Top 5: Best Active Backpack 2020
What could be cooler for an outdoorsman than reviewing the Best Active Backpack Top 5? Sounds fun, right? But before we start let’s define what an active backpack actually is. Well, to me it’s the one I grab when going outdoors hiking, climbing, skiing, canoeing, mountaineering, camping and more – an extremely diverse category. Some packs are more versatile, some designed for a specific activity, which is not always possible to test easily (like ice climbing in August). But anyway I thought there would be no better way to test them all than by taking each of them on at least one full-day hike in the backcountry… and so I did. So let’s go one by one, and find out what makes them so special, starting from the most compact and going up in volume.
A lightweight and waterproof day hiker – that’s a quick description of the Burro Roll 26. It’s made out of tough waterproof Adamas™ 70D ripstop nylon with a laminate core and polyurethane coating – a composite fabric, which feels a bit like Hypalon so should be really tough. All seams are sealed, all zippers are YKK AquaGuard, which means with a rolled and secured top this pack fully protects whatever you put inside from the elements. Yeah, it’s just waterproof, full stop. By the way, that magnetic closure on the roll-top lips is something I’ve never seen before … and it’s ingenious! It should be a standard feature on any roll-top pack out there.
The shoulder straps are comfortable and soft, with full-length daisy-chain webbing and hydration hose keepers. The straps are lightly padded and so is the back panel. There’s no real frame in this pack but a stiff laptop protective insert works like one (to some extent), so as long as you don’t overload it the carry experience is absolutely fine. The sternum strap is adjustable for height, and there’s a removable stabilizing waist strap as well.
The Burro Roll might be lightweight, it might be just 26 liters in volume, but it’s an enormously feature-rich pack. First of all, there’s a full side access zipper if you want to grab your stuff without too much digging inside. There’s a full-size side pocket for small items (car keys, headlamp, mobile phone, pocket knife) and a spacious and stretchy big front pocket, which is great for an extra layer or for a wet towel and other stuff you’d like to keep outside the main compartment. The back pocket is zipper sealed too and includes a protective laptop sleeve. That compartment could be used also as a map pocket or even a hydration sleeve. Add to that Hypalon keepers here and there, a bike lamp attachment and side compression straps (yeah, you can carry hiking poles on this pack too!). And last but not least two side pockets, which are great for so much more than just a bottle. How did they put all that into just a 22 oz pack?
I tried it with a moderate load of about 10-12 pounds on a sunny day hike. It worked really well, with no hot spots on the padded back and shoulder straps. It’s a pack I’d use mostly as a summer daypack. It would shine as a kayaking or canoeing pack, where compact size, lack of a stiff frame and waterproof construction (not just weatherproof) play major roles. Also when exploring the seaside and sandy beaches this could be your ultimate companion. Plus you can roll it down and put it into a large expedition pack, so that it can be used later as a compact daypack on some short but intense local hikes. All in all I really liked it.
Fully waterproof construction
Lightweight but loaded with features
Perfect summer daypack for adventures around water
Hi-tech! That’s the first thing that springs to mind when looking at the Mammut Ducan Spine pack. It’s a relatively lightweight pack, aimed at summer mountaineers and hikers looking for maximum comfort and back ventilation. The harness system with Mammut’s Active Spine Technology™ is one of the most advanced I’ve ever seen and tried on a day-sized mountaineering pack. The Ducan Spine is suspended on a hybrid frame, which is a cross-over between external and internal. On that frame they put a flexible hourglass-shaped padded spine support, which moves with any movement of the carrier’s body. It sounds complicated, but in reality it means one thing – this pack adapts to your physique and follows movement of your body. And it does it magically well.
The shoulder straps are padded, slightly elastic and anatomically s-shaped. The harness is fully integrated with a shock-cord sternum strap. The waist belt is well padded, generous, and transfers a good portion of the load to the hips. Thanks to all that the Ducan Spine can be really loaded up, and it distributes all that weight not just to the shoulders, but to the whole torso including the back, hips and lumbar area. I was able to carry about 25 lbs in my pack for the whole day without too much fatigue and my back was perfectly ventilated too.
