Running where you need to go is the ultimate way to rack up extra weekday miles. You also save time you would otherwise spend in traffic—and burn calories instead of fossil fuels. Many of us are still working from home at least a few days a week, but if you want to commute on foot on a regular basis once you return to the office, doing so will require a little planning. The first step is finding the right running pack to carry everything you need for the day, like your wallet, phone, and clean clothes to change into.
Best Running Backpacks
RunAway Ultimate Marathon Travel Pack Nathan Read More
Arro 16 Backpack Arc'teryx Read More
Commuter 25 Pack REI Co-op Read More
Trail 25 Pack REI Co-op Read More
Distance 15 Backpack Black Diamond Read More
The Expert: I started backpacking as a Boy Scout when I was 14 and have been venturing outdoors, camping, climbing, trail running, and backpacking ever since. As a professional gear tester for more than 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to see some amazing places. I’ve written for and contributed to various publications, including Backpacker, Men’s Health, Gear Junkie, 5280, and Elevation Outdoors. I’ve ticked off numerous 10Ks and half-marathons over the years, but spend more time now on mixed surfaces than road so I can take my kids along for the fun. When I’m not in front of the computer, I’m out on the trails and slopes surrounding my home in Colorado. Find me on Instagram @definitelywild.
What to Consider
Running backpacks have come a long way from the battered Jansport you hauled around in school. Modern running backpacks have ventilation channels to circulate air across your back, and ergonomic harness systems to help you tote your belongings without them bouncing around, messing up your form, or causing injury. When choosing your new running pack, first consider what—and how much—you need to carry.
Most packs are measured by cargo space volume. Smaller packs in the six- to eight-liter range can pack tight to your body so you barely notice them but seldom have space to haul more than small essentials and a few clothes. Larger packs extend farther from your body, which could offset your center of gravity or just shift too noticeably to be comfortable while you’re running. Packs with six to 15 liters of cargo space are generally spacious enough to haul your gear without impeding your mechanics.
If you need to carry a laptop, look for a pack that’s at least 11 inches wide with a minimum 10-liter capacity. Dedicated laptop sleeves secure the added weight by positioning it closest to your body (bladder compartments in hydration vests work well for this, too). Also make sure to choose a pack with a well-designed harness system, which keeps the bag stable and ensures a comfortable fit. Hydration vests are designed to fit close while managing the weight of a one- to two-liter bladder of water plus race essentials. When testing larger packs, we found bags with sternum straps and hip belts worked best—this becomes truer as the weight of the load increases.
Backpacks Versus Vests
It’s important to note some of the general pros and cons between backpacks and vest-pack hybrids. While backpacks typically hold more gear, they also tend to come in single, “universal” sizes and therefore don’t ride as well as vests. If you’re small-framed, you’ll have to really cinch the backpack straps down, leaving lots of annoying, dangling ends that need to be tied down or they’ll drive you crazy. The vest-pack hybrid we’ve selected performs exceptionally well on runs and hit the 15- to 20-liter sweet spot that’s big enough to carry most of what you’ll need without really hindering your stride.
How We Selected These Running Backpacks
There’s no way to know how a pack will fare on a run without taking it out for a spin fully loaded, so I did just that. Each pack here fulfills a different need, so it’s important to test a pack in its natural habitat. Commuter packs don’t have much in common with fastpacking bags, so don’t expect them to fit, feel, or function the same way. From quick trips across town to longer peak bagging excursions, I loaded more than a dozen packs with the essentials and took them out at various speeds and distances. I hauled tablets, diapers, puffies, shells, first-aid kits, bear spray, bars, books, booze, and water through more than one urban environment over every surface imaginable, as well as hiking and running through the woods to determine if these packs could hold up to their hype and handle the environments for which they’re made. I evaluated how I could carry each load without it slowing my stride or causing me problems. Based on my own research and testing as well as that of the Runner’s World gear team, these are the running backpacks we recommend.
Related video: Great gym bags for runners.
Most Affordable NATHAN RUNAWAY 30
Capacity: 30L | Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz. | Hydration Capacity: 2L bladder (not included)
Going to the gym or carrying extra gear on race day doesn’t need to be complicated. And the RunAway is a simple running backpack that can get the job done without breaking the bank. It looks like an everyday backpack and provides just as much organization as the classic L.L.Bean ones many of us took to school. While it doesn’t look like it, the RunAway still has space for a hydration bladder, with a slot to route a hose over your shoulder. Our favorite feature is the separate shoe compartment, perfect for muddy spikes during cross-country season or carrying dress shoes on your commute to the office. And don’t worry, large shoe sizes and Hokas still fit. Two external side pockets are deep enough to hold a yoga mat or foam roller for taking to the gym, and a bungee cord in each pocket helps keep them secure. However, while it’s a great pack for carrying all your gear to the run, its larger capacity and standard backpack feel means it’s not the most secure on your back while running.
