It's for carrying stuff.
All things pandemic aside, my plan is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2021. Fingers crossed. I was going to write a general how-to guide about selecting a pack for backpacking, but if I am going to go down the rabbit hole I may as well use it to narrow down my pack of choice for my PCT 2021 journey. This is part one of three for selecting my backpack, tent and sleep system, The Big 3. Here we go. (If you want to skip to my top 3 backpack options, click here. If you love spoilers and want to jump to the winner, click here.)
When starting my research, I took the following things into consideration:
Frame vs. Frameless
The Backpacker’s Holy Trinity
Like with any piece of backpacking gear, it all comes down to the big three: weight, comfort and cost. Ultimately, you can pick two out of three but to have all three is close to impossible. What you gain in one factor, you will sacrifice in another. For example, you can pick a light, comfortable item, but it will be more expensive. Now, let’s dive into the rest of the factors that play into selecting a pack.
What do you need the pack for? In my case, this is easy: I need it to hike 2,650 miles from the border of California/Mexico to the border of Washington/Canada for 4-6 months. I need a pack that is light, durable, and able to carry 35 pounds of clothing, shelter, food and water.
If you are curious about my favorite resources for PCT research, I recommend you checkout the following sites:
Frame vs. Frameless
Most packs have some sort of frame. Some are height adjustable, like the frame in the Osprey Atmos. Some packs have removable frame components, like the Zpacks Arc Haul. For the ultralight hikers, there are some really cool frameless packs like the Waymark Lite, and the Pa'lante Lightweight V2. Not only do these packs not have a frame, but some lack a hip belt too. I know I will need both a frame and a hip belt to distribute the load more comfortably. I aspire to have a light enough base weight to carry a frameless pack. A man can dream, can’t he?
There is no standard formula or means of calculating backpack volume; at least not from what I’ve read. Anyone with a degree in quantum physics can feel free to correct me here. Most backpack makers will list the pack’s volume in liters in the item’s specifications. Some packs will have that number in the model name itself. Take my Osprey Atmos AG 65 for example. It is listed as a 65 liter backpack. However, this model can vary by 3 L in volume depending on the torso size of the pack. The small is 62 L, the medium is 65 L and the large is 68 L. Other brands will list the pack with the volume in cubic inches, like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Junction. It is 3400 cubic inches, or 55.7 L rounded. Adding to the mystery of comparison, I’ve read in reviews that one 65 L pack will be more or less full compared to another manufacturer’s 65 L pack loaded with the exact same gear. I am not going to lose any sleep over this, but it’s just something to be aware of. Other variables like exterior pockets and lids may be added or excluded when tallying the pack volume too. The item’s specifications may or may not break this down for you. Unless otherwise stated, don’t expect to fit 65 L in the main compartment alone.
Based on my John Muir Trail (JMT) hike in 2018, in which I used my Osprey Atmos AG 65, I estimate I will not want a pack any larger than that. In fact, I will consider using a smaller pack in volume for the PCT. That may sound counterintuitive; taking a smaller pack on a significantly longer hike, however, the smaller the pack the less I will fill it with. Less than or equal to 65L will be my volume criteria.
Is that even a real word? It doesn’t seem like it should be, but that’s what I mean...
You would think, or at least I did, that all backpacks designed for the outdoors would be waterproof, right? Wrong. When I use the word waterproof, I am not talking about complete submersion. I mean, will my stuff be dry after hiking in the rain?
Without diving into fabrics and materials, I’ll say that I would prefer my new pack be waterproof. I was not a fan of having to stop to deploy my pack cover while I was hiking the JMT. Is it that big of a deal? No, it is something I prefer to avoid.
I could also use waterproof stuff sacks to store and organize my gear, but that adds more cost and weight. A common, affordable solution is using a contractors bag, which is like a heavy duty trash bag, to line the inside of the pack.
In a perfect world, I would like whatever pack I purchase to not only last my entire PCT hike, but to be durable enough to continue using on future adventures. I don’t want the pack to be a single use item so, at minimum, the pack needs to last the entire PCT.
With that said, the PCT is a seemingly well maintained trail, so unless I am completely careless, most packs will withstand the trail without issue. Thankfully too, most manufacturers nowadays will repair any defect, although the warranty can range from one year to lifetime.
