The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2024

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 2024 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.

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Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2024

Gossamer Gear Mariposa (AT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Gossamer Gear Mariposa.

MSRP: $285
Weight: 31.2 ounces
Capacity: 36 + 24 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

Since we started collecting the data, 2023 was the first time that the Osprey Exos/Eja was not the most popular pack among AT Thru-hikers. Instead, that title goes to the ever-popular Gossamer Gear Mariposa. There are lighter 60-liter packs on the market, but none that carry a full load, easily swallowing even the bulkiest of bear canisters, as comfortably as Gossamer Gear’s Mariposa.

For thru-hikers who want the supportive, well-ventilated comfort of a fully-featured pack, only without all the unnecessary bells and whistles (and weight), look no further than this fan favorite. The Mariposa seems to do everything well, managing to strike a delicate balance between streamlined simplicity and luxurious comfort. A feature-rich, quality pack at a fair price.


  • Hip belt: Belt with added stiffener and stay integration for superior load transfer and comfort.
  • Side pockets: Two large side mesh bottle pockets are accessible while wearing the 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

Gossamer Gear now sends all their packs with a medium hip belt installed, as this size fits most customers. If you want to size up or down, you’ll have to purchase a separate hip belt 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.

More packs like this: ULA Circuit, Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider, Gossamer Gear Gorilla

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ULA Circuit (PCT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: ULA Circuit.

MSRP: $280
Weight: 37 ounces
Capacity: 39 + 29 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds

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 (internal + external) 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.

There is also an Ultra version of the Circuit available, which cuts a few ounces and gives added weatherproofing benefits of this awesome fabric.


  • 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

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 (remember that Ultra version?). 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.

More packs like this: ULA CDT, ULA OHM 2.0, Mountainsmith Zerk 40

READ NEXT — ULA Circuit Backpack Review

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Osprey Exos (Men’s) | Osprey Eja (Women’s) (Best Midweight Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Osprey Exos/Eja.

MSRP: $240
44 – 46 ounces
Capacity: 48 liters (38L, and 58L versions available)
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

Osprey has redesigned this popular pack a few times over the years with more durable face fabric, updating the mesh front pocket, and finally reintroducing hip belt pockets after their inexplicable elimination. Throughout it all, this pack has remained a perennial favorite among thru-hikers (the Exos and Eja combined were ranked as the most popular pack on the AT from 2015-2022, since we started tracking these things with 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 the aforementioned material updates, and 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

We’re stoked that the hip belt pockets are back, but some of us are still 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.

More packs like this: REI Flash 55, Osprey EjaGregory Maven

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Osprey Aura AG 65 (Women’s) | Atmos AG 65 (Men’s) (Best Fully-Featured)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Osprey Aura/Atmos.

MSRP: $340
71-74 ounces
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 heavier packs.

Nobody’s Perfect

This pack weighs 4.5 pounds empty, which is double that of the most popular ultralight packs. That’s the main thing working against it, but it makes sense considering the durable materials and feature-rich design. If you want a lightweight carrier, then this is not the pack for you.

More packs like this: Gregory Deva, Gregory Baltoro, Osprey Aether, Osprey Ariel

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Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48 (Best Frameless)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet.

MSRP: $245 – $325
Weight: 17 ounces
Capacity: 32 + 16 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 25 pounds

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 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 X and reinforced 200D coated nylon ripstop, with added reinforcement on high-abrasion areas.


  • Side 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 external pockets: The classic large front and side pockets are durable ripstop with mesh corners for draining.

Nobody’s Perfect

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.

More packs like this: Pa’lante Packs V2, Mountain Laurel Designs Burn, ULA CDT

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Durston Gear Kakwa 40 (Most Capable Ultralight Pack / Best Value)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Durston Gear Kaka 40.

