Hiking the Appalachian Trail is the adventure of a lifetime. Given that it takes 5 to 7 months to complete the trail, you’ll need to bring enough gear. All your belongings should fit in a quality backpack, but many often wonder about the right pack to bring.
Backpacks for the Appalachian Trail should be around 40L if you are bringing ultralight gear, but around 65L if you are bringing conventional gear. The pack should be light, adjustable, durable, and weather proof. It should also be as light as possible for your comfort on the trail.
Investing in the right backpack will make a big difference in the success of your hike. Read on for everything else you need to know when shopping around for a pack.
Table of Contents
- Features To Look for in an Appalachian Trail Backpack
- How Much Gear Will Fit in My Appalachian Trail Backpack?
- Appalachian Trail Backpack Size Options
- Our Recommendations For The Best Backpacks For Hiking The Appalachian Trail
- Frequently Asked Questions
Features To Look for in an Appalachian Trail Backpack
The Appalachian Trail hike, also known as the thru-hike, is an arduous yet rewarding trip. There are many things one needs to prepare for the trip though it goes without saying that you need the best backpack you can afford.
Here’s what you need to think about when looking for a thru-hike backpack:
Pack size is one of the most important aspects of choosing a backpack fit for your needs. Two things will determine a pack’s volume: how much gear you’ll be carrying throughout the trail (known as the base weight when the consumables such as food and water aren’t included), and how much food you will be bringing.
During the trail, temperatures and weather conditions will be changing constantly. For this reason, hikers need to bring gear that can be used in both warm and cold temperatures while also being prepared for rough storms. Allocate enough space for food to last you between resupply stops located throughout the trail.
For instance, if you are taking the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll need food to last 6 days on multiple sections of the trail, so your food supply will be bulky and take up a lot of space. A backpack should be from 40 to 55L in capacity if you intend to carry conventional gear that can take you through varying temperatures and weather plus up to 6 days of food.
Ultralight and lightweight hiking backpacks are recommended if you are willing to invest in top-of-the-line ultralight clothing and gear. These can carry a base weight of under 15 or 20 pounds, and maximum loads of up to 40 pounds.
Generally speaking, you will want a backpack that is as light as possible once everything is packed into it.
Ultralight and lightweight backpacks can weigh 1 up to 3 pounds, though conventional backpacks weigh 4 pounds and up.
The weather during your hike will determine if you will need to pack thicker clothes to stay warm or if you’ll need just a few layers and a light sleeping bag. If you’d rather climb through warm weather, start the trail in Georgia and end in Maine. The mid-Atlantic and Virginia area of the trail are prone to hot summers, and on these days water can be difficult to come by.
However, all parts of the trail are vulnerable to snowfall from winter until early April. In the southern Appalachians, winter-like weather starts in the spring or fall, while in the northern Appalachians, snow can occur any time of the year. In New Hampshire and Maine in particular, snow can last until June.
Thru-hike backpacks come in a wide range of various fabrics and materials. Look for those that are water-resistant, lightweight, and durable such as these:
Ripstop nylon comes in many different varieties, and it’s one of the most popular materials used for hiking backpacks. That’s because it’s renowned for its superior durability, but it’s also affordable and lightweight. Though ripstop nylon itself is not waterproof, many backpack models treat it with water resistant finishes to ensure water beads up instead of getting soaked. Look for thicker ripstop nylon because thinner types can be prone to abrasion.
Dyneema is a revolutionary type of fabric that was recently introduced in the market. It’s advantage is that it’s extremely lightweight, though it tends to be more expensive than other kinds of materials. Many backpacks made with Dyneema blend it with other materials to improve abrasion resistance. It’s waterproof, durable, and extremely functional for a trip to the Appalachian Trail. Be wary of the Dyneema Composite Fabric as this is prone to abrasion.