There are a myriad of features, adjustments, pockets and straps that are available on backpacks. More premium manufacturers will offer customizable options depending on the individual’s wants and needs. I’ll walk you through the most common features and whether they are a want, need, or a pass. I’ll reference my previously used Osprey Atmos AG 65 as a base model, since it is a feature-rich pack:
Having a detachable lid was nice to have, but not a need. I liked using it on the Atmos 65 to organize smaller gear items. I would detach the lid and keep it in my tent with me at night, knowing it had all the items I would want until morning. It was convenient, but I’d ditch it for the weight savings on another pack. Verdict: Pass
Load Lifter Adjustment Straps
These are the straps on the shoulder straps, on top of your shoulders. I really liked having these, allowing me to shift the weight load around throughout the day as I was hiking. Verdict: Need
Hip Belt & Pockets
This is a must have for me. Being able to keep all the handy items accessible during the day is a huge convenience; snacks, phone, snacks, chapstick, snacks, map, more snacks. I basically want to cram the hip pockets full of snacks. For some packs the hip belts and pockets are offered as an additional feature, for an additional price. Other packs have them included. Finally, some belts and hip pockets are permanent while others are removable. Verdict: Need
Water Bottle Pockets
I need to be able to reach my water bottles and stow them without having to take my pack off or be a level 10 yogi (I only do yoga for the Savasana pose.) At minimum I will want a 1 L bottle on each side handy throughout the day. Verdict: Need
Sleeping Bag Compartment
This was another feature that was nice to have but is not a need. Keeping my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and sleep clothes organized in one compartment and clean-ish was great; however I would choose the weight savings over having more compartments. Verdict: Pass
Trekking Pole / Ice Axe Straps
Being able to stow items like my trekking poles and ice axe will be very convenient, for the Sierra section especially. This is a feature I will look for. I didn’t carry these items on the JMT, but will be carrying trekking poles and an ice axe, if the snow levels warrant, on the PCT. Verdict: Want
Again, referring to my Atmos AG 65, this pack clocks in at a hefty 4.56 pounds in the size medium. After I had a full food resupply on the JMT, my pack weight was pushing 45 pounds. If you are carrying a 40+ pound pack weight, then I’d recommend the Atmos; it handled this weight like a champ.
For the PCT, my arbitrary goal for the PCT is to come in under 35 pounds with food and water. I want a pack in the sub 3 pound range. I think this weight will allow me to use a lighter pack, and still carry the 35 pounds comfortably. A lighter pack can save me 1.5-2.5 pounds by itself. There are many packs with great features and a frame that weigh in at 2-3 pounds.
Comfort is subjective and user specific. It’s also one of those things that is hard to know until you are out on the trail for miles. Add to that if I want a cottage company pack, I cannot try the pack on. A cottage company is a small-scale company often designing and/or manufacturing their products in-house. Some examples of cottage companies in the backpacking industry can be found at Garage Grown Gear. If I go with a bigger brand name, then a local outfitter or my closest REI will have numerous packs on hand to try on. I can return any unused packs, but other than obvious sizing issues it will be impossible to assess the on-trail comfort from my living room. Am I feelin’ lucky?
One could spend between $200-350 on a new pack and even more with accessory pouches and straps. Backpacking is like buying a season pass to Disneyland; the upfront cost is expensive, but I can go on unlimited rides after that. The biggest problem is finding a Dole whip in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I think the best budget buy is the REI Co-op Flash 55. On the other end of the cost spectrum are premium packs like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Junction, made domestically in Biddeford, Maine.
I have rambled on about the characteristics and criteria that can play into selecting the perfect or close to perfect pack. In the end, no single piece of gear is going to make or break my PCT experience. Unless I have a major failure, like the shoulder straps exploding, I still need to put one foot in front of the other, mile after mile, day after day, until I reach Canada. With that said, having things that make my day a little bit better can add up and go a long way. Conversely, something that annoys me about a piece of gear is going to eat away at me until I am triggered every time I think about it.
So what pack will I use for the PCT? Here are my Top Three choices in no particular order:
Top 3 PCT Backpacks
I’ll refer to these three packs as GG, ULA and HMG, respectively. A subjective point will be awarded in each category according to which pack best meets my expectations.
What do these packs all have in common?
