increased over the years with updates to both the face fabric and the mesh pockets, one of the issues with previous iterations. The Exos’s trampoline-stye suspension is famously comfortable. The ventilated mesh system keeps your back cool while holding the pack tight against your body. The Exos also comes in a 38 and 58L 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.
- 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.
We’re all still 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.
Osprey Aura 65 | Atmos 65 (Best Fully-Featured)
Weight: 74 – 77 ounces
Capacity: 65 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 40 pounds
Why We Love This Pack
The trend is lighter weight, simpler packs, and each year, more new thru-hikers lean in that direction. However, for backpackers looking for more comfort with heavier loads, padding, and organization options, this is a great option and continues to be one of the best and most popular fully-featured backpacking 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, which also comes in 65 and 50-liter options.
- Front opening: The front opens vertically for easy access to the main compartment.
- Pockets on pockets on pockets: 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.
- Anti-Gravity suspension: The mother of all comfort for beefier packs.
This pack weighs 4.5 pounds empty, which is more than many people’s tents weigh. That’s the main thing working against it, but we’d also love to see some stretchier side pockets to make it easier to get water bottles in and out.
ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra (Best Ultralight Suspension System)
Weight: 21.4 ounces
Capacity: 47 + 13 liters
Maximum load capacity: 40 pounds
Why We Love This Pack
Zpacks replaced the old gridstop Arc Haul with the (allegedly) more durable, slightly lighter Arc Haul Ultra in 2022. Ultralight stays provide stable weight transfer from shoulders to hips, while the Lycra back panel keeps the pack suspended off your back for airflow—much needed during hot or humid hikes.
The pack doesn’t have hip belt pockets (boo!) but can be customized with optional add-ons like a hip belt pouch or fanny pack. The removable hip belt is dual-adjustable, and the torso length can be dialed in too. Like all good UL packs, the Arc Haul Ultra features a stretchy mesh back pocket for stashing wet or quick-access gear.
Zpacks’ suspension system continues to impress. The Arc Haul Ultra carries weight extremely well for something so light: 40 pounds of carrying capacity in a scant 22-ounce package is hard to argue with. One of our contributors pointed out that a pack with 60 liters’ and 40 pounds’ capacity isn’t necessarily in the “ultralight” spirit, but we couldn’t fit “Best Pack for Non-Minimalists Who Like a Few Luxuries and/or Need a Bear Can but Still Want a Sub-Two-Pound Pack” on one line.
- Absorbent, padded straps: The multilayer mesh on the shoulder straps and hip belt are cushy and absorb sweat while helping keep you cool.
- Roll-top closure and seam-sealing: This bag is highly water-resistant, with taped seams and a waterproof coating on the inside of the material. The roll-top closure lets you shrink your pack as your load lightens between resupplies.
- Fits all standard bear canisters: The Arc Haul Ultra will fit all standard bear canisters, as long as you stand it on its end in the upper half of the pack. This includes the BV500, which did not fit in previous versions of the Arc Haul.
- Angled side pockets: Durable side pockets fit several liters of water and are angled to help you grab bottles on the go.
We like hip belt pockets, and you’ll have to buy those separately with the Arc Haul Ultra (which is already pretty dang expensive to begin with). More than other brands, Zpacks gets knocked for a lack of durability, with repairs on the suspension being an often-reported issue.
More packs like this: Zpacks Arc Blast
READ NEXT – Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra Review
Nashville Cutaway (Best Fast and Light Pack)
Weight: 15 oz
Capacity: 33 + 9 liters
Maximum load capacity: 25 pounds (per manufacturer)
*Price and weight are based on X21 pack + shoulder straps. Doesn’t include accessories such as sternum strap, one-inch hipbelt, or side compression straps (which can be purchased as a $37 bundle or a la carte. Pack is also available in Ultra 100, Ultra 200, and DCF).
Why We Love This Pack
The Cutaway is by far the most recommended running-vest-style pack for hikers looking to travel fast and light. At 15 ounces (admittedly that’s not counting any accessories you may choose to add, such as a sternum strap or side compression straps), it’s the lightest backpack on this list.
The compact, frameless design is such that you should be able to fully access any external pocket on the pack while wearing it, while the shoulder harness disperses weight across the chest and keeps the pack snug when moving at speed. Shoulder strap water bottle pockets make hydration easy.
