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Cheap Hiking Backpacks Buying Guide

Whether you're taking a day hike or embarking on a multi-day meet-up with nature, you need a good cheap hiking backpack. Options abound in the low-cost hiking backpack segment, where models costing less than $90 come from top brands such as REI and Kelty.

We also found good cheap hiking backpacks from Teton Sports, High Sierra, Osprey, and Marmot, which produce upmarket gear as well. As you move downmarket into the cheaper price range for hiking backpacks, you'll be sacrificing size (not a huge deal for day hikers and occasional campers), the quality of materials used to make the backpack, the stitching that holds it all together, organizational conveniences like a detachable top compartment, and models made to fit men and others to fit women. Still, backpacks in the Cheapism niche won't disappoint. The best cheap hiking backpacks have many virtues, including versatility, durability, practical design, and good ergonomics.

Daypacks and Backpacks Size, Straps
Internal Frame Backpacks, Backpack Fit
Hiking Backpack Reviews

There are several features to note as you make your way through the racks of cheap backpacks. The first is size. If you only want a small pack for a day hike, size is less of an issue; if you're backpacking for several days at a stretch you'll want to be sure there's sufficient room for all the necessary gear. Straps and belts are the next feature to note. The best hiking backpacks have a waist belt, and one that also has a chest strap is even better. The straps on some cheap hiking backpacks are not well padded, so if you expect to carry heavy loads, make sure the padding is adequate. The fit (how the hiking backpack sets on your back) and the frame should suit the weight you'll carry; a heavy pack can feel much heavier if the weight is not distributed correctly. Organizational aids, like internal and external pockets, loops, daisy chains, and tie straps, also distinguish the best hiking backpacks from also-rans.

The best hiking backpacks on our list all earn favorable reviews for comfort, durability, usability, and features. The smallest pack we like is the REI Flash 18 (starting at $30), a minimalist daypack that compresses very small and makes a good extra pack for longer trips. The larger High Sierra Explorer 55 (starting at $80) is roomy enough to stow what you need for several nights on the trail, and scores high with users for its comfort and adjustable fit. The Teton Sports Scout 3400 (starting at $50) wins points for its value, features, and spaciousness. The Osprey Packs Stratos 24 (starting at $80) serves primarily as a daypack, but unlike the REI Flash 18, it boasts an internal frame and lots of organizational aids; users rave about its comfort. A cheap hiking backpack that doesn't meet the bar set by the others is the Outbound Manchester (starting at $25), which gets dinged for its very small size, limited features, and thin straps affixed to the pack in an awkward arrangement.

Daypacks and Backpacks Size, Straps

Backpack Size.

The most important feature to consider when choosing a hiking backpack is its interior capacity. If you're not planning to camp out overnight, a small daypack is sufficient. Either way, carefully assess your needs: How many days will you be hiking and camping? Does your gear include alpine necessities like an ice axe and crampons? Will you be stowing items for others, such as children? Don't skimp on size for longer trips; you need to have room for enough food and gear to keep you fed, warm, and dry at all times, and that includes in an emergency.

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Hiking backpacks' sizes are commonly measured in liters, although sometimes you'll find cubic inches listed; one liter is the equivalent of 61 cubic inches. Large packs meant for multi-night trips are sized in the 50-90 liter range and often priced beyond the Cheapism ceiling. The High Sierra Explorer 55 (starting at $80) and Teton Sports Scout 3400 (starting at $50), however, each hold 55 liters and make our list of best cheap backpacks. Discount backpacks are generally smaller and tend to fall in the 18-35 liter territory. One of our picks for best small daypacks, the Osprey Packs Stratos 24 (starting at $80), is a 24-liter model that's also available in 22- and 26-liter sizes. The REI Flash 18 (starting at $30), our other pick for best small daypack, has an internal volume of 18 liters -- anything smaller is hardly worth carrying. The 15-liter Outbound Manchester Backpack (starting at $25) garners a number of poor reviews due to its small size; some users say there isn't enough space to pack for a simple day hike.

Hiking Backpack Straps.

Straps are a critical design component for several reasons. They help balance the weight and load, they hold items on the outside of the pack, and they compress the load for better stability.

Any good discount backpack or daypack should have a waist belt (also called a "hip belt"). A waist belt posits much of the weight on your hips and legs, which keeps your back and shoulders from bearing the full burden. Even if you're only taking a short day hike, your best choice is a daypack with a waist belt -- you'd be surprised how heavy even one bottle of water feels after a few hours on the trail. All the hiking backpacks we researched, except for the Outbound Manchester, feature a waist belt. In general, this feature differentiates a hiking backpack from a school backpack.

Chest straps (also called sternum straps) also take some of the weight off your back. Not all cheap backpacks include these, however. It's okay to forgo chest straps for very light loads of the sort you'd carry in a daypack. REI's Flash 18, the smallest pack in our lineup of favorites, nonetheless comes with a chest strap, as do the other cheap backpacks we researched with the exception of the Outbound Manchester.