MSRP: $250
Weight: 27.3 ounces
Capacity: 40 + 15 liters
Maximum load capacity: 45 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

The Kakwa might just be the most feature-rich ultralight pack available. Every stitch, pocket, and buckle has been carefully considered by designer, Dan Durston, to contribute to his vision of a backpack that makes few sacrifices. The result? An incredibly durable pack that can comfortably haul heavier-than-average loads and comes equipped with handy features such as shoulder pockets. Oh yeah, and it also weighs less than two pounds and is one of the cheaper picks on this list, hence the additional “Best Value” award

Seriously, if you’re looking for an ultralight pack but aren’t ready to give up your load capacity by going frameless, then the Kakwa should be a serious consideration. Its versatility makes it a competent choice for going fast and light on the AT, or for hauling huge water loads on the CDT.

And don’t be put off by the minimal 40-liter capacity. If you need more space, the Kakwa is also available in a 55-liter version. This is the same affordable, premium pack, just with more space.


  • EPL 200 Ultra fabric: Colloquially known as Ultra 200, this 200-denier woven laminate is the next great thing in ultralight fabrics since Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF/DCH). Ultra utilizes the same Dyneema unicorn hairs that make DCF super strong for the weight, weaving them with polyester for more puncture and abrasion resistance.
  • U frame:  Made from a single aluminum tube bent into a shape that kind of resembles an inverted U, the Kakwa frame is the invisible hero of this pack. The horizontal crossbar provides another dimension of stiffness that is often lacking in ultralight backpacks, and allows the Kakwa to carry heavy loads more comfortably and resist barreling.
  • QuickPocket: A vertical zippered pocket integrated into the left side pocket offers secure storage for items that might be too large for the hip belt pockets. Think paper maps, gloves, beanie, snacks, or a large cell phone.
  • Shoulder strap pockets: Each shoulder strap rocks a stretchy, cinch-top pocket. Yet another option for keeping essentials and snacks within reach.
  • Load lifters: Adjustable straps connect the top of each shoulder strap with the pack’s frame. Often absent in ultralight packs, these little wonders help transfer weight off of the shoulders when the load gets heavy and can help dial in how snuggly the pack contacts one’s back.

Nobody’s Perfect

There’s not a lot to nitpick about the Kakwa, but hikers who love a cavernously stretchy outer mesh pocket might find the no-stretch Kakwa mesh (chosen for durability) a little restricting. And call us greedy, but more color options wouldn’t be a bad thing in our opinion, just sayin’.

READ NEXT — Durston Kakwa 40 Backpack Review

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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 40 (Most Rugged Ultralight / Simplest Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest.

MSRP: $349-$369
Weight: 30 or 32.4 ounces
Capacity: 40 + 10 liters
Maximum load capacity: 40 pounds

Why We Love This Pack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear has perfected the art of the no-frills, ultralight, rugged backpack. Based on the miracle fabric known as Dyneema Composite Hybrid (DCH), HMG harnesses the minimalist ethos with a pack that is essentially a large tube accompanied by a few extra pockets. The result is a lightweight pack that, through simplicity and intelligent material choices, can handle just about everything.

The DCH is not only ready for bushwacks and rocky scrambles, but it is also fully waterproof when new. Combined with the roll-top closure, this tandem results in a pack that is at home in soggy conditions and desert grit.

But don’t let the simplicity and low weight fool you. HMG’s packs are also capable load haulers. They are also available in a few different versions and capacities to suit different environments. The Southwest, with its solid fabric outer pockets, is available in  40-, 55-, and 70-liter versions. So are the HMG Windrider and Junction, which are based on the same general design, but use different outer pocket fabrics.


  • DCH material: Super strong and super lightweight, DCH is also waterproof and durable, making it a great pack material. Woven polyester face fabric improves puncture and abrasion resistance over DCF, so this pack is ready to be tossed around. HMG offers the Southwest in two DCH options, white DCH50 and black DCH150, which is heavier duty.
  • Solid external pockets: The most durable of HMG’s pocket materials, hardline is made with Dyneema fibers to withstand abrasion from grit and rocks. It is also a solid fabric, so it’s less likely to get caught on branches during bushwacks.
  • 2 aluminum stays: This simple design is lightweight yet effective. Two vertical stays help transfer weight to the hip belt, topping out at 40 pounds. They are also easily removable for lighter trips.
  • Roll-top closure: This simple closure system is great for a lot of reasons, including simplicity and weather-proofness. Like a drybag, it’s good at keeping stuff out and also keeps the pack tidy as pack volume fluctuates trip-to-trip, section-to-section.

