To walk from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, you will have to wear or carry every item that you need to make the trip. These items include food, water, clothing, shelter, and personal items.  Since you might need your hands free to fend off bears, it is preferable to place the items that you cannot wear in a backpack and carry it on your back. It is imperative that your pack be large enough and comfortable enough to carry your stuff for five million steps.

I have owned two backpacks in my lifetime, and both of them were external frame backpacks made by Kelty.  At the time I purchased these backpacks, they were state-of-the-art and they served me well in getting my stuff where I wanted to go. Since then, the external frame backpack seems to have gone the way of the Dodo bird. While they were capable of comfortably supporting epic loads, the loads have gotten smaller and lighter and the surviving backpacks (both internal frame and frameless) have followed suit.

There are thousands of backpacks and a variety of styles from which to choose. So where do you start? To narrow the field, I selected, in order of importance to me, the following criteria:

  1. Weight – Must weigh less than three lbs.
  2. Volume – Must be just large enough to hold what I plan to carry (something near 60 L).
  3. Capacity – Must be designed to support at least 35 lbs.
  4. Comfort – Must be comfortable enough to wear daily for
  5. Durability – Must be durable enough to last for the entire thru-hike.

To find backpacks that met the above criteria, I spent hours scouring forums and websites for backpacks recommended by former thru-hikers. Additionally, Appalachian Trials (that is not misspelled, folks) at www.appalachiantrials.com  sponsored a survey in 2015 of 116 A.T. thru-hikers and 63 section hikers to find out what they were carrying (all A.T. usage statistics below are from that survey). Based on the information I gathered, I compiled the following list (excluding female specific backpacks) of the most recommended/carried thru-hiker backpacks:

Manufacturer Model Total Vol Max Load Material Weight ( Weight (lbs) Cost
Deuter ACT Zero 50 + 15 3965 ci/65 L 45 lbs 210-denier ripstop nylon 55.0 3.4 $190
Gossamer Gear Miraposa 60 3467 ci/60 L 35 lbs 100D Robic Nylon 29.1 1.8 $255
Granite Gear Crown VC 60 3660 ci/60 L 35 lbs Cordura sil-nylon hybrid 34.0 2.1 $200
Gregory Z 65 3844 ci/63 L unknown 210D  Robic Nylon 51.0 3.2 $240
Hyperlight Gear 2800 Windrider 3600 ci/59 L 40 lbs Cuben Fiber 29.6 1.9 $285
Hyperlight Gear 3400 Windrider 4600 ci/74 L 40 lbs Cuben Fiber 33.5 2.1 $320
Ospery Exos 58 3539 ci/58 L 40 lbs 100D High Tenacity Nylon 38.5 2.4 $220
Ospery Atmos 3967 ci/65 L unknown 420D Nylon Packcloth 70.0 4.4 $260
ULA Equipment Ohm 2.0 3960 ci/63 L 30 lbs 210D  Robic Nylon 32.5 2.0 $210
ULA Equipment Circuit 4200 ci/68 L 35 lbs 210D  Robic Nylon 41.0 2.6 $235
ULA Equipment Catalyst 4600 ci/74 L 40 lbs 210D  Robic Nylon 48.0 3.0 $260
Z Pack Arc Blast 3650 ci/60 L 35 lbs Cuben Fiber 21.2 1.3 $325
Z Pack Arc Haul 3650 ci/60 L 40 lbs Dyneema X 24.0 1.5 $300

To be fair, all of the backpacks on this list are great and you will see all of them on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. According to the appalachiantrials.com survey, 71.8% of the hikers surveyed carried the Deuter, Gregory, Granite Gear, Osprey, or some other backpack from a mainstream manufacturer.  That is not surprising, since you can go and see these backpacks at a store, get fitted on-site, and enjoy the immediate gratification of making a purchase and taking your new backpack home with you. In fact, the Ospery Exos 58 is the single most popular pack on the trail, and is carried by 10% of hikers, according to the survey.