READ NEXT – Nashville Cutaway Review
- Customizable: Choose between four fabrics, four shoulder strap lengths, and a variety of add-ons to make the pack exactly as you want it.
- US-made: Nashville packs are handmade in Tennessee.
- Still keeps the classics: Traditional features like the roll-top closure with opposing buckles and classic mesh stow pocket on the front keep this pack feeling familiar.
- Pockets for days: Six pockets on the shoulder strap provide easy access to drinks, snacks, and smaller essentials.
- Bottom pocket: Stretchy pocket sewn along the bottom of the pack is easy to reach.
As with most cottage manufacturers, future Cutaway owners have to contend with long wait times for custom packs. Some shoulder strap lengths and most pack fabrics other than X21 are sold out as of this writing, for instance, so plan ahead. This is not a last-minute purchase. At 33L in the main pack with an extra nine liters of external storage capacity, this pack is best for true minimalists. If you have older or bulkier gear (or you can’t leave the luxury items at home), this is not the pack for you.
Six Moon Designs Swift V Hiking Backpack (Best Pack for Back Injuries)
Weight: 36 ounces
Capacity: 38 + 11 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds (25 pounds in frameless mode; per manufacturer)
Why We Love This Pack
The Swift V is based on 2020’s Six Moon Designs Swift X pack, but it’s cheaper and somewhat lighter. It’s a pretty standard roll-top, midweight pack, with the standout feature being its optional vest yoke. The pack uses a dynamic six-point connection system to attach the vest to the pack. The top of each side is connected to the top of the pack in a standard configuration, but the bottoms are free to move on an adjustable piece of webbing. This means that the pack is able to shift to conform to your body as your pack weight leans back and forth as you hike, making for more consistent dispersion of the weight.
In addition to its dynamic nature, the vest is just that, a wide expanse of shoulder strap to evenly disperse weight across the torso. This ample material space means lots of room for pockets. SMD managed to fit three fully functional pockets on each side of the vest, making for six pockets right there in your peripherals.
The pack got updated in 2022 with deeper interior pockets, two additional side straps, and Ultra Stretch pockets.
READ NEXT – Six Moon Designs Swift V Review
- The vest: This is the defining feature of the pack, hands down. The company’s founder designed the pack to be able to hike more comfortably after a bout with cancer, and that comfort is top-notch. This pack has a unique carry that really is something special. While a few other packs feature running vest harnesses, most are geared toward the fastpacking crowd. The Swift V, in contrast,
- The pockets: Technically part of the vest, these pockets make the organization of snacks, headphones, cameras, and trail trash a real breeze.
- A REAL optional hip belt: The removable hip belt on the pack is as good as the hip belt on pretty much any other pack of a similar size. There is a normal pocket on each side, the adjustment straps are easy to use and functional, and the internal frame configuration legitimately works and transfers weight.
- Removable frame: The pack features a Delrin hoop stay, which can be removed to shave three ounces from the pack’s weight. Just note that the overall carrying capacity is reduced by about 10 pounds without it. It’s rare to see a frameless pack with an adjustable torso length, another feature that makes the Swift V stand out from the crowd.
The Flight vest harness (by far the standout feature of the pack) is not standard issue. To use this pack optimally, it’ll cost you an extra $25.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa (Best Midweight Pack)
Weight: 31.5 ounces
Capacity: 36 + 24 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 30 pounds
Why We Love This Pack
- Hip belt: Belt with added stiffener and stay integration for superior load transfer and comfort.
Side pockets: Two large side mesh bottle pockets accessible while wearing pack.
Customization: Three hip belt size options for a more custom fit.
Breathability: Airmesh fabric on shoulder straps and hip belt for less friction, more cushion, and more comfort.
Attachments and extras: Trekking pole hardware for storing them outside the pack, plus a lash loop for an ice axe, a sit pad that doubles as extra back cushioning, and a removable stay.
Gossamer Gear now sends all their packs with a medium hipbelt installed, as this size fits most customers. If you want to size up or down, you’ll have to purchase a separate hipbelt and then return the medium version to the company for a refund. Not a huge deal, just know that the process will be a little clunky if you need a small or a large.
Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48 (Best Frameless)
MSRP: $245 – $325
Weight: 17 ounces
Capacity: 32 + 16 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 25 pounds (per manufacturer)
Why We Love This Pack
Mountain Laurel Designs has gained steady popularity on long-distance trails over the past few years. Just 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. 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. There are enough sizing options that finding the right fit isn’t an issue. You can also size up to the Exodus or down to the Burn if you really want to dial the fit. The Prophet is available in both Ultra 200 and reinforced 210D coated nylon ripstop, with added reinforcement on high-abrasion areas.
- 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. “Love them, best of all my packs,” said gear reviewer Alexander “GPS” Brown of the shoulder straps.
- 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.
We’ve noted this, but this pack is for ultralight hikers. Heavier pack loads won’t feel as supported. There’s a learning curve when it comes to frameless packs, so you should be an experienced backpacker (and/or willing to put in time and effort to learn how to use the Prophet) if you choose this pack.
Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul 40 (Best Custom Backpacking Pack)
Weight: 31.2 ounces
Capacity: 40 + 10 liters*
Maximum load capacity: 35 pounds
*Specs are for the standard base model with no customizations.
Why We Love This Pack
Everything from the two-tone pack colors to the pocket configuration and fabric type, is customizable on this pack, and there are all kinds of add-ons and accessories available to dress it up. Superior Wilderness Designs now makes the Long Haul with Ultra 200, or you can get the beefier Rugged Long Haul, which is made of Ultra 400. You can customize your hipbelt and torso size, pick your colors, and determine which (if any) add-ons you want.
Once you get the pack, you can decide whether to keep the internal aluminum stays or remove them for further weight savings. Our reviewer found the Long Haul extremely comfortable and loved the pack’s versatility and extensive organization options. These packs are all made to order, so be aware that there may be significant lead time before you receive yours.
READ NEXT – Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul 40 Review
- Thickly-padded shoulder straps: Unisex S-Straps with a half-inch of foam padding apiece provide comfort and support.
- Top V-strap: Easily accommodates bulky gear, like a bear canister, outside the pack above the roll-top closure.
- Waterproof material: Your choice of Dyneema or X-Pac (but be aware that the X-Pac versions are not seam sealed).
The foam back panel doesn’t offer much in the way of a suspension system, so back sweat is likely to occur. We also wish the X-Pac version was seam-sealed, which would render the pack fully waterproof (like the Dyneema version). Finally, it can take quite a while to receive one of these made-to-order packs. You’ll need to plan well in advance, as the company’s lead times are currently around 12 weeks.
Granite Gear Blaze 60 Women’s | Men’s (Lightest Fully-Featured Pack)
Weight: 3 pounds
Capacity: 60 liters
Maximum load capacity: 50 pounds
Why We Love This Pack
Not everyone needs to be ultralight, but an overbuilt four- or five-pound pack is still a tough pill to swallow for many thru-hikers. That’s where the Granite Gear Blaze comes in. It’s got all the bells and whistles of a fully-featured pack—such as a removable brain, side zipper access to the main compartment, a hydration pocket, and (importantly) generous padding.
The pack can comfortably handle loads up to 50 pounds while only weighing a scant three pounds itself. The only feature many of its competitors boast that the Blaze lacks is a bottom sleeping bag compartment.
The hip belt can also be worn separately with the removable brain clipped to it like a fanny pack for stylin’ snack-and-wallet storage on day hikes and zero days. I’m tickled by the concept, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it myself.
I love the versatility and straightforward design of this pack. There are plenty of spacious external pockets and straps that help you maximize organization and storage capacity. The hipbelt and torso length are both eminently adjustable so you can fine-tune the fit, while the brain can be removed altogether or reconfigured to be carried in a variety of different ways.
If you like the looks of the Blaze but blanch at the three-pound weight penalty, check out its pared-down cousin, the Granite Gear Crown2, a two-ish pound pack that’s popular among thru-hikers.
Read our review of the Blaze 60 here.
- Re-Fit hipbelt: In addition to the usual webbing straps that can be tightened and loosened as needed, Granite Gear hipbelts have a Velcro component in the center that can only be accessed by removing the belt from the pack, which allows even finer adjustments.
- Removable brain: Weighs about three ounces and can be removed from the pack altogether. You can also clip the brain to the pack’s sternum strap and wear it as an easy-access chest pocket, or you can remove the hipbelt from the pack, clip the brain to that, and voila! You’ve got yourself a capacious makeshift fanny pack for day hikes and trips around town on zero days.
- Zipper access to main compartment: Adds weight to the overall design but provides easy access to gear without a full-scale pack explosion.
