The 5 best hiking
backpacks for your gap year
If you don't see your gap year adventure without any type of trekking then you will need the best hiking backpack out there. Every time I am guiding an expedition or travelling solo I always include trekking or a peak summit, so a hiking backpack is what I mostly use.
For you hardcore adventurers who can’t imagine a gap year which doesn’t take you to new heights – literally - the hiking backpack will be the best choice for you. But what is the best hiking backpack?
Hiking backpacks are designed to withstand longer, more demanding trips, and come equipped with all the might you need to carry your equipment.
Hiking backpacks are best for hiking (duh), climbing, unsupported long treks, they are also quite versatile this days with different access points so you don't have to unpack the whole thing to find your jacket, making them also suitable for gap year travel, round the world trips, or volunteering in remote parts of the world.
As you probably know by now, there are endless options in this category too; so we have done all the research (me and my mates) and selected our favourites for you.
We have tested my list of best hiking backpacks in different terrains and environments. The Inca trail in Peru, the Lake District in England and Mt Toubkal in Morocco.
How I Know About This I haven't left my corporate job to go travelling, I never had a corporate job! I made travelling my life. I lead expeditions to the most remote corners of the globe and have been living out of a rucksack for fifteen years, so I've owned a few. I also continuously review equipment for my website.
My Best Hiking Backpack Picks
How to Choose the Best Hiking Backpack
A hiking backpack can be the single cleverest piece of gear you own, but in order to be able to use it at its highest potential it needs to be cleanly designed and simple to use.
Before buying your hiking backpack you should think about:
Price: You will be able to find cheap hiking backpacks but they are not worth the material or the thread they are made from. They will fall apart at some point during your travels. Remember that the backpack will carry all your belongings and you will be carrying your backpack. It needs to be good. So expect to pay £100 upwards. Anything less and you will be in danger territory.
The right capacity: I recommend staying in the 60 L to 75 L bracket. Anything more and you will be over packing. Anything less requires more experience at travelling. It's possible, but not necessary. Remember that the length of time that you are travelling doesn't determine the size of your pack.
The right size for you: This can easily be done by measuring your back length (get somebody else to do it for you). It's easier than you think. I have written all about it in 'gap year backpacks' and have even included a nice video and a link to an app that does it for you ( if you cant find anybody to help you).
Be fully adjustable: Fitting external straps and an adjustable harness all ensure that you can modify the fit of the backpack on the go. In fact, the harness might be the single most important feature of the hiking backpack, which distinguishes it from other kinds of backpacks.
These harnesses tend to be more mobile, by that I mean not fully fixed to the back panel. This is to accommodate your back according to the position of the pack, so as to always transfer the weight correctly.
You can see why this is crucial. Hiking, climbing, and other kinds of adventurous activities don’t always allow you to be perfectly upright, so it is extremely important to check how the carry system works on each pack and find one that suits you and your activity the most.
Have at least two if not three different points of access: The best ones will offer at least two if not three different points of access, whether a top-loading, frontal u-zip, or bottom zipper.
This is crucial with hiking backpacks as you are least likely to find a space to stop and search your bag like a speleologist when you are actually up a mountain, you know, doing some actual speleology.
Have great storage: Very important, as well as storage extension options. Many manufacturers offer capacity extension options, which are often indicated in the two numbers in the model name.
This is particularly useful if you are going to be on the road for a while and carrying different kinds of gear at any one point.
Have a good guarantee: This is especially important with hiking backpacks, because by nature of the activities you will be doing with them they will need to withstand tougher environments – so a full guarantee on any damage is important for your backpack to last a lifetime.
Checking in a Hiking Backpack at the Airport
While it’s a little harder to arrange for these bags to be checked into a plane, it’s not true that you can’t check them at all. Why is that? Basically a hiking backpack tends to be covered in straps and the airline does not want them to be hanging out ready to get caught up on something.
You can either buy a light duffel bag to cover it with, which most manufacturers sell or even include within the bag itself. Or alternatively you could tie up the straps to each other and tuck them in as much as possible.
Some airports have the option to check them into a different part of the airport, so that the straps don’t get caught in ordinary conveyor belts.
My Best Hiking Backpack Reviews
The following are my best hiking backpack picks based on my own experience and that of other expedition leaders. They are orientated for the more adventurous gap year traveller, the ones that want to explore more off the beaten track locations.
- Made from ultra lightweight RAPTOR Zero fabric that provides an incredibly lightweight
- Features a pre-curved horizontal aluminium bar across the top of the back panel which provides structure for
- Two shoulder top tension straps allow the pack weight to be pulled close to the body and control the pack stability for the required terrain
- Chest harness with left hand clip prevents bulky buckles over the sternum and increases comfort with its low profile
- Right and left hip pockets; Front central and two left and right high webbing gear loops
Montane Grand Tour 55 L / 70 L
This is a bag that has been designed specially for backpacking and multi day trekking in mind, so if you are planning to experience some trails while travelling this might be the bag for you.
