Are you dreaming of lightweight long weekends in the woods, or perhaps an ultralight thru hike? Then a 50 liter backpack might be just the thing. This interesting backpack size is just small enough to force a thoughtful packing list (a good thing, in my opinion) but large enough to get you through some really interesting and wild places.
If you’re thinking about a new pack for your backpacking adventures, this post will help you decide if a 50-ish liter backpack is right for your needs and which of the most popular models is best suited for your hiking style. Though a hair on the small side of typical, there are plenty of good options to choose from at a wide range of prices, weights, and styles.
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Is 50 liters the right pack size?
Wondering whether 50 liters of backpack space is too much, too little, or just right for your hiking needs?
The answer is (sorry not sorry) it depends. Fifty liters is an in-between size where the weight and style of your gear list starts to really matter and some lightweight backpacking know-how makes a big difference. Here are a few ways to think about it.
How big is a 50 liter backpack?
Backpack sizes are usually measured in a unit of volume called liters. A typical Nalgene or Smartwater bottle generally hold 1 liter of water. So a 50 liter backpack would, in theory, hold 50 bottles of water if you poured it in (without the bottles) and it didn’t leak. This may or may not include pockets on the sides, back, or hip belt, depending on the pack manufacturer.
In more familiar (and drier) terms, the dimensions of a typical 50 L pack are around 25″ x 13″ x 10″. That’s well into backpacking pack territory; don’t expect the slim fit of a day pack here. A full 50 liter hiking pack will extend upward behind your head for many hikers. But when packed thoughtfully, a 50 liter pack is still quite manageable even for smaller folks.
Is 50 liters big enough for backpacking?
People often talk about backpack size as a function of trip length, so you might hear that 50 liters is a good size for weekend or 3-4 day trips. But in my experience it’s gear style, more so than trip length, that makes the biggest difference. If your gear list is somewhat minimalist and you can resupply food every few days, you can thru hike for months with a 50 liter backpack. But if your gear is bulky and you don’t pack carefully, it could be a tight squeeze even for a long weekend.
Traditional gear: probably not. These days lightweight gear is increasingly common, and folks with heavier and bulkier gear are said to be “traditional” backpackers. If you’re planning to stuff a 50 liter hiking pack with a five pound tent and a synthetic sleeping bag from twenty years ago, you might struggle to fit anything else in. Folks in this range usually need a 60-70 liter backpack, especially if carrying more than a couple days of food. See my post on 65 liter backpacks for some ideas.
Lightweight gear: it depends. A 50 liter pack is an achievable goal for most lightweight backpackers, but the length of your food carries will matter a lot. Even with a modern mid-range lightweight setup — tent under 2 pounds, down sleeping quilt, NeoAir XLite sleeping pad, etc. — a 50 liter pack will probably feel snug at the beginning of a 7 day food carry. One solution is to strap a large item (tent, bear canister, etc) to the outside for a day or two. Or, you could look for a reasonably minimalist pack in the 55 – 65 liter range for plenty of flexibility.
Ultralight gear: definitely. Fifty liters of pack volume is more than enough for most ultralight hikers, which makes it a versatile size. If you choose a lightweight minimalist backpack you can fill it up when needed for a long carry or complex trip, or compress it down smaller with little weight penalty when you don’t need all the space. That said, some dedicated ultralight hikers might prefer to force a more minimalist packing list with a 45 liter pack or even an ultralight 40 liter pack.
How many days is a 50 liter pack good for?
People often talk about pack size in terms of days, as in “How many days is a 50 liter pack good for?” The truth is that your gear list matters even more than your trip length. Trip length does play a role when it comes to food though, so here’s how to think about the balance of gear versus food in your backpack space.
Food takes up space on a per-day basis. A rough rule of thumb is that food for one hiker fills 1.5 liters per day. This can be more or less depending on caloric needs, type of food, and how it’s packed. Experienced hikers know how to choose calorie-dense foods that weigh less and take up less space.
Gear usually takes up the same amount of space throughout a trip, unless you lose or acquire something along the way. Your gear volume can be made smaller by 1) not bringing things you don’t need, and 2) choosing lightweight and compact versions of the things you do need. See Lightweight Backpacking.