The materials are as hi-tech as the suspension – the top part is crazy lightweight, almost see-through, but also durable with some sort of micro-ripstop structure in it. The bottom part is made of thick, tough and abrasion-resistant Polyamide / Polyester blend fabric. It is not a fully weatherproof pack but a rain cover comes as standard with the Ducan Spine.
Mammut certainly knows how to please a customer with features. First of all the roll-top closure lip opens really wide to give easy access to all packed gear. The lips can be sealed with a zipper and work with or without rolling it down – that allows for scaling the capacity between 28 and 35 liters. Such a wide volume range is not really common on daypacks, which is one of the key unique features of this pack. The front zipper allows for easy access to any part of the spacious pack’s cavity. There’s also a top pocket for small accessories, small stretch mesh pockets in the shoulder straps (great for a mobile phone, energy bars, etc.), two big mesh bottle pockets on the sides, a spacious zipper pocket on the waist belt (left part) and a waterproof zipper dry pouch attached to the right part of the belt. So you can’t complain, even if you’re a real organization geek.
The Ducan Spine is fully hydration compatible too and I used my Source hydration system without any problems. Compression straps, hiking pole loops, bungee cord on the bottom of the pack plus bungee net on the whole front – there’s a lot of space to strap external accessories, a rain jacket, flasks or even a camp knife. It’s a really versatile 3-season mountaineering daypack.
Innovative ‘Active Spine’ harness
Top-tier load distribution
Versatile 3-season mountaineering pack
Dana Gleason, founder of Mystery Ranch, has a legendary status in the pack world. He’s been making packs since 1978 and his newest brainchild (MR) has been one of the leaders of active pack designs for the last 20 years. The Scepter 35 is no exception – it’s been made clearly for winning in the mountains. It’s a super slick climbing pack, targeted mostly at ice climbers but any mountaineer in any season would benefit from the features implemented in this pack. It’s a classic top-loader, which is a construction strongly preferred by high mountains climbers. I put it this way: a wide open panel-loading pack is the last thing you’d want on a belay anchor point when climbing a 14’er on a windy winter day. The reversed lid (big enough to cover a rope and helmet) is facing back, so when digging inside the pack the back panel is protected from ice and snow by the climber’s body. And it looks slick too. The draw-cord closure is easy to operate (also with gloves) and virtually fail-proof. There’s a full-length stash pocket at the front, perfect for a rain jacket in summer or snow shovel and avalanche probe in the winter. I also keep in there my sitting pad and a waterproof map. There’s a small zipper pocket there as well, big enough for keys, a headlamp, wallet, Swiss Army knife and buff.
Inside you’ll find removable carbon fiber stays (some climbers prefer non-framed daypacks for climbing), an oversized loop to hang climbing gear, and a sleeve for a hydration bladder as the Scepter 35 is fully hydration compatible (including integrated hose keepers on the straps).
As you can see in the photos there’s a ton of attachment options on the outside too. Side compression straps (removable) with sturdy aluminum G-hooks, webbing daisy-chain on the back, two daisy-chains on the shoulder straps, two ice-tool keepers (for technical ice axes or classic piolets) and a big bungee net, which is a good place for crampons in winter or to dry a wet rain jacket after a quick summer storm. All that is removable too.
Mystery Ranch is famous for some of the most comfortable harness systems in the pack world and the Scepter 35 is a good example why. The telescopic yoke with composite stay inside (the so-called spade, used also for adjustments to match torso size) is padded with compression-molded foam covered with woven stretch fabric. It’s not only super comfortable but also repels snow in winter. And yeah, I said yoke and not just straps as it’s a one-piece unit that distributes the load on the shoulders, scapulas and the whole back. The waist belt is very generous as well, layered, with thick padding – it easily transfers at least half of the weight onto the hips. The multi-layer belt construction allows you to put a MR bottle pocket or small zipper pockets on it too. What’s important, the load-bearing padded layer of the hip belt is removable too, so that you can use just the 2-inch lightweight stabilizing webbing with integrated small padded “wings” in the lumbar area.