The Montane Grand Tour is an ultra lightweight hiking backpack made of RAPTOR zero fabric. This is a lightweight yet strong material
They have put a lot of thought into designing this bag. It comes with a lot of great features, its weather resistant, has a removable comfort back system, and a wide mouth opening of the main compartment.
They have gone for a minimalist approach given preference to lightweight comfort and durability over organisation and ease of use, so don't expect lots of different inside pockets for organising your kit. Packing cubes are recommended.
The 55 L is a top loader and it only has one access point to the main compartment, while the 70 L offers two access points at the top and at the bottom. In my opinion this makes it more gap year travel friendly.
The harness offers great comfort and support while loaded. It carries the weight well on the hips and it has just the right amount of padding and can be shaped for a specific custom fit. It also has a great ventilation system making it ideal to use in the tropics.
The hip belt comes with two clever zip pockets, as you can unzip them just with one hand. This is very handy when you have a full pack and are rushing around in a bus station.
It has two external pockets at the side of the pack, they are usefully stretchable. My only concern is that mesh pockets sometimes rip and if not repaired it will make the pocket unusable. The external straps and loops offer many ways of carrying your gear, such as your trekking poles and water bottle.
- Back ventilation: Air Channels between the back padding
- 2 side pockets
- Handles for making it Easier to put on with a partner
- Pockets on the waist belt; robust Waist Belt; sternum strap
- Volume: 65 litres
A great, easy to use hiking backpack that has been made with versatility in mind. It can be used for gap year travel, group expeditions or a simple overnight camping trip.
The Lowe Alpine Atlas 65 is made of 300D nail head polyester fabric, which is a lightweight, hard wearing, water resistant material. Just in case you don't know - the 300D refers to the thread thickness.
I love the attention to detail that Lowe Alpine have put into this hiking backpack. The craftsmanship is flawless. All zippers and buckles are really strong.
This pack implements a classic design - with a huge main compartment and roomy lower sleeping bag compartment. Plenty of compression straps to cinch down your load and smartly designed pole and ice pick loops.
The placement of the zipper on the top lid is more centered to the top instead of the back, so when opening things stay in place instead of spilling out.
The rain cover is detachable, which is ideal if you need to let it dry before repacking. It has its own pocket and it is roomy so you can pack in more items. Additional items may be attached to the outside of the pack, like a sleeping mat.
Its "adjust on the fly" back system (Lowe Alpine’s Axiom 3 ) is not only comfortable but can be fitted according to each back type and position. When I first got the pack the mechanism was a little stiff and hard to move, however after I played with it for a few hours on a practice hike, it smoothed right out.
Hip belt and front pockets, straps and walking pole grippers all allow maximum storage, and with the zip at the bottom you get flexible access.
The handle on the front of the pack is very useful, as it allows you to just grab your pack and chuck it when you’re boarding a coach or a train.
You can never go wrong with Lowe Alpine, and this is a great choice for comfort and value.
The Women Version: Lowe Alpine Atlas ND 65
- Individually customizable system back
- Response A3 Suspension: Independent rotating and adjustable shoulder strap and hipbelt panels adaptable for different forms of the body and keep cargo balance on any terrain
- Ultracush Back Panel: Ventilated Panel with a multilayer EVA foam and silicone grip insert for maximum support and stability
This is definitely my favourite hiking backpack and it doesn't come cheap, but that's because it ticks all the possible boxes that you can think of - and it will last you a lifetime...literally!
The Baltoro 65 is an ultra lightweight backpack (just 2onz heavier than the lightest backpack on this list the Arcter'ix Altra 65) and super comfortable to carry with its excellent Response A3 suspension system and fully adjustable harness. I reckon this bag has the most technological advanced harness in the industry.
It has an additional lumbar support, which I find helpful, and the main support has a very breathable mesh that provides excellent ventilation, making it extremely useful in hot environments. The hip belt is comfortable and not over-padded, and the cantilever allows independent hip movement.
The backpack has very good access from the top and from the bottom and retains the optional divider between the main compartment and the sleeping bag/tent compartment. It has plenty of side pockets and attachment points.
It also has a removable day pack they call the "Sidekick" which doubles as a reservoir sleeve. It is great to carry water once on the trail but not very useful as a day pack, so a extra day pack is recommended.
