Getting the right pack for your Camino pilgrimage is critical, especially for those with little backpacking/hiking experience. An uncomfortable or heavy pack can lead to very long days and a very sore body. In this guide I’ll be covering my top 10 Camino backpack recommendations. When selecting these packs, I used the following criteria:
- Packs should be in the 20-40L range for lightweight travel
- Packs should have a waist belt for load transfer
- Packs should have gender specific straps or be unisex to fit all pilgrims
- I tried to mix framed packs and frameless packs so pilgrims can pick which option works for them
- Packs should have ample storage options for water, snacks, guide books, etc
Just like I said in my guide on Camino trail shoes, go with what works for you and if you don’t know what works, go to a store like REI and have one of their staff members assist you.
*** It appears that the Covid related shutdowns will keep pilgrims out of Spain until at least Fall/Winter of 2021. Keep this in mind when planning your pilgrimage. That said, it is never too early to start your planning and preparation. ***
After selecting your Camino footwear, your Camino backpack will be the next most important gear choice you make for a pilgrimage to Santiago. This pack will be your home as you make your way along the trail, and will hold everything you have in your possession. If you pick the wrong pack and/or pack too much, you’ll struggle through the miles with chaffed shoulders, a tired back, and irritated hips. I’ve put together a few helpful tips to assist you in selecting the right backpack and to help you avoid the fate of pilgrims hitting The Way with the wrong pack.
- Pack light! When I ask fellow pilgrims what they learned and/or what they would do differently, the number one response is ‘I would bring less stuff!”. If you pack too much stuff and bring a heavy load, no backpack can help you. Pack light and only bring the essentials.
- Get fitted: Once you’ve decided on a pack (or a few packs), go to REI and get yourself fitted for the correct size. If your pack is only available online, make sure to measure your torso and hips to order the correct sizing option. Play with the hip belt, shoulder straps, load lifters, etc, to get the perfect fit for your body shape.
- Train, train, and train some more: Once you’ve been fitted and have purchased the perfect pack, your journey is ready to begin. Load up your pack with your target base weight and get a few months of training hikes in. Make sure your shoulders, hips, and back are comfortable. If you’re going to have problems with your pack, you want to make sure they happen before you hit The Way.
- Think Small: When putting your pack list together (see mine), aim for a total weight of around 20-25lbs, and a base weight (without footwear and worn clothing) of around 15 lbs. This will allow you to move light and comfortable.
- Think Strategically: Don’t pack what you can buy along the way. Snacks, drinks, and food can all be purchased multiple times a day, so don’t stock up. Basic toiletries and first aid can also be purchased at least every other day, so keep your kit to the basics. Clothes can be washed by hand daily, so two pair of each item is enough for most.
- Nothing trumps training and fitness. It doesn’t matter how much time and money you spend picking up the perfect gear. If you’re not in shape physically and mentally, your odds of completing a pilgrimage walk will go down dramatically.
Given these trail conditions, I suggest pilgrims target packs in the 20-40L capacity range. If you’re packing light, 25L will be more than enough. It’s nice to have a little more space to carry snacks, drinks, and to have your pack purchase be a backpacking option in your post-Camino life. To those that think that sounds like small pack, there are many thru-hikers on trails like the JMT, PCT, CDT, and AT that manage, and they carry tents, water filtration, bear canisters, and more.
What I Look For
Many aspiring pilgrims (like me) do a lot of their shopping and gear prospecting online. When looking a backpacks and footwear this can present some real challenges, since it is much better to try these items on in person. To help address this challenge, I’ve put together a list of things to look out for when viewing photos, spec sheets, and backpack descriptions.
- Lightweight: Don’t look at anything over 3lbs, and aim for under 2lbs
- Breathable: Wearing a backpack all day on the hot meseta can be challenge if the pack doesn’t ventilate well on the back panel
- Proper Fit: Make sure to measure your torso and waist to get the right pack size length and hip belt size. Women should also look for gender specific packs
- Durable: Lightweight packs are great, but can lack durability. Make sure to read reviews to ensure the pack will last.
- Comfortable: Look for padded shoulder straps, load lifters, and a comfortable hip belt
- Availability: It’s important to be able to try on a backpack before buying it. For this reason I suggest going to stores like REI where you can try a pack on, or ordering online from places with easy return policies like Amazon or Zappos.