However, a closer look at the data allows me to begin eliminating several of these backpacks based on my initial selection criteria. The Act Zero, Z65, Atmos, and Catalyst, while fine backpacks, are too heavy because they are either loaded with unnecessary features or are too large for the task. The 3400 Windrider, although it makes the weight cut, is also too large for me.  Several of these backpacks would make an excellent choice for situations in which a bear canister is required and/or where you need to carry large amounts of water (such as the Pacific Crest Trail), but the A.T. requires neither of these. Finally, the Ohm 2.0 does not support the weight capacity that I desire.

What remains after the cut are the following six backpacks:

  • Gossamer Gear Miraposa 60
  • Granite Gear Crown VC 60
  • Hyperlight Gear 2800 Windrider
  • Ospery Exos 58
  • ULA Equipment Circuit
  • Z Packs Arc (the Blast and Haul are identical except for material and price).

We will examine these candidates in detail to try to identify the Holy Grail among backpacks.

Gossamer Gear Miraposa 60

Gossamer Gear Miraposa 60

Gossamer Gear Miraposa 60

Gossamer Gear is a small cottage industry manufacturer, founded in 1998 by Glen Van Peski, and it receives many online accolades for customer service. This backpack must be purchased directly from the manufacturer, so there is no opportunity to examine it or try it on in advance, but they have a 30-day return policy. This backpack is carried by approximately 3% of A.T. thru-hikers.

Pros:

  • Weighs under two pounds.
  • Made with a combination of 100 and 200-denier Robic nylon to find a balance between weight and durability.
  • Features seven built-in pockets.
  • Has a unique long pocket on one side for a tent.
  • Water bottle pockets are solid reinforced fabric that can be reached without removing the pack.
  • Has a large mesh pocket on the front.
  • Has hardware for securing trekking poles.
  • Hip belt is purchased separately for a customized fit.
  • Hip belt has two built-in pockets.

Cons:

  • No mesh back. Cushioning is provided by a removable “Sitlite” pad.

Granite Gear Crown VC 60

Granite Gear is a mainstream gear manufacturer, so you will find their backpacks in most big box outdoor equipment stores, and their products come with a lifetime guarantee. Backpacks made by this manufacturer are carried by approximately 8.6% of A.T. thru-hikers.

 Pros:

  • Lowest cost contender.
  • Made with a combination of 100 and 210-denier Cordura nylon to find a balance between weight and durability.
  • Has a unique 360 compression system to accommodate varying loads.
  • Has a large mesh pocket on the front.
  • Hip belt is purchased separately for a customized fit.
  • Has a roll top closure.

Cons:

  • Water bottle pockets are made of mesh (less durable), but they can be reached without removing pack.
  • Hip belt has no built-in pockets. Pockets cost $23 and add 1.4 oz. each.
  • No mesh back. Permanently attached “Vapor Current” foam padding.

Hyperlight Gear 2800 Windrider

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 2800

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 2800

Hyperlite Mountain Gear is a small company in Maine that has designed and built stripped down, high performance gear for many years. They are one of a handful of manufacturers that use Dyneema Composite Fabrics.  You must purchase this backpack directly from the manufacturer, so there is no opportunity to examine it or try it on in advance, but they have a 15-day return policy and 1-year guarantee. Backpacks made by this manufacturer are carried by approximately 4% of A.T. thru-hikers.

 Pros:

  • Made with 100% waterproof 50-denier Dyneema Composite Fabrics with 150-denier bottom. Full 150-denier available for $25 more, adding 1.4 oz.
  • The fabric is bomber tough against puncture/abrasion.
  • It comes with a horizontal and vertical compression system to accommodate varying loads.
  • Large mesh pocket on the front.
  • Roll top closure.

Cons:

  • Second most expensive contender.
  • Water bottle pockets are made of mesh (less durable), but they can be reached without removing pack.
  • Integrated hip belt, but it does include pockets.
  • No mesh back ventilation or padding.