With that in mind you can see how the length of your trip affects your pack capacity. Food for an overnight will deduct only 2-3 liters from your pack space and leave you with almost the full 50 liters for gear. But a 7 day food carry will take up 10+ liters of space, leaving you with less than 40 liters for gear. If you plan to do a lot of long food carries and your gear list isn’t quite ultralight, you might prefer a pack capacity closer to 60 liters.
Tip: use outside space: A slightly too-small pack capacity can be stretched further by attaching a bulky item to the outside of the pack. For example, if you carry your tent on the outside of your pack, you free up several more liters of space inside. Your sleeping bag is another good candidate, but make absolutely sure it’s protected in a strong and waterproof dry bag. Some people even carry a bear canister outside their pack, freeing up all the food space inside.
Styles of Backpacking Packs
Though 50 liters is 50 liters, it’s important to choose the style of pack that best suits the weight of your gear and your preference for streamlined versus feature-rich organization.
Backpacking packs fall into two general categories: traditional and lightweight. The lightweight category can further be divided into lightweight and ultralight, though the line is fuzzy. Pay attention to the weight of the pack itself, and the recommended max load, to find the right balance of comfort and weight savings. The max recommended load often exceeds the max “comfort load” by 5-10 pounds. In other words, the pack can handle that much weight, but your back and shoulders probably won’t enjoy it.
Traditional: Packs in the 3-5 pound range tend to have more pockets, compartments, and features. They’re designed to carry a heavier load in relative comfort thanks to additional padding, ventilated back panels, and a more robust suspension system that transfers weight to your hips. At the 50 liter size it’s rare to need all this extra pack material since there just isn’t that much space for a heavy load. If you’re going to pare down your gear list so it fits into 50 liters, why add a few extra pounds of pack weight?
Lightweight: Packs weighing roughly 2-3 pounds are more minimalist and work best for lightweight gear, but can still offer a reasonable amount of comfort and features. If your base weight is under 20 pounds or so, this style of pack is worth considering.
Ultralight: I’m arbitrarily defining this category as weighing less than 2 pounds. Ultralight packs achieve this by being made from very light fabrics, having a very basic design, or both. It’s best to have a base weight under 15 pounds, ideally closer to 10-12 pounds, for packs like this. They can be quite comfortable if you pack them optimally, but they’re not for everyone.
In the long run, lightening your gear list and switching to a light or ultralight pack will make backpacking a lot more enjoyable. But until your base weight is under 20 pounds, you’ll probably be more comfortable with a robust pack in the 3 to 4 pound range and a larger volume of 60+ liters.
Related: 65 Liter Backpacking Packs
Popular 50 Liter Hiking Backpacks
If you’re convinced that a 50 liter pack is right for you, here are the most popular and respected options listed in order from heaviest to lightest.
Osprey Aura AG (Women) / Atmos AG (Men)
Weight: 4 lbs 4 oz / 4 lbs 6 oz
Recommended Max: 35 lbs
The Aura and Atmos AG pair are the heaviest traditional packs on this list, but they are classics known for their comfy “AntiGravity” suspension system of 3D-suspended mesh. Plenty of features make these packs good all-around choices for heavy hauling – unusual with only 50 liters of space but perhaps your load is dense with water and food. If you can’t quite stomach the weight, the Atmos AG LT / Aura AG LT trim a few ounces (and dollars) but are still relatively heavy for a 50 liter pack. All are made with some recycled materials.
Gregory Paragon 48
Weight: 3 lbs 8 oz
Recommended Max: 40 lbs
The Paragon is a full-featured all-arounder from quality pack maker Gregory. It aims for a balance of comfort and light weight, skewing more toward comfort. The women-specific version is the Maven, but Gregory uses gender-specific capacities so the corresponding Maven model is a 45 liter pack.
Big Agnes Prospector
Weight: 3 lbs 3 oz
Recommended Max: 40 lbs
The Prospector is a relatively new entry to the backpack space from popular brand Big Agnes, better known for their lightweight tents. The back panel looks less cushy than the suspended mesh options from Osprey, but the wide hip belt has been especially carefully designed for comfy load transfer. The Prospector is marketed as a men’s pack but may work for some women too. There’s also the 45 liter Sun Dog, the female-specific companion to the Prospector. Both are made with recycled materials.