Most Stable ARC’TERYX ARRO 16
Capacity: 16L | Weight: 2 lb. 1 oz. | Hydration Capacity: Bladder not included
The Arro is one of the Arc’teryx’s original staples, and the brand is now making it in a smaller 16-liter option. The sleek styling is a throwback that still fits in just as well on the move as it does propped next to your desk. At first touch, the Cordura nylon and watertight zippers scream durability. Yes, this backpack can take a beating, but it also didn’t slow us down. While its appearance is more urban, flared wings near the hips and articulated rear padding helped it hug us better than many others, eliminating a lot of side-to-side motion as we moved quickly. Though Arc’teryx says that the padded sleeve is designed for 13-inch laptops, we were able to fit a 15-inch MacBook Pro in it without issues. We also appreciate the smaller secondary zip pocket on the back with drainage holes, great for separating electronics and clothes from toiletries and other items that may be wet. While the position of the sternum strap isn’t easily adjustable, it was already in a comfortable spot.
Best in Wet Weather REI CO-OP COMMUTER 25
Capacity: 25L | Weight: 1 lb. 10 oz. | Hydration Capacity: Bladder not included
The Commuter 25 is actually listed as a cycling pack, but that’s where its strength comes from. City cyclists are known for riding in any type of weather, and this backpack comes prepared for anything. In fact, our favorite feature is the included rain cover, which typically comes separately and costs another $20. Whatever extra sweat we shed using the rain fly was worth it to keep our electronics and clothes dry. We weren’t totally drenched however, thanks to the mesh and segmented padding that allowed airflow between our back and the pack body. The main compartment easily fit a full outfit, including shoes, and the hydration bladder pocket accommodated a 15-inch laptop with plenty of room to spare, though it isn’t padded. If you do carry a laptop and also want hydration, an open side pouch keeps a water bottle easily in reach without forcing you to take the pack off. The other side has a smaller zip pocket for keys, phones, and snacks, though it does require removing one of the shoulder straps to really access it. Cinch straps help compress the pack down to eliminate bouncing, and, if you do find yourself on the bike for your commute, they make it easy to attach your helmet for storage once you get where you’re going.
Best Value REI CO-OP TRAIL 25
Capacity: 25L | Weight: 2 lb. | Hydration Capacity: Up to a 3L bladder (not included)
This other 25-liter pack from REI comes in a trail-ready build. We love that it, like the 25-liter pack above, also has an included rain fly. While the Trail is actually heavier than the Commuter 25, it actually felt lighter on the run, due to the support of the internal frame sheet. Its recycled ripstop nylon breathed really well during high-output activities, like hiking and running. The hydration bladder pouch is noticeably larger than in the Commuter 25, with the ability to hold up to a three-liter bladder. Unsurprisingly, a 15-inch laptop will also fit in that bladder sleeve, although it’s not nearly as secure. While a laptop might bounce around, the pack didn’t move much as when we ran, especially when it was loaded down. The sternum strap and hip belt adjust easily for the right balance of security, while still letting us breathe deeply. Though this bag’s capacity is listed as 25 liters, we were actually able to carry more in the Trail 25 than in the Commuter 25, thanks to the four stretchy mesh exterior pockets and daisy chain loops down the back. If you do find yourself heading for the hills for some adventure, trekking pole carry loops and additional straps make it easy to load up everything you need for overnight camping trip—tent included.
Best Weather-Resistance BLACK DIAMOND DISTANCE 15
Capacity: 15L | Weight: 13.9 oz. | Hydration Capacity: Pockets for two 17-oz. soft flasks (not included)
Black Diamond built the Distance 15 to bridge the gap between trail running and alpine climbing. What’s that mean for run commuters in the admittedly tamer environments of city streets and suburban office parks? They have a rugged pack that sheds almost any weather, and it’s built on a true running vest chassis, with body-hugging, pocket-riddled shoulder straps that keep the load right where it belongs. We found its roll-top access (a theme across the vest category) to a single, large compartment is the best design for fitting the maximum amount of gear without wrinkling your clothes. Smaller openings and divided carry options force you to cram your clothes—rolling up shirts and shoving in shoes—in ways that will leave you looking disheveled. We found that the Distance 15 wore super comfortably, and we couldn’t have been happier with its copious harness pockets, which include four oversize, stretchy mesh pockets that easily hold a phablet or a water flask and are secured with elastic shock cords. Not to mention the two zipper pockets are perfect for safely carrying essentials like keys, cash, credit cards, and an ID. The only real drawback we found was that the rigid, abrasion-resistant Dynex body material doesn’t stretch or give at all, meaning that its 15-liter capacity limit is hard and fast; if you try to squeeze anything more in, you’ll end up smushing it.