Your backpack should be adjustable for two reasons: One, hikers tend to lose weight on the Appalachian Trail, so adjustable straps will ensure you’re comfortable throughout the journey; two, your appetite might change and you may find yourself wanting to bring along more food on certain parts of the trail so expandable features will come in handy. Compression straps and other features that allow you to adjust its size help when you want to decrease the pack’s capacity.
Backpacks are available in several torso sizes, and it’s crucial that you get one that’s right for you. To do this, simply measure your torso using a measuring tape starting from your Iliac Crest down to the C7 vertebrae.
How Much Gear Will Fit in My Appalachian Trail Backpack?
Before you buy a backpack for the thru-hike, you should first determine what exactly you’re going to bring since in turn, this will determine how large a pack you need. Hikers have their own individual hiking and packing style, so there’s no one-size fits-all solution when it comes to packs. While some are willing to invest in ultralight gear and can survive with an ultralight pack, others prefer to go the traditional route even if it means bringing along a heavier pack.
Having said that, there are certain things that are non-compromisable and must be brought along with you for survival and comfort:
The clothes you bring for the Appalachian Trail should be in layers, allowing you to add or remove to adjust to the temperature changes. Here’s a list of the clothes you should bring:
- Hiking shorts/pants
- Hiking shirt
- Rain jacket
- Warm hat
- Sleeping clothes
- Base layer top and bottom (optional during warmer months)
- Insulating jacket
- Hiking shoes/boots
- Quick-dry towel
- Insulating middle layers (optional during warmer months)
The available types of equipment for the thru-hike on the market are almost infinite. What you decide to bring will depend entirely on your preferences, skill, experience, and budget.
However, the most important things you should consider when selecting equipment are its comfort and weight. These include:
- First aid kit
- Water treatment
- Cooking equipment
- Organizing sacks
- Trail food
- Headlamp / flashlight
- Hydration system
- Sleeping bag and sleeping pad
Appalachian Trail Backpack Size Options
- Ultralight backpacks (35-40L total packed weight): These are the smallest backpacks that hikers usually bring to the Appalachian Trail. It can fit all of the the absolute essentials you’ll need (listed above) though you’d have better chances of using an ultralight backpack during warmer weather when you’ll need less thick clothing. It would also mean that your shelter would have to be compact, and it would also be ideal to invest in the lightest of all gear and clothing categories.
- Mid-size packs: (40-55L): This volume is spacious enough to allow you to bring all the essentials listed, while providing a little more allowance for thicker clothing during winter hikes. If you hike during warmer months with this volume, you can also enjoy having more space for other optional items such as hiking poles, a stove, and electronics.
- Multi-use pack (45-65L): A backpack this size is ideal for hiking during the winter. It has much more space for carrying all the essentials, some optional items, more clothes, a warmer sleeping bag, and a sturdier tent.
Our Recommendations For The Best Backpacks For Hiking The Appalachian Trail
Finding the best backpack for your journey along the Appalachian Trail requires careful research. Below are several popular options to accommodate hikers of various needs.
Best All-Around Hiking Backpack
The North Face Terra 65: While many of the best backpacks for hiking the Appalachian Trail boast technical specs and advanced features, The North Face’s Terra 65 stands out for its simplicity and functionality. The fact that it’s easy to use appeals to a wide range of hikers, especially beginners, as well as also seasoned mountaineers who prefer a straightforward pack.
There have been several updates to this model through the years, though the changes haven’t been dramatic. The North Face added more color options plus a larger external central pocket, among others. This model has long been renowned for its comfort, and that never changed.
Access is easy and convenient with the strategic organization evident throughout this backpack. The brain, or the top compartment, is more voluminous compared to other models. Meanwhile, the front pockets are convenient storage for maps, a jacket, rain gear, or other necessities.
The average weight of the North Face Terra 65 is 4 pounds, heavier than other packs on this list. Nevertheless, that’s because they used much thicker 210D nylon fabric (and 600D polyester in the boot), which gives peace of mind when it comes to durability and comfort. This backpack isn’t ideal for use in warm climates since the back ventilation could be improved, though the Osprey backpack mentioned below would be recommended for hikers who need a versatile pack that can be worn comfortably no matter what the weather.