Nobody’s Perfect

Dyneema has always demanded a premium price, and HMG’s packs have always been some of the most expensive UL options available, especially considering that other packs include other coveted features like shoulder pockets. Budget-conscious hikers might want to look for a different fabric, which means no HMG. And speaking of features, HMG packs are noticeably devoid of bells and whistles (okay, they do include a whistle). For backpackers who like a lot of pockets and storage options, these are not the packs for you.

More packs like this: HMG Unbound, HMG Windrider, Durston Kakwa

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ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra (Best Ultralight Suspension System)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra.

MSRP: $399
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 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

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

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Granite Gear Blaze 60 (Women’s | Men’s) (Lightest Fully-Featured Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Granite Gear Blaze 60.

MSRP: $300
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. 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 hip belt 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 Crown3, a two-ish pound pack that’s popular among thru-hikers.

READ NEXT — Granite Gear Blaze 60 Review


  • Re-Fit hip belt: In addition to the usual webbing straps that can be tightened and loosened as needed, Granite Gear hip belts 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 hip belt 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

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.

More packs like this: Granite Gear Crown3, Osprey Aura, Gregory Paragon

Kelly Floro

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Gossamer Gear G4-20 (Best Budget Ultralight Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Gossamer Gear G4-20.

MSRP: $195
Weight: 24.7 ounces
Capacity: 30 + 12 liters
Maximum load capacity: 30 pounds

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 a 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

The one potentially major issue involves the hip belt, 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.

Owen Eigenbrot

More packs like this: Six Moon Designs Swift X, Gossamer Gear Kumo

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LiteAF 40L Curve Full Suspension (Best Custom Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: LiteAF 40L Curve.

MSRP: $345+
Weight: 25 – 34 ounces
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 or Ultra X 200. 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 a 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 accommodate 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

You’ll need to plan ahead if you want one of these bad boys as LiteAF is currently working with a six-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.

More packs like this: Gossamer Gear Gorilla, Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest, Zpacks Arc Blast

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Six Moon Designs Swift V (Best Pack for Back Injuries)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Six Moon Designs Swift V.

MSRP: $250-$275
Weight: 36 ounces
Capacity: 41 + 15 liters
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds (25 pounds in frameless mode)

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.

Nobody’s Perfect

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.

More packs like this: Six Moon Designs Swift X, Gossamer Gear G4-20, ULA Ohm 2.0

Carl Stanfield

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Nashville Cutaway (Best Fast and Light Pack)

Best thru-hiking backpacks: Nashville Cutaway.

MSRP: $321*
15 oz
33 + 9 liters
Maximum load capacity:
25 pounds (per manufacturer)

*Price and weight are based on VX07 pack + shoulder straps. Doesn’t include accessories such as sternum strap, one-inch hipbelt, or side compression straps (which can be purchased a la carte.

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


  • 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.

Nobody’s Perfect

As with most cottage manufacturers, future Cutaway owners have to contend with long wait times for custom packs. 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.

More Packs Like This: Mountainsmith Zerk 40, Six Moon Designs Flight 30, Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30

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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.


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What are the most important features to look for in the best backpacks for thru-hiking?

maggie slepian backpacking hyperlite mountain gear

I realize I do not know how to have my picture taken. Now that we’re clear on that, the HMG 3400 Southwest has some great features (large hip belt pockets, deep front pocket), but I miss having a top lid, and I had to get my shoulder pocket separately. When you choose a lighter pack, you lose some features.

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 to get 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.

