The backpack, as unassuming as it is, might be the most commonly used piece of outdoor and travel equipment. Who hasn’t owned at least one? I know I’ve owned far more than qualifies as reasonable because, like many of you, I’m an unabashed backpack junkie.
Channeling my affinity for backpacks, I set out to compile a roundup of my favorite haulers. Not content to source a selection of similar packs with nearly identical features, I spent more than a year looking for new and unique models best suited to a wide range of uses. Without further ado:
Miir 25L Commuter $160
Miir is best known for their highly refined line of insulated bottles as well as their amazing philanthropic projects which bring drinking water, bicycles, and educational opportunities to people throughout the developing world. For that reason alone I would wholeheartedly recommend you add a Miir 25L Commuter to your inventory. If not for the feel-good factor, buy one because it’s a fantastic product worthy of your hard won money.
Constructed of water resistant and durable 630-denier nylon with PU coated zippers and a weather-thwarting roll top closure, the Commuter is a no nonsense pack for all conditions. Designed for urban adventures, it has a padded laptop pocket and smaller compartments for daily carry items like chargers, power packs, and other essentials. Unlike most roll top packs, the main bag can be accessed quickly via a weatherproof PU coated zipper. With no bulky padding on the back panel, but well shaped shoulder pads, there is a spartan minimalistic elegance to the Commuter. I also like how the log vertical zipper on the back panel affords instant access to the laptop sleeve. Dual side pockets help keep things organized. Simple. Clean. Cool.
If you don’t like packs with an excess of stuff going on, this is your pack. Surprisingly comfortable, light, and incredibly well made, the Commuter has become one of my favorite daily carry and travel bags. And, I love the story behind the brand. http://www.miir.com
Mission Workshop Arkiv 6 Modular Pack System, $580
When I first saw the Arkiv system four years ago, I knew I had to make it mine. When I saw the price, I knew better than to let my wife see my credit card bill. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for a backpack, but then again, it’s more than just “a” backpack. It’s many packs and bags in one modular system.
The main pack bag is constructed of an outer layer of waxed canvas with a completely waterproof nylon liner. The main opening can be used as a roll top or with the flap folded over and secured with a large buckle. On the exterior are six nylon “rails” on three sides. Those serve as heavy-duty attachment points for an optional laptop sleeve, side pockets, and accessory bag, all of which are built like a bomb shelter and of course––waterproof. The laptop sleeve and accessory bag can be paired to an optional shoulder strap to convert them to a single-sling bag for quick sorties to the cafe. An optional belt bolsters the carrying capacity.
Not only is the Arkiv made in America, it’s built like a 1940s Buick, which is to say, damn well. Now on its fourth year of hard use, the waxed canvas continues to gain patina and looks better with each outing. Although it is as heavy as said Buick, it is comfortable to carry, keeps everything organized and well protected, and the versatility of the modular system means it is the perfect pack for nearly every occasion. www.missionworkshop.com
PacSafe Venturesafe X40, $250
As the consummate traveler, I have searched tirelessly for the perfect pack for international forays to places that might be, shall we say, less safe than some. I’m particularly critical of my pack options when they house thousands of dollars worth of camera gear. My new favorite pack for those adventures is the Venturesafe X40. With back-panel access to an optional padded camera insert, I can get to my cameras and lenses quickly and without disturbing the other contents in the pack. The exterior is made of durable slash-proof eXomesh panels covered in ripstop nylon and the zippers are held secure with zipper locks designed to thwart opportunistic thieves.
Perhaps the best security feature is the appearance. Packs that look like camera bags are essentially big “come rob me” signs. The X40 looks like any other backcountry pack and to would-be crooks is likely full of nothing more than stinky socks and granola bars.
