Downsize your pack.
The main factor to bear in mind when transitioning to an ultralight pack is this: as your pack weight decreases with lighter gear the load-bearing ability of your pack is lessened. If you are going on a short trip of just a few days (the type of trip most people do, and which this guide primarily caters for) the need hardcore alpine pack with a heavy internal frame is even less necessary.
In general, with ultralight backpacking, it is not necessary to have frame in the pack to support the load, as the support that the frame offers can be achieved through careful packing. Neither is a complex and heavy hip belt with an integrated free-floating suspension system desirable.
Once you eliminate these two traditional mainstays of the backpack, you can easily get the initial weight of your pack down to around 500g / 1lb.
Frames vs. frameless
As mentioned above, with an ultralight load you'll be carrying far less weight, so the load-bearing demands put on your pack will be considerably lessened. The corollary of this is that with a lighter load you will be able to hike further and longer, so it's still important that you are able to carry your pack comfortably over longer periods and distances.
Traditionally, a frame helps to maintain pack shape and carrying position. But the addition of a frame – typically taking the form of metal stays – can add a lot of weight to a pack. Some UL packs offer a compromise by providing lightweight aluminium removable stays. If you're packing light you can remove it, but if you a planning a longer trip, you can easily slip the stay back in for additional support. Another alternative to metal stays is a plastic, removable framesheet. Lighter in weight, but still offering some structural support, it's an adequate option, although less popular among true ultralight manufacturers, and similar rigidity is arguably achievable through other means; namely a good packing strategy.
When you see a frameless backpack for the first time, it seems impossibly flimsy and shockingly light. Most schoolkids' backpacks are heavier. Can something this insubstantial really carry enough gear comfortably for a weekend trip or longer? The secret is in the way you pack. Instead of a fitted frame, you simply use the items you take with you to create a frame or structure inside the pack. The easiest way to do this is with your sleeping mat. Simply roll the mat loosely to fill the pack and create a kind of burrito in which you'll stuff the rest of your gear. Alternatively, as I generally do, fold your deflated sleeping pad (I currently use a Therm-a-Rest X-Lite) to create a torso sized framesheet. You can leave a little air in it to add some rigidity if needed.
A fairly recent new development is an air frame. Klymit's AirBeam and Gossamer Gear's similar versions are good examples. They essentially perform the same function as a folded sleeping mat, but double up as pillows, sit mats, or pad extenders. This is kind of neat, and making use of multi-use items is, as we shall see, one of the principles of ultralight.
Once you have your improvised frame in place, it's simply a matter of packing everything else in to create a nice, tight bundle that carries comfortably. We'll be looking a little more closely at that in the "Pack Knowledge" chapter.
Hipbelts vs. weight concerns
It is always better to transfer as much of the weight of your pack to the hips, rather than to the shoulders. You'll know when you have a poorly fitted pack. At the end of a day's hiking, your shoulders will be killing you. This, I find, is as true for ultralight backpacking as it is for traditional heavyweight backpacking. The amount of pain is different, of course, but I've had aching shoulders with a lightweight pack.
Heavy backpacks often have elaborate hip belts, and they need to because the packs are designed for people carrying everything including the kitchen sink into the wilderness – with a 15kg pack you're going to want a decent hip belt. But with a total pack weight less than around 8kg, the hip belt can be a lot simpler, or in extreme super ultralight cases, it can be dispensed with altogether.
Personally, I like to have some form of semi-rigid hip belt to take most of the weight off of my shoulders. it can be as simple as a slip of unpadded Dyneema, but I generally prefer a little foam padding to more comfortably distribute some of the load onto my pelvic area.
Some packs (like the Laufbursche huckePACK) have belts that are fixed to the pack, which provides good weight transfer. Others (like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa) forsake that for removable/switchable hipbelts, so you can order one just the right size.
The lightest weight packs have very flimsy hipbelts, if they have them at all. This is fine if you carry next to nothing, and their main purpose is then to stop the pack flapping around as you walk.
Sizing and fitting
When packs become simpler, they generally lose a lot of flexibility when it comes to sizing adjustments. With a heavy pack you often can adjust the torso length, for example, to meet your specific anatomical peculiarities. Again, all those straps and attachment systems add to the weight of the pack. Most ultralight packs dispense with the fine-tuning and come in three sizes (small, medium, large) for different torso lengths. A few manufactures (notably Granite Gear and GoLite) offer variations of their packs designed for women, which is always a good thing. For a comfortable carry, it's vital to choose a pack that fits well – and not all packs will. It's possible you'll find what seems like the perfect lightweight pack, only to discover it simply doesn't feel comfortable when loaded. Should this happen, avoid the temptation of buying that otherwise perfect pack, for I guarantee it will transform your pleasant hike into an arduous slog.
A well-fitting pack should rest on your pelvis, not on your shoulders. Most of the weight should be on your hips, with the shoulder straps helping the pack hug your body, and taking only a small percentage of the weight on your shoulders.
