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This backpack is my portable home around the world

The Osprey Aether backpack is big and tough but light and comfortable — and it’s carried me from North Korea to the Sahara.
The Osprey Aether Plus 85L allows me to live on the road for months at a time.
The Osprey Aether Plus 85L allows me to live on the road for months at a time.Osprey

I’ve been lucky enough to travel all my life, both for work and pleasure, from the arctic to equatorial tropics to scorching deserts. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the right backpack. After going through many contenders, I found that that was the Osprey Aether 85L.

SKIP AHEAD: Other backpacks to consider

Throughout my travels, both to 60-something foreign countries and tramping all around the U.S., I’ve noticed that the Osprey brand holds high esteem among seasoned hikers and travelers who seem to like its reputation for high-quality materials and solid craftsmanship. Plus, it has a unique historyNavajo seamstresses made many of the original packs, according to the company, and they continue to sew for the company out of its headquarters in Colorado.

When I was shopping for a new pack, my needs were almost entirely practical: a relatively lightweight pack that could travel easily by plane, car or canoe, that could hold everything I needed on the road for 30 days or more at a time and that wouldn’t wreak havoc on my spine. With an 85-liter carrying capacity, the Aether has enough room for me to pack for a weeklong cold-weather trip or a month or more in hot climes. I’ve even been able to stuff in a fairly robust camera kit when needed — a DSLR body, a tripod and up to three lenses, including a zoom (though I prefer to carry my camera and glass in a dedicated camera day pack whenever possible, especially when flying).

Osprey Aether Plus 85L Backpack

Just as important is the layout of the compartments. My previous bag was a much bigger, external-frame pack, but all that extra space was wasted because it was essentially a giant sack with arm straps — it was impossible to find anything, and because everything easily got jumbled up inside it, its center of gravity changed every time I rummaged through it. The Aether has three primary compartments:

  • The bottom compartment, which is for sleeping bags but where I usually put my clothes (in dry sacks, of course). It’s accessible through its own zipper.
  • The main compartment above that, which pulls tight with a drawstring on top and has another zippered front that allows me to access the main compartment without disturbing the other contents.
  • And the top lid, which is essentially a giant, generous pocket that zips shut and can hold a thick fleece sweater. You can theoretically take it off and wear it as a fanny pack or day pack.

This layout means I can load my heaviest gear in the middle so that the pack isn’t too top- or bottom-heavy, keeping my center of gravity right where I want it. And though I never use the lid as a day pack, being able to separate it from the rest of the pack came in handy in North Korea, where I constantly had to duck through door frames to avoid cracking my skull (the buildings there were built with the average male North Korean height in mind — about 5 feet, 5 inches).

There are other features that I couldn’t live without anymore. Because of the lightweight internal frame, even the heaviest loads are easy to maneuver with once I’ve got the pack on my shoulders. In places like Mauritania, India or Guadeloupe, the mesh webbing helps the sweat evaporate off both the pack and the back of my shirt. And I use the big side pockets for water bottles or easy-to-grab camera lenses. I don’t use ice axes or hydration reservoirs and have never been able to get the hang of walking sticks, but the bag has loops, pockets and attachments for those, too.

Though it only weighs about 2.5 pounds on its own, the Osprey Aether 85L isn’t something I carry on short jaunts to most cities in North America or Europe — a hardshell carry-on with rolling wheels is perfectly fine for a flight to LAX, for example. But when I know I’ll be navigating muddy slopes in Guatemalan villages, snow-shoeing from hut to hut in the Rockies or spending more than a couple weeks on cobblestones instead of pavement, it’s the Osprey Aether I haul out of the closet.

Other backpacks to consider

If you’re looking for a lighter pack or one that’s a hybrid of a backpack and a rolling suitcase, consider looking at these highly rated packs.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Lightweight Backpack

With a removable internal frame, seven pockets and large main pocket, the Mariposa weighs 2 pounds empty and can carry up to 35 pounds or 60 liters, according to the company. It has an average rating of nearly 5 stars from over 500 reviews on the Gossamer Gear website.

Osprey Meridian 60L Wheeled Luggage

The Osprey Meridian functions as both a backpack and wheeled luggage, so that you can pull it when you’re racing through the airport or carry it on your shoulders when you’re hiking up a remote treehouse you’re staying at. It can carry up to 60 liters, according to Osprey. It has an average rating of 4.6 stars from over 150 reviews on Amazon.

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