What are the best backpacks for thru-hiking? A thru-hiking pack needs to be comfortable, durable, and have enough capacity to hold the gear needed to live on the trail for up to six months at a time, as well as long food and water carries.
There’s no “perfect” backpack for thru-hiking, and no one-size-fits-all. What it comes down to is understanding the type of hiker you are (camp comfort, ultralight, or somewhere in the middle) and what matters most to you. Is it weight savings? Organization? Padding? For the most part, our recommendations for a thru-hiking backpack are:
between 50 and 65 liters in volume
can comfortably carry at least 25 pounds of gear, water, and food
have the organization options and durability necessary for an extended thru-hike.
Our picks include brands and models that range from more padded to ultralight and simplified. We’ve also answered some questions below the listings to help you choose the best backpack for your hike.
1. Osprey Exos 58
Most thru-hikers won’t go wrong with the Osprey Exos 58, which is why it’s always one of the most popular backpacks on the trail. This 58-liter pack is middle-of-the-road in weight and features. It has the ventilated suspension without the weight penalty and keeps features of heavier packs—the top lid and flap jacket, but with lighter materials and a streamlined design. Some hikers might miss the hip belt pockets that Osprey got rid of a few years ago, and we’re hoping they bring them back in a future update. The Exos is also available in a 48L size, but the 58L is a better option for most long-distance hikers. The women’s-specific version is called the Osprey Eja. The Osprey Exos has a recommended weight limit of 30 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa hits all the checkmarks for a do-it-all thru-hiking pack. 60 liters is a safe size for a thru-hike without going overboard, and the 30-ounce (average) weight is very reasonable for such a comfortable pack. It has a smart design with enough pockets to stay organized without adding too much weight, plus the option to add shoulder pockets and really customize the build. The Robic nylon is less expensive than other materials on the market, so the pack is reasonably priced. The Gossamer Gear Mariposa has a recommended weight limit of 35 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest is a 65-liter pack (available in black or white), and one of the pricier models on this list. The body of the 3400 Southwest is a burly DCF and good for desert trails or bushwhacking. This pack adjusts easily and rolls down with a y-strap over-the-top-closure to secure gear to the outside of the pack. This pack also puts the DCF right against your back, which can mean sweaty, hot days. This pack is available in a 2400 (55L version), but the 3400 weighs just a few ounces more and the extra 10 liters of space is nice for longer sections between resupplies. The recommended weight limit for the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest is 40 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.
The Zpacks Arc Blast is a 55-liter DCF pack from one of the original ultralight backpack brands. This is a terrific option for hikers who want the ventilation of suspended mesh while still opting for an ultralight pack. This pack has an easily adjustable torso to ensure a precise fit and the proprietary external frame provides stellar weight distribution with a recommended load limit of 35 pounds. You can also go for the new Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra, a 60L pack made with a new, highly durable, waterproof fabric called Ultra that uses the Zpacks Arc Air Frame. But that frame had so many quality problems last year, we’ll wait until SectionHiker has a chance to review it in New Hampshire (where backpacks go to die) before we can recommend it. Read the SectionHiker review.
The Waymark Lite 50 is a roll-top backpack made with ECOPAK, a recycled polyester laminate similar to XPAC, that’s lightweight, waterproof, and bomber durable. It has one taller side pocket and one shorter, that’s sized for two x one lite bottles. The hip belt is sewn directly to the backpack, unlike most ultralight-style backpacks, and this one also comes with frame-stays and easy-to-use load lifters. Waymark’s packs usually have a sewing backlog, so if you’re interested, order it plenty of time before your hike. The recommended weight limit for the Waymark Lite 50 is 35 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.
ULA packs are some of the most durable on the market. The ULA Circuit 68 is their larger-volume model that can handle higher weight limits but still comes in at a reasonable weight of 41 ounces. This pack can handle a bear canister with ease, and the roll-top closure means you can compress the volume as your resupply load dwindles. Large side pockets, hip belt pockets, and elastic straps on the back of the pack make for easy gear sorting and storage of wet items. The ULA Circuit has a recommended load limit of 35 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.
The Gossamer Gear G4-20 is a 42-liter pack specifically designed for thru-hikers. It has interesting features like an extra-long mesh side pocket to fit a one-person shelter, and two totally different hip belt pockets—one with open mesh to stash a phone and snacks, and one with a watertight zipper and larger capacity for small items like headphones or a headlamp. The 42-liter capacity is best for trails where you won’t have a high volume of gear or food and is among the smallest size pack we’d recommend for most thru-hikers. The Gossamer Gear G4-20 has a recommended weight limit of 30 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.
