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Published Jan. 5, 2022

With all the options and activities available to us, how do you choose the best backpack for your outdoor recreation needs? 

From day hiking to elk hunting, a backpack is needed. While it would be nice to have a one activity fits all backpack, for specialized activities, we have varying needs. For instance, keeping your fishing tackle organized requires a very different pack than through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

This roundup gives you an overview of some of the best backpacks for several different outdoor activities.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Backpack for Outdoor Use

The best backpacks have similar features that help you stay comfortable carrying all your gear. So, before jumping into each category below, get to know a few of the top considerations when buying a backpack for any outdoor adventure. 

The considerations below are primarily for packs designed for human use. We list one dog-specific pack on the best backpacks list. Some of the consideration details will apply, and others will vary.

Capacity

The capacity of the backpack you need will depend on the intended function and time of year you are traveling. For instance, a day hiking backpack will be much different than a pack you use for winter backpacking. The more gear you need to take with you, the larger the pack will need to be.

Most backpacks will be sized in liters (L), but some are listed in cubic inches. So, when you are shopping for packs, keep this in mind. This is especially true if you are looking online instead of in person. An easy way to visualize sizing in terms of liters, especially if you aren’t used to the metric system, is that one standard Nalgene is one liter. So, if a pack is 35L, you would hypothetically be able to fit 35 Nalgene’s full of water into that pack. 

Standard ranges for backpack sizes include: 

  • Overnight Packs: 35L or less
  • Weekend Packs: 35-50L
  • Multi-Day Packs: 50-75L
  • Big Game Hunting Packs: 50L or more
  • Winter Multi-Day Packs: 75L or more

Your packing style, type of gear, length of trip, and personal needs will also determine the size of pack you need.

Size

For a backpack to be comfortable, it must fit properly. The sizing of the pack to your body is determined by the hip belt and the length of the suspension system. The hip belt needs to fit snug enough to help distribute the weight of the load properly. And remember, most of the pack weight should load your hips, not your shoulders. The best backpacks on the market for outdoor recreation will have adjustable hip belts or even interchangeable ones. 

The back suspension system on backpacks is not sized by your height but by the length of your torso. Not all companies use the same sizing system for the suspension, which is why if it is your first time buying a pack, it can be helpful to get sized in-person at a retailer. You can also measure your torso yourself according to the manufacturer’s guidelines for sizing. The best backpacks will have adjustable suspension within a size range to ensure a proper fit. 

You may notice that there are gender-specific backpacks as well. Do not feel pigeon-holed by these descriptions but be aware that it can impact sizing. For instance, most women-specific packs have narrower shoulder straps and shorter torso options. Many men choose to use women’s packs to fit their body type better. I use a men’s pack because I have broad shoulders for a woman, and they tend to fit me more comfortably.

Features

With so many varying backpack styles and applications, there will also be features you may need or might avoid. 

Some of the most common backpack features seen in outdoor specific packs include: 

  • External Frames: The classic backpack design, external frames are less popular than they once were. They still offer advantages like more places to strap gear outside of your pack, the ability to carry a heavier load, lower prices, more durability, and better ventilation. If you plan on packing meat out, this is likely your best choice.
  • Internal Frames: This is what probably comes to mind when thinking about modern backpacks. Internal frames utilize suspension systems and tend to be lighter weight. They are far more compact and allow for better balance and mobility while hiking. The lower profile makes them easier to travel with in cars, planes, and trains as well. 
  • Shoulder and Hip Belt Padding: Since most of the weight is carried in your hips when carrying a pack, having some padding, foam, or mesh can help prevent hot spots and irritation as you hike. Shoulder padding also improves overall comfort.
  • Ventilation: Mesh and vented suspension are ideal when hiking in warm weather. These framing systems help keep the pack away from your skin, providing a more comfortable experience. 
  • External Attachment Points: Bungees, loops, and daisy chains are examples of external attachment points on many backpacks. These come in handy for lashing overflow gear or gear that needs access to the sunlight while you hike. They offer fast access to gear you might need in a hurry, such as ice axes or avalanche probes.
  • Compression Straps: You may notice that many backpacking packs, in particular, have a lot of straps. Many of these are compression straps that help cinch your pack down once it is filled. Keeping loads more compact and closer to your body makes them easier and more comfortable to carry. 
  • Multiple Access Points: Instead of just having one access point at the top, many packs have side, back, top, and bottom access points. Having multiple access points helps you get gear when on the go without unpacking everything. 
  • Sleeping Bag Compartment: Usually located at the bottom of your pack, a sleeping bag compartment is ideal when using a backpack for overnight trips. This helps you stay more organized and allows for more access points when making camp. 
  • Hydration Pockets: The best backpacks will have several places to hold water bottles and even a place to store a hydration bladder. Where the water bottle pockets are located will be different on all packs, and not all packs include hydration bladder capabilities. 
  • Removable Lids/Tops: Many packs have a flap of some kind that covers the larger main compartment opening. These often will have a pocket, and some of them are removable to help you adjust the intended use or even use as a lumbar pack/day pack. 
  • Rain Covers: Keeping your gear dry is always a priority. Unless your bag is fully waterproof, it is nice to have a rain cover that comes with your pack. This isn’t a make or break it feature as you can buy individual rain covers. However, the packs that come with a rain cover often have a stow-away compartment that makes it easy to access and impossible to forget. 

