10 Best Thru-Hiking Backpacks for 2021

10 Best Thru-hiking Backpacks

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. These packs are listed in no particular order.

1. Osprey Exos 58

Osprey Exos 58 Backpack
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 of more burly Osprey packs 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.

Check for the latest price at
Backcountry | Osprey | REI

2. Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
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 DWR treated and 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.

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Gossamer Gear

3. Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest

HMG Southwest 3400 Black
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest is a 55-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 with Dyneema grid external pockets. This is a great pack for hikers who might end up bushwhacking or hiking narrow trails with abrasive rocks. This pack adjusts easily and rolls down with a y-strap over-the-top-closure to secure gear to the outside of the pack. The downside to the heftier outer pockets is the lack of stretch—some users find water bottles hard to access without taking the pack off. This pack also puts the DCF right against your back, which can mean sweaty, hot days. This pack is available in a 40L version, but the 3400 weighs just a few ounces more and the extra 15 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.

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Hyperlite Mountain Gear | Backcountry

4. Zpacks Arc Blast 55

Zpacks Arc Blast Backpack

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 has an easily adjustable torso to ensure a precise fit, and the proprietary external frame provides stellar weight distribution. Zpacks has experienced some durability issues over the past several seasons, which is something to keep in mind when considering the lifespan of the pack. You can also go for the Zpacks Arc Haul, a 62L pack, but we chose the Arc Blast for the waterproof DCF construction. The Zpacks Arc Blast has a recommended weight limit of 35 pounds. Read the SectionHiker review.

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Zpacks

5. Lite AF 46L Curve

LiteAF Curve 46
This cottage-industry company has exploded in popularity in the thru-hiking world over the past few years. The Lite AF 46L Curve is made with DCF, has easily accessible water bottle pockets, and a super stretchy mesh back pocket for storage. The pockets add 10L of storage, and the shoulder straps are made with a comfortable, breathable combination of spacer mesh and closed-cell foam padding. Padded mesh along the bottom of the pack provides ventilation, and unlike some other ultralight packs, this one comes with easy-to-use load lifters. Their custom-made packs have a long lead time, so if you’re interested, order it plenty of time before your hike. The recommended weight limit for the LiteAF 46L Curve is 35 pounds.

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LiteAF

6. ULA Circuit 68

ULA Circuit Purple
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.

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ULA

7. Gossamer Gear G4-20

Gossamer Gear G4-20 Backpack
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.

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Gossamer Gear

8. Superior Wilderness Designs Rugged Long Haul 50

SWD Long Haul 50
The Rugged Long Haul 50 is a more durable version of the original SWD Long Haul 50, made with VX21 or X42 fabric for the main pack body. This pack has a total volume of 60 liters (50 for the main body and 10 for external pockets) and follows the basic structure of other similarly lightweight, simplified packs. It includes two large water bottle pockets, a mesh back pocket for soggy or quick-access items, and a roll-top with an over-the-top strap. The recommended load limit for the Superior Wilderness Designs Rugged Long Haul 50 is 40 pounds. Read the SectionHiker Long Haul 50 review.

Check for the latest price at:
Superior Wilderness Designs

9. Osprey Atmos 65

Osprey Atmos 65
The Osprey Atmos 65 is the heaviest pack on the list. While it’s extremely comfortable, with myriad pockets and options for organizing, it weighs over four pounds empty. This pack is excellent for people who know they’re going to be carrying a heavier pack weight, and want the extra padding and support a pack like the Atmos provides. This pack has Osprey’s super comfortable, ventilated back panel and proprietary AntiGravity suspension system, as well as padding on the back and extra-cushioned hip and shoulder straps. It has 11 exterior pockets and a zippered, removable top lid for even more organizing. The Osprey Aura 65 is the women’s-specific version. The Osprey Atmos 65 has a recommended weight limit of 45 pounds.

Check for the latest price at:
Backcountry | Osprey | REI

10. Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48L

Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48
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. The low weight of this pack means it doesn’t have the same support as some of the burlier models, so we recommend a maximum 10-pound base weight for anyone looking to carry this pack. A simple roll-top closure, wide back pocket, and reinforced base are all put together with the intended use of traveling fast and light through the backcountry. This pack is simple and convenient and doesn’t give any more padding or support than it needs. It has a rather 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.

Check for the latest price at:
Mountain Laurel Designs

Thru-Hiking Backpack Selection Criteria

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 (LiteAF, Superior Wilderness Designs) 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.

Load limit

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, 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 from the brand or from Section Hiker beta, 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 easier to cram gear into, but 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).

Fit

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? Can you adjust the fit and straps and weight distribution while hiking? 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.

Ventilation

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 Blast 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, so know your own preferences when choosing the design.

Editor’s note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the affiliate links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker’s unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.

About the author

Maggie Slepian is originally from the northeast and is currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Maggie has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, is *almost* done with the New Hampshire 48 4,000-footers, has developed backpacking routes in the Utah high desert, and spent the past five years testing gear and working professionally in the outdoor industry. Maggie spends as much time outdoors as possible, whether it’s backpacking, peak bagging, bikepacking, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, or kayaking. She is currently a full-time freelance writer and editor, and is always busy planning the next backcountry adventure. Get in touch at maggieslepian.com.

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