How to buy the best Lightweight Hiking & Tactical backpacks.
Before buying hiking or tactical backpacks it’s important to understand the different features that contribute to finding the right backpack for your specific needs. With this review and buyer’s guide, we help you to choose the best Hiking, Lightweight, Tactical and Minimalist backpacks for the money among the best backpack brands available.
For an enjoyable hiking experience, a comfortable, well fit backpack is essential. Your backpack needs to be large enough for all the gear you need for when and where you are hiking, and the length of your hike. Backpack volume is measured in liters, and that measurement may be included in the name of a backpack.
Size calculations should include your tent, sleeping bag, extra clothes, cookware, first aid supplies, food, and water. Will you need to be carrying items for others such as children? Are you going to need bulkier gear than usual for cooler temperatures such as warmer clothes, a thicker sleeping bag, or a different tent? How long are you going to be gone? Do you need a bear box? Here are some size range recommendations based on the number of days of your trip.
- Day hikes — 15 to 30 liters
- Overnight (1 to 2 nights) — 30 to 50 litres
- Weekend (2 to 3 nights) — 45 to 55 liters
- Extended Trips (3 or more nights) — 55+ liters
Fit and Suspension
The distance from the shoulder strap to the hipbelt on the backpack should equal your torso length from the C7 vertebrae that stick out at the base of your neck to the top of your hips. Some backpacks offer adjustable torso lengths. Watch this excellent video on how to measure yourself correctly.
The hipbelt should support most of the weight of the backpack. It can range from a webbing waist strap on daypacks to lightly or heavily padded depending on the capacity and intended use of the backpack. Long-distance hikers need the support of a rigid, heavily padded hipbelt, but climbers and skiers want a minimal hipbelt to allow for more freedom of movement. The hipbelt should snugly fit around the hips, not the waist. When the hipbelt is fastened, the padded portions of the hipbelt should only be separated by three to six inches. Moldable hipbelts, available from Osprey, mold to the shape of your hips after being heated.
Shoulder straps should not pinch or rub, and thick padding is not necessary because the load should be supported by the hipbelt. When the shoulder straps are adjusted, there should be little or no space between your body and the backpack, and they should extend just two to three inches below your armpit.
Load-Lifter Straps extending from the top of the backpack to the shoulder straps help adjust the backpack toward or away from your body. They should be at a 45° angle to the backpack.
The sternum strap connects the shoulder straps and steadies the backpack.
The back panel should be padded, have air channels, and could even be made with air-mesh foam.
Internal vs External Frame
Internal frames are two aluminum or composite, parallel or crossbars inside the backpack to support loads of 15 pounds or greater. They are rigid and transfer the weight of the backpack to your hips. Internal frames are good for climbing and skiing because they allow more free arm movement.
Internal plastic framesheets provide vertical and torsional rigidity when used with a metal frame.
External frames have a higher center of gravity and are for hiking with heavy loads. They allow a straighter posture and, generally, have more pockets and better air flow.
Here are suspension recommendations by load weight.
- 0 to 10 pounds of gear only needs minimal suspension and will not need a padded hipbelt or frame.
- 10 to 20 pounds of gear needs a light frame or framesheet and a lightly padded hipbelt.
- 20 to 40 pounds of gear needs a moderate frame and a moderately padded hipbelt.
- Over 40 pounds of gear needs a substantial frame and a thickly padded hipbelt.
- Compartments and pockets can aid in packing and sorting your gear.
- Backpacks should be made of high denier polyester or nylon.
- Women’s backpacks have shoulder and hip straps designed to better fit women.
- Compression straps help cinch the backpack contents for better balance and stability.
- Spindrift collars allow more gear to be stuffed on the top of the backpack.
- Attachment points allow you to attach a few more items on the outside.
- Hydration compatible backpacks have a pocket to hold a hydration sleeve with a hole for a drinking tube.
- Rain covers protect the contents from potential leaks at seams and openings.
Osprey is one of the best backpack brands, and the Osprey Atmos 65 AG Backpack is the best hiking backpack for the money. It holds 65 liters which is large enough for extended trips. It features Osprey’s Anti-Gravity suspension system with superior ventilation, fit, and comfort. The Anti-Gravity suspension system consists of a seamless, lightweight mesh backpanel that provides unrestricted movement. The Atmos 65 AG Fit-on-the-Fly hipbelt and adjustable torso length adds to the comfort provided by this backpack. This backpack opens both at the top and through the front panel and has a removable, floating toplid with a Flapjacket to protect your gear when the toplid is removed. It includes dual zippered front panel pockets, side and internal compression straps, removable sleeping pad straps, and a Stow-on-the-Go trekking pole attachment. It measures 10″ x 16″ x 23″ and weighs 3.9 pounds.
The Gregory Baltoro 65 Backpack has a 65 liter capacity and is made of 210 denier nylon and 420 denier heavy-duty nylon. The vented, formed back panel has a silicone lumbar grip zone and pre-curved Lifespan EVA foam harness and hipbelt in several sizes. The LumbarTune removable 10mm insert is customizable. The Baltaro 65 comes with a rain cover and a lightweight SideKick removable daypack that can be used as a hanging reservoir sleeve. Your gear can be accessed through the top and the front panel. It also includes a bottle compartment on the side. It measures 25.2″ x 15.0″ x 9.5″ and weighs 5.5 pounds.
Newer hiking gear is lighter and less bulky. So, the best lightweight backpacks can be 35 to 40 liters and weigh between two to two and a half pounds to carry 25 pounds of gear including consumables.
Lightweight backpacks use one of three frames. The Simple Frame is not arced so there is no air space at your back. It uses aluminum stays to hold the shape of the backpack and transfer the load to the hipbelt. Tensioned Air Frames provide air flow. Frameless lightweight backpacks are for loads less than 15 pounds. You can use a rolled sleeping pad to create a frame.
Lightweight Backpack Recommendation
The Osprey Exos 48 is one of the best lightweight backpacks. It is a 48 liter, lightweight backpack with the internal, Exos peripheral, aluminum, cross strut frame. It offers an internal backpanel sleeve; AirSpeed suspension; ExoForm seamless, mesh-covered, hipbelt; and three liter hydration compatibility. It has a removable floating top pocket, clip attachment on the back panel sleeve, a key clip and under-lid zippered mesh pocket inside the top panel, and multiple cord tie-off points to attach additional gear to the sides of the front panel. It measures 6″ x 14″ x 22″, weighs 2.6 pounds,and can hold a bear box.
The best tactical backpacks copy military backpacks. They are lightweight, durable, waterproof, have a lot of interior compartments including padded and hidden pockets, and use the Pouch Attachment Ladder System (PALS) of webbed straps to attach Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE) accessories to the outside.
Tactical Backpack Recommendation
The Monstrum Tactical BPA01 3 Day, 40 Litre, 1000 Denier Backpack is a good example of the best tactical backpack. It is hydration compatible, water-resistant, can hold a 15.6″ laptop, has seven storage compartments, and PALS webbed straps to hold MOLLE pouches and accessories. MOLLE accessory sets are available. It weighs 4.2 pounds.
Minimalist backpackers pare down the gear they bring and the weight of the gear. They may use trekking poles instead of tent poles or a guide wire and a tarp instead of a tent. They use dehydrated food and filter water along the trail. The best minimalist backpack can be frameless, less than 35 liters, and weigh one and a half to two pounds.
Minimalist Backpack Recommendation
The Osprey Packs Talon 22 Backpack weighs in at just 1.5 pounds but still boasts a 22 liter capacity. The Osprey Tallon 22 has defined the pack category of lightweight, high-performance, multi-sport packs.