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The Hiking Backpacks I Count on for Every Kind of Outdoor Activity

There’s one for scaling summits, too. Photo: 2011 Gamma-Rapho

Right now, I own a lot of hiking backpacks, each with its own purpose. One is large enough for multiday treks, one perfect for overnighters, another for day hikes, and still another ideal for that summit push. After lots of miles with packs on my back, I have some pretty strong opinions about what’s essential, what’s convenient, and what’s unnecessary. A good hiking backpack will bear heavy loads while being comfortable, keep supplies in easy reach, and protect your stuff against the elements. That’s pretty much it. These are the six hiking backpacks I know I can always count on, each suited to a different trekking need.

The Redwing 32 is a smaller version of one of Kelty’s best-selling hiking packs, yet despite its relative small size, it retains the quality of the original larger pack. That includes padding for your lumbar region and shoulders, ventilation mesh covering the shoulder and waist straps, and multiple pockets (including a pair for water bottles). With a 32-liter capacity, it could absolutely be an overnight or weekend pack if you didn’t need to bring a tent or sleeping bag, but the best way to use it is as a day pack loaded with all the gear, snacks, and backup apparel you need to have a great all-day outing that ends back in civilization.

The shoulder straps and hip belt on the Osprey Porter 46 create the adjustable ergonomic support you need to carry plenty of weight for hours — it’s just what you might need on light woodland trails or camping trips. Unlike the other hiking backpacks on this list, it’s carry-on friendly, which makes it one of the few hiking backpacks that’s suitable for “trekking” through urban environments. Both my wife and I were using Ospreys on vacation in northern Spain when we lost our trail and eventually just hopped on a train into the city.


When you’re camping — and carrying your air mat, sleeping bag, tent, stove, layers, food, first-aid kit, lighting, and so forth — your load adds up fast, even for two-night treks. That’s why for weekend treks, I use the Klymit 60-liter capacity pack. The straps are supportive, the materials water-resistant, and the pack keeps the weight near your center of gravity, making long hikes easier. The best part of all is that you can adjust the pressure in the frame (which can help balance differences in weight in different parts of the backpack) by using a built-in hand pump. It changes everything.

Last year, I went on a ten-day, 80-plus-mile trek deep into the mountains of northern Colombia, through rain forest, snowstorms, and elevations of 15,500 feet. I used this backpack the entire time. It’s made of a 100 percent–waterproof proprietary fabric called OutDry, which kept my gear bone-dry in jungle downpours. Easy-access pockets meant I always had a snack at the ready and essential gear like a headlamp, knife, or hurricane matches in easy reach. None of this means anything if a backpack isn’t comfortable, but the padded, adjustable shoulder straps and a broad, supportive waist belt made the 50-plus pounds of gear I was carrying along feel comfortable.

The most important thing to consider when you’re scaling a mountain to the summit is the weight of your equipment — it’s always about balancing essential gear with carrying the lightest possible load. There are essentially only two things you need to know about the Hyperlite Summit Pack. First, it has enough cargo capacity to carry all the rations, layers, and basic survival gear you need for those exhilarating but trying hours spent pushing toward that mountain summit. Second, it weighs less than a pound. It also rolls down small enough to stash inside your larger hiking pack without taking up any appreciable room. I’ve used my Hyperlite Summit Pack on plenty of day hikes, but when it truly proves its worth is when I can drop my larger pack, load a small selection of kit into this pack, then head for the high ground under a much lighter load. The Dyneema Composite Fabric is almost impossible to tear.

The Columbia backpack makes a fine day pack (I’ve used it on many an afternoon hike), but where it truly shines is as a trail-running pack. First, the fit is incredibly adjustable. You can tighten the Trail Elite to grip onto your torso so snugly that it hardly moves a millimeter, even as you bounce up and down trails at top speed. Second, its large mesh back panel provides superlative airflow, keeping you cool and dry even on hot days. And third, it’s the best for thirst-quenching, featuring an internal pocket that can accommodate a three-liter hydration bladder as well as a pass-through port and strap for the drinking hose. This pack is going to be on my back as I compete in a 40K trail run in the Swiss Alps this summer.

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The Hiking Backpacks I Count on for Every Outdoor Activity