This is not an all-inclusive list by any means. Several other features may arise when you are shopping for packs. Pay attention to the list of features on the specific packs you are interested in buying.

Sustainability

Before you buy any piece of gear, an excellent question to ask yourself is: 

How sustainable is this product?

When asking this question, you are not only asking about the environmental impact of that particular product. You should also be considering if you will actually use the gear and how often it will be used. 

Start to narrow down what you need gear-wise, which can help you prioritize purchases. Then, when looking at environmental sustainability, look at things such as the product durability, company return/repair policies, product life cycle assessments, and any third-party certifications.

Best Backpack Overall: Gregory Baltoro 75

Gregory

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Why It Made the Cut: The Gregory Baltoro 75 is the best backpack that can take you through all the seasons and brings comfort to even the heaviest winter pack load. 

Key Features

  • Materials: Nylon
  • Size: 72L / 75L / 78L
  • Frame: Internal 

Pros

  • Capacity: Large carrying capacity for extended hikes and winter packing
  • Features: Optimal features for any adventure
  • Durability: Resilient design and materials, plus Gregory’s repair policy

Cons

  • Too large for minimalists or summer backpackers

The Gregory Baltoro is the men’s version of their Deva pack. These packs are designed for multi-day ventures and work well for cold weather camping with their large capacity abilities. Not all packs are comfortable carrying such large loads, but Gregory has long been known for its comfortable and functional pack designs. 

The suspension has a vented mesh design, and the intentionally designed storage options include 10 exterior pockets. There is a hydration pocket inside the pack, ideal for long treks, but it also doubles as an integrated day pack. 

You can expect this pack to truly include all the bells and whistles, but that is also one of the downfalls of this pack. It can be too big and too bulky for some packers. The good news is that Gregory offers plenty of other bag designs, so you’ll be sure to find one that fits your specific needs. 

Best Hiking Backpack: Osprey Talon 22

Osprey

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Why It Made the Cut: Daypacks don’t need to be fancy. But they should be versatile, have plenty of features, and be durable. The Osprey Talon 22 is a simple yet functional design perfect for a day on the trail making it our choice for the best hiking backpack. 

Key Features

  • Materials: Recycled 100-denier x 210-denier high-tenacity bluesign® nylon 
  • Capacity: 20L / 22L 
  • Frame: Internal 

Pros

  • Supportive: Hip belt, suspension system
  • Versatile: Tons of storage and helmet clip
  • Durable: Resilient design and materials, plus Osprey’s lifetime repairs 

Cons

  • Some might consider it too large for a daypack
  • Hip belt is not removable

The Osprey Talon 22 is the men’s version of the Tempest 20 pack. These packs utilize similar designs with minor feature changes to better fit the average frame of men’s and women’s bodies. 

Overall, these packs provide the wearer with ideal comfort, functionality, and easy to access pockets. The pack uses an internal frame with optimal ventilation to add comfort when hiking on warm summer days. 