Ospry Exos 58

Osprey Exos 58

Osprey Exos 58

Ospry, founded in 1974, has grown to become a market leader in mainstream gear manufacturing.  Manufactured in Korea and Vietnam, you will find their products in all big box outdoor equipment stores. Backpacks made by this manufacturer are carried by approximately 35% of A.T. thru-hikers (10% for the Exos specifically) and they come with a lifetime guarantee.

Pros:

  • Widely available.
  • It is the lowest cost contender when (often) found on sale.
  • Large mesh pocket on the front.
  • Removable lid closure with integrated “FlapJacket” closure.
  • Mesh back ventilation.

Cons:

  • Highest weight in its class.
  • Made with 100-denier High Tenacity nylon.
  • Integrated hip belt with two zippered pockets.
  • Water bottle pockets are made of mesh (less durable), but they can be reached without removing pack.

 

ULA Equipment Circuit

ULA Equipment Circuit

ULA Equipment Circuit

Ultralight Adventure (ULA) Equipment began as a cottage industry manufacturer in 2001. The founder, Brian Frankles, sold the business in 2009, and the new owner has grown it to international distribution. As a result, personalized customer service has waned, according to internet chatter, but the product quality remains high.  ULA backpacks are still made in the USA, sold manufacturer direct, and they appear to have an unlimited warranty. Backpacks made by this manufacturer are carried by approximately 14.4% of A.T. thru-hikers.

 Pros:

  • Made with 210-denier Robic nylon with a cordura bottom panel.
  • 210 Ripstop water bottle pockets can be reached without removing pack.
  • Large mesh pocket on the front.
  • Integrated hip belt with two zippered pockets available in multiple sizes.
  • Roll top closure.
  • Padded back panel.
  • Durable and a great value.

 Cons:

  • Heaviest (and largest) of the contenders, but 2.5 oz. are easily removable.
  • No mesh back ventilation, but has padded back panel.

ZPacks Arc Blast

ZPacks Arc Blast

ZPacks Arc Blast

ZPacks was founded in 2005 by Joe Valesko and is a true cottage industry manufacturer.  Based out of West Melbourne, Florida, all products are made-to-order in the USA with a lead-time of several weeks. With a business model based on Dyneema Composite Fabrics gear, ZPacks has taken the ultralight gear community by storm with many dedicated fanboys in the forums and on YouTube. Their backpacks are sold manufacturer direct with a 30-day return policy and a 1-year guarantee. Backpacks made by this manufacturer are carried by approximately 2.9% of A.T. thru-hikers.

 Pros:

  • Lightest contender on the list.
  • Made with 100% waterproof 50-denier Dyneema Composite Fabrics.
  • Can be ordered with 210 denier Dyneema X Gridstop for $25 less and 2.8 oz. more weight.
  • Side compression straps are made from non-stretchy Dyneema cord.
  • Has solid Dyneema Composite Fabric water bottle pockets that can be reached without removing pack.
  • Large mesh pocket on the front.
  • Detachable hip belt without pockets for a customized fit.
  • Belt pockets available for $25 and .75 oz. each.
  • Roll top closure.
  • Mesh back ventilation with carbon fiber external frame.

Cons:

  • Most expensive contender on the list.

So after all the analysis, which backpack will I take on my thru-hike? All of the backpacks on this list are excellent, and my choice is based on the features that are most important to me. Except for the price, I cannot find any fault with the ZPacks Arc Blast. It is by far the lightest option on the list, it has the necessary volume and capacity, and there is anecdotal evidence that it has the durability to survive a thru-hike. The Gossamer Gear Miraposa 60 is a viable (and much less expensive) option even with the additional six ounces of weight. The main reason I chose the ZPacks over the Gossamer Gear is that I believe that the flexed arc carbon fiber frame with mesh backing (as opposed to the foam pad) should provide superior comfort during the hot and humid portion of the journey.