Best Design SALOMON XA 15
Capacity: 915 cu. in. | Weight: 12.2 oz. | Hydration Capacity: 1L
With its rich European heritage, Salomon knows how to combine style and function in a pack that’s both sleek and effective. The XA 15 takes it cues from the company’s traditional vest design that’s earned products like the SKIN and SENSE running vests praise throughout the trail running community. This pack puts the same unobtrusive and adaptive design into a more expansive package. A roll-top closure serves two purposes: compression to prevent unnecessary bounce and water-resistance to protect contents from the elements. The vest-inspired style keeps the load high on your back to preserve a natural center of gravity and hydration accessibility on the shoulder straps. Side and chest bungee straps make the pack easy to adjust without constrictive pressure, no matter how much you’re carrying.
Best for Long Days ULTIMATE DIRECTION FASTPACK 30
Capacity: 1,934.45 cu. in. | Weight: 1.52 lb. | Hydration Capacity: Up to 3L
The name says it all: This men’s option from Ultimate Direction is perfect for fastpacking through the mountains with a full day’s load. The Fastpack holds up to 30 liters of layers, food, headlamps, first aid, and whatever else you’ll need (there are women’s-specific 20L and 40L versions). Its light polyester construction with minimal features keeps weight down so the pack itself doesn’t add to your burden. Multiple shoulder/chest pockets free up room for bulkier items in the main compartment. Top and side access to the main compartment translate to less digging around to find the one thing you need on short stops. Adjustable straps on the chest, waist, and shoulders ensure your load stays secure despite the larger capacity.
Most Versatile OSPREY DYNA/DURO 15
Capacity: 915 cu. in. | Weight: 15.5 oz. | Hydration Capacity: 2.5L
Osprey may be better known for its award-winning backpacking packs than for running gear, but the expertise translates seamlessly in the brand’s active-hydration game. The Duro (men’s) and Dyna (women’s) packs combine running austerity with backpacking durability. Each of these packs cinches down to be versatile for short runs and expands for longer or unsupported outings alike. Featured up front are two bottle pockets complemented by the Osprey Hydraulics 2.5-liter reservoir, depending on temps or how far you’re going. The classic back panel maximizes breathability on warm days and provides solid support and protection whether you want to go long and slow or fast and light without changing up your system.
Most Minimalist THE NORTH FACE FLIGHT TRAINING 12
Capacity: 610 cu. in. | Weight: 7 oz. | Hydration Capacity: 2L
The TNF Flight Training 12 pack makes room for what you need and eschews bells and whistles that just get in the way. Lightweight Cordura nylon lends a durable outer layer over a more breathable inner layer for a combination of materials that simultaneously wicks moisture, promotes air flow, and protects. The open-top design cinches tight with a single motion, adding to its simplicity. Just a few pockets keep organization streamlined: two shoulder strap (chest) water bottle pockets also cinch closed and there’s a larger back pocket for stuffing a light shell. Perforated fabric around the chest reduces weight and bulk. Minimalism isn’t about making do with less but making less count for more. The North Face achieves this with its Flight Training Pack.
Bladders, Pockets, and Vests: Expert Aaron Bible Weighs in on How to Pick Your Next Pack
RW: Why buy a run vest instead of a traditional pack—or do I need both?
A.B.: You need both. A running vest is crucial for long runs, but the packs featured here aren’t just for long and fast runs. They’re for hiking, peak bagging, short runs, errands, all-day mixed use, and long runs and races. There’s no one-pack-fits-all option, and that’s why backpacks are a top seller and why there are so many options out there.
RW: What is the most important consideration with hydration and a pack/vest?
AB: It depends. Do you want to use a bladder, how much water do you want to carry, and does the pack carry the bladder well? Some people prefer water bottles, and many of the packs reviewed here have pockets for water bottles. Other folks are die-hard bladder fans. All packs nowadays have a similar bladder carry system, but there are nuances. Ultimately, you may end up experimenting not just with different pack brands but also different bladders and bladder brands, even though they are mostly cross-compatible. Some brands, like Camelbak, tend to be more brand-specific while other bladders are designed to work in any pack. If the pack you choose does not come with a bladder, then you can experiment with a few different brands and sizes to find out what works best for you.
RW: Are stretch pockets just as good as zipped ones?
A.B.: They serve different purposes. Zippered pockets tend to be more for electronics and lip balm and stuff you don’t want to lose or to bounce out, whereas stretch pockets are more for fast-grab items like water bottles and gels, things that are less likely to fall out unnoticed. Stretch pockets are also good for a light shell or vest or to stuff and stow a hat for quick on and off as the weather changes and you don’t want to stop to unzip anything.
RW: Do I need to try before I buy?
A.B.: You can make an informed decision by studying the key specs, doing some research, carefully considering your end use, and reading the sizing charts on most brand websites.