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Fully Featured, Ultralight, or Somewhere in Between?

maggie slepian jeff garmire backpacking

Sometimes even ultralight hikers carry a full load. This Elemental Horizons Kalais XT is packed with fishing gear, a six-pack, and a jar of salsa.

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 Crown3 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.

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PSA: Packs Come in Different Torso Sizes

I mistakenly ordered a size small Gossamer Gear G4-20 (left). The torso was a few inches too short, making the hip belt float around my waist like a technical tutu. I exchanged it for a medium (right), which fits well. You can see the shoulder straps extending straight back, and the hip belt sitting, well, on my hips.

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

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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.

Check out AT hikers’ favorite thru-hiking backpacks from the 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022 thru-hiker surveys. (2023 survey forthcoming…stay tuned!)

Competence and backpacking proficiency personified.

More of the Best Backpacking Gear of the Year

Original article by Maggie Slepian. Alex “GPS” Brown and Rachel Shoemaker contributed to the 2022 update of this list. Owen Eigenbrot refreshed it for 2023.

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 33

  • ighwoman : Jun 14th

    I can’t believe that this review did not include the most versatile, midweight pack on the market: the Granite Gear Blaze A.C.60. For women like myself that have extremely short torsos (14.5″) there are almost NO PACKS that will fit me. But the Blaze A.C.60 not only fits me, but at less than three pounds has a fully functional frame and suspension system and user friendly pockets and compression system.

    • Mr. Buzzo : Jun 15th

      Granite Gear for the win!

  • Bill Guiffre : Jun 19th

    On the Exos 48. I just bought one. And you know those tight side pockets you talk about? Those are perfect! This is the first pack that I (with my mangoed shoulders due to a past life of motorcycle racing) can get my water bottle in and out while wearing the pack. And I can put my snacks and such in those side pockets (that I put in the hipbelt pockets that I have on my other packs and that they took away on the Exos. I wouldn’t trust them with my phone but I plan to use it for my bear spray as well. Love the pack. Great southeast summer pack (hot and humid) due to the awesome aeration on the back (primary reason I bought it). In other words, all those who moan about the hipbelt pockets, they just relocated it by tightening up the mesh on the side pockets. I have only put 40 miles on it so far, small things are staying in it for me.

  • Tiger Cub : Jun 23rd

    Did you all check out the Seek Outside Flight? I think it’s a better option than the Osprey Aura/Atmos for heavier loads– and it’s half the weight. It’s also most excellent for anyone with shoulder problems who needs more weight going to the hipbelt than most UL hikers.

  • Bill Pomper : Oct 16th

    What – No external frames? sorry – love my old Camp Trails Astral Cruiser!

  • Gregg : Feb 25th

    So glad you put SWD back on the list after repping them a few years ago. Bought mine two years ago and they are great. The customization is everything you could want as a gear geek. It is the unicorn of backpacks!!! My dealings with the customer service has been excellent as well. All my questions were answered thoroughly within a day or two.

  • Joshua : Feb 26th

    The fact that a Waymark Pack didn’t even make this list is very surprising to me.

  • wayne : Feb 26th

    What, no AtomPacks MO or ATOM+, very strange biased list indeed.

  • Katbird : Feb 27th

    I’m disappointed that you included Zpacks. Their quality control is poor and customer service is atrocious. They have shown they aren’t interested in supporting hikers.

  • Lara Antonia : Mar 3rd

    I can’t chose! I’m going crazy with this decision and my window frame (PCT end of April) is tightening up! hahaha

  • Paulie D : Jan 14th

    I’m always surprised the Gregory Zulu never shows up on any list. It’s full featured, very comfortable, not terribly heavy and works really well for me as a section hiker.

  • Chris : Jan 19th

    I’m a big fan of the Granite Gear Crown 2 60. In the 2 lb range, with a lot of the features of full, traditional packs, but not the 5 lb weight, and in many case can be purchased for $150 or less.

  • Bertie BigTime : Jan 20th

    Lite AF does have the prettiest packs! Rainbow Sparkle is the prettiest pattern they have. You chose the wrong pattern to highlight.