The Scepter 35 is an ultra-comfortable climbing pack, which can be adjusted to your torso size and shape. In a fully equipped variant this pack weights about 3 pounds, but when stripped down by a conscious climber to bare essentials that weight goes down to just 2 pounds! And that still includes the famous Mystery Ranch yoke harness. So if you’re in the market for a no-compromise mountaineering pack for your next winter climb in Colorado or summer fun on via ferratas in Chamonix, this pack should definitely be on your short list.
Extremely comfortable, even when overloaded
Multiple attachment points and optional pouches available
Lightweight but can be stripped down to real ultralight essentials
All-seasons mountaineering and climbing pack
Dedicated climbing packs, like the Hyperlite Prism, are made with just one task in mind – to carry stuff up. And I mean vertically up! And even before Sir Isaac Newton defined what gravity was, climbers knew perfectly one thing: heavy gear was harder to lift up the hill. And you know what? It still is! So here comes a revolution and its name is the Hyperlite Prism.
Ever heard about Dyneema fabric? The lightest, toughest, most hi-tech ever material for packs and tents? Yeah, that’s what Hyperlite’s Prism Pack is made of. Lightweight DCH150 on the main body and thicker 375-Denier DCHW on the sides, bottom and lumbar areas for added strength and long-term durability. This pack is THE KING of size to weight ratios. With a base volume of 40 liters in the main body and 3.5 liters in the removable lid, a watertight zipper pocket, side straps, a polymer frame with regular aluminum stay and sealed seams it tips the scale at a mere 1.82 lbs (or 827 grams if you like). And it’s almost indestructible. Now that is pure magic!
The Prism Pack is one big sack essentially, so exactly my kind of pack. A simple draw-cord closure on top (with a 210D nylon extension collar) protects the stuff inside from the elements. And it protects it well, because Dyneema fabric and sealed seams make the pack simply waterproof. A cinch strap on top is great to fix a climbing rope between the body and the lid. Speaking of the lid – it’s one big pocket, with a watertight zipper closure and held by lightweight (but sturdy) aluminum G-hooks and a strap of Velcro. It’s fully floating, so you can move it up for overstuffing, and can also be completely removed (if required for a final summit push in high mountains). Side compression straps and shallow flat side pockets are optimized more for hiking poles, a sitting pad and other flat stuff than for regular bottles. But I repeat once more: a bulky bottle on the side is a big no-no in a climbing pack.
Of course the Prism is equipped with quick-release attachments for ice-tools and webbing daisy-chains for hanging small gear. The hip belt is padded and removable (of course) and it really works well for a pack of this size. Big gear loops on each side are made specifically to hang climbing gear like carabiners, ice-screws, nuts, cams, bolts, loops, etc. There’s also an ingenious quick-draw crampon pocket on the back – probably the quickest and safest solution for crampons I’ve seen on a pack. And if you’re afraid of crampons poking through Dyneema you can simply use Hyperlite’s dedicated crampon protective pouch.
The carry comfort is surprisingly good. Most ultralight packs suffer from a compromise in the carry department, usually due to flimsy non-supported construction – but the Prism is not one of those. Padded shoulder straps, a lumbar pad and hip belt plus a regular frame with stay make a good foundation to carry not just ultralight but also moderate loads of about 40-plus lbs with ease and comfort. The internal stay and lumbar pad are shaped in such a way to create some space between the pack and back. So yes, there’s still some space for partial ventilation and the pack can be used in any season, not just winter. To sum up: if you’re into alpine sports like mountaineering, ice-climbing, off-trail skiing, scrambling etc. and you prize the newest ultralight gear, you’ll be pleased with the Hyperlite Prism. And last but not least – it’s not just designed but also fully made in the good old USA.