Whereas a majority of hiking backpacks are best worn with a light load, this pack could be stuffed with bricks and it will still be comfortable to wear. The tough, abrasion-resistant fabrics used protect the body from tears and abrasion, which is one of the many features that help keep it strong and looking good despite trekking with it for thousands of miles.
The North Face Terra 65 comes with all the other bells and whistles that you need – and none of the frilly ones. Other useful features include a self-equalizing Dyno Lift System, OPTIFIT suspension system, sternum strap, hydration sleeve, padded hip belt, and a floating lid for your tent or sleeping bag.
But when everything is said and done, this is still one of the most durable hiking backpacks out there. The North Face Terra 65 can withstand the rigors and rough use that come with hiking the Appalachian Trail and many more around the world. Our research shows that it can hold up to just about any hike while lasting you for many years, plus it’s one of the more affordable options given its five-star features.
Best For Thru-Hiking
Gossamer Gear Mariposa: If you prefer a framed backpack that’s big on organization, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa is perfect but there are many more reasons to love it. It’s one of the brand’s best-selling backpacks, and it’s easy to see why: this feature-rich pack can accommodate hikers who have varying needs and preferences, yet it only weighs 2 pounds.
The award-winning Gossamer Gear Mariposa has been around for over a decade, and it has undergone several iterations through the years. They have continuously improved on an already effective backpack that has been well-loved by thru-hikers. Some of these improvements have focused on its carrying capacity, durability, and design – yet it has always remained a favorite, and for good reason.
The unisex design of this hiking backpack features a lightweight aluminum frame that runs from the pack length down to the hip belt. Our testing has shown that the frame used does an excellent job of redistributing weight. And speaking of weight, the maximum recommended capacity for this pack is up to 35 pounds, since this prevents the backpack from collapsing when it’s packed to the brim.
Another benefit for long-distance hikers is the presence of load lifters, which are vital in high-capacity backpacks. The load lifters in this product are useful particularly for the Appalachian Trail since it keeps the backpack close to your body and reduces tilting, helping to keep you balanced.
This model is particularly a favorite among people who hike with heavy gear, such as professional or hobby photographers. There is ample organization and storage to bring along a camera.
Although this is a unisex backpack, female hikers will appreciate the details that Gossamer Gear has added through the years to make it more comfortable for women. These include the addition of soft foam to the hip belt and shoulder pads, which makes it truly comfortable to wear. The generous padding also ensures that the pack conforms well to your hips and won’t slide off.
It’s worth noting that the Mariposa is constructed out of Robic nylon. This is a superior, high-durability fabric that’s stronger than Dyneema. Other fabrics used around the backpack include double-rip ripstop nylon, Supreme Air Mesh, and Darlington Mesh.
Furthermore, while most ultralight backpacks in the market lack adequate pockets because they add weight, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa has been able to successfully integrate several useful compartments in its design without compromising carrying capacity. The main compartment is already extremely spacious but it also has a small zip pocket found on each hip as well as on the top flap. Other functional pockets include a rear mesh compartment, one dump pocket found on each side, and several more.
Staying organized during long hikes, or even overnight journeys, is something that this bag helps greatly with. That said, it would have been better for many if this backpack came with additional compression straps to help cinch the pack when it isn’t fully loaded. Some hikers may also be disappointed with the lack of external attachment points, though there are webbing loops provided around the backpack which you can use to make your own attachment points with the use of a cord.
Best For Women
Gregory Deva 60: The Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular destinations for thru-hikes. It’s also among the longest to complete, making it extremely fulfilling. That’s why everyone needs a backpack with the best possible fit.
Female hikers, in particular, should be cautious when choosing a backpack for the Appalachian Trail. Considering the narrower frame that most women have compared to men, an ergonomic fit is vital for comfort. And in that respect, Gregory Deva 60 is an outstanding model for adventurous women.
