Backpacks

Posted: January 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Backpacks come in a bewildering variety of options.  They’re one of the BIG 3 items (tent, backpack, sleeping bag) that contribute most of the cost and weight in camping and backpacking gear.  I’m going to use three somewhat artificial categories to exclude a couple of broad chunks of packs that aren’t good for me, or for recreational campers with similar needs, and then hone in on one pack that I love.  While in tents, for example, there are only a few obvious price/performance gems in a field of mostly way overpriced stuff, with backpacks there are tons of great packs that have their legitimate pros and cons.  I’ll just give one angle on the 10,000 foot view and then tell you what I picked, mentioning a few close alternatives along the way.

Overall TL;DR: For starting out car camping don’t bother buying a new backpack at all!  Once you’re sure you’ll use it for backpacking, get an Osprey Atmos 50, or maybe for women an Aura 50, and if your total pack weight with food will be below ~25 lbs, definitely consider the newer Osprey Exos.

The three categories: first is ultralight, which means that the packs save a pound or two (or three maybe?) by having absolutely no frame or suspension, on the assumption that you will be carrying so little that you won’t need a frame anyway.  If this is you, then you want this type of pack (say total pack contents with food never exceeds 20 pounds).  GoLite is one of the flagship gear companies for this crowd, although not the price leader by any means.  I’d also check out ZPacks for this type of pack, although there are many more manufacturers of ultralight packs.  Because I’m not hiking the Pacific Coast Trail for a month straight, but rather camping over three-day weekends and that kind of thing, I’ll never do the kind of hike mileage that makes this kind of ounce-counting more than an academic exercise, albeit a sometimes addictive and fun one (on which, more later).  With that in mind, I decided not to sweat it, and to stick a few more luxuries and “very slightly heavier while tons cheaper” gear items in my pack, that an ultralight backpacker usually wouldn’t carry.  I also use my backpack for vacation travel.  Because of these decisions, I got a very light pack with a frame, not an even lighter frameless ultralight pack.

The second category that I’ll exclude is military-style packs.  Like ultralighters, enthusiasts of this type of pack have a lot of forums and youtube reviews and that kind of thing, so you will run across these packs if you’re using Google or DuckDuckGo as your starting place for info without any other frame of reference.  These are MUCH heavier than recreational packs, because they are intended to carry much heavier loads, day in and day out, far from the possibility of repair or replacement.  There are some amazingly designed packs in this category, that are incredibly designed for the job they’re meant to do.  However, they are much heavier than you probably need if you’re not carrying heavy gear like weapons and ammo, and they’re more expensive as well.  If this sounds more like what you need (unlike me), Kifaru and Mystery Ranch are examples of pricey but very well respected companies that make this kind of pack.  Because heavy pack users are largely either professionals or gear geeks,  discount pricing is extremely hard to find in this category of packs.

Finally, there are frame packs for recreational campers.  Osprey, Gregory, REI, Kelty, and Jansport all make decent entries in this category, among a huge number of others.  A decent correctly sized pack from any of these manufacturers will probably do you right.  If you’re looking for the rock bottom price on something decent (say for a kid in Scouting who may outgrow the pack), maybe check out Jansport packs at ebags.com, or at Amazon.  One standout is the now-discontinued JanSport Forsyth50, which has a suspension very similar to the Osprey Atmos I own, and can sometimes still be found on closeout for about $100.  Both JanSport and Osprey offer a lifetime warranty on their packs, by the way- if you buy one, take advantage of it!  Price aside, I’d say of these companies, Gregory and Osprey offer the best models currently, and unlike some other pieces of camping gear, the price difference between an Osprey or Gregory backpack and the best bargain you’ll find isn’t a ton of money.  In the end, the Osprey Airspeed suspension seems to me like the best engineering solution to lightweight pack frames on the market- it knocks the crap out of the “two unconnected pieces of soft flat aluminum” solution that is still inexplicably common in internal frame packs, and distributes loads a lot like an old aluminum external frame pack doess an example of a very pricey but very well respected company that makes this kind of pack,.  I would suggest having a look at any of the Ospreys with the Airspeed suspension, if the recommendations below aren’t exactly what you need.

Sizing.  For backpacks, I strongly recommend trying on a few in person first.  Ideally you should take one on a hike, and borrowing from a friend is the perfect solution if at all possible.  All of that being said, sometimes you may have a big trip on the horizon with little time to get your gear- if you’re feeling lucky, and want to roll the dice and order a backpack sight unseen, pack manufacturers have sizing charts on their websites to let you know what size to order.  The pack that I use, after trying on several, is the same size that the Osprey website would have pointed me to.

My Pack: I wanted a pack that wouldn’t make me sweat my butt off in warm weather, and that wouldn’t be large enough to tempt me into packing more crap than I need for the kind of camping and traveling I do.  With that in mind I got the Osprey Atmos 50 (large). I got it from e-OMC which is the source linked here- they’ve consistently had the best pricing on this pack, although let me know if you see it cheaper elsewhere.  Although the Atmos 50 is closer to $150 online and you can get a somewhat similar JanSport for closer to $100, in this particular case for me the devil is in the details, and even though I hate spending money unnecessarily on camping gear, I’d spend that extra $50 every time.  This pack is one of my favorite pieces of gear that I have, for any activity.  It’s made up to 40 pounds seem weightless (and cool and breezy to beat) for a month in Thailand, a few miles of large elevation changes at around 7000′ in the Sierras, and everything in between.  The details of the strap layout, pocket layout, buckle design, etc. are tied neck-and-neck with Gregory packs for the best out there for this type of pack.  The Osprey Atmos is laid out for hydration, but does not come with a bladder.  If you want a hydration bladder for this pack I would recommend a Platypus Big Zip SL in 1,2, or 3L as a great bargain, although for moderate hikes I prefer water bottles like a free leftover Powerade Zero 32 oz. bottle.  I lose caps easily, so I like to spend a few extra ounces and about $7 on at least one overbuilt bottle with an attached cap and ounce markings on the side, like a Nalgene HDPE trail bottle.

atmos50b

Osprey Atmos 50

Alternatives:  The pack I’d most consider as an alternative to the Osprey Atmos 50 is the Osprey Exos 46 or Exos 58.  These came out after I bought my pack, so I’ve never hiked one, but if I didn’t already have my Atmos I might be on the fence between it and an Exos.  The Exos line is about a pound lighter overall, but built with lighter materials and rated for closer to 20 pounds vs 40 pounds as a high-side load.  If you know you’ve decided to go a pretty light/ultralight route with your whole setup, and won’t be using your pack for anything burlier, you can drop another pound-ish by getting the Exos vs. the Atmos, and still have a great solid frame that a GoLite or Z-packs ultralight model might not give you.  On the other hand, just having one sturdier pack that can also tackle heavier loads for month- long travel backpacking and other air travel might seem worth that extra pound.  There is also a larger Atmos 65, which is basically otherwise the same, and a Women’s style of the same pack called the Aura 50.  The most comparable other model would be the Gregory Z55.  As a point of reference, among the people I camp with who aren’t squeezing a few more trips out of a super old hand-me-down or something, the Atmos 50, Aura 50, and Gregory Z55 make up 90% of the packs represented, and all of us did our pack shopping and selection independently.

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