Granite Gear Perimeter 50
Weight: 3 lbs 1 oz
Recommended Max: 40 lbs
Granite Gear makes affordable lightweight gear popular with thru hikers, and their Perimeter 50 liter pack fits neatly into this niche. Its unique adjustable suspension system, along with two torso sizes and two gender-specific models, increase the likelihood of a perfect fit. The style is a bit different from other packs, but reviewers say it’s highly functional and quite comfortable.
Related: Granite Gear Crown vs. ULA Circuit
Osprey Eja 48 (Women) / Exos 48 (Men)
Weight: 2 lbs 12 oz
Recommended Max: 30 lbs
The Eja and Exos pair combine Osprey’s mesh-style AirSpeed suspension with impressively light (and 100% recycled) materials and design for a lightweight pack with few sacrifices. A number of the features are removable – side compression straps, top lid, sleeping pad straps – to suit those who want to trim even more grams. Though Osprey calls them both “48” in the model name, actual capacity varies between 45 liters (smallest size Eja) to 51 liters (largest size Exos).
Gregory Facet 45 (Women) / Focal 48 (Men)
Weight: 2 lbs 8 oz / 2 lbs 9.6 oz
Gregory’s Facet / Focal pair strikes a middle ground between light weight and full-featured comfort. The well-ventilated mesh back panel looks extremely comfy, and those who like to carry water in side pockets will appreciate the unique forward-facing openings.
Gossamer Gear Gorilla 50 Ultralight
Weight: 1 lb 13.8 oz
Recommended Max: 30 lbs
With the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, a popular pack among thru hikers, we break the 2 pound threshold and cross into ultralight backpack territory. Though it still offers plenty of pockets and comfort features, it’s been pared down to support a lighter load. The unisex design comes in three sizes and offers a removable internal frame for those who want to go even lighter.
Weight: 1 lb 11.1 oz
Recommended Max: 25 lbs
The CDT is the smallest backpacking pack from Ultralight Adventure Equipment, and at 54 liters it offers a tad more breathing room with no appreciable weight penalty. It’s a true ultralight frameless pack (with removable foam back pad) designed for a base weight of 12 pounds or less. Though the design is pared down, you still get a few convenient features like phone-size hip pockets. ULA is a very popular thru hiking gear company known for good quality and good prices; the CDT is the most affordable pack in this list.
Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 50
Weight: 1 lb 4.8 oz
Recommended Max: 40 lbs (?)
Zpacks is an ultralight gear company known for their top-dollar featherweight gear. The Arc Haul is the second-smallest of their popular thru hiking line pared down to just the basics. The system of modular add-ons prioritizes minimalism but lets you add on pouches and pockets, though this further increases the pack’s already-high cost. The design is unisex but comes in three torso lengths and five hipbelt sizes for a comfortable fit. The max load capacity of 40 lbs, while probably accurate for what the pack can tolerate, is likely not a comfort-focused rating like some of the more conservative numbers in this list.
50 Liter Pack Comparison Table
|Max Recommended Load
|Osprey Aura AG 50 (Women) / Atmos AG 50 (Men)
|4 lbs 5 oz
|Gregory Paragon 48 Men
|3 lbs 8 oz
|Big Agnes Prospector
|3 lbs 3 oz
|Granite Gear Perimeter 50 Women / Men
|3 lbs 1 oz
|Osprey Eja 48 (Women) / Exos 48 (Men)
|2 lbs 12 oz
|Gregory Facet (Women) / Focal (Men)
|2 lbs 9.6 oz
|Gossamer Gear Gorilla 50 Ultralight
|1 lb 13.8 oz
|1 lb 11.1 oz
|Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 50
|1 lb 4.8 oz
More Backpacking Resources
If you found this helpful, you might also like these:
- Thru Hiking versus Backpacking: What’s the Difference?
- Easy No-Cook Backpacking Breakfasts
- Arizona Trail Thru Hiking FAQ
Or visit the hiking and backpacking section for lots more!
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