The foam suspension system doesn’t provide a ton of ventilation and can lead to serious back sweat. Also, the straps on the outside of the pack (which I generally love) are extremely long and sometimes whip me in the face in high winds, which isn’t great. I finally trimmed the ones on the shoulder and sternum straps to prevent this from happening again.
Finally, it weighs three pounds. That’s not a lot considering what you’re getting, but many long-distance hikers won’t need the features or load-hauling capacity of this pack and may want to look at a lighter model.
Gossamer Gear G4-20 (Best Budget)
Weight: 25 ounces
Capacity: 30 + 12 liters
Maximum load capacity: 30 pounds (per manufacturer)
Why We Love This Pack
Gossamer Gear’s G4-20 cuts out the weight of a frame while remaining comfortable with loads of up to 30 pounds. The foam back panel doubles as a removable sit pad and does a surprisingly good job of transferring loads to the hips via a cushy hip belt. Meanwhile, Gossamer Gear’s classic, wide, thickly cushioned shoulder straps also do a great job of distributing what burden is left for the shoulders.
It’s the simple, minimalist design that makes it an awesome pack—no lids or sleeping bag pockets on this thing. The roll-top closure and side compression cord keep it sleek as food stores dwindle, and the combination of rear mesh stuff pocket and two exterior side pockets provide ample storage for quick-access items. One exception to the minimalist ethos is the zippered pocket above the rear mesh that is perfect for securing important items like a headlamp, wallet, or keys. There are lighter packs out there, but the G4-20 strikes the right balance of comfort, features, and low weight.
- Frameless: The foam back panel / sit pad does a decent job of transferring loads to the hips, but excess weight should be avoided. Gossamer Gear rates the G4-20 fit to carry 30 pounds maximum, or 25 pounds for comfort.
- Roll-top: This is great for compressing bulky gear or shrinking the pack as food is consumed.
- Zipper pocket: This outside pocket provides secure storage for important, on-hand items. If you’re nervous about ditching a pack lid, this is a great compromise.
- Asymmetrical side pockets: One side is taller, one is shorter. Both hold two Smartwater bottles securely while maintaining pack-on access.
- Removable sit pad: The foam back panel is also a sit pad that keeps your butt comfy during breaks. Gossamer Gear offers other versions, or you can make your own.
- Sizing: The G4-20 comes in three, non-adjustable torso lengths with a fixed hip belt.
By paring down the features of the G4-20, Gossamer Gear doesn’t leave much to nitpick. The one potentially major issue involves the hipbelt, which is fixed and cannot be exchanged for a different size. A hiker’s torso length is a poor predictor of their waist measurement, and the G4-20 hip belt sizing excludes skinny hikers with a medium or long torso. On a thru-hike, a 30-inch minimum waist for a medium pack (32-inch minimum in size large) might not be tight enough to account for weight loss. There are inventive ways to add padding to get around this, but starting with a smaller hip belt is the best option.
It is also important to note that the comfort of the G4-20, and frameless packs in general, is highly dependent on not just how much is being carried, but also how it is packed. A little practice is needed to find the most comfortable configuration.
The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking: FAQs
What Capacity Do You Need?
This depends on what you’re doing. If you just have one pack for all your outings, a 50L pack (or thereabouts) is the safest option. 50-55 liters will carry everything you need for the majority of treks and between most resupplies while preventing you from overpacking. A smaller pack (35- 45-liter range) is only smart for experienced long-distance backpackers with ultralight setups. If you pack heavier items, or your trail requires longer water carries, time between resupplies, or extra gear, look for something in the 60- 65-liter range.
One of our spec categories is “maximum load capacity,” but keep in mind that we’ve found manufacturers tend to be a bit generous when listing maximum weight capacity for their packs. Err on the side of caution when loading the bag. If our reviewers recommend a weight, it means they’ve personally tested it and can attest to the load limit. But again… these are not scientific load recommendations.
Per conventional wisdom, your backpack should be the last piece of gear you buy. That way you can size the volume of your gear and you’ll know for sure what size of pack you need.
READ NEXT –
What are the most important features to look for in the best backpacks for thru-hiking?
It depends on how much on-the-go convenience you want. Here are a few features (mostly pockets, let’s be real) to look for when you choose a pack.