Perfected for all sorts of alpine sports, especially ice-climbing and winter scrambling
Ultralight but tough as nails
Most advanced and durable materials and hardware available today
Imagine a pack designed for long-distance walking comfort, also when carrying heavy loads, and with extreme durability infused into it – that’s what makes modern hunting packs so versatile for backcountry use. And the Kiowa 3200 is no different. It’s designed by Marine veteran Caylen Wojcik and made by famous Stone Glacier, a nylon gear manufacturer based in Bozeman, Montana, specializing in mountain-hunting packs and accessories. With 3200 cubic inches of capacity (about 53 liters) this is the biggest pack of the bunch. And it is made entirely in the USA, using mil-spec 500D Cordura, with Duraflex buckles by National Molding, and all Berry Compliant materials.
What really sets this pack apart is the harness – easily capable of comfortably carrying about 60-plus lbs on its own (of course you need to be able to support such a weight too). But the Kiowa is also compatible with Stone Glacier’s optional external frames, which can wind up load capacity up to 150 lbs! Anyway, the back panel features a stiff back plate with additional composite x-stays – all that connected to massive and comfortable shoulder straps with integrated back padding. The shoulder strap and back support is actually the same piece, adjustable for torso length and also shoulder width by an ingenious (and easy to adjust) Velcro system. It’s accompanied by a really heavy-duty hip belt, equipped with not one strap but a pair of straps. And these straps can be adjusted individually to really hug around your hips and transfer a lot of weight down there. This must be the most comfy hip belt I’ve seen on a pack so far, seriously. And it’s removable too if you’d like to use this as carry-on luggage for air travel or put the pack on an external frame.
It’s a classic panel-loader pack, made for unrestricted access and full organization. So you’ll find inside a full Velcro compatible back panel, two heavy-duty cinch-down straps with Duraflex buckles, two accessory pockets on the inside of the opening panel and multiple webbing attachment points for Stone Glacier’s optional pouches, pull-outs, swing-outs and other packing accessories. There’s also a dedicated inner bladder pocket on the left side and a HUGE one on the other side, made specifically for an outdoor spotting scope. And that’s what gives the Kiowa 3200 that uncommon asymmetrical look. That internal scope side pocket is also great for big telescopic camera lenses (perfect for classic 70-200/2.8 zooms), which is an awesome feature for an outdoor photographer (like me). And finally there’s a really spacious front pocket on the Kiowa too, with a central zipper, great for quick-access stuff like rain gear, a wool beanie, buff and map.
The outside of the Kiowa is a pretty straightforward affair, with 3 compression straps on each side, two at the bottom and two straps on the main body. The side straps are best suited for hiking poles, a lightweight tripod, ice axe (if needed), quiver, etc. Two long straps across the pack’s body can be used to attach an additional storage bag or hunter’s tool of trade, like a field bow (or compound). Bottom straps are usually used for a tent or sleeping pad (or both). All in all, you can really accessorize the Kiowa on the outside like almost no other pack out there.
Now consider this: Mil-spec 500D Cordura, heavy-duty zippers, a full harness with overbuilt hip belt, all the organization, straps inside and outside, an overall size of 53 liters… and it still puts on the scale just 4 pounds and 1 oz. (1.85kg), which is amazing for the size, toughness and such a load of features. So if you’re looking for a general use backcountry weekender pack for field activities like bird-watching, wildlife photography, general hiking, and of course hunting, the Stone Glacier Kiowa 3200 might be the best answer for your needs.
Multi-mission versatility and size
Heavy-duty materials, all US-made (Berry Compliant)
Harness and frame suitable for very heavy loads
Hopefully you enjoyed my quick overview of the Top 5 Best Active Backpacks. Now you’ve got all the info in your hands (or head) to make your final decision. The packs are all different, with various target customers, different areas of use, features and specs. But there can be only one winner… which one will it be? Only you can tell. So choose wisely and thank you for voting.
VOTING FOR BEST ACTIVE BACKPACK CLOSES SEPTEMBER 13TH