Another feature common to heavy packs, but frequently (sadly) omitted from lightweight packs are load lifters. These shoulder-mounted straps pull the top of the pack in close to your body, and create a much better and more solid carrying position. It's essential to have the weight hug your shoulders, rather than tugging away from them. Some hardcore ultralighters might argue that with an extremely light load, load lifters become irrelevant. I would argue that any load when carried for extremely long distances will be felt eventually, and a small sacrifice in weight for a pair of load lifters makes a huge difference to your carrying ability and stamina. We can go ultralight and still maintain comfort.
Bells and whistles
A heavy backpack is positively loaded with non-essential straps, pockets, compartments, dividers, pockets, load adjusters, pockets, lids, tie-off points, pockets, and additional pockets. Some of the pockets even have pockets inside them.
An ultralight backpack typically has one compartment, two or three mesh pockets on the outside, and some lightweight compression cords – and that's about it. Many packs forego a lid for a simple roll-top closure system which keeps rain or spindrift out. A large exterior mesh pocket is ideal for stuffing damp shelters in. Side pockets keep essential items and water handy. And the main, single compartment is really all you need, and cuts out a bunch of extra material and zippers.
Durability and materials
Ultralight packs today are made out of a variety of materials, with two perhaps proving the most popular: DyneemaX and Cuben/Polyester Hybrid. DyneemaX is a durable, strong, water resistant fabric, while Cuben Fiber/Polyester is more waterproof, more expensive, but, in white, looks very hip and cool. I tend to go for Dyneema for durability and price reasons. There are of course other materials in use, but these are by far the most common at present.
Most ultralight packs these days are already cut down to the bare minimum. The gram counters out there will eagerly take a pair of scissors to a new pack and cut off extraneous straps and labels, shearing whole fractions of an ounce off the weight of the pack. This may seem utterly obsessive and crazy, but don't be surprised to catch yourself doing it. It's perfectly acceptable, and you will not be alone.
For the most minimal packs (for example, HMG's packs) you'll probably want to add things to the outsdie. While these packs offer a great deal of flexibility, those essential additions all add up, inflating the price.
Which comes first, the pack or the load?
A ultralight pack is not much use if you don't have lightweight, compressible, compact gear to put inside it – they are simply too small to contain a lot of traditionally sized and weighted gear. Unless you already have a nice, light, down bag or a tiny shelter, you'll fill your new pack with your heavier versions of those items, putting a lot of stress on the seams, and leaving no room for any other gear or food. Enjoy your trip!
I would say, unless you happen to have a lot of disposable income, most people making the transition to a lighter load would be better off beginning with the contents of the pack rather than the pack itself. A one-step-at-a-time approach is easier on the wallet, and gives you the opportunity to test the waters before committing to a new obsession (and trust me, it will become an obsession).
There are so many niche (and increasingly mainstream) manufacturers making lightweight packs today, your options are many and varied. Rather than list every single product and overwhelm you with data, I'll focus first on my "transition to ultralight" experience, then look at what other bloggers are currently using.
Backpacking North's Backpacks
My first foray into the ultralight bewilderness also began with some advice from Backpacker. I wanted to get a lighter pack, but at the time wasn't really aware of the ultralight community and the underlying philosophies and principles. I eventually opted for a Granite Gear Vapor Trail (now the Crown V.C. (or V.C. Ki for women), a pack beloved of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (or so I'm led to believe), and made by a company in my then home of Minnesota. At the time, the website said it all really: "So you're ready to take the next step. You've got your pack weight doen to 30 pounds [13.6kg] or less." The Crown V.C. weighs around 1kg / 2lb 2oz; by no means truly ultralight, then. However I still have my Vapor Trail – it has a removable hip belt which I use alone in winter to pull my pulk, and for winter use it is still actually pretty good.
As I started to get more and more lightweight gear, the capacity of the Vapor Trail was just way too much. I started looking for a really small pack, and settled on a Mountain Laurel Designs Burn. This is a tiny pack – tall and thin, frameless, with tiny straps, a thin hip belt (more a hip strap), a fixed size, and weighing a delightfully light 414g / 14.6oz. Now we're talking! Excited, I wrote a little bit about it here.
This was seriously lightweight in comparison to the "ultralight" Vapor Trail. For a weekend trip with a full complement of light gear, it's a great pack. However, to be honest, I wasn't really ready for the limited capacity of the Burn. I also found that the long torso size was still a little short for me (I have, apparently, an unusually long torso), and the hip belt sat too high on my waist. While my load in this pack is very light, and the hip belt isn't so essential, I still found that, after three days, the lack of load lifters resulted in me noticing I was carrying it mainly on my shoulders.
When I purchased the Burn, what I really wanted was a new pack that wasn't even on the market yet – the (almost literally) legendary Laufbursche huckePACK. I finally managed to get hold of one in 2010. Like the Burn, it's made of DyneemaX (although Cuben and Silnylon versions are available), is frameless, has mesh pockets, and a thin hip belt (which can be strapped out of the way, should you wish). However, because the belt sits on my hips where it should, and the shoulder straps are ergonomically shaped, it is an extremely comfortable carry. What's more, heaven be praised, it has load lifters! Simple ones, for sure, but they do the job splendidly. The ample mesh pockets fit my shelter (and even a snow claw for winter). Going against the tide of UL fashion, it has a pack lid (with a zippered pocket – how quaint!) which is again quite simple but helps in creating a good pack structure.
