Choosing a backpack for lugging around your laptop or camera gear is a relatively simple endeavor, since they serve a single, basic purpose. That isn’t the case when you’re selecting a camping backpack, since it is going to be called upon to do so much more. It needs to be a daypack for little jaunts up the nearest hill, and it needs to be ready to let you live out of it should you be unable to make it back to your site. As much a piece of survival equipment as it is a place to stash your GORP, you never want to choose second best.
As with most things you’re going to need to carry around, the first watchword is comfort. It doesn’t matter if you can pack up half your house and most of your garage; if you can’t happily carry it, the bag is worthless. Beyond a nice fit, we sought out items that were versatile. We wanted baggage that could shrink down without leaving lots of loose bits or load up for tough days and long nights. After the trail trials were over, only the 10 best camping backpacks remained.
Pro: Accessorizes for every occasion
Con: Cannot cope with overloading
Budget Biggun: Blending together top-loading and front-loading areas into a 600 denier oxford cloth body, the Discovery is a huge 80 liter monster with a tiny, entry-level price. A bungee weave in the center and plenty of straps on top and bottom offer the ability to change how much or how little is attached to your bag. While it is comfortable for shorter hikes, the body could breathe more and the straps could benefit from a touch more padding.
Osprey Packs Kestrel
Pro: Included rain cover
Con: Swings some making stability suspect
Pocket Hoarder: What really struck us about the Kestrel is how well it transitioned from a weekender or day pack to a week-long bag. The key is the pockets that litter the outside. For short trips, you load them up with all the little bits and pieces you need. For the long trips, you pack the main compartment which eats up the pocket’s space so nothing goes to waste. Added to this versatility is a nice adjustment range and you have an affordable, alterable champion.
Oakley Kitchen Sink
Pro: Padded section for electronics
Con: Limited size
Modern Bagman: Able to hold a decent 20-22 liters, this is a more urbane backpack that separates itself from the herd by bringing a sense of style and city function that is equally useful on the mean streets as in the woods. A water-resistant nylon and polyester body keeps wetness out, while multiple metal rings work similar to a MOLLE system in allowing you to clip on carabiners and accessories to expand the carrying capacity of the pack.
The North Face Banchee 65
Pro: Large fit range
Con: Bottom straps are awkwardly placed
Supreme Suspension: When you’re toting 50 lbs. worth of water uphill to Horseshoe Mesa, you had better be certain that your pack isn’t going to cut off your circulation or leave you chafed as you chug along. Thankfully, that’s precisely what the new Banchee 65 can do. It floats like a butterfly thanks to the aluminum perimeter rod that avoids forcing you to bear the brunt of the load on your back.
Osprey Atmos AG Series
Pro: Avoids abrasion hotspots
Con: Fully 4+ pounds empty
Snug Fit: The AG stands for Anti-Gravity, and these bags prove that they were made to reduce weight to the bare minimum. Using mesh stretched over a wire frame that conforms to your back, there’s no real contact points, but rather a form-fitting body that wraps you up like a swaddled baby. Quadruple compression cords allow for size alteration and the adjustable shoulder straps and belt offer lots of choices for fit and tightness.
Pro: Pouch for packing rifle or bow
Con: Works badly with hydration bladders
True Tactician: If you’re seeking out a nice 72-hour bag or a weekender pack, this is just about perfect. A balanced size gives you just enough space to cram in what you need as well as plenty of MOLLE straps to add on everything else. The body isn’t so weighty as to be cumbersome, nor too small for packing along a few larger items. With 1000D nylon, it’s plenty tough and padded to the nines for a comfortable ride.
The North Face Cobra 60
Pro: Removable hipbelt padding
Con: Side pocket storage is limited
True Survivor: Made for hard-core alpine users, this doesn’t shirk any challenge and is intended to help you stay alive when the elements are against you. With loads of space for specially storing tools, rope, crampons, ice axes, and your mountaineering helmet, it’s a lot of bag for the average camper, but just enough for the year-rounder who doesn’t let a little thing like avalanches ruin their weekend plans.
Granite Gear Nimbus Trace Access 70
Pro: Come in regular and short styles
Con: Actually has too many straps
Expedition Size: Made to be a large pack that incorporates some of the features of an ultralight, the Nimbus Trace is handy for the backpacker who likes to camp, and vice versa. Five exterior pockets are easy to use without ever cracking into the main compartment, and loads of securing straps keep it as tight as necessary when you’re packing light. Excellent venting and plenty of support make this comfortable whether going big or small.
Pro: Frame significantly reduces shifting
Con: Does not come in small sizes
Sans Bulk: Bigger packs are always tough to recommend because after a few hours, 75 or 100 liters worth of gear is going to tire out anyone’s spine and legs. Thanks to hidden compression poles and a wooden frame, the problems of bigger packs are severely curbed with the Kajka, allowing even smaller users to carry a heavier load without being beaten down. A few external pockets make the Kajka easy to use, while there’s a small rucksack that can be detached and threaded to your front for quick access.
Arcteryx Altra 65
Pro: Dense, supportive foam on back
Con: Too wide for most mountaineering
Shape Shifter: The trouble with most packs is that as terrain changes, so too does the needs of the person walking along. This either means a lot of adjustment, or you spend the enormous amount of money on an Altra 65. The Altra uses a pivoting waist belt that shifts as you do so that however you’re moving, the load on your back is landing perfectly with each stride. Best for serious climbs and trekking, this has a nice flow and easy item retrieval.