On a recent trekking trip to the mountains of Peru, the X40 served as my carry-on, daily around town pack, and I carried it for over 20 miles to altitudes of 16,000 feet high in the Andes. It was sublimely comfortable, feature rich, and without a doubt made my entire trip that much better for having brought it along. I can’t rave about this pack enough. www.pacsafe.com
Sea to Summit Carve 24L Drysack, $169
Sometimes you need a stylish ruck to shoulder around town. Other times you need a proper backcountry tool, like Sea to Summit’s waterproof Carve 24L Drysack. Made with TPU laminated 420-denier nylon with welded seams and a water-tight roll top, the carve is 100% waterproof. I should know. I used mine during a month-long trip to rainy Iceland where it not only saved my camera gear from endless bouts of weather, but survived several river dunkings.
Unlike most drypacks, the Carve is actually comfortable to carry all day long, day after day. The padded shoulder straps are ergonomically shaped and well ventilated. The external daisy chains provide helpful attachment points for extra gear and the zippered compartment on the back panel accepts a hydration reservoir without compromising the watertight seal on the main bag. After living out of the Carve for a month, even using it as a carry on and a float as I swam across a rushing Icelandic river, I can say with confidence, this is one pack to rule them all.
Triple Aught Design FAST Pack Litespeed, $275
Tactical packs have become extremely popular in the last few years. While many of them are so poorly made they couldn’t survive a tickle fight, the TAD Fast Pack Litespeed is built to survive a legitimate war. Designed and fabricated in the USA, the Fast Pack is festooned with features. For a simpleton like me, there are frankly––too many. It has more webbing, buckles, and zippers than a C-130 full of paratroopers. If you like that sort of thing, you’re in luck.
Kidding aside, all of the PALS and MOLLE attachments create nearly infinite options for the user’s unique needs. The MIL-Spec 1000-denier Invista Cordura fabric is virtually indestructible and not to forgo creature comforts, the back panel and shoulder straps are heavily padded and clad in wicking mesh fabric. An external beaver tail flap helps secure oversized items and pockets on the interior and exterior panels help stow small items.
Tactical packs of this caliber, pun intended, are not for everyone. It is heavy, borderline over complicated, and not all that big if you need to portage a lot of stuff. It is superbly crafted and will last years of use. www.tripleaughtdesign.com
Thule Paramount 27L Daypack, $140
I’ve been a longtime Thule user, but like most people that includes only the use of their roof racks and cargo boxes. When they purchased the well established Case Logic brand, their entry into the pack market was inevitable. The Paramount 27L is one of their top entries in the urban, daily carry segment.
With a clean exterior aesthetic, the inside is surprisingly complex with an intricate and well designed system of pockets and padded sleeves for laptops, tablets, and a vast assortment of electronics and accessories. A lay-flat exterior pocket expands to accommodate bulky items and the padded back panel is quite comfortable for all day use.
The bottom of the pack is constructed with a heavily reinforced water resistant fabric and the mesh side pockets are great for quick-stashing items while on the go. Large zipper pulls are easy to grab and the two main access panels open wide to expose the interior organizers. The Paramount is an ideal travel pack or portable office. It’s also an impressive value considering the complexity of the design and sophisticated array of features it provides. www.thule.com
Black Ember TL3, $260
As a product evaluator, I try to maintain my objectivity, but I have to say––I love this pack. Sure, the multi-cam color scheme makes it a little hipster trendy, but that might be what I like about it. Some might be fooled into thinking this is just a fashion forward city pack, and I suppose it is, but it’s also as technical as any pack in this roundup.
Made of 500-denier Cordura laminated to an X-PLY sailcloth liner, the fabric of the TL3 alone is impressive, but it’s the hardware that won me over. Aside from the multiple waterproof PU coated YKK zippers, the top handle is secured with a self-attaching Mag-Lock buckle. Maybe I’m easily entertained, but I love snapping that buckle closed. Everyone that plays with it is equally amused by it.