It weighs 534g / 19oz with the hip belt pockets I ordered, so more than the Burn, but it is larger and, in my opinion, superior. But my, if you think that looks nice, take a look at the redesigned version for 2014.
I then switched to a Gossamer Gear Mariposa for anything longer than a night or two. Gossamer Gear had recently redesigned the Mariposa in 2012 (you can read my initial thoughts about it here) and made some improvements on what was already a classic pack.
There were some neat additions: a more voluminous size (4244ci/47+22l), a very large mesh pocket (larger than the huckePACK), and a very large full-length pocket along one side, and two on the other (and the water bottle pocket retains bottles better) It came with a sit pad, fitted hip-belt pockets (although they are a tad small), and a lid pocket (albeit with a poorly positioned (in my opinion) zip. Most importantly, though, is had and internal (but removable) aluminium stay (96g), which made carrying heavier loads a little more comfortable.
My large one weighs 28.50 oz. (808 g) including the stay, which is very respectable. It has become my go-to pack for anything over a couple of days. Gossamer Gear have recently redesigned (again) the Mariposa. While the new design retains the functionality of the old, adds a few features, improves materials, it also adds some weight (large: 839g) and is a little less stylistically attractive (translation: it looks a bit ugly). This is one case where I wish they'd just stuck with the 2012 design, or made less dramatic "improvements". You can get one direct from Gossamer Gear.
My current pack of choice is the 2014 Laufbursche huckePACK. Mateusz redesigned the pack in 2014, and made a desirable pack into a work of art. It will probably replace all my similar packs when I next have a gear sale. It's that good. Thin, voluminous, compressable, comfortable, super light (525g, medium).
You can read some of my initial thoughts about it here.
What others say...
Ultralight packs are a dime a dozen these days. Well, maybe not a dime – the costs of small cottage manufacturers make their unique offerings a little on the expensive side, but I'm a big fan of supporting small independent businesses. Here are a few packs that popular with other bloggers.
Hyperlight Mountain Gear
The HMG Porter is probably the current favourite among discerning backpackers with cash to blow. It uses a hybrid cuben fiber/polyester laminate material that is remarkably waterproof (it isn't 100% proof, but it is pretty damn good) making it the perfect choice for packrafting (especially the larger volume sizes). The 55l of the 3400 Porter weighs in at 33 oz. (936 g) and it has been getting some excellent reviews; The 70l 4400 Porter is a top pack, big enough to swallow a ton of gear, and consequently often favoured by expeditioneers and packrafters such as Jaakko Heikka, hrxxlite and Ryan Jordan (M). My opinion: it's a great pack, with a lot of customizable options (although at additional cost that soon mounts up). The latest versions have improved hipbelts, which was one of the weaknesses I saw in the original models.
Don't stop at the Porter though: HMG has a while host of spectacular packs – the Windrider is another favourite, offering some nice mesh pockets for stashing wet gear, and the recently added Dyneema Ice Pack is a hard-wearing pack for year-round alpinists.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa
The new version of the Mariposa has not received so many reviews, but has one vocal advocate in Barefoot Jake (one of GGs Trail Ambassadors). I liked the 2012 redesign very much, and the latest revamp continues the theme with new materials. It's a large pack that could use a couple of compression straps: when loaded it tends to look a bit disorganised and, well, like a sack of potatoes.
Gossamer Gear Gorilla
Also redesigned to follow the Mariposa, it's a very decent 26 oz / 737g considering it has foam shoulder straps, a removable foam hip belt, a removable aluminium curved stay, and a sit pad which doubles as a padding for your back. I actually like the new deisgn of the Gorilla more than the sack of potatoes look of the Mariposa, and if I was looking to buy my first ultralight backpack today, this would be high on my list. No load lifters, sadly, but for lighter loads you can manage. Earlier versions were very popular with bloggers.
The original huckePACK is a firm favourite among the cognoscenti. Prized and coveted alike, you can read reviews at Lighthiker, right here, and, with a membership, at Backpacking Light. The new version is even better, if a little more expensive, which probably explains the paucity of reviews.
Laufbursche also offers a smaller pack – the PACKraum which cuts back even more on the ounces (and capacity). It comes in at a measly 320g, or 11oz.
Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet / Exodus
MLD make great gear – though you'll have to wait for it to be made. Their packs are looking a little long inthe tooth now, but the Prophet and Exodus have a good reputation and are larger than the Burn or their even more minuscule Newt packs. Check out Martin Rye's review of the Prophet.
A special shout out should go to the ULA Epic – a very minimal pack, perfectly suited for packrafting. It consists of a comfy frame into which a large dry sack can be loaded. The sack contains all your gear, and the pack is designed around that, with a convenient load-bearing sling to place a rolled-up raft.
Probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of the ultralight backpack state of the market can be found at Backpacking Light (membership required). The Backpacking Light forums are also an excellent source of reader reviews (free to all).