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 requirements of your pack are 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 for a hardcore alpine pack with a heavy internal frame is unnecessary.
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.
All of these things – frame, suspension , and elaborate hip belt – become unnecessary with an ultralight system. Once you eliminate these 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 them, 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 solid 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 is a good example. 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 core 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 need those elaborate hip belts 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 pelvis.
Some packs (like the HMG Southwest 3400) 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 simiply 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. 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 more balanced and comfortable carrying position. It's essential to have the weight closer to your shoulders, rather than pulling 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 it’s unpleasant to feel the pack pulling back on you. A small sacrifice in weight for a pair of load lifters makes a huge difference to your carrying ability and stamina. When we go ultralight, we should still strive to 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 often additional pockets. Some of the pockets even have pockets inside them.
Conversely, an ultralight backpack typically has one compartment, perhaps 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. Not to mention pockets.
Durability and materials
Ultralight packs today are made out of a variety of materials, with two perhaps proving the most popular: Dyneema Composite (the fabric formerly known as cuben fiber) and Nylon/Polyester hybrids such as DyneemaX or Robic. The Nylon hybrids are strong, and water resistant (usually not waterproof), while Dyneema Composite is lighter, more waterproof, more expensive, but, typically in white, looks very hip and cool. For this reason your material choices will likely come down to cost consciousness. For the ultimate in ultralight and costliness, go with Dyneema Composite packs such as those from HMG. For less strain on the wallet, but still a good, solid pack that should last for years, go for the cheaper hybrid materials such as those offered by ULA, Granite Gear, or MLD. 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, remember that all those additions add up, further inflating the price.
Which comes first, the pack or the load?
A ultralight pack can only truly fulfil its purpose if you 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 be overloading your new pack with heavy items, putting a lot of stress on the seams, and leaving no room for any other gear or food. So it makes more sense to find a strategy to move towards ultralight, rather than ruining the 400g Dyneema Composite wonderbag you just spent $600 on.
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 and recommending.
Backpacking North's Backpacks
My first foray into the ultralight bewilderness 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 joyfully re-released with improvements by Granite Gear!), a pack beloved of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (or so I'm led to believe), and made by a company in my then home state 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 latest Vapor Trail weighs around 1kg / 2lb 3oz; by no means truly ultralight, then. However I still have my Vapor Trail – it has a removable hip belt (and the new one has hip belt pockets which the original sadly lacked) which I use for backpacking with my daughter or in winter – whenever I need to carry a little more. It is still in excellent condition after 10 years, which says a lot about those more durable, slightly heavier but much cheaper materials (the new Vapor Trail costs $149.95).
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 sizem My version weighed 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 even 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 was very light, and the hip belt wasn’t essential, I still found that, after three days walking, the lack of load lifters resulted aching 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 was made of DyneemaX (although Cuben and Silnylon versions were available), it was frameless, had mesh pockets, and a thin hip belt (which could be strapped out of the way). However, because the belt sat on my hips exactly where it should, and the shoulder straps were ergonomically shaped, it was an extremely comfortable carry. What's more, heaven be praised, it had load lifters! Simple ones, for sure, but they did the job splendidly. The ample mesh pockets fitted my shelter (and even a snow claw for winter). Going against the tide of UL fashion, it had a pack lid (with a zippered pocket – how quaint!) which was again quite simple but helped in creating a good pack structure.
It weighed 534g / 19oz with the hip belt pockets I ordered, so more than the Burn, but it was larger and, in my opinion, superior. It lasted me well, and I eventually upgraded it to the updated 2014 version which I’ll get to shortly.
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 weighed 28.50 oz. (808 g) including the stay, which was very respectable. It became my go-to pack for anything over a couple of days. Gossamer Gear constantly mess with the design of the Mariposa, not always to the best result. While the latest design retains the functionality of the old, adds a few features, improves materials, it also adds some weight (large: 924g / 32.6oz), lots of pockets(!!) and looks a bit ugly (if that matters to you). 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 replaced all my other packs with the exception of the Vapor Trail. 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 Southwest is the current favourite among discerning backpackers with cash to blow. The main bag is built using 100% waterproof Dyneema Composite, while the side and front pockets use the more rugged Dyneema Hardline. This is a step up from the previous “most popular” HMG Porter which lacks pockets entirely. The 55l + 9.8L capacity of the 3400 Southwest weighs in at 32 oz. (910 g) and it has been getting some excellent reviews; The 70l = 9.8L 4400 Southwest is a larger version, big enough to swallow a ton of gear, and consequently often favoured by expeditioneers and packrafters. It’s currently the highly recommended pack at Backpackinglight.com. My opinion: it looks like a great pack, and iit’s nice that it comes in multiple sizes and even a black option (which is heavier, because black is HEAVY!). I particularly like that it comes with the external pockets (essential in my opinion) and hip belt pockets which the Porter lacked. So basically, for $380, you get everything you need.
Don't stop at the Southwest 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 Dyneema Ice Pack is a hard-wearing pack for year-round alpinists.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa
The Mariposa continues to get good reviews, and features in Section Hiker’s clickbait list of top packs. I liked the 2012 redesign very much, and the latest revamp continues the theme with the latest materials. It's a large pack that could use a couple of compression straps: when loaded it tends to look a bit frumpy, like a sack of potatoes.
Gossamer Gear Gorilla / Kumo
Also redesigned, the ever popular Gorilla is a very decent 30.5 oz / 865g mid-sized pack (40L) considering it has foam shoulder straps, a removable foam hip belt, a removable 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. Earlier versions were very popular with bloggers, but the Mariposa has somewhat stolen the glory. If you have a lighter-than-average load, however, look to the Gorilla as it has less capacity.
For super light loads, the Kumo is worth a look
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.
Mateusz at Laufbursche has been through tough times in the last few years, and shut down the business for a while. However, he’s come out the other side now, and it looks like he’ll be restarting production soon, so keep checking the site if you want the ultimate in ultralight.
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. There are, however, also Dyneema Composite (Cuben Fiber) versions of the Burn, Prophet and Exodus.
ULA Epic / Ohm 2.0
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.
For a more traditional pack, the ULA Ohm 2.0 is a oft recommended and solid offering. It’s ideal if you are transitioning to UL or want to carry a little more gear (much like the Granite Gear Vapor Trail below). It has very flexible sizing options with a capacity of 63L, at 978g / 34.5 oz.
Granite Gear Vapor Trail
It truly is glorious that Granite Gear have chosen to resurrect the Vapor Trail. For someone starting out in Ulrtalight, it’s a great gateway pack to get you going. While the Crown (that replaced it previously) is still popular (and certainly good) the Vapor Trail is jut a bit tidier, and packs 60L into 1 kg / 2lb 4oz.
Probably the most comprehensive, although outdated 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).
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