This hiking backpack was designed with several features that enable you to create the perfect custom fit. It’s especially recommended for seasoned female hikers who depend on using technical gear and tend to pack on the heavier side. The maximum carrying capacity of the Deva 60 is 50 lbs., though there are larger versions available such as the Deva 60 and Deva 70.
There are many notable custom-fit details to be appreciated in this backpack. These include adjustable hip belts and straps, plus a Velcro that can be placed up or down depending on the fit. With around 15 different sizing and fit combinations, there is definitely a Deva that can fit women of every shape and size.
Comfort was clearly a priority when Gregory designed this pack, too. Ample padding using dense LifeSpan EVA foam on the back panel, shoulder straps, and hip belt ensure you are cozy throughout your trek. They also prevent these parts from slipping while reducing any chafing.
The Gregory Deva 60 is a true multipurpose hiking and outdoor backpack. Take this with you as you travel to remote destinations all year round: it’s suitable for camping, multi-day trips, and more – though if you travel by plane, you’ll have to check this in. A fitted rain cover is already included, while the hip belt pocket and its YKK zipper are also water-resistant.
There are also lots of thoughtful features, including a stretch mesh side pocket, SideWinder bottle holder, zippered front pockets, and a removable hydration sleeve that doubles as a daypack. Keep your sunglasses safely in the QuickStow pocket located in the shoulder harness for easy access. All these pockets make the Deva 60 a popular choice for women who like to go on short hikes with toddlers as well.
The Gregory Deva 60 stays in place securely, even while you trek with heavy loads. Our research showed that the alloy perimeter frame was effective in providing support, allowing you to move with no restrictions while helping to manage your load.
However, the Deva does weigh heftily at 4.48 lbs. The weight can still be slightly reduced by removing some of the detachable parts, though it’s still pretty bulky. It costs around $270, so while it isn’t cheap, this can be seen as a good investment for women who don’t mind the bulky weight for top-notch padding and comfort.
Best Ultralight Backpack
Osprey Exos: The Osprey Exos has long had a cult following among thru-hikers. In 2017, Osprey added several improvements to this model, removing the shoulder pockets and hip belt. Additionally, they made the pack even more durable with the use of tougher 1000D high-tenacity nylon ripstop fabric, upgraded the AirSpeed suspension system, and improved the front mesh pocket, among others.
The entire backpack is constructed out of 100% recycled materials, yet remains impressively lightweight. The small/medium size weighs just 2.84 lbs., while the large/extra-large size weighs 2.94 lbs. despite a capacity of 58 liters and 61L respectively. For hikers who prioritize going fast and light, you simply can’t go wrong with the Osprey Exos.
During our review, we found that the most comfortable load for this hiking backpack is 35 lbs. or under. Both sizes available also offer excellent torso adjustment of up to 4 inches, so hikers of varying heights will easily be able to find their best fit with a few tweaks when worn. A women’s version, called the Eja, is offered by Osprey as well, though the Exos has been used as a unisex hiking backpack with no issues.
The Exos is ideal for ultralight hikers who prefer frameless packs. The shoulder straps and waist belt are incredibly comfortable; it’s also worth noting that the hip belt pockets make your backcountry trips more convenient by allowing you to easily reach for any necessities. Even when hiking in warmer temperatures, the pack remains cozy to use thanks to the AirSpeed suspension which is made with tensioned mesh that encourages air flow in all directions.
The backpack lid could be improved because it can be a bit tricky to search for your items. The mesh pocket makes it simple to look for your belongings but the narrow opening of the top lid doesn’t. We also found that the compression straps and buckles were smaller in size compared to traditional backpacks used for thru-hikes to the Appalachian Trail, though their efficacy was not affected.
Overall, the Osprey Exos 58 is a fantastic choice for an ultralight backpack on the Appalachian Trail. It’s the perfect balance between ultralight and traditional backpacks, and given its superior durability, is a terrific value.
ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra: The ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra is an updated version of the award-winning Arc Haul backpack, which has been a trusted model among thru-hikers for several years. This stylish backpack is ideal for ultralight hikers who prefer a model with a frame, making it a suitable framed alternative to the Osprey Exos.
