Backpacks have come a long way in the past couple of decades. If I had this GoLite Lite-Speed Backpack ($150) when I was in the Boy Scouts, I might not have dropped out after only achieving Second Class rank, despite the goofy uniforms and community service. Back then, the best you could get were heavy, one-size fits all external frame packs. OK, I’m dating myself… but seriously, shouldering this pack has made me come to appreciate the arc of progress in how we backpackers schlep our gear.

Somewhere between a big daypack and a long weekend camping backpack, the Lite-Speed is as versatile as they come. An ingeniously simple system, the Lite-Speed compacts the pack for carrying smaller loads with less sagging and empty space, but quickly opens up to a massive 35 liters of volume. External stretch pockets accommodate a rain shell, a helmet, spare bottles or whatever else you want to access quickly, while zipper pockets on the hip belt keep energy bars, a handheld GPS or a point-and-shoot close at hand.

Take NoteBe forewarned: if you’re one of those backpackers who insist on taking the Dutch oven and a wine pairing for your campfire meal, this might not be the pack for you. Then again, it’s not quite for the sawed-off spork crowd either.

I loaded up the Lite-Speed for a day in the woods and set out on a photo hike. The pack easily handled the weight of a spare camera body, full three-liter hydration sleeve, spare layers and other odds and ends I crammed in. The load is an easy dial to fit, with a supportive internal frame that belies its feather weight. The clever side straps held my trekking poles when I wasn’t using them and the hydration tube routes out on left or right side to suit your sipping pleasure.

Smart design, good fit and light weight make this a great choice for those in-between outings when a giant frame pack is overkills but your campus daypack won’t cut it.

Buy Now: $150