It comes equipped with a rain cover, a very handy external water bottle holder and a full weatherproof RFID side pockets on the hip belt, so you can carry your mobile phone and credit cards with confidence even in tropical downpours
It comes it three different capacities the 65 L (featured in this review) the 75 L ( I wouldn't go any bigger than this) and the 85 L (I wouldn't buy a pack this big as it just isn't necessary) In short, there is nothing much that I miss with this Gregory pack.
- Lightweight; Durable; Construction Top grab handle; Twin aluminum stays for durable support
- Design Women's specific design and fit; Zippers & Fly Configuration Side zipper access; Corded zipper pulls
- Pack Pocket Configuration Internal security pocket; Kangaroo pocket with top compression strap and snap closure
- Two Wingman one-handed easy access pockets; Pack Hydration Hose clip; Designed to fit up to 2L bladder
- Internal hydration pocket with zip; Pack Suspension Configuration Anatomically shaped shoulder strap
This backpack features some real technological gems, and its the lightest hiking backpack and the more expensive pack out there, but can I just say that I love this bag! It simply looks great and does a fantastic job when it comes to weight, comfort, access and features
This backpack is made of 210D nylon, 6,6 ripstop and 500D ATY nylon 6,6 silicon. In simple terms - this is a high spec ultra light material, highly reinforced, water and dirt resistant, that will last for ever, definitely what you expect with that price tag.
It has a u-zip on the front, meaning that it opens like a suitcase, allowing easy access to your belongings, and making packing /unpacking pain free, also the top lid is extendable for bigger capacity.
The harness is a technological gem, with the combination of a pivoting hip belt and vertically and laterally adjustable shoulder strap . All of this adds up to an extremely comfortable to carry backpack, customisable fit and some sweet hip rotation.
The Grid Lock shoulder strap adjustment allows two inches up and down and side to side, allowing a perfect fit to different shoulder sizes and body shapes.
Its Load Transfer Disc, a rotating disc on the hip belt, adjusts to your body’s movement and transfers the weight to your hip, you can also detach the hip belt when in transit.
The pivoting hip belt moves around quite a bit, so Arc’teryx includes a small packet of lube to help with any squeaking that might occur. The rucksack did squeak a bit, but not terribly so.
The Altra 65 also has a full-length zippered pocket on the outside of the pack. It can store a huge number of things, and has a drainage hole at the bottom for anything that gets wet.
It has a detachable top lid with two small pockets and very cleverly placed zips, so things not only didn't fall out when opened but my items were easy to find.
And I can go on and on with all the different features and technological gems. Overall a technical hiking backpack that adapts extraordinary well for gap year/round the world travel. This backpack will extra perform on any trails and it has a price tag to reflect this. After all you get what you pay for.
NOTE Arc’teryx has discontinued the production of the Altra backpack line, but you can still find them on Amazon. I am unaware of the reasons why but I still stand by my recommendation of the Altra 65.
- Airscape Backpanel With Foam Ridges For Ventilation
- Sternum Strap With Emergency Whistle
- Stretch Mesh Side Pockets With Insideout Compression
- Top Lid Access
- Twin Zippered Hip Belt Pockets
A bit of a superstar in its own right, the Aether/Ariel series is built for long-lasting comfort. its not the lightest backpack on this list but it's definitively one of the most comfortable when it comes to carrying heavy loads.
The materials used are very high quality and the construction is bomb-proof. The zippers are sturdy and do not snag when opening/closing. The buckles are robust enough to tolerate a fair amount of pressure when cinching down the compression straps.
The harness, with Its Anti-Gravity system for back support, is one of the best in the market. It's constructed with thoughtful design, allowing for great load transfer and ventilation. The entire harness system is custom made as it moulds to your body shape.
The sternum strap is movable but requires a great deal of force to move the base clamps. This can be annoying at first though, but it is a blessing when on the move as you don't have to worry about re-adjusting due to slippage.
The design of this pack is impressive. Everything seems to be made with the user in mind. It comes with three access points to your kit - top, side and bottom. The front zipper allows for full access of the main compartment, making it a breeze to reach those otherwise buried items.
The zippered hip-belt pockets are the perfect size, allowing for a smartphone, wallet and snacks. It also comes with an integrated rain cover. The top lid is also a small day pack, not great for a day trek but it can still be used for day trips and sightseeing.
With all of these technological features this Osprey series is great value for money.
The women's version of this backpack is the Osprey Ariel.
And the Winner is…
All of these options are top in their field, and different features will appeal to different travellers. All in all, we think the Osprey Aether/Ariel is the best hiking backpack out there. It gives the best value for money, without compromising any of the comfort or the functionalities.
Its back support system is stellar and all the different storage options will satisfy all packer types. This might be for you if you are looking for a hiking, unsupported trekking, or round-the-world trip companion that is as strong and dynamic as you.