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Published Aug 12, 2022 11:21 AM

As kids, finding the best backpack brands came down to which ones had our favorite cartoon characters on them. These days, it’s a little more complicated. You probably have specialized gear for life in the military, camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, school, and travel. It only makes sense that your backpack would be purpose-built, too.
Buying into a quality brand saves you from buyer’s remorse. It also saves money in the long term and keeps gear out of the landfill because you can rely on a solid pack to last many years. Of all the manufacturers out there, I picked what I consider to be the best backpack brands in several categories and chose one model that you can buy to take full advantage of everything each brand has to offer.

Best Overall

Most brands specialize in making backpacks for one market segment, but not this one. Somehow, Mystery Ranch manages to make excellent packs for military, first response, outdoor, and hunting use. Product planners go to great lengths to make sure every backpack, duffel bag, radio pouch, and accessory is high-quality and does exactly what you need it to do.

The Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault BVS is a perfect example of this commitment to performance. I tested one for a go-bag gear guide a while ago and it made a strong impression. First of all, the materials, design, and execution are impeccable. The Y-zipper makes accessing the main compartment quick and easy, and there are enough small compartments to keep smaller items organized. Outside, ample MOLLE allows expansion when you need it.

The biggest advantage of this pack is the bolstered ventilation system it’s named after. The hip belt is just so-so, but the rest of the suspension system can be adjusted for torso length and shoulder width for an excellent fit. Foam blocks on each side hold the bag in place when you’re wearing body armor, making this a perfect assault pack upgrade for people in the military or law enforcement.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: Tactical
  • Weight: 4.6 pounds
  • Capacity: 2,065 cubic inches / 33.8 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • Mystery Ranch has a product line spanning the military, outdoor, and hunting segments. The 3 Day Assault BVS in particular embodies the quality and design principles that make Mystery Ranch one of the indisputable best in the business.
PROS

Bolstered ventilation system promotes airflow and is compatible with armor

Adjustable for torso length and shoulder width

You’ll tap out before this pack does

CONS

Costs nearly $400 — that’s a lot for a three-day bag

Only two colors available

Best Budget

REI, one of the leading retailers in the world of outdoor adventure gear, is putting all its industry knowledge to work with in-house products aimed at giving customers a more budget-friendly entry point into premium gear. It’s no secret that REI Co-Op products are a great value. In fact, I suspect one of its biggest challenges is not cannibalizing sales of name-brand products.

For example, check out the REI Co-Op Trail 25. Small backpacks often get the short end of the stick because manufacturers need to cut corners to sell something with limited carrying capacity. This is an exception to that rule because it comes with padded shoulder straps, a sleeve and retention straps for a hydration bladder, and a built-in rain cover. There are also external mounting points, elastic pouches, and compression straps — features you can’t always expect for $80.

The Trail 25 is a good backpack for day hikes, school, everyday carry, or all three. It offers more than you pay for, and it’s well-built. If you want a smaller alternative to your camping pack or travel bag, this has your name all over it.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: Day hiking
  • Weight: 2.0 pounds
  • Capacity: 1,525 cubic inches / 25 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • REI is one of the most popular retailers in the outdoor space, and its Co-Op sub-brand is focused on providing high-end products at accessible prices. The Trail 25 is a great entry point into the world of well-made backpacks.
PROS

It’s nice to get ventilated padding at this price

Comes with a built-in rain cover

Made with recycled materials

CONS

Flimsy, unpadded waist strap

Adjustable only in the most minimal sense

Best Tactical

Eberlestock caters to military, law enforcement, and hunters. The common thread across its entire product line is the tactical advantage that comes from well-designed gear that just works. Eberlestock has you covered with everything from binocular pouches and briefcases to assault packs and shooting accessories.

The Eberlestock Halftrack assault pack is everything other assault packs (probably including whatever you were issued) aspire to be. It’s incredibly durable, can handle as much weight as you need to carry, and offers room to customize your loadout as your mission dictates. Access the cavernous main compartment with a U-shaped zipper and keep everything organized with a removable divider and plenty of zippered pouches. Side and top compartments provide room for hydration bladders, radios, and other gear. Traditional and laser-cut MOLLE makes room for even more customization.

At right around $350, this pack isn’t cheap. It’s an investment in yourself and will last years of hard use in the field. One thing we all understand is the importance of proper fit, and you’ll appreciate the Halftrack’s adjustable hard frame, shoulder straps, and hip belt a few miles into your very first movement with it. If you spend any amount of time in the field, you owe it to yourself to buy gear that works for you rather than against you.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: Tactical
  • Weight: 6.4 pounds
  • Capacity: 2,150 cubic inches / 35.2 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • If you’re in the military, you probably don’t need an introduction to Eberlestock. The Halftrack is a three-day pack built to take on the battlefield with all the features you need from an assault pack.
PROS

Fully adjustable suspension system

Nice selection of common military colors and patterns

Comes with a quality rain cover

CONS

The price reflects the premium product

Noticeably heavier than comparable packs

Best for Hiking

If you do an informal survey on your local hiking trails, you’ll probably find Gregory trading punches with the likes of Osprey and Arc’teryx for the title of favorite pack. Full-size backpacking rucks get all the glory, but you can get many of the same premium features in a smaller package that’s perfect for day hikes.

