Whether you’re planning an epic, once-in-a-lifetime hike along the length of the USA, a year on the rambunctious buses of southeast Asia, or the exhausting schlep from the parking field at Glastonbury to your tent, the right rucksack can make or break your trip.
Backpacking tech has come on significantly in the past decade, at a pace to match the demands thrown at it by increasingly ambitious travellers. Where, in the past, a glorified daypack and a bit of string would have done, bags these days need to be versatile: waterproof for that spontaneous coasteering trip; light, for a weekend ski-touring; and comfortable, for the hours spent queueing at subtropical train stations.
But some things haven’t changed: even if the closest you plan to get to the Pacific Crest Trail is watching Wild on the plane, a good fit is still essential.
Choose a pack with plenty of adjustability: a backpack that was comfortable when you set off from home with little more than a copy of On the Road and a pair of Birkenstocks will feel very different when it’s loaded down with a year’s worth of travel diaries and bottles of local mezcal.
Sturdiness is also essential, and worth paying for, given that your bag is your home for as long as you’re travelling. Many of the bags below come with a lifetime guarantee, and all are from dependable companies with great customer service. Ortlieb, for example, is renowned for transporting niche parts to the other side of the planet at a moment’s notice.
Finally we looked for good design when testing these bags: generous, external pockets are an absolute must, because while you’ll start out using them for energy bars, you’ll also inevitably end up cramming them with spare layers, a charging cord etc. Plenty of lashing-on points – for your roll mat, tent, walking poles and ice axes – are also important.
Multiple entry points along the length of the bag are handy: with the best will in the world, no one packs efficiently in a freezing cold rainstorm. None of this has to come at the expense of style: a truly versatile backpack, like the ones we’ve selected, should be as at home at business class check-in as they are strapped to the top of a jeep.
Most of these bags all fall around the 40-60L mark – plenty of room for a year away, but small enough to compress down into cabin bag size – and all of them comfortably held the essentials for a microadventure (a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag and stove).
Gregory Octal 55: £200, Gregory
The lightest of all the packs we tested, Gregory’s ultralight pack weighed in at just over 1kg. Remarkably, it doesn’t feel like it scrimps on any features to achieve that: the straps and hip belt are padded and comfortable, and the main compartment opens up to a truly cavernous size – a two person tent dropped in with no problem at all. There’s space for a hydration pack, and pockets galore – the side pockets are particularly generous, even expanding to hold a packed tent.
The roomy lid detaches easily which nice if you are heading out on a city break and want to look less like you’ve been rambling, if you’re cycling with it on and need to be able to see over your shoulder, or even if you just need an impromptu cushion to sit on around the campfire. We found the back a little on the small size, so check measurements and scale up if needed.
Millican fraser the rucksack 32l: £145, Millican
Fans of Millican’s classy, classic bags rave about this home-grown brand, based in the Lake District, and with good reason. Fraser is a bag you will take to your heart, a lovingly-constructed, old-fashioned rucksack that evokes early alpine expeditions. Not only are there no plastic buckles in sight – the clasps are aluminium, and clip together with gratifying sturdiness – the “bionic” canvas is super durable, 30 per cent more durable than regular canvas, and 57 per cent recycled materials.
It’s also impregnated with paraffin wax for a lovely, textured vintage feel, and the hip belt is detachable, making it perfect for city breaks where you’re planning to check the bag for a flight. Ultimately, though, this is an explorer’s bag: our dusky, moss green pack looked most at home with a couple of battered OS maps sticking out of one pocket, and the outline of a hip flask in the other.
Osprey renn 65: £104.36, Amazon
Osprey’s renn 65 conceals its capacity like Dr Who’s Tardis: at first glance this smart, durable rucksack looks half its actual size when the compression straps are pulled tight, a real benefit for travellers hoping to pass it off as cabin luggage. A packed tent fits comfortably in the top compartment; the separate, zip-access bottom compartment is perfect for a sleeping bag, wet clothes or laundry.
Available in a lovely, deep mulberry colour, it is feature-packed but unfussy: it has enough loops to suit a proper hike, but isn’t so bedecked with inexplicable clips and zips that it would intimidate a casual walker. It’s also very comfortable: Osprey fans will vouch for the effectiveness of its bags’ distinctive mesh back panel, which keeps the pack well away from your skin, invaluable in hot weather.
