All backpacks are not built equal, and your back, shoulders, and rain-soaked supplies will be sure to let you know when you’ve chosen poorly. So let’s preempt those problems, and take a look at what makes outdoor gear, in the specific form of outdoor backpacks, work best.

The Essential Elements of the Best Backpacks

The best backpacks fit both your body and your activity perfectly, and small seemingly minor design discrepancies can make big differences when it comes to comfort and utility. Hiking backpacks need to be light and breathable, while backpacking backpacks need all that plus a sturdy, spine-friendly frame system that can fit a week of supplies without turning your back into a question mark. Those need to be streamlined to not get caught on surroundings. Fishing backpacks need easy access from all angles, and to hold all the tackle you may need. If you’ll be biking or in wet or rainy conditions, you need a different type of waterproof backpack. Let’s break it down, bag by bag.

Do you need a hiking backpack to carry your supplies for the day?

A hiking daypack is a specific thing: You need it to feel like almost nothing, but also carry your day’s everything. This means water, food, extra clothing, any first aid or sunscreen or insect repellent, and so on. But beyond carrying capacity and comfort, it also needs to be prepared for inclement weather.

What makes a hiking backpack comfortable? First, the straps: You’ll want shoulder straps that are cushioned but breathable and designed to support the weight in a way that doesn’t put strain on your neck, with some form of hip or sternum strap to evenly distribute the load. Ideally, that cushioning, breathability, and support will extend to the second part to watch: the back. And lastly, the weight of the pack, from its materials and framing, is just as relevant to comfort and wearability as it is size. You want the weight you carry to come from your supplies, and as negligible an amount as possible from the pack.

Best Daypack Hiking Backpack: Osprey Daylite Daypack

All the outdoors features you want, with none of the bulk. Osprey

Osprey backpacks are outdoor gear favorites due to their smart-but-simple designs. At a compact 13L size, the Daylite Daypack won’t get in the way of your movement, but still doubles as a hydration backpack with a sleeve to hold a reservoir (or laptop, when you’re not on the trails), as well as two water bottles in exterior pockets and another organizing pocket for quick-grab accessories. The straps are extremely neck-and-shoulder-friendly, with a sternum strap to keep the pack for jostling around, and side compression straps to hold things tight, too. A DWR coating keeps things dry in the rain, and — a major asset if you go on big trips with short side ventures — it attaches as a front pouch to Osprey’s large hiking packs designed for multi-day trips. If you want more space and an easy-reach front zip pocket (and don’t mind a tad more heft), size up to the 20L Osprey Daylite Plus Daypack.

Are you looking for a pack for a longer trip or a hike that requires carrying more gear?

For a backpacking or extending hiking trip, you’re looking for the same things as in a daypack, but leveled up. The best backpacks for backpacking hold a vast amount of supplies and clothing, but do so as compactly as possible for comfort and maneuverability, and with the least possible amount of strain on the back and joints. A good hip belt is non-negotiable — as are compression straps, gear attachment straps, clips and compartments and a sturdy, lightweight, and breathable back support.

Backpacking backpacks are unique in that they are sold by gender and within that, by size. Because of the internal framing, the longevity of wear, and the absolute importance of fit, heed these measurements carefully!

Best Men’s Backpacking Backpack: Osprey Men’s Atmos AG 65

Anti-gravity suspension and a bevy of adjustments and features make this the best backpack for backpacking. Osprey

Osprey’s backpacking backpacks check every box on the list and do it in the most streamlined way we’ve found. In part, that’s because they make the sometimes-essential, sometimes-irrelevant parts (e.g., sleeping pad straps) removable, so you have options without a tangle of unnecessary parts getting in the way. Pockets on the hip belts, a sleeping bag (or shoe) compartment, mesh water bottle pockets and an interior hydration reservoir sleeve, and a floating top pocket create abundant, usable storage. The hip belt easily adjusts while the pack is in use, and Osprey’s anti-gravity suspension system made from strategic straps and seamless mesh holds the bag in a close profile to the body, but actually lifted away from it, for a super-light fit and lots of ventilation.

Best Women’s Backpacking Backpack: Osprey Women’s Aura AG 50

The women-specific design makes it comfortable to wear and distributes weight around your body. Osprey

The Osprey women’s Aura has all of the features of the men’s Atmos— Osprey’s anti-gravity system, a fit-on-the-fly hip belt with pockets, upper and lower side compression straps, a floating top pocket, a sleeping bag compartment, ventilation—but is designed for a female form. This camping backpack available in various sizes and colors, too.

Will you be in rainy conditions or around water?