Fully waterproof, the interior compartment has a padded electronics sleeve and mesh organizer pocket. A full length vertical zipper accesses a padded laptop sleeve in the back panel. The sides of the pack have full-length waterproof pockets and exterior daisy chains can be used to secure the optional accessory pockets, one perfectly sorted for housing chargers, power packs and other daily tools, the other ideally sized for sunglasses. The back panel is exceptionally well padded as are the comfortable shoulder straps. On a recent outing to a week-long trade show, I carried the TL3 for 10 hours straight, and for five consecutive days. It performed flawlessly. www.blackember.com
Exped Summit Lite 25L, $60
Originally designed as an ultra-light summit pack, this has become one of my favorite travel accessories. Soemtiems I just need a little bag to wear into town to hit the local market or maybe to tuck under my seat on a long plane flight. The Summit Lite 25 weighs just 11 ounces and packs into its own lid pocket. The contoured shoulder straps are comfortable for light loads and the dual daisy chains add extra attachment points for extra gear.
The 100-denier PU coated nylon is light but not wimpy and the large zipper features twin sliders with glow-in-the-dark pull tabs. I take the Summit Lite with me on virtually every outing. I might tuck a hydration reservoir in the internal sleeve and use it for a short hike, or pack it with souvenirs for the trip home. I always find a use for it. www.exped.com
Mindshift Gear Rotation 180º Panorama 22L, $170
People love to document their travels. The quality of imagery being shared within the travel world has become astoundingly good. Whereas the point and shoot was once the preferred tool for capturing fleeting moments, many people, myself included, are traveling with a full compliment of camera gear. This has led me on a search for packs appropriate to the task of properly protecting camera gear while still making it accessible. It also helps if that pack has additional storage volume for all the other necessities that need to be brought along.
Mindshift’s innovative pack is effectively a backpack built around a waist pack. Odd as that sounds, it makes access to a full-size DSLR easy without removing the pack. To do so, the user simply unfastens one buckle on the side of the pack and then rotates the waist belt around until the padded camera pouch is positioned in front of the user. (pictured above with the camera bag slid out from the pack body.) It’s a clever solution to an age old problem, and goofy as it seems in concept, in practice it simply works. I no longer miss shots because I’m too lazy to take off my pack to grab my camera. I can stop, unpack my camera, get the shot, and be moving again in a matter of seconds. www.mindshiftgear.com
Lowe Alpine Eclipse 25, $90
At just over a hundred bucks, this is one of the better valued packs I have tested. Lowe Alpine has always offered good bang for the buck and the Eclipse 25 is no exception. With similar panel-loading pack access as offered by many packs it also has a top security pocket, stretch back panel and side pockets. It even has twin pockets on the waist belt and a padded phone pocket on the shoulder strap.
On the trail, the Eclipse is a comfortable pack with nicely shaped shoulder straps, a secure belt, and useful features. At 30 ounces, it’s one of the lighter packs in the test and I like the slender, teardrop shape which places the load low on the user’s back. It even has an adjustable torso length which is impressive for the low price. The back panel is well ventilated for use in warmer temperatures and the overall quality of materials and construction is excellent. Includes rain cover and is hydration compatible. www.lowealpine.com
PacSafe Z28 Ultimatesafe Backpack, $200
As one prone to travel to less developed and perhaps unsafe parts of the world, having a pack that protects my camera gear and personal items, is important. The Z28 is effectively a soft vault. Reinforced with PacSafe’s proprietary stainless steel mesh, it is virtually impossible to cut through the outer fabric. It would require a knife and cable cutters. Okay, not impossible, but unlikely unless your would-be thief is prepared for the operation and has ample time.
The top is also held securely closed with a heavy gauge stainless steel cable, that is long enough to also be looped around a solid object like a hotel bed or motorcycle frame. The included TSA-approved lock can be set with a custom combination and secures all of the locking features with one lock. It’s a relatively simple pack, but it does have a zippered top pocket in the lid and a nicely padded back panel and well shaped shoulder pads for a comfortable carry. I’ve used the Z28 to secure my expensive kit when leaving my hotel room, and to keep things secure while on the motorcycle. Just by dumb luck, the pack fits perfectly in a 30 liter motorcycle pannier as well as in the overhead bin on every flight I’ve been on. If it’s piece of mind you seek, the Ultimatesafe is your ticket. www.pacsafe.com