I started backpacking in 2011 and have since hiked thousands of miles wearing backpacks in every category, from substantial, ultrapadded ones to superlight styles with no structure or support. As someone who splits her time between mellow canyon hikes in Death Valley National Park and 2,000-mile thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail, I wound up gravitating toward packs that fall somewhere between heavy-duty and minimalist. But most of the dozens I tried eventually revealed some sort of compromise. Some, while very light, ended up sacrificing support, like internal framing or a hipbelt, making them uncomfortable on longer journeys and severely limiting how much I could pack. Others that offered more features wound up weighing five pounds empty, with flapping webbing and chunky buckles adding to their bulk.
My interest in backpacking and researching backpacks isn’t just personal: Like other lucky people, I was able to turn a hobby into a career in the outdoor industry, and I’ve worked as an editor and writer for media companies covering the space. This time on the clock — coupled with my time on the trails — familiarized me with smaller brands like Gossamer Gear, the maker of the Mariposa pack I saw on lots of folks when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015. Popular among seasoned hikers and backpackers, Gossamer Gear manages to remain off the radars of more-commercial outdoor retailers: You won’t find its packs, tents, or hiking poles at REI. About a year and a half ago, it released the G4-20 — a reboot of its original G4 pack, which is beloved by an older generation of backpackers — so I requested a sample for one of the gear reviewers I worked with to test. A closer look revealed it fit the specs I was personally looking for in a backpack (smaller capacity, padded back, spacious hip-belt pockets, lightweight), and when my reviewer came back with glowing praise after giving it a whirl, I decided to request another sample to try for myself. Hundreds of miles later, my G4-20 pack barely shows any signs of wear and has proven so functional and comfortable that few, if any, treks have me strapping on something else.
At $180, the G4-20 isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s priced comparably to packs from bigger brands, such as Gregory, Osprey, and Deuter. One way Gossamer Gear keeps the price down is by using a less expensive — but no less durable — DWR-coated ripstop nylon for the exterior that, unlike pricier materials, isn’t fully waterproof, just water-resistant. Because of this, I usually line the backpack with a separate liner. That said, while on a canyon hike in Utah last year, I slipped off a ledge and plunged into 10-foot-deep narrows wearing the G4-20 without a liner. My gear stayed dry, so do with this information what you will. (I’d still recommend a liner.) The pack’s 42-liter capacity means it’s not exactly ultralight, but I find the size big enough for three-season gear and extended trips while not so big that I can ever overpack it. Beyond interior space, there’s a big exterior mesh pocket I like to use as a place to stash dirty layers — or snacks — and two side pockets I use to keep water bottles within arm’s reach so I don’t have to take the backpack off and dig through it.
But where the bag really stands out is its hip belt, a feature backpackers know to look for because of how it helps distribute the weight of what you’re carrying. The most thoughtfully designed and well-fitting backpacks will allow you to carry a good amount of weight on your hips, relieving pressure on your shoulders and back. I’ve carried some 35 pounds of gear in this pack and barely noticed it. Its hip belt also has two pockets that are unique in that each is designed differently: One is an open mesh pocket where I keep my phone (and more snacks). The other is enclosed, so it’s where I stash my water filter, headlamp, lip balm, and other small essentials I might need at a moment’s notice. One tip before you buy: I typically wear a small in unisex products like backpacks, but the medium G4-20 is a better fit for my frame. I found this out the hard way — by getting and then exchanging a small after it turned out to fall well above my waist — but the brand has a handy sizing chart and even a fit video that should help most people get it right the first time around.
Three things I (almost) always pack inside my backpack
Save for that time I fell into the narrows, I usually use this (actually waterproof) liner to protect whatever is inside my backpack. The 50-liter capacity is the right size for the G4-20, but there are larger options, too.
A headlamp is a backpacking necessity even if you don’t anticipate night hiking. Sometimes getting to camp — or just back to your car — takes longer than you think, and you may wind up on a trail after dark. (If you are camping, there are myriad other reasons a headlamp will most certainly be helpful.) I’d recommend one with at least 250 lumens; my favorite, from BioLite, has 330. It’s lightweight and rechargeable, with a band that never triggers any pressure points. Plus, the light is dimmable, which is helpful when you want to save battery life.
No matter how clear a stream looks, I always treat water in the backcountry. My go-to method is the Sawyer Squeeze, which is popular among backpackers thanks to its compact design, reliability, and weight. Unlike other filtration tools, like a LifeStraw, the Sawyer Squeeze can be threaded onto the mouths of disposable water bottles, making it more appealing to those who don’t want to drink straight from a water source.
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