The Eddie Bauer First Ascent Alchemist 40L may be most versatile pack available, due to its ability to transform itself to fit a wide range of backcountry needs. In standard formation, the pack swallows the full gamut of outdoor supplies, thanks to a wide-mouth zippered entry that provides easy access to a padded interior with simple, smart compartments. Additional external gear organization stores trekking poles, ice axes, and the like. Off on a longer trek? Unzip the Alchemist's top portion, uncover the hideaway lid, and the 40-liter pack morphs into a 55-liter one for much larger loads (there's also a model that changes from 30 liters to 45 liters). You could, as we did, expand the bag to 55 liters in order to hump a tent, sleeping bag, and supplies to base camp, and then compress it down to 40 for a light-and-fast summit push. Or, you could use it on a hike one day, and at the gym the next. Or…you get the idea.
And whatever the activity, the Alchemist can handle it – the pack's tough, water-resistant ripstop fabric stood up to late spring storms, slides down granite faces, and overall harsh treatment on a slew of trails. Noteworthy, too, is its foam frame, which not only helped absorb the shock of trails, but also our rears at the end of day, since it can be detached from the pack and used as a splint, sleeping pad, or makeshift camp seat. This multi-purpose pack should be a staple in anyone's quiver, and may very well replace all the rest already in there. [$180; eddiebauer.com]