The HMG Southwest 2400 is one of the most popular thru-hiking packs on the market. Coming in right at 2 lbs, this 40L pack is made durable and comfortable. The back panel lacks ventilation, but I’ve found the Southwest 2400 pretty comfortable on hot days. The inside of the pack has two aluminum stays for structure that can be removed to lighten the load even more. This pack is spendy, but a fantastic choice for a variety of outdoor adventures.
Best For: Pilgrims wanting a pack they can use for the Camino and backpacking
Pros: Light, comfortable, durable
Cons: Very expensive, no back ventilation, no load lifters
If I were to take off to Spain and start a Camino tomorrow, the Kuma 36L would be my pack of choice. This frameless pack is super light, yet packs padded shoulder straps with pockets, a waist belt with pockets, and a removable padded back panel. The side pockets are large and easy to reach, and the side bungies are perfect for drying clothes and towels.
Best For: Pilgrims with lightweight loads seeking comfort
Pros: Light, feature packed
Cons: No load lifters, no frame
The ULA Photon 35L is very similar to the Kumo 36L listed above, but ranks just below due to its extra weight, few pockets, and roll top closure. Where the Photon comes out ahead is that ULA allows for custom waist size orders, multiple colors options, and even shoulder strap shape selection.
Best For: Lightweight hikers looking for a customizable pack
Pros: Light, affordable, durable
Cons: Very small pockets, no load lifters
The Exos line of packs from Osprey was one of the first lightweight offerings from a big brand that was available in big box stores like REI. The Exos is a very comfortable pack with well padded shoulder straps and a full frame. The Exos 38 is a little heavy though and lacks pockets and customization options.
Best For: Hikers wanting to try a pack on at REI
Pros: Available at major stores, comfortable, durable
Cons: Few pockets, a little heavy
If you like the Osprey Exos 38, but want something a little lighter and without a frame, the Talon 33L is a fantastic hiking pack. I wear the Talon 22L as a day hiking backpack, and have seen many pilgrims wearing the 33L version along the Way. The Talon 33L also has hip pockets, chest pockets, and side pockets for multiple on-the-go storage options.
Best For: Hikers wanting the feel of a day hiking pack
Pros: Available at major stores, comfortable, durable
Cons: Lightly padded shoulder straps don’t take heavy loads
6. Z Packs Nero 38L
Weight: 0.73 lbs
The Z Packs Nero is the lightest pack on this list at .73 lbs. Z Packs is well known in the ultra light world for their featherweight packs and shelters. There are a lot of trade-offs with a pack this light, like no hip or shoulder pockets, no frame, and very little padding. This is a Camino pack for the ultra light only.
Best For: Hikers looking for the lightest possible pack
Pros: Ultra light
Cons: Minimal padding, thin waist belt, few pockets
7. Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 25-40
Weight: 2.49 lbs
The Flex Capacitor 25-40 is a very interesting pack from Sierra Designs. As you can see in the pack photo, the Capacitor 25-40 can expand and contract from 25-40L. At 2.5 lbs, the Capacitor 25-40 is one of the heavier packs on this list, but it provides lots of cushioning, pockets, and functionality for its weight.
Best For: Hikers seeking a fully featured pack with many storage options
Pros: Cushion, comfort, flexibility
Cons: Heavy and overkill for some
The Granite Gear Crown2 38 has all the hallmarks of a traditional backpacking bag, but in a lightweight package. The Crown2 38 is a lightweight 2.10 lbs, but can slim down to 1.6 lbs with the removal of its framesheet. The Crown2 38 has big pockets, back ventilation, padded straps, and lots of storage options.
Best For: Hikers wanting a traditional pack in a lightweight package
Pros: Comfortable, light, durable, lots of storage
The UltrAspire Epic XT is the perfect Camino pack for pilgrims preferring the fit and options of a hydration vest. The Epic XT provides 25L of total storage with stretchy pockets all around and large stretchy chest pockets. The comfort of the Epic XT is fantastic for loads under 15lbs.
Best For: Pilgrims wanting the fit and ride of their trail running vest
Pros: Comfortable, tons of storage options
Cons: Mesh back panel gets sweaty on hot days
Like the UltrAspire Epic XT 25L, the UD Fast Pack 35L is built around the fit of a hydration vest. I own the Fast Pack 35 and 45, and have used them for many trips. The Fast Pack lacks the waist belt and large pockets found on the Epic XT, but provides a little more volume and breathes better. Like the Epic XT, the Fastpack is going to be best suited to those carrying less than 15-20lbs.
Best For: Hikers wanting a hybrid backpack – trail vest
Pros: Comfort, weight, volume
Cons: Small chest pockets and thin waist belt