The fit and straps have remained the same but they improved on the bag material, using advanced Ultra 200 material, which is extremely lightweight and tough. Ultra 200 is also waterproof and more resistant to water and abrasion compared to Dyneema. Another thing they improved is the use of the Curved Carbon Fiber Air Stay frame in the Ultra, which is stronger and more efficient in holding the pack’s shape compared to the Flexed Arc Frame found in the previous model.
The pack boasts superior durability, ideal for hiking the challenging terrain of the Appalachian trail for several days at a time. Weighing just 19.5 ounces, this pack is recommended not just for thru-hikers but it’s a reliable companion for beginners and minimalists just as well. We say beginners too, because while this hiking backpack has lots of excellent features, they aren’t technical or complicated to use.
That said, the price averages at around $400, so one must at least be committed to mountaineering and hiking to invest in the ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra. It’s definitely worth the price, given the luxurious features, outstanding comfort, and superb organization.
We couldn’t help but notice the lack of a hydration port since the initial Haul model had one. However, this part can be overlooked since the Arc Haul Ultra does have two cavernous side pockets which are large enough to hold two water bottles up to a liter on each side, or an umbrella. The absence of internal pockets may be an inconvenience to some, especially for those who are used to traditional or full-featured hiking backpacks.
The ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra can comfortably carry up to 40 pounds, which is significantly more compared to other ultralight backpacks in their league. It conveniently comes with two straps found at the bottom of the pack, which are made of a shock cord, for effectively attaching a sleeping pad.
This pack is also really comfortable to wear. The curved frame makes a big difference in providing a good distance between your back and the backpack, but the hip belt ensures a snug, secure fit. Overall, the ZPacks Arc Haul Ultra is a great investment for people who are serious about hiking.
Best For Kids
Osprey Ace 38 Kids’ Backpack: The Appalachian Trail is not solely for adult adventurers. In fact, there are a handful of family and kid-friendly trails you can explore with young ones. Kids need to be equipped just as well as adults, and the good news is that there are many age-appropriate and comfortable backpacks for their age.
The Osprey Ace 38 Kids’ Backpack was designed specifically for adventurous kids, aged 5 to 11. The fit adjustment was created with growing children in mind, evident in the 4 inches of adjustable torso length which is also found in other packs within the Ace line. This way, you don’t necessarily need to keep buying a new backpack whenever your child outgrows one.
There are several noteworthy features found in Ace 38 that are also available in many of Osprey’s well-loved adult backpacks. These include two exterior side pockets, a rain cover, an internal hydration bladder, and compression straps. With a total of four external pockets, it has just the right number of organizational features for outdoorsy kids.
For maximum comfort and safety, keep the pack at 25 pounds or less. In addition, experts recommend that children should only carry backpacks that are up to 15% of their total body weight, so please keep this in mind. This helps reduce the risk of discomfort and pain.
Aside from hiking, this backpack is versatile for active kids. It’s a popular choice for kids who go on various summer programs, extracurricular activities, and other school-related trips. However, it would have been more convenient if the pack was equipped with a dedicated computer or laptop compartment for kids who need to do school work during said trips.
That said, the Ace 38 is still a high-quality and durable backpack that will last many years, growing with your kid. It’s fuss-free, has adequate storage, and has superior adjustability features. Another thoughtful touch is the use of pull tabs, which are gentle yet strong enough for little hands.
The Osprey Ace 38 does weigh a lot: at almost 3 lbs., it does have an impact on the maximum weight you can pack to ensure it stays under 15% of a child’s body weight. Having said that, this pack may be better suited for children 7 years old and up, as opposed to 5 years and up.
Best Budget Backpack
REI Co-Op Flash 55 Pack: For thru-hikers who are looking for great-value hiking backpacks, the REI Co-Op Flash 55 is at the top of the list. This feature-rich pack fetches just around $200, but it makes use of high-quality materials and has proven to be a durable, long-lasting bag.