The Gregory Zulu 30 is light and comfortable enough for fast hikes across jagged terrain. What really makes it stand out is the adjustable suspension system with all the airflow you could ask for. Even the hip belt uses this technology to make the pack feel like it’s floating along behind you rather than pulling at your hip bones. Of course, there are other niceties like a built-in rain cover, exterior pouches for water bottles and warming layers, and compartments you can actually reach without taking the pack off.

This hiking pack was built for people who want to stay light and fast to cover a lot of ground in a single day. It’s made to satisfy those of us who demand the best and aren’t willing to sacrifice premium materials or cutting-edge technology just because we want a small day pack instead of an expedition pack. For serious hikers, it just doesn’t get much better than this.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: Day hiking
  • Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Capacity: 1,831 cubic inches / 30 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • Just because you’re not spending the night on the trail doesn't mean you have to settle for a flimsy day pack. Gregory is one of the leading outdoor pack makers and the Zulu 30 will let you move quickly and comfortably.
PROS

Excellent features in a compact size

Exceptional hip belt design

Perfect for fast, challenging day hikes

CONS

This popular backpack sells out fast

Hopefully you like bright colors

Best for Backpacking

Osprey has inspired a loyal following among backpackers for building packs that strike a fantastic balance between support and lightness. I can vouch for that — I have an older Atmos and continue to be amazed by how comfortable it is with a full camping load. If you’re in the market for a larger bag for multi-day backpacking trips, the Aether Plus 60 will likely be everything you need — and then some.

Gravity-defying suspension systems are Osprey’s bread and butter. The Osprey Aether Plus 60 uses a clever combination of foam padding and breathable mesh to provide the support you need while allowing air to flow all the way across your back. That’s comfortable, sure, but it also reduces hot spots and leaves you fresh and ready for another day on the trail. As you’d expect from a premium pack, this one has a rain cover, hip-belt pockets, and a place for your hydration bladder. What you might not expect is a removable top lid that can be carried as a day pack on short hikes from your basecamp.

This premium pack has expedition-style features, but the 60-liter size is more accessible for recreational campers. It’s a good way to get into the highest echelon of camping backpacks without buying more size than you need. It’s the perfect answer for people who want to tackle multiple days on the trail or in a national park.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: Backpacking
  • Weight: 5.7 pounds
  • Capacity: 3,539 cubic inches / 58 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • Osprey is famous for making quality packs that are inexplicably light. The Aether Plus 60 is tough enough for lengthy expeditions and somehow weighs less than six pounds.
PROS

Osprey packs are famously light and comfortable

Removable daypack for quick trips from your basecamp

Ventilated and fully adjustable suspension system

CONS

Expensive, even for Osprey

Limited external attachment points

Best for College

You knew The North Face would make an appearance on this list, and here it is. It’s true that the brand has been reduced to a fashion choice in the minds of most customers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still solid pieces of gear up for grabs. The North face makes all kinds of dedicated adventure gear — including backpacks built for the wilderness that is life on a college campus.

Instead of phoning one in and slapping its logo on a generic bookbag, the company clearly put some effort into the North Face Borealis. This 28-liter backpack is just the right size for a college backpack. The main compartment has plenty of room for a hoodie and water bottle, while the front compartment uses dividers to keep smaller belongings organized and zippered pouches to secure valuables.

This is the backpack for college students who take their degree and their expenditures seriously. It’s well-built, looks cool, and is popular for a reason. Yes, it costs more than a lot of basic school bags, but it’s going to last you longer and be more enjoyable to use everyday. If nothing else, you have a bunch of colors to choose from and rep a little school spirit.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: School, work, EDC
  • Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Capacity: 1,709 cubic inches / 28 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • The North Face has become a suburban status symbol, but it’s still a legitimate source of quality outdoor goods. The Borealis is perfect for carrying your laptop, power bank, books, and water bottle to and from class.
PROS

Organizational pouches for your laptop, phone, and charging cords

Comfortable enough for the occasional weekend trip

Choose from 28 color combinations

CONS

More expensive than most backpacks for school

Waist strap seems unnecessary

Best for Travel

Patagonia is another brand that got famous by making awesome gear, became trendy with suburban yuppies, and is now the brunt of jokes about people who only wear outdoorsy clothing to shop at Whole Foods. That’s a shame because Patagonia gear is genuinely excellent and the company puts its money where its mouth is in terms of environmental conservation. You can find all kinds of bags and clothes in Patagonia’s lineup, including some that are great travel companions.

