When gearing up for an outdoor adventure, there’s a lot you’ll need to bring. For a short trip, you’ll want snacks, water, a first aid kit, a camera, and maybe a rain jacket if the forecast isn’t 100 percent in your favor. A longer trip? All of the above plus a stove, a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, food, water treatment, "town clothes" — the list goes on and on.
Knowing just how much you’re going to bring on your hike is really the first step to choosing an ideal backpack. Pack size is determined by carrying capacity (measured in liters), and you’ll want to be sure you have the right size pack for your trip. Too big and you're carrying around extra weight. Too small and you'll have to sacrifice something that could keep your hike safe and comfortable. Having to choose between a tent and a sleeping bag because your pack isn’t big enough is a recipe for disaster, but at the other end, you don't want a floppy 85L pack just to carry around a water bottle and some granola. These top pack choices have been sorted by size — from small to large — to help you choose the right one.
Sometimes, one pack (the Osprey Atmos, for example) will come in different sizes (small, medium, and large), different carrying capacities (50L and 65L), and will also have a women’s version (the Osprey Aura) that includes all of the same features, but is designed to fit more comfortably on a woman’s body.
The best way to find out which specifications best fit your needs is to try the pack on. Reading hiking backpack reviews isn’t as helpful as actually adjusting a backpack and all of its various straps to fit your body and loading it up with some weight, even if that means buying it and having to ship it back or going to a retailer to try it on. You don’t want to regret your pack choice three hours into the trail, and a test run will help make carrying everything you need as comfortable as it can possibly be.
Whether you’re looking for a pack to accommodate a five-month thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail or an afternoon jaunt through the forest right outside your city, these are the top-notch options to kick off your search.