Weighing 32.6 ounces, Superior Wilderness Design’s Long Haul 50 backpack is well-sized for thru-hiking, section hikes, and multi-day backpacking trips, with all of the must-have features you’d expect on a lightweight backpack like a rear mesh pocket, side water bottle pockets, hip belt pockets, and a roll-top closure. Made with EcoPak, a waterproof fabric similar to Dyneema DCF, but less expensive and more abrasion resistant, the Long Haul is built for durability. Pre-bent aluminum stays and a sewn-on hip belt also provide superior comfort, excellent load transfer, and a body-hugging fit, while a plethora of attachment points make it easy to tailor for technical hikes. Generally, packs made with EcoPak compare very favorably to those made with Dyneema DCF in terms of durability, weight, and price. Read SectionHiker’s Long Haul 50 Review
The Osprey Atmos 65 is the heaviest pack on the list. It’s extremely comfortable, with myriad pockets and options for organizing. This pack is excellent for people who know they’re going to be carrying a heavier pack weight and want extra padding, a ventilated back panel, extra hip belt padding, and a sturdy frame. The Osprey Aura 65 is the women’s-specific version. The Osprey Atmos 65 has a recommended weight limit of 45 pounds. Read the SectionHiker Atmos review.
The Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48 weighs only 17 ounces and is about as simple a thru-hiking pack as you can get while still having external pockets and a hip belt. It is frameless, so we recommend a maximum 10-pound base weight (minus food, water, and fuel) for anyone looking to carry this pack. A simple roll-top closure, front open pocket, and reinforced base are all intended for traveling fast and light through the backcountry. This pack is simple and doesn’t have any more padding or support than it needs. It has a minimal hip belt, and some hikers might miss the hip belt pockets and extra padding around the waist. The Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48L has a recommended weight limit of 25 pounds.
There are a lot of backpacks out there. We chose a variety to suit hikers of all experience levels, needs, and gear preferences. When shopping, keep in mind that some of the smaller brands listed might have a long lead time on custom packs if they don’t have stock models available. Larger brands (Osprey, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear) will usually have most models in stock. If you want a custom pack from a cottage brand, just plan ahead.
Here are a few tips for choosing the best thru-hiking pack for yourself.
Organization and convenience
This takes accessibility and pockets into consideration. Being able to organize your pack to your preferences makes life a lot easier on the trail. If you’re happy using a variety of pack pods and stuff sacks for your smaller items, you will be set with a simpler pack that doesn’t have a lot of external and internal pockets. If you’d rather keep your small and easy-access items on hand, choose a pack with a shoulder pocket, good hip belt pockets, and even a zippered top lid like the Exos. When you try the pack on or take it for a shakedown, see if you can reach your water bottles without taking the pack off and if it’s easy to adjust on the go.
The urge to go low-capacity or ultralight is tempting. Some of the trendiest packs forgo hip belts and even internal frames. If you have a sub-10-pound base weight and never have to carry more than 25 lbs total, you can confidently go in the direction of an ultralight pack. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle, like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa or Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest. We’ve included the recommended load limit, but keep in mind every hiker’s comfort level is different. In our experience, some brands can be “generous” in their load recommendations and hikers might find their maximum recommendations to be too heavy for the pack.
Durability and weatherproofing
Extended backpacking trips take a toll on packs, from buckle failures to abrasion to mesh tearing. The packs we included on this list are all durable, but be aware that stretchier mesh pockets (like the Gossamer Gear G4-20) are more prone to tearing than the non-stretch, hefty pockets on a pack like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest. DCF is also waterproof and abrasion-resistant, but you’ll be paying a premium for that pack material as opposed to something like Cordura or Robic nylon. XPac is a waterproof fabric that is more abrasion resistant than DCF and less expensive, but the pack markers who use it don’t seal the seams like the manufacturers who use DCF. If your pack isn’t waterproof, we recommend a pack liner (see our favorites).
This one should go without saying, but be sure the fit and convenience of a pack works for you. A small discomfort, like shoulder straps sitting too low, will be exacerbated over thousands of miles. Additionally, consider what you’re going to want to do while hiking. Can you reach your water bottles without taking the pack off? If you can’t try the pack on in a store, take it on a test hike once you receive it, and always be aware of different sizing specifications across the different brands. You might be a medium torso in one brand and a small in another.
Some hikers don’t mind having the pack sit right up against their backs, others will prefer a suspended mesh. Packs like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear models sit flush against your back, while models like the Osprey Exos or Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra have a mesh suspension system for ventilation. On an extended thru-hike you’ll be wearing this pack in a variety of climates and temperature ranges, but if you have to hike in humid weather like on the AT, we’d recommend going with a ventilated frame.
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About the author
Kate "Sprouts" Washington has thru-hiked long distance trails in New Zealand, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. A midwife, she lives in the Seattle Area and enjoys backpacking with her "tramily" and dogs on weekends.