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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 2022 list of the best thru-hiking backpacks on recommendations from Trek writers, our gear testing team, the 2019 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.
Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking:
Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking FAQs:
Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2022
ULA Circuit (PCT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)
Weight: 37 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds (per manufacturer)
What We Love
The ULA Circuit has been the highest-rated pack according to Halfway Anywhere’s annual PCT thru-hiker survey for two 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 400 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.
What We’d Change
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.
LiteAF 40L Curve Full Suspension (Prettiest Pack)
Capacity: 40L + 15L
Weight: 25 – 32 ounces
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 Dyneema colors/patterns) and all are made to order.
The Curve 40L is designed with both comfort and simplicity in mind. The five-point side compression, S-curve shoulder straps, and the Dyneema sealed internal pocket both protect the contents and carry them easily. The water bottle pockets were designed with thru-hikers in mind and are expandable with shock cord to hold two 2L Smart Water Bottles. Four trekking pole loops, shock cord, and a spacious back mesh pocket easily expand to carry another 15 liters worth of gear on the exterior of the pack. I used a custom version of this pack to hike both 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.
- Removable frame: The pack can be converted from an internal frame to a frameless style by removing two curved aluminum support stays (3 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: 4” 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 stagnant.
What We’d Change
Hip belt pockets have become a large part of what I look for in the best backpacking packs, and the model I had made incorporated them into the design. Also, throughout months of use, I have never used the shock cord on the back and have since removed it. There is also a 12-week lead time for most of their packs, so if you’re ordering one, plan accordingly.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest (Best Waterproof Pack)
Weight: 2 pounds 3 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds
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 webbing and buckles are easy to adjust on the go. I chose the larger size because you get 15 liters more capacity for four ounces, and it was worth it to me for extended trips.
- Foam shoulder straps: Straps are built with Hardline / Dyneema and have closed-cell foam padding.
- Hip belt pockets: Large and smartly shaped. 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.
- Large side pockets: Sensing a theme here? The pockets on this pack are clutch. I can fit a SmartWater bottle and a large Gatorade bottle in just one side pocket. I usually throw my tent poles and random items in the other side pocket.
What We’d Change
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 mesh or some other type of suspension. The pack also doesn’t come with shoulder pockets, but you can buy them separately. I have the shoulder pocket for this pack, and it’s convenient, but still feels somewhat clunky. I also can’t reach my water bottles on the go, but we’ve started to think maybe I’m just not flexible. It would be nice to have stretchy front and side pockets, but then again, you’d be compromising the durability. Personal preference.
Osprey Exos (AT Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Pack)
Capacity: 48 liters (also comes in 58L)
Weight: 2 pounds, 9 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds
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 (most popular pack for four years running on 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 their update on 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 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.
What We’d Change
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)
Capacity: 65 liters
Weight: 4.5 pounds
Maximum load capacity: Up to 50 pounds
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, 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 and comes in 50 and 65-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.
What We’d Change
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 (Best Ultralight Pack)
Weight: 22.1 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 40 pounds, per manufacturer
The taut mesh Arc Frame suspension system provides stable weight transfer from shoulders to hips while keeping the pack suspended off your back for airflow—much needed during hot or humid hikes. The Arc Haul has the option for add-ons like the hip belt pouch, front pouch (think fanny pack), and the pack itself has plenty of options for size adjustments. The hip belt is removable and highly adjustable. Meanwhile, the load lifters attach to the frame for maximum impact when tightening or loosening. The shoulder straps are adjustable to account for a variety of torso lengths, and the back pocket is a stretchy mesh for stashing wet or quick-access gear.
The Arc Haul opens from the top, and features a roll-top closure, and the body of the pack is made with durable gridstop fabric with a waterproofing coating on the inside. Overall, Zpacks’ suspension system continues to impress, and the Arc Haul carries weight extremely well for something so light: 40 pounds of carrying capacity in a scant 23-ounce package is awfully hard to argue with.
- Absorbent, padded straps: UL packs often sacrifice strap padding and comfort to save grams, but these shoulder straps and hip belt multilayer mesh 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 most standard bear canisters: The Arc Haul fits most bear canisters except the BV500.