Arc'teryx bora AR 49: £400, Arc’teryx
Arc’teryx, best known for their high-end ski and mountaineering gear, are not messing around with this rucksack. As well as looking gorgeous, its real selling point is the “rotoglide” hipbelt, which moves side to side and up and down when you walk. This doesn’t sound like much, but on a long hike on varied terrain where your stride length changes, or if you end up doing the odd scramble, it is a game-changer and makes the pack feel almost supernaturally light.
The bag exudes quality: its waterproof material is “weather-mapped”, which means that areas that are more likely to encounter snow and rain are extra weatherproof. A side access zip – hidden, very smartly, beneath a panel – means you can reach stuff halfway down the bag easily, and the generous kangaroo pouch on the front unzips fully.
It has a clean silhouette that won’t scare airlines, and we loved the deep jewel-blue of our test pack. Unless you recently won the lottery, do not take it to a festival and leave it unattended in your tent.
Jack Wolfskin kalari trail 36L: £90, Jack Wolfskin
Smart, light, and excellent value, Jack Wolfskin’s rucksack is a great mid-range bag, falling between the more feature-heavy hiking backpacks and a daypack. It has all the features you’d expect from a serious hiking pack – a seperate sleeping bag compartment and a roomy lid, external mesh pockets that are cavernous, stowable hip belt and an emergency whistle – for half the price. It is also made from 100 per cent recycled materials, and is compatible with a Jack Wolfskin day pack, which you can clip on to the kalari trail and carry on your front for an ingeniously adaptable packing system.
Ortlieb Atrack: From £175, Tredz
A brilliant innovation from Ortlieb, a company best known for its indestructible bicycle panniers, this backpack’s zip runs along its length instead of opening at the top like a standard backpack. This basically transforms it into a duffle bag that you can carry on your back, which makes packing, unpacking and everything in between infinitely easier than with a traditional, top-loading pack.
An internal strap holds everything firmly in place so your kit doesn’t all slide to the bottom when vertical. The chunky zip and sturdy material make it completely waterproof (guaranteed underwater for up to half an hour), you can literally float this bag down a river, and your laptop, camera, clothes etc will stay bone dry, making it perfect for kayaking or canyoning. There are plenty of loops and straps to attach gear to the outside, but the attachment kit (sold seperately) gives you more options.
Fjallraven kajka 65: £279.99, LD Mountain Centre
Beloved of hipsters everywhere, Fjallraven are known for their thoughtful, understated, beautiful bags; and this technical backpack is no exception. Probably the most attractive bag we tested, its clean profile belies all the features it hides beneath its elegant cover: these include upper and lower sections that divide again into wet/dry compartments, side and lower access zips, and a generous lid that – brilliantly – detaches and works as a generous purse belt.
This clever design effectively removes the need for a day pack, and is perfect for flying – check in the bag, then carry your passport, phone and wallet aboard in the belt. The frame is made of sustainably sourced birch wood, which might explain why it’s so heavy – at 3.2kg, the weightiest pack we tested – but it’s also a really impressive innovation and commitment to sustainability from a brand that deserves its reputation for quality.
The North Face terra 65l: £98, Simply Hike
Offering superb value, The North Face’s tried and tested hiking pack is the best option for first-time hikers and gap year backpackers. It has a huge lower access zip that covers most of the pack, and an optional divider that you can fasten into place with toggles to create upper and lower compartments. At 65 litres, it’s at the upper end of carrying capacity, with very few exceptions.
If you can’t fit everything you need into a bag this big, you’re packing wrong – but good compression means the pack doesn’t feel huge. Best of all is the total customisability – adjusting the back is uncomplicated, and the chest straps slide up and down smoothly for a perfect fit.
The verdict: Rucksacks for backpackers
For shearing almost half a kilo of weight off its nearest competitor without sacrificing any features, the Gregory octal is our best buy. The lower weight makes it ideal for long hikes, skim touring and climbing, and it still looks classy enough for a weekend break. But we fell in love with fraser the rucksack from Millican, a bag we’d as happily haul around town as up a mountain.