All three packs are favorites among thru-hikers and have proven their worth on the PCT. +/- 0 points
All three packs hover around the 60-ish L size in total volume although they each vary in the main body volume and their exterior pocket volume. +/- 0 points
All three have an aluminum frame. +/- 0 points
All three packs fall under my three pound goal. +/- 0 points
What sets these packs apart?
The GG pack can shed a light drizzle but does not claim any sort of waterproof ability. Both ULA and HMG state their packs are “100% waterproof” with their respective waterproof fabrics and seam sealed interiors. +1 point ULA, +1 point HMG
The GG uses a 100D and 200D Robic high-tensile strength nylon. It is a popular fabric for it’s added tear strength compared to other nylon fabrics.
Coming in last for expected durability is the HMG. I would select the black version of this pack, because that fabric is a touch heavier than the white DCF fabric. Dyneema fabrics are extremely strong under load, but I am concerned about their abrasion resistance. If we’re only talking about a small hole though, DCF can easily be taped or patched up.
I think the ULA has the highest durability as far as fabrics. ULA offers many fabric customization options including the ultra tough X-Pac X51RS fabric. This fabric features a 500D x 1000D Cordura nylon fabric that is very abrasion resistant. This particular X-Pac fabric adds a ripstop weave, increasing its tear strength and ability to hold a stitch. Wow. You can also select a lighter weight X-Pac fabric with the ULA pack, like the VX21 fabric that uses a laminated 210D nylon fabric to add low stretch and waterproof ability. +1 point ULA
Do I want more pockets to organize my gear, or do I prefer one big cavernous space to hold everything? This is subjective and each of these packs stands alone.
The HMG is for the minimalist. It has a large main body, two side pockets, one large, rear, exterior pocket and two hip belt pockets. It also features an internal sleeve for a water bladder. The only zippers are on the hip belt pockets. Additional holsters, pockets and straps can be added as accessories to the HMG pack if desired.
The ULA follows a similar form as the HMG, but adds an internal stash pocket, trekking pole loops, a front shock cord, snaps on the roll top closure, and removable water bottle holsters and hand loops on the shoulder straps.
Last, but with the most features is the GG. The GG pack has the smallest main body volume at 36L, but boasts a whopping 24L of volume in 7 exterior pockets. If I want a place for everything and everything in its place, then this pack sounds great. The over-the-top closure lid (insert 80s trucker, arm-wrestling montage here. Yes, his name is Lincoln Hawk.) has a zippered stash pocket. The side pockets feature one tall pocket, and the opposite side has two tiered pockets. The GG also integrates a removable sit pad as the back pad, adding a two-for-one feature. +1 point GG
The HMG is the only pack of these three that does not have load lifter straps on the shoulders. The manufacturer recommended maximum loads are worth noting too;
GG = “Best” with 30 lbs., but can handle up to 35 lbs.
ULA = 35 lbs.
HMG = “Up to” 40 lbs.
I am awarding +1 point to the ULA for having a 35 lb load rating and fully adjustable load straps. +1 point ULA
The most expensive on my list is the HMG at a base price of $345. I appreciate their minimal design and the all black version just looks sweet. Their shoulder pocket runs $40, which also has an internal sleeve and external mesh pocket. I like their attention to details. Additional exterior gear straps run $15. You are looking at $288-400 +tax for full price with an accessory or two.
Next is the ULA at $320. It’s worth noting they sell the original ULA Circuit pack in a 400D Robic nylon for $255. The ULA X-Pac Circuit is the premium fabric version and includes all the features previously mentioned. The additional shoulder strap pocket in fabric of your choice is $20-25.
The cheapest of the three contenders is the GG at $270. The pack itself is $225, but the hipbelt with pockets is an additional $45,which I can select at the size that best fits me. GG’s shoulder strap pocket is $18, has a waterproof zipper and exterior mesh pocket. All of these go on sale from time to time. +1 point GG
Arbitrary Point Totals:
Hyperlight Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest: 1 point
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60: 2 points
ULA Equipment X-Pac Circuit: 3 points
That is until I find a new pack to perseverate on for months on end until next year…(sigh)
Are there any other considerations to factor in? Do you know of any other packs that could be strong contenders? Have you used any of these packs on a long distance hike? Please let me know what you think.
Thank you for reading.
I have no affiliations or sponsors with any of the companies.