You can use this pack for a full day’s adventure as it has optimal storage space and plenty of exterior storage. The hip belt on this daypack is padded and has small pockets, much like a backpacking pack, to provide even more convenience. One stand-out feature of this pack is its helmet-specific attachment on the outside of the bag. This feature works well for climbers and those that commute via bike.

Best Big-Game Hunting Backpack: Stone Glacier EVO 3300

Stone Glacier

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Why It Made the Cut: As the best big-game hunting backpack the Stone Glacier EVO 3300 works well for a day hunt or an ultralight multi-day expedition with its minimalist design and high load capacity. 

Key Features

  • Materials: ​​500D Cordura, Xpac fabric
  • Size: 54L
  • Frame: Internal 

Pros

  • Load Capacity: 150 pounds
  • Design: Easy access compartment and built-in load shelf for hauling meat
  • Lifetime warranty 

Cons

  • High Price
  • The size can work for ultralight packers, but not all multi-day trips

Stone Glacier has a pack for any of your hunting needs, but their EVO 3300 is one of their lightest weight options, with a high enough load capacity to fit an elk quarter perfectly. The minimalist design strips down a hunting pack to make it more efficient and easier to carry heavy loads. 

The pack has an internal carry capacity of 54L or 3,300 cubic inches (hence the name). For an ultralight packer, this pack can do the trick on more extended expeditions, and it works perfectly for day trips out hunting big game. 

As a part of their design, there is a built-in load shelf that can expand up to 40L (2,500 cubic inches). That makes the load shelf big enough to carry out boned-out medium-sized game or a whole elk quarter. The materials are tough, the design is simple, and the pack is functional, making it one of the stand-out hunting backpacks on the market. 

Best Fishing Backpack: Bass Pro Shop Stalker Backpack

Bass Pro Shop

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Why It Made the Cut: The Bass Pro Shop Stalker Backpack is the best fishing backpack because it utilizes a simple, affordable design with the necessary features to make a day fishing a breeze. 

Key Features

  • Materials: 900 denier nylon
  • Size: 20 x 12 x 8.5 inches
  • Frame: N/A

Pros

  • Comfort: Hip belt provides comfort for longer hikes
  • Storage: Ample storage for day trips
  • Function: Tackle box access and additional pockets

Cons

  • Lighter duty than comparable fishing bags

The Bass Pro Shop Stalker Backpack has an interesting design and functionality perfect for a day of fishing. The lightweight bag has a hip belt that adds extra comfort when hiking out to a fishing spot, and there are plenty of pockets for organization. 

The bag can fit three Pro-Latch 3650 tackle trays with a compartment at the bottom of the pack. They slide out from a side flap in the main pack compartment to access them. The rest of the bag is laid out like a traditional backpack but has six lure pockets. 

A slot on the side of the pack is a nice added feature, letting you slide the butts of your fishing rod into the side of the bag while you hike. It is a versatile pack with a simple design and relatively high-quality materials. For its price, it is hard to beat.

Best Waterproof Backpack: Yeti 28L Panga

Why It Made the Cut: Yeti’s 28L Panga backpack allows you to comfortably carry a day’s worth of gear, without worrying about the contents being affected by torrential downpours or flipped canoes.

Key Features

  • Materials: High density nylon with TPU lamination
  • Size: 28L
  • Frame: N/A

Pros

  • Design: Allows quick access to gear while keeping the contents safe from water 
  • Suspension: Unlike traditional dry bags, this backpack offers comfortable shoulder straps and a hip belt
  • Organization: Interior dividers offer organization not typically found in s dry bag

Cons

  • High price

Dry bags used to awkward to seal and carry, with roll-top closures and simple webbing handles. But the best waterproof backpacks like the Yeti 28L Panga offer easily accessible waterproof storage that you won’t mind carrying around all day. Whether you need to keep valuable camera gear dry on a canoe trip, or a just change of clothes safe from a downpour on the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Panga has you covered.

The key to the Panga’s usefulness is the waterproof zipper that allows for fast access to the pack’s contents while keeping them protected. A high-density nylon and laminated with a thick TPU layer provides a durable waterproof layer that can handle a rough life on the trail or the water. The system works so well that the pack is actually airtight when closed, so you won’t have to worry if the pack ends up in the drink.  