Padded shoulder straps are standard equipment on backpacks (even cheap backpacks meant for schoolbooks have padded shoulder straps), although padding on the Outbound Manchester is minimal. The shoulder straps typically have some kind of mechanism that cinches down to tighten against your body.

Internal Frame Backpacks, Backpack Fit

Hiking Pack Frames and Fit.

Back in the day, hiking backpacks designed for heavy loads used equally heavy external frames. Today, ergonomics rule, and the new, super-light internal frame backpacks lighten your load considerably by helping with balance and load distribution. All the discount backpacks we researched but for the Outbound Manchester and the REI Flash 18 (too small to need one) feature an internal frame. On the High Sierra Explorer 55 and Osprey Stratos 24, the frame is contoured, which keeps the pack well off your back and lets air circulate to minimize sweating. Additionally, the High Sierra and Teton Sports Scout 3400 internal frames can be adjusted to suit the shape of your back.

The fit of a hiking backpack can make or break your comfort level on the trail. Daypacks tend to come in a one-size-fits-most category, as do many discount overnight backpacks. There is variation among models and brands, however, so the best way to find a good fit is to shop at a retail outlet that sells many brands; alternatively, measure the distance between your shoulders and from shoulders to hips and compare that against the dimensions of the backpack you're eyeing (some manufacturers' specs stipulate torso length). Remember, you want the bulk of the load (especially a heavy one) to rest on your hips, and that means you need a discount backpack that fits your torso. The REI Flash 18, for example, measures 18x9.5x8 inches, and the Osprey Stratos 24, the other best daypack on our list, measures 21x13 x10.25 inches. The two multi-day internal frame backpacks we like are significantly larger: the High Sierra Explorer 55 measures 30x14x8 inches and the Teton Sports Scout 3400 comes in at 24.4x14.4x4.5 inches.

If a backpack is available in only one size, having adjustable shoulder straps is a welcome design element. The Teton Sports Scout 3400 features contoured adjustable shoulder straps that move up or down to suit your torso length; ditto for the High Sierra Explorer 55. We found two discount backpacks, the Kelty Women's Redwing 40 (starting at $78) and Marmot Women's Diva 35 ($38 in closeout) that are sized and designed, as their names suggest, specifically for women -- the frames are smaller and the straps are contoured to fit a women's body.

A related innovation is a suspension system that lifts the pack off your shoulders. The benefits of this arrangement include less direct weight and minimal rubbing and irritation. The High Sierra Explorer 55, Osprey Stratos 24, and Kelty Redwing 40 feature a suspension system.

Hiking Backpack Fabric.

The fabric that forms the shell of a discount backpack should be strong enough to carry your load and durable enough to withstand thorns and rocks, but light enough that it doesn't add much to the overall weight. If you hike in places where the weather is rainy or likely to change rapidly, you should pay more attention to the type of material than if the environs are consistently warm and dry. Still, your best bet is to choose a discount backpack made with weather-resistant fabric.

The material used in the best discount backpacks meet these standards. The High Sierra Explorer 55 is made of heavy-duty materials (Duralite and Duraweave) that are often used for luggage. Ripstop nylon, a lightweight fabric designed to withstand the elements, is the material of choice for the REI Flash 18, Osprey Stratos 24, and Teton Sports Scout 3400; the Kelty Redwing 40 is made of ripstop polyester reinforced with oxford polyester, but we read reviews griping that the fabric failed the water-resistance test. The Outbound Manchester is made of polyester and nylon.

Hiking Backpack Amenities.

Good quality discount backpacks boast organizational aids that ensure easy access to necessary gear, like maps, compass, sunglasses, camera, and energy bars. On the outside of the pack you might find loops, pockets, and daisy chains (a small line of loops), as well as straps that cinch down to hold things in place. The REI Flash 18, for example, features a tool loop and two daisy chains. The Kelty Redwing likewise sports a daisy chain and an ice-axe loop along with several zippered pockets and four compression straps. The Osprey Stratos 24 provides two ice-axe loops, an attachment point for a trekking pole, and zippered mesh pockets on a shoulder strap and the waist belt. The Outbound Manchester sports a headphone port and fleece-lined pocket for an MP3 player.

Storage compartments on the inside are equally valuable. Aside from several organizational pockets, many newer discount backpacks, including all those we researched, come with an interior pouch and external port for a water hydration system. Although high-end backpacks for overnight trips often have a top compartment that cinches down over the pack's main body to protect and compress the load, among the discount backpacks we researched only the Marmot Women's Diva and Teton Sports Scout 3400 boast top compartments. The Teton Sports Scout and High Sierra Explorer 55 feature a sleeping bag compartment, although one hiker says the space in the High Sierra pack is too small for a 0-degree bag. The small REI Flash 18 does double duty as a stuff sack when turned inside out.

Being prepared for all kinds of contingencies is the hallmark of an experienced camper. Rain is one of the most common. Three of the discount backpacks on our list -- the High Sierra Explorer, Osprey Stratos 24, and Teton Sports Scout 3400 -- come with a rainfly. We read numerous reviews by users indicating how grateful they were to have this amenity.