One of the most outstanding features of this bag is its light weight. There are small, medium, and large sizes available to cater to individuals of various heights and frames, but the average weight of the pack is 2 pounds and 13 ounces. The low weight is impressive, given that REI has already integrated an internal steel frame, which is stable and supportive.
The REI Co-Op Flash 55 is highly customizable, which enables hikers of varying heights to wear it comfortably with different loads. The load lifters and adjustable torso are especially useful for this, while Packmod compression straps can help you cinch the backpack when used with lighter loads. You’d be able to carry up to 50 pounds of gear comfortably, though most hikers prefer to keep it at around 30 pounds.
Given all the gear needed for the Appalachian Trail, the many organizational pockets available in this model come in handy. The main compartment itself is cavernous and easy to pack, while the presence of other compartments helps you make sure you know where everything is when you need it. These include a front mesh pocket for easy-access items, spacious side pockets for your water bottle or trekking poles, and several others.
Additionally, a hydration bladder can easily be used with this pack: there are two openings that let you route the hose over your right or left shoulder. However, if you are going on other trips that require less organization, you can remove the top lid, hip pockets, and shoulder strap compartments, which can save around 4-7 ounces of extra weight.
We also found that the REI Co-Op Flash 55 hugs the body well, adding to its comfort. This can be used on hot days as well, since the 3D back panel foam encourages effective ventilation. Despite the feature-rich and customizable characteristics of this backpack, it’s really easy to use and available in several sizes for both men and women.
The body of the pack is constructed out of 100D ripstop nylon, which is thin compared to the other backpacks we’ve tested on this list. But there’s no need to worry about scratching or ripping the backpack when placing it down on rough outdoor surfaces: REI has fortified the bottom with 420D nylon for added durability.
The pack could still see some improvements, hopefully for future models. While it’s a fantastic overall pack with a great price, it offers very little protection from the rain and the elements. It would be best to purchase a rain cover separately for security.
Despite that minor design flaw, the REI Co-Op Flash 55 Pack is terrific value for just $199 at the time of writing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the right way to pack a backpack for the Appalachian Trail?
Taking a good backpack to the Appalachian Trail means nothing if you aren’t going to pack efficiently . Your belongings should be easy to access whenever you need them; there are many organization styles and systems available out there so practicing at home is highly recommended.
Here are some things to keep in mind when packing:
- Segregate the items you’ll need during the hike; place them in easy access areas of the pack. For example, on the side pockets you can keep your water bottles, trekking poles, and guidebook; on the hip pocket, you can keep your headphones and mobile phone, snacks, a map; on the chest pockets, you can keep your compass, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and GPS unit.
- For items that you’ll be using while on a break, place them in moderate access areas. For example, the top of the pack is where you can keep food and cooking equipment, rain jacket, your headlamp, and toilet paper; on the exterior front pocket you can keep extra layers or camp shoes. These items should be kept on the exterior pockets of your backpack in order to conveniently access them, though they don’t need to be easily accessible at all times.
- Items you’ll be using while at camp can be placed in hard access parts of your backpack. These include your shelter tent and kitchen equipment placed at the mid-cavity of the pack; at the bottom cavity you can keep your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, first aid supplies, and extra clothes.
The next step is to ensure even weight distribution to avoid straining your back or shoulders. Here’s how to distribute your pack by weight:
- Light or mid gear: Bottom internal cavity; this is where all your bulky as well as mid to light items should be kept. It’s also recommended for things you won't need until you stop for camp.
- Heavy gear: Middle internal cavity; the heaviest things should always be kept close to your back. In some instances, you’ll be able to feel the items placed in the middle internal cavity so it isn’t ideal to place things with rough or potentially painful edges here such as cooking utensils. Instead, place smooth items such as your food bag or shelter.
- Mid or light gear: Top internal cavity; the top area of your pack is perfect for storing mid to light equipment that you’ll be needing during the trek. These include snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, layers, or other light gear.