A stowaway mesh pocket and interior sleeve provide organization and offer a safe place to stash a laptop. The shoulder straps offer plenty of comfort. Combined with the removeable sternum strap and waist belt, they keep the load under control. Fishing, hiking or boating, the Panga is an excellent choice.

Best Dog Backpack: Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack

RUFFWEAR

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Why It Made the Cut: A leading brand in dog gear, the Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack is the best dog backpack for bringing your best friend on the trail with great durability, several sizing options, and a comfortable design. 

Key Features

  • Materials: 420 denier ripstop nylon
  • Size: 7L / 12.5L / 14.5L / 24L
  • Frame: N/A

Pros

  • Fit: Many sizes and 5 points of adjustment 
  • Capacity: Options to fit your dog’s size, letting them carry an appropriate amount of gear
  • Function: Several pockets, leash attachments, and a handle to help lift your dog if needed 

Cons

  • Weight Distribution: It can be difficult to get the correct weight distribution in the larger sizes, causing the pack to be lopsided when in use

If you are looking for a pack that will help your dog carry their gear in the backcountry, Ruffwear has many great selections. The Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack is one of my favorite options because of its several size and capacity options. 

It is, by far, one of the best-fitting backpacking packs for dogs on the market with five points of adjustment. Getting the right fit takes a few minutes, but once it is snug, your dog will have no problem carrying some gear. There are two main pockets, one on each side. Each side also has a smaller pocket for treats or doggie bags. 

There is a metal attachment ring for a leash if needed, and the handle in the middle of your dog’s bag is perfect for helping them leap over large rocks or fallen trees. The materials are very durable and meant to be used outdoors. 

As someone with a large dog breed, the only complaint is that it can be difficult to get the weight distribution right in the larger sizes. You may need to adjust items on the trail, to ensure the pack does not shift too far to one side as your dog hikes. 

Methodology

Whenever possible, I’m out and about wandering through the woods or above tree line. Most of that time is spent carrying a pack of some kind. Not all packs that I’ve had have served me well, and from those ill-fitting pack experiences, I have homed in on a system that helps me find the right packs for my adventure needs and helps others do the same. 

When selecting the best backpacks for this gear roundup, looked at the following: 

  • Features: Does the pack have the features needed for my intended use and personal needs?
  • Durability: How long will this product last? What are the product materials? Is there a repair policy?

  • Comfort: Does the pack fit me properly? Is there padding on the hip belt and shoulder straps? Are there compression straps? What type of frame system does it use? Is it adjustable? Is there ventilation?
  • Sustainability: How often will I use this pack? What are the product materials? What does a full life cycle assessment look like? Is this brand transparent about its product messaging and manufacturing processes? 
  • Price: Does the pack fit within my budget? Am I buying based on price alone or other factors? 

Other things such as verified customer reviews, personal experiences with brands and packs, and knowledge of industry practices helped shape the gear chosen for this list. 

You can also check out our coverage of the best hiking backpacks, best day packs, and best cooler backpacks if these don’t suit your needs.

FAQs

Q: What is the most comfortable backpack?

The most comfortable backpack is the pack that fits your body type the best. Look at sizing, or go to a retail store to try packs on in person. What works for one person may not necessarily feel as good to another person, so take your time and invest in a pack that suits your needs and body.

Q: Where should a backpack sit on your back?

Most of the weight is carried in your hips so that the backpack will sit mainly on the hip straps. The pack’s shape will follow the curvature of your spine, but it should not be putting pressure on your spine or much on your shoulders.

Q: How do you know what size backpack to get?

Packs are often sized according to the length of your torso and your hip belt size. Manufacturers do not have streamlined sizing for all packs, so read their sizing charts and try them on in person before buying. Refer to the considerations section at the beginning of this article for more details on pack sizing.

Final Thoughts on the Best Backpacks

Choosing the best backpack for an expedition is a personal journey. What we intend to do outside can help shape our buying process, but the quality of the equipment itself should also be a priority. While we all have varying budgets and accessibility to outdoor gear, it helps to look at these types of purchases as an investment not only in terms of money but and investment in yourself and the time you will spend using it outdoors. 

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