Hiking Backpack Reviews

Hiking backpack reviews consistently rate more expensive models higher than cheaper backpacks, but we found several inexpensive models that likewise earn acclaim. What these best cheap backpacks have in common are padded waist belts, pockets for water bottles and/or hydration systems, and a spacious and well-executed design that ensures comfort on the trail and durability over time. Hiking backpack reviews also indicate that users appreciate versatility (throw one in the overhead bin on a plane or take it into the field when collecting data) and affordable pricing. Even the positive reviews note, however, that the packs on our list are geared toward entry-level backpackers. The general consensus is that hardcore alpinists and hikers should opt for top-end, technical backpacks that are better suited for long-haul trekking.

Hiking Backpack Comfort.

Comfort is the number one quality hikers look for when choosing a backpack and the performance measure most often noted in hiking backpack reviews. If a pack doesn't fit correctly, lacks adequate padding, or isn't equipped to support the load you're carrying, you might be in for a long, painful hike. Based on the reviews we read, the best cheap backpacks don't skimp on the comfort factors.

The Teton Sports Scout 3400, for example, is hailed as a decent entry-level, large hiking backpack that exceeds expectations, especially given the price. Numerous hiking backpack reviews posted on Amazon comment on users' comfort when carrying this pack, be it on multi-day overnight hikes or multi-week jaunts through Europe and Japan. Users like the padded and adjustable straps and the flexible aluminum stays, which ensure a good fit on their back.

The Osprey Stratos 24 also wins wild applause for comfort, with many users saying they hardly notice there's a pack on their back. In reviews on REI, they cheer the suspension-frame design and mesh back panel. Moreover, they say the shoulder straps and waist belt balance the weight nicely.

Another model with an ergonomic shoulder harness and contoured frame that wins points for comfort is the High Sierra Explorer 55. Even when stuffed to the gills (with 45 pounds of gear, in one case), users say the pack sits comfortably and is easy to adjust, according to hiking backpack reviews on Amazon. A couple of users report, however, that the shoulder straps and waist belt tend to come loose and necessitate frequent tightening. We also read one review on Sunnysports that says the pack shifts around a bit while you're walking.

Nearly every single review of the REI Flash 18 on the company site mentions comfort in the "pro" section of the hiking backpack review template. In particular, users seem to appreciate its size and light weight and a waist strap that keeps the pack stable on their back; one hiker says it's more comfortable than the detachable top compartments on other backpacks that double as fanny packs. An expert review by Outdoor Gear Lab concurs on the comfort assessment but claims the oversized waistband doesn't particularly enhance the ease of carrying the REI Flash 18. Users posting hiking backpack reviews on Trail Space, however, agree with the non-expert hikers about the value of the belt and sternum straps.

Compared to the other inexpensive backpacks we researched, the Outbound Manchester is the comfort outlier. Users posting reviews on Sierra Trading Post complain about the shoulder straps. For one thing, they're very thin (1.25 inches wide) and lack much padding. Additionally, they come together at the top and are relatively close at the bottom, a design that seems to irritate some users' underarms.

Hiking Backpack Ease of Use.

For the most part, the best backpacks on our list are quite user-friendly. They're light -- all weigh less than five pounds, while the REI Flash 18 weighs a mere 10 ounces. They're sufficiently roomy given what you need for a day hike or an outing of several days; one user writes of filling a Teton Sports Scout 3400 with a four-person tent, clothing, three-cup cooking pot, three bottles of water, a sleeping bag (in its very own compartment), and attaching an axe on the outside. The expert review of the REI Flash 18, however, says accessing whatever you might need while out on the trail is a chore: the pack is long and narrow and has few internal pockets. On the other hand, the REI Flash 18 compresses into a small ball, so it's useful for short sorties from base camp. One review of the High Sierra Explorer 55 notes that this best backpack's long, narrow shape makes it hard to reach the side water bottle pocket, although using a hydration bladder and tube easily circumvents this inconvenience. Another user would like to see more external pockets on this model.

Hiking Backpack Durability.

Almost uniformly, users insist that the best backpacks on our list are worth every penny. Reviews indicate they're reliably durable, although we did come across a few contrary comments. The clasp on the large compartment of the Teton Sports Scout 3400 broke on its maiden voyage, according to a review on Overstock, and two users posting on Amazon report that stitching unraveled after several uses. The REI Flash 18 gets zinged in a review on the company site for weak stitching on the daisy chains, and the expert Outdoor Gear Lab review says the very light 140 denier ripstop nylon shows wear on the bottom and front of this pack (although the site did award the Flash 18 its "best buy" moniker in a comparative test of seven daypacks). And finally, the word "delicate" appears in some reviews on Sierra Trading Post of the Outbound Manchester, presumably in reference to the nylon/polyester body and thin straps.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Hiking Backpacks
  2. Discount Hiking Backpacks Features Comparison Table
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