  • Mikeycat : Jan 16th

    I feel like the tent and backpack “best of” articles have been recycled for the past few years, with only minor tweaks. Maybe because things haven’t changed that much, or certain brands haven’t gained as much traction as some readers would like. This is supposedly based on surveys of thru hikers of the big three trails, or so we think… Hopefully the writer/editor isn’t being journalistically lazy and just reposting an old article and is actually making sure it’s up to date in all realms of current trends.

    Sorry to burst some commenters’ bubbles, but those budget friendly weigh-a-ton Ozark Trail packs and those lesser known European or mom & pop brands aren’t always going to make the top three list…because not enough thru hikers use them for thru hiking. (pick a reason…price, weight, availability)

    I’ve got a few packs mentioned here and in comments… ULA, LiteAF, SeekOutside, Volpi, GossamerGear, DurstonGear, a few army russacks, some random packs from Bass Pro & Walmart, and even an old Kelty (which I gave to a friend). They all have their pro’s & con’s and all serve their own purpose. I’d choose my Circuit, Curve 40L or Kakwa 40 for overnight hikes, and my Catalyst or Unaweep 4800 for winter trips.

  • DAVID FIRARI : Jan 16th

    I have an older model Exos 58. Great bag. Love the back meshing and the overall comfort. I’m taking it on my AT thru-hike this year.

    That said, I’m very confused about the comment about the Exos’ hip pockets. Osprey updated the Exos last year (2022) and it has hip pockets now. If you follow the link to REI in the section about the Exos you can see the model using them in some of the photos.

    • DAVID FIRARI : Jan 16th

      I think I understand my confusion better now. There’s a footnote at the bottom of this article that this is an update to an original article. My guess is the paragraph about the Exos missing its hip pockets was overlooked during the update.

      This also explains why the 2023 list “posted” in January already has comments from February and March. Its because it’s the same article as last year, just updated. The comments are from older iterations of this article.

      I understand the ease of updating a large article instead of starting from scratch, but I wish that information that is repeated from the prior update is vetted for accuracy before being posted again.

  • Rolf Asphaug : Jan 20th

    Great article! We all have different preferences. I’m currently really happy with my frameless Volpi UL40 for shorter/summer trips – if I ever get serious about cutting luxuries it’ll work for a thru hike – and my Granite Gear Crown 60 for trips where I want to carry more voluminous gear. I’m awaiting delivery of Durston’s new Kakwa 55L pack, which may replace my Granite Gear pack as it promises lighter weight, more features, and waterproof material.

  • Matt : Dec 18th

    Maybe someone here can clear up something that’s been confusing me. I frequently see comments on how “spacious” the ULA Circuit is (this article included). But when I look at the actual specs of the pack, it’s the same internal 40L as half the other packs on this list. So how come on the Circuit it’s “one of the roomiest packs you can get”, while on something like the Kakwa we’re cautioned to not be “put off by the minimal 40-liter capacity”. And yes, I get that there’s an external capacity component here, but I (and I expect most others) don’t count external volume the same way we do internal volume due to how we load the pack (ie it doesn’t really matter how deep the side pockets are to me, they’re still just going to be holding mostly smart water bottles).

  • H : Dec 19th

    Disappointed that no AtomPacks made it onto the list. Atom+ and The Mo are superb packs in all sizes (and custom colourways & extras are a huge bonus), definitely not to be missed out on if you’re testing “the best”!

  • Chris Harpham : Feb 2nd

    I, too, am surprised by the lack of AtomPacks. Although I don’t doubt your research is high quality, and much of my research is based on The Trek, you can’t go five minutes of backpack searching without AtomPacks being hailed as one of the absolute best, with only cost or lead time being noted as a barrier to ownership. I’ll be going for a Mo Custom for the AT next year and have the great joy of being able to get it made in the colours of the charity I’ll be raising money for. I know another hiker going out to start the AT in less than two weeks who has a Mo as well, and we’d both come to the decision of that pack totally independently, I only found out when he shared his link!


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