Brain: Brains (or “top lids”) have more space than hip belt pockets and more protection than front mesh pockets. They’re a great addition for mid-size items you don’t want getting lost in your pack. When I went to a more lightweight pack, I definitely missed the top lid. Many brains are removable with zippered pockets on the top and bottom.
Hip belt: A hip belt is a must for many hikers. It offers support and weight distribution, especially critical if you are carrying a heavier load. Look for a padded hip belt with easily adjustable buckles. You’ll probably go down a size or two on a thru-hike, and if the belt doesn’t cinch all the way down, it won’t offer enough weight distribution to make it worthwhile. Pockets on the hip belt are clutch, perfect for a headlamp, small water filter, and snacks. Some ultralight hikers opt out and use fanny packs, which they can around town to keep valuables close.
READ NEXT – The Best Fanny Packs for Thru-Hiking
Sternum strap: Another way to keep your pack load close to your body and relieve pressure off your shoulders. This is easily adjustable and should sit flat under your collarbone. The Six Moon Designs Swift X has two sternum straps, which provide double the surface area for weight distribution. Our tester also said they reduced chafing.
Load lifters: These are important for heavier loads and are often found on mid-range and fully-featured packs. They attach to the pack body (or frame, like the Zpacks Arc Haul) and shoulder straps, and can tighten to secure the pack load closer to your body, which reduces direct loading on the tops of your shoulders. Release the load lifters to counterbalance a steep descent. Tighten them against your body for steep climbs to keep the weight close.
Side pockets: These are where your water bottles go. If you like to be able to reach your water bottles while walking, look for side pockets with an angled cut so you can grab them and put them back without asking for help. The material should be stretchy but durable, and comfortably fit at least a one-liter bottle of water. Also, they should be tall enough that a water bottle won’t fall out.
Shoulder pockets: Shoulder-strap pockets are great. It’s kind of a bummer that they aren’t on more packs these days. Do I sound old? I loved the stretchy mesh pockets on my 2015 Exos. I kept my phone in there for quick access for pictures, and also gummy worms. You can buy shoulder pockets separately from a few different companies (I have this one from Hyperlite) but they can be clunky.
Fully Featured, Ultralight, or Somewhere in Between?
This depends on your packing style. People with a sub-10-pound base weight can confidently carry a frameless pack. But if you’re hitting a trail with long water carries, remember that water weighs two pounds per liter, and will bring up your total weight.
Lay out 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 Crown2 will work swell. Less than a ten-pound base weight? You’re a candidate for a smaller capacity, frameless pack like a Pa’lante Pack or ULA CDT.
We’ve written at length about the temptation of going ultralight. 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 are the best thru-hiking backpacks for carrying heavy loads, many thru-hikers ditch enough gear within the first few hundred miles to not warrant the extra suspension and padding.
Midweight models like the Mariposa, Exos, or Swift X 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.
PSA: Packs Come in Different Torso Sizes
A pack is something you wear, therefore they come in different sizes. This may sound obvious, but it came as a surprise to me when I bought my first backpacking pack (and apparently I still can’t figure it out). Your shoulder straps should extend straight out from your shoulders, not drop down (torso too short) or extend up (torso too long). Having the wrong size pack means the pack won’t distribute the weight as it was designed to. You will feel fatigue in your shoulders as it pulls back, while not sitting correctly on your hips.
Also! Don’t assume that because you’re a certain size in one brand, you’re that size all around. I am a Small in Hyperlite Mountain Gear and ULA, but a Medium in Gossamer Gear, and I blew it by ordering my G4-20 in a small. If you can, it’s always better to try the pack on. If you can’t try it on, most companies have reference pages where you can measure your torso and know what size to order, along with instructions for measuring your torso to their specifications.
READ NEXT – How To Adjust Your Backpack Fit
Why Should You Trust Us?
Because we’re so incredibly intelligent, of course! Attractive, too. (Not to mention extremely humble).
But if that isn’t enough to impress you, there’s also the fact that everyone who contributed to this article is an experienced thru-hiker with thousands of on-trail miles under their belt. We’re gear nerds who love putting our equipment to the test on trails long and short, and we’ve tried dozens of packs in pursuit of a better backcountry experience.
Moreover, we survey hundreds of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers every year to learn about their behaviors, demographics, and—you guessed it—gear preferences. That means our picks for the best thru-hiking backpacks aren’t just our opinions: they’re based on years of feedback from the thru-hiking community.
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