- Angled side pockets: Durable side pockets fit several liters of water, and are angled to help you grab water on the go
What We’d Change
We like hip belt pockets, and you’ll have to buy those separately with the Arc Haul. 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
Mountainsmith Zerk 40 (Best Fast and Light Pack)
Weight: 29 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 30 pounds (per manufacturer)
This pack has gotten quite a bit of hype in recent times, including a coveted Editors’ Choice Award in 2020 from Backpacker Magazine. The Zerk 40 offers hikers a totally different feel and fit. As a piece of gear that gets worn for hours on end day after day, this can be a game-changer. New for 2021, the Zerk features ultra-durable, 100% recycled 210d Extreema nylon and an updated, abrasion-resistant mesh in the exterior pockets.
The pack is inspired by running vests. It has seriously beefy shoulder straps that help disperse weight across the chest. In addition to these unique shoulder straps, the other defining feature of the pack is the ludicrous number of handy pockets. There are two layers on each shoulder strap, as well as an extra mesh pocket that sticks out from the traditional water bottle pockets. That makes for six extremely handy pockets that are easily accessible without taking the pack off. The Zerk 40 is made for hikers who love to crank out miles and are willing to carry a little extra pack weight in exchange for more comfortable shoulder straps than other highly UL packs offer.
See our review here.
- Shoulder straps: Wide ultrarunning-inspired shoulder straps offer a totally different fit and feel than traditional shoulder straps. They also offer excellent weight distribution across the chest.
- Seriously SO many pockets: This pack is made to be worn for hours on end without being taken off, so that after piddling through Northern California, you can crush miles and beat the winter to Canada (speaking from experience).
- 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.
- Accessories: The Zerk comes with a few optional accessories that can be used depending on your environment, like straps to attach a bear canister on top and a removable hip belt.
What We’d Change
Clip-on webbing doesn’t exactly make for the best hip belt. Our tester could barely tell a difference while wearing it. The minimalist design means there’s not much in the way of a suspension/ventilation system, so prepare for back sweat.
Six Moon Designs Swift V Hiking Backpack (Best Pack for Back Injuries)
Weight: 36 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 35 pounds (per manufacturer)
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-closing, 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.
Read our review of the Swift V here.
- The vest: This is the defining feature of the pack, hands down. It was designed to help the company’s founder 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.
- 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.
What We’d Change
The roll-top closure does NOT have side compression straps as an option, meaning that you have to buckle the pack shut to itself. It works, but it isn’t as sleek. Also, the vest (by far the standout feature of the pack) is not standard issue. To use this pack optimally, it’ll cost you an extra $20.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa
Weight: 31.2 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 30 pounds
There are lighter 60-liter packs on 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 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. It’s also famous for its durability. 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 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.
What We’d Change
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)
Capacity: 48 liters
Weight: 17 ounces
Maximum load capacity: Up to 25 pounds (per manufacturer)
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. 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. The Prophet is built with 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.
- 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.
What We’d Change
Plan ahead when ordering and customizing this pack. Lead time can be up to two months depending on the season. Also, 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 intend to choose this pack.
Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul 50 (Best Custom Backpacking Pack)
Capacity: 60 liters (50 internal)*
Weight: 31.5 ounces
Maximum load capacity: 35 pounds
*Specs are for the standard base model with no customizations.
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. The base model you choose will determine the pack’s capacity (40 or 50L) and fabric type (Dyneema or a variety of weights of X-Pac). From there, you can choose 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.
Check out our review of the Long Haul 40 here.
- 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).
What We’d Change
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 22-24 weeks.
Granite Gear Blaze 60 (Lightest Fully-Featured Pack)
Capacity: 60 liters
Weight: 3 pounds
Maximum load capacity: 50 pounds
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 (and padding) of a fully-featured pack and 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.
I love the versatility and the clean, 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 Crown 2, 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.
What We’d Change
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 doesn’t feel 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)
Capacity: 42 liters
Weight: 25 ounces
Maximum load capacity: 30 pounds (per manufacturer)
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.
What We’d Change
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” minimum waist for a medium pack (32” 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.
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.
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. 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 Crown 2 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 more: how to adjust the fit of the best backpacks for thru-hiking.
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 2017, 2018, and 2019 thru-hiker surveys. (2021 survey forthcoming…tune in next week!)
More of the Best Backpacking Gear of the Year
Original article by Maggie Slepian.