The Patagonia Black Hole 25 upholds the brand’s adventurous reputation with a water-resistant exterior that’s light and durable. Subtle mounting points and elastic pouches add room for storage on the exterior without making you look like Ricky Recon walking through the airport. The large main compartment has plenty of room for clothes and hygiene gear, even if the top-loading design forces you to rummage through your belongings to get to the bottom.

This wasn’t designed as a backpack for day hiking, but it’ll do the job if you want to get out and explore while you’re traveling. There is a pouch for a hydration bladder with a drinking tube pass-through if you need to get cover ground on foot. The Black Hole 25 is a great backpack for travel and a solid piece of gear once you get there.

Product Specs
  • Intended use: Travel, day hiking
  • Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Capacity: 1,526 cubic inches / 25 liters
Why It Made The Cut
  • Patagonia made a name for itself in the outdoor world, but it also makes backpacks for other kinds of adventure. The Black Hole 25 is a durable carry-on that can double as a lightweight day pack once you reach your destination.
PROS

Small enough to use as carry-on luggage

Super light while remaining durable

Treated with a durable water-repellent finish

CONS

Minimal padding and adjustability

Top-loading design makes getting to certain items difficult

Things to consider before buying a backpack

Even the most popular backpack can suck if you don’t use it right, so spend a few minutes thinking through the basics to make sure you get what you need — not what someone else needs.

Intended use

What are you going to use this backpack of yours for, anyway? What works in a military environment will probably be excessively heavy for hiking, and a great hiking pack may not stand up to the abuse you’ll subject it to in the field. These tactical backpacks perform well in the field but will do anything but blend in off base. A good school bag isn’t cut out for carrying much more than books, but the best rucking backpacks can handle heavier loads.

Each backpack category offers purpose-driven features, priorities, strengths, and weaknesses. Once you know how you plan on using your backpack, you can think about the specific things you expect it to do. In many cases, buying two backpacks is genuinely smarter than expecting one to do everything.

Capacity and weight

Bigger isn’t always better, but neither is running out of room for your gear. Backpacks are measured in liters or cubic inches to give you an idea of their total volume. Remember that some provide this capacity in a large main compartment, while others divide it up among several smaller ones.

The weight of your pack is relevant, but that’s not as important as the way it distributes the weight you put inside it. Padded shoulder straps, a supportive hip belt, a strong frame, and breathable materials can make a heavy load seem to float along behind you. A good suspension system is worth paying for if you plan on carrying substantial weight.

Adjustability and modularity

The best backpack brands understand that we aren’t all the same size. Adjustable packs let you dial in ideal settings for your torso length, shoulder width, and hip circumference. That’s particularly important as you add weight to a backpacking or military ruck. 

A lot of premium packs are also modular. You may have the flexibility to add and remove compartments to scale your pack up or down for a given mission, or add gear with common MOLLE panels. You’ll pay quite a bit more for this kind of system, but you’ll essentially get multiple backpacks for your money.    

FAQs about backpack brands

Q: How should backpacks fit?

A: The heavier your backpack is, the more you should care about how it fits. To fit an adjustable backpack properly, enlist the help of a friend and check out this fitment guide.

Q: Which brand of backpack is best for college?

A: Something that’s not overtly tactical might be a good choice, lest you become “that guy.” It’s also a smart idea to pick something that can double as an adventure pack on the weekend when you want to take a study break. You can’t go wrong with something like The North Face Borealis.

Q: Which is the best tactical backpack brand?

A: There are a lot of great tactical backpack brands, but some of our staff favorites include Mystery Ranch, Eberlestock, and LBT.

Q: How should you clean a backpack?

A: Always check the manufacturer’s recommendations. In general, it’s hard to go wrong with warm water and mild soap. Be particularly mindful of letting your backpack dry completely before putting it away to prevent damage from mold.

Final thoughts

Throughout all of my conversations with other gear testers, online research, and personal experience, Mystery Ranch kept coming to the top of my list of best backpack brands. Mystery Ranch makes packs for military, camping, hunting, travel, and everyday use, so there’s something for everyone. Quality and design are always top-notch so you can buy with confidence in any segment. It’s one brand that, without even knowing what you need, I can recommend with confidence and trust that you’ll be taken care of. The 3 Day Assault BVS is one of the brand’s most versatile packs, and it’s a great place to start.

Methodology 

Determining which are the best backpack brands involves a broad search. Does the best backpack have the most features, highest durability, lowest weight, or most value for the money? Is it a bookbag or a hiking ruck? To find something for everyone, I started by putting out a roll call of the greatest hits according to our writing staff. Contributors from various military branches, law enforcement agencies, and backgrounds in hiking, camping, and hunting named some of their favorite brands.

Using that list as a starting point, I researched common competitors, consulted activity-specific online forums and owner reviews, and applied my own military and civilian experience. The result is a list of the best backpack brands (with specific examples) across a range of categories.

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