If you’ll be kayaking or canoeing, or just biking or walking in the rain, a waterproof, water-tight pack will do you well. We’re not talking about a backpack with a waterproof coating (although we recommend those for all outdoor backpacks), but a rugged, seam-sealed, fully immersible sort of waterproof. In general, a roll-top will provide the most protection from the elements, and you’ll want sealed seams, in addition to completely waterproof materials. Comfort still matters, especially if you’re carrying heavy cargo like food and supplies, so look for good shoulder straps, back support, and weight distribution.

Best Waterproof Backpack: Earth Pak Waterproof Backpack, 35L / 55L Roll-Top

Entirely waterproof with a sleek look, nice support and straps, and two size options. Earth Pak

Available in 35L or 55L, this waterproof backpack offers range, in multiple colors and at a good price point, too. A roll top as well as a waterproof-zippered front pocket and sealed seams allows for easy access to contents without compromising waterproofing. Top and side compression straps, a cushioned back, and hip and sternum straps allow for a good fit, and a cushioned back panel means additional comfort.

Are you looking for a fishing backpack?

A good fishing backpack is about tackle storage and access to that tackle. Not only does it need to accommodate tackle boxes and tools, but also allow you to get to them when you need them—and not let all of your stuff devolve into a disorganized mess, which can easily occur with fishing gear. This means specific compartments and pockets laid out in a way intuitive to how and when items need to be accessed while out on the water. Waterproofing is essential too.

Best Tackle Backpack: Piscifun Fishing Tackle Backpack

Space for four tackle boxes and smart storage for other tools and supplies. Piscifun

Even small design details of this Piscifun fishing backpack show thoughtful, smart attention to its intended use, like the small nylon front-corner straps that perfectly hold fishing pliers or serve as carabiner attachment points for other outdoor and camping gear. Several small capacity zipper pockets on the outside allow for separation of items, and are placed for utility while fishing, too. The sunglasses and bottle pocket are at the top, and a large inner storage cavity holds four tackle boxes, with a front opening to easily pull out any one. It’s built for durability, with rubber feet and a waterproof fabric, along with a rain cover for extra protection.

Budget Daypacks: The Best Backpack for Under $25

As is it with much outdoor gear, price is going to relate to performance with backpacks. Lightweight, durable performance materials generally don’t come cheap, and close attention to design and fit are harder for manufacturers to produce at a super low cost. Also keep in mind that cheap outdoor gear is generally aesthetically driven (it’s ultimately a knock-off of original branded items), so it will look more like the good stuff than it performs.

That said, there are some totally serviceable cheap backpacks out there. If you’re going on a car camping trip, won’t be carrying the pack all day, and don’t have to worry about driving rain, then a budget pick may suit you just fine.

Best Cheap Hiking Daypack: NEEKFOX Packable Lightweight Hiking Daypack 35L

A lightweight, foldable nylon backpack for less than $25. NEEKFOX

This hiking daypack is not the same quality as our other picks. It’s also a fraction of the price. So if you’re looking for a spare stowaway daypack that you won’t be overstuffing with heavy hiking or camping gear, this is a good option.


Q: What backpacks are good for your back?

Backpacks that are good for your back have a few elements: A sternum strap and a hip strap for weight distribution away from your neck and shoulders (weight compresses the spine from there), comfortable shoulder straps, and also—and often forgotten—compression straps that pull the gear in tight for a compact profile that doesn’t tug down and away from your spine, but lets you stand and carry the pack more naturally.

Q: Where should a backpack sit on your back?

A backpack should sit on your back in a way that feels most natural—often higher up than you think. Think about the shape of your spine: It curves out at the ribs and in at the low back, and you want the backpack to follow suit. You should also always use hip straps to let your lower body carry the weight of the pack so that it’s not all pressure on your spine.

Q: What is the most comfortable backpack?

Osprey backpacks generally get the highest marks for being the most comfortable. In their large hiking packs, they use an anti-gravity suspension system that basically lifts the pack upward (important!) and away from the back, with a seamless mesh panel that rests on the back for even support and ventilation. Their strap design is also built for good weight distribution and shoulder, neck, and back comfort.

A Final Word on Shopping for the Best Backpack

When you’re looking for the best backpacks, your first consideration should be what you’re using it for. There are common needs for any backpack—shoulder comfort, a supportive structure for the back, etc.—but priorities change if you’re looking for a fishing backpack vs. a hiking backpack vs. a backpacking backpack. In all cases, spend the time adjusting the straps (when you have it packed, as it fits differently than when empty) to get the most comfortable fit. Then, get outdoors: Your gear is right behind you.