PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.
Part 2 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced bloggers.
2. Downsize your pack.
says: "For the lightest load, choose a pack that weighs less than two pounds and keep your total payload below 25 pounds (our pick: the
Pack, 1lb 15oz)." Alternatively, should you want the best of both worlds (a light pack, with big load-carrying ability), they recommend a
, and weighing in at 2lbs, 15oz.
's optimum suggestion barely squeezes in at under two pounds. I think we can do better than that and still maintain a good level of comfort.
The thing to bear in mind when selecting an ultralight pack is that your pack weight is going to be so much lower – especially for the short weekend trip which we are focusing on – so the load-bearing requirements of your pack can be less. It is not absolutely necessary to have a pack frame to support your load, as this can be achieved with careful packing. Nor is a complex and heavy hip belt system 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 1lb or 500g.
Frames vs. frameless
As mentioned above, with an ultralight load you should be carrying far less weight, so the load-bearing demands put on your pack will be considerable 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 – adds a lot of weight to a pack. Some UL packs offer the best of both worlds by providing removable stays, so if your load is bulky or heavier you can leave the stays in if you wish. But if your load is lighter and you employ a good packing strategy, you don't necessarily need a frame. Another alternative to the more standard metal stays is a plastic, removable framesheet. Lighter in weight, but still offering some structural support, it's a good option. But what we're really interested in is doing away with the frame altogether.
When you see a frameless backpack for the first time, it seems impossibly flimsy and shockingly light. Most schoolkid's backpacks are heavier. Can something this insubstantial really carry enough gear comfortably for a weekend trip? 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 or, as I generally do, fold your deflated air pad (I use a POE Ether Elite 6) to create a torso sized framesheet.
Then 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 part 10.
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 thick 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 decent hip belt to take most of the weight off of my shoulders. it can be as simple as a slip of unpadded Dyneema, but it needs to be able to distribute some of the load onto my pelvic area.
My Laufbursche huckePACK has a very nice hipbelt – just right, providing enough support to take the weight, while not adding much to the weight of the pack. My MLD Burn, on the other hand, while not that dissimilar, carries less well. But there is another reason for that...
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.
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
better 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, dividers, pockets, load adjusters, pockets, lids, tie-off points, pockets, and additional pockets.
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. The large exterior mesh pockets are ideal for stuffing damp shelters in. A couple of side pockets keep essential items and water handy. A 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 Fiber. DyneemaX is a durable, strong, water resistant fabric, while Cuben Fiber is extremely lightweight but less durable. It's also very 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 visible at present.
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.
Which came first, the pack or the load?
It's a little odd that
chose to begin it's guide to seeking the tao of ultralight with the cold turkey option of choosing a lighter pack. 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 much traditionally sized and weighted gear. Unless you already have a nice, light, down bag and a tiny shelter, you'll fill your new pack with your heavier versions of those items, leaving no room for any other gear or food. Enjoy your trip!
's pack selections are quite generous in the pack volume department, so it is feasible to get either a Jam or a Blaze and pack a lot of your existing gear in – it just won't be particularly light... yet.
I would say, unless you happen to have a lot of disposable income, most people making the transition to a lighter load would begin 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 I promise you, it
become an obsession).
There are so many niche (and increasingly mainstream) manufacturers making lightweight packs today, your options a 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 favoring.
Backpacking North's Backpacks
My first foray into the ultralight bewilderness also began with some advice from
. 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
(now re-named the
(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 temporary new home of Minnesota. The website says 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." By no means truly ultralight, then, the pack's weight of 1kg / 2lb 5oz was still a significant improvement on my old Halti traditional pack (mine, to be precise, weighs 1104g). It has an exchangeable hip belt which, I must admit, is very comfortable. It is quoted at 59l / 3600c.in, but it has a
roll-top collar – and I mean ridiculously huge – so you could carry a
more than that if you were so inclined.
The author sports a fetching Vapor Trail.
The design is quite unusual – the side pockets are a stretchy lycra-like material, and instead of a front pocket, there is a system of straps which can be used to attach a sleeping pad, tent, or other long object, but isn't too practical for a tarp or other lightweight shelter. The lower section, where a sleeping bag might be placed inside, bulges out, creating a slight teardrop shape. While I still have the Vapor Trail in the gear closet, it has been relegated to winter use at the moment. My current three-season gear simply doesn't fill it up enough. For an extended hike it might prove useful though.
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
small pack, and settled on a
. 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 delightful 414g / 14.6oz. Now we're talking! Excited,
Mountain Laurel Designs Burn
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, I found that the long torso size was still a little short for me, and the hip belt sat too high on my waist. As I've already said, my load in this pack is very light, so the hip belt isn't so essential. However, combine that with the fact that there are also no load lifters, and I can tell you that after three days I noticed 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
. I finally managed to get hold of one in 2010.
Laufbursche huckePACK inaction
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.
Recently, however, I've switched to a
for anything longer than a night or two. Gossamer Gear redesigned the Mariposa in 2012 (you can
) and I think it's fair to say that some inspiration was probably taken from Laufbursche.
There are 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 comes 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 has in internal (but removable) aluminium stay (96g), which makes carrying heavier loads a little more comfortable.
My large one weighs 28.50 oz. (808 g), which is very respectable. It has become my go-to pack.
You can get one direct from
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, but I welcome and hope for recommendations highlighting other packs worthy of consideration in the comments.
Well, what do you know! I'm not the only one showing the love for the new Mariposa. Other advocates include
(natch, he runs the Trail Ambassador programme).
Newly redesigned to follow the Mariposa's swish curves, 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've never seen one, but if I was looking to buy my first ultralight backpack today, this would be high on my list. No load lifters as far as I can see. A pity, but for lighter loads you can manage. The previous version made
has owned and liked both versions, calling them "superb" and "top kit". High praise indeed, and there is no reason to expect anything less.
The original huckePACK is a firm favourite among the cognoscenti. Prized and coveted alike, you can read reviews at
, and, with a membership, at
Laufbursche also offers a smaller pack – the huckePACKchen in cuben fiber, which cuts back even more on the ounces (and capacity). Take a look at
. The beef? It comes in at a measly 210g, or 7oz, for €150. Take that, GoLite.
MLD make great gear – though you'll have to wait for it to be made. The
have a good reputation and are larger than the Burn or their even more minuscule
packs (forthcoming). Check out
After the Mariposa, the Porter is probably the current alternative favourite among discerning backpackers with cash to blow. It uses a hybrid cuben fiber laminate material that is supposed to be 100% waterproof (it isn't, but it is pretty damn good) making it the perfect choice for packrafting (especially the larger volume sizes). The 55l of the 3400 size weigh in at 33 oz. (936 g) and it has been getting some excellent reviews; seek out the combined wisdom of
(M). My opinion: it's a great pack, with a lot of flexibility (although at additional cost that soon mounts up). The hipbelt could use some work, and the seams are the weak points.
Other perennial favorites
Probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of the
can be found at
(membership required). The
are also an excellent source of reader reviews (free to all).
Want to see learn to pack a frameless pack?
is a reasonably good offering made by REI themselves.
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux: