1) WEIGHT: Aim for 2 lbs or less.
A true ultralight backpack will weigh under 2 lbs... and you don't want anything above 3 lbs. There is a clear cutoff on style and design for packs above 3 lbs.
Rarely would I ever recommend getting one over 3 lbs. They have lot more padding and more framework. These extras are only worth it if your are carrying an extremely heavy load.
I'll define "extremely heavy load" as anything above 45 lbs (ex: maybe you need to carry all your family's gear). Otherwise, even with a week's worth of food, your load should never exceed 35 lbs - ideally more like 20 or 25 lbs.
2) VOLUME: Keep it between 45 and 65 liters.
“If you have it, you will fill it.” Meaning if you carry a large pack, you will assume that you have the extra space and will bring more stuff. Carrying a smaller pack can be somewhat advantageous because it forces you to prioritize your item selection to be lighter and more compact.
I recommend a carrying capacity of no less than 45 liters and no more than 65 liters. 50 to 55 liters is a good middle ground. Mine was 58 liters on the Appalachian Trail and I would have liked just a tiny bit less space.
45 liters would be my ideal volume. I’ll admit though it can be a challenge to fit everything into 45 liters, especially with any extra winter gear and several days of food.
Note many manufacturers include the external pockets as part of their measured carrying capacity. You will pack items on the outside of your pack - water bottle, rain shell, etc.
ZPacks 55 L Arc Blast fitting a bear canister
3) MATERIAL: Cuben Fiber (Dyneema) or Nylon
Cuben fiber and nylon are the most common types of materials used for ultralight backpacks. Both are great for their intended function of protecting your gear. However, there are some differences to note.
Cuben Fiber: Lighter, stronger (won't rip as easily) and more waterproof.
Silnylon: MUCH more affordable and potentially longer life (more abrasion and UV resistant).
Silnylon (left) and Cuben Fiber/ Dyneema (right)
4) OPENING: Toploader (Roll Top or Drawstring).
Most long distance backpacks are ‘top-loaders’ meaning you access your gear from an opening at the top of the bag. They are closed either by drawstring or roll top. Draw string is faster to open, roll top is a tighter seal.
Don't get a side loader. The zippers add additional weight. Proper organization will prevent you from needing to access all of your gear at any point in time. Keep it simple; keep it toploading.
A "brain" is the head flap on the top of some packs. Provides quick access to small gear items that may not fit into the hip pockets. Sometimes it is removable and can be used as a day pack. I find them too floppy and frankly, unnecessary.
Roll Top (left) and Draw String (right)
In my Boy Scout days, many backpacks had thick, rectangular, external metal frames. Fortunately, those have nearly gone extinct and have been replaced by thin internal metal frames that outline the contours of your body. As technology has helped lighten gear more and more, the need for support in a backpacking frame has decreased. Many packs use thin plastic sheets or foam pads... or no frames at all... AND work great!
The importance of the frame or back panel has shifted to an emphasis on cushion and breathability. Many packs have a concave back panel to maximize airflow. While helpful, take this ‘airflow’ with a grain of salt. Even with some of the most breathable packs on the market, you can still sweat like a pig.
*Tip: The biggest use I find for the back panel cushion or concave frame is preventing pack items from jabbing into your back.
COMFORT AND SIZING.
It's all about your torso length, not your height. The manufacturer should have some sort of torso measuring method to make sure you get the right size.
It needs to feel right. This baby will be resting on your hips and shoulders... and taken off and put back on several times a day. You want to securely clip the belt above your hip bones so the majority of the pack’s weight rides on your hips instead of your shoulders.
*Tip: I often lean forward a bit and take my arms out of the shoulder straps to test how comfortable the weight is if entirely on my hips.
PACK COVER (OR LINER).
Some of the most water resistant packs might still need an additional barrier to prevent water from seeping into your gear. Here are your options:
● Pack Cover. A pack cover is like an external shell or rain cover that wraps around your pack. Some packs come with one included. Otherwise, you can find a generic cover to match the size of your pack. The problem with a cover is that they leave the back of the pack panel exposed. In a heavy rain, water can run down spine and into your pack.
● Pack Liner. I hiked for years with a pack cover until I discovered trash compactor bags on the Appalachian Trail and used them as pack liners. A little thicker than regular trash bags, trash compactor bags line the inside of your pack and all gear goes inside them. It's like a giant plastic bag for all gear. I highly recommend getting one.
A) Compression Straps. These straps typically wrap horizontally around the sides of your pack. As you eat your food supply during the week, your food supply will shrink. Not hugely important - but, compression straps will help keep that loose load snug and close to your back.
B) Front Panel Pocket. I like for this pocket to be stretchy mesh with lots of ventilation. Use it to put your camp shoes in or dry out a stinky piece of clothing. Highly recommended.
C) Side Pockets. 2 thumbs up for these. Nice to be able to easily access your water bottle while hiking. I typically keep my water and filter here as well to be able to easily fill up at any impromptu water sources.
D) Trekking Pole Loops. A loop used to hang your trekking poles when not using them. Love, love, love these in case you want to store them away when walking around town or doing a little rock scrambling.
E) Extra Loops. Dangle any extra pieces of gear on small loops with a carabiner. I use extra loops for my camp towel, my spork, maybe a pair dirty socks, etc. Only need a few.
F) Sternum Straps. This horizontal strap connects your left and right shoulder straps together across your chest - in between your nipples and collar bone. Helps secure the pack on your body. Also, if you ever fall, this strap can help make sure you don’t slide out of your pack. The buckle sometimes comes integrated with an easy access emergency whistle.
G) Hip Pockets. The pockets on the hip belt. Great for stuffing a snack or camera or knife or anything that you need frequent and fast access to. Most hikers do not like anything weighing down their pant or short pockets. And, if wearing running shorts, you won't even have pockets... making the hip belt pockets that much more necessary.
● Shoulder Pocket. I keep my hand sanitizer here tied to a 6 inch piece of twine - just like a pen attached to the bank counter. This pocket is not necessary at all. But, I probably stay a bit cleaner by having it so accessible.
● Water Bladder. A small slip tucked against your back inside the main compartment. If you plan on using a water bladder with a hose, this sleeve is helpful to keep your bladder vertical. Keeping it vertical will let gravity do its job to settle the water at the bottom of the bladder... and be able to drink every last drop.
● Bedroll. Two vertical straps usually on the bottom of the pack. Ideal for securely buckling up a foam sleeping pad.
Weight: 2 lb 0.7 oz (Med)
Capacity: 60 L
Price: $260 (with hipbelt)
Gossamer Gears' Mariposa is a personal favorite ultralight backpack. It is a simple pack with a perfect amount of external pockets and loops. The Mariposa has a top loading flap that is super easy to buckle down and is adjustable for varying load capacities. The flap's zipper pouch makes small items, like your map or a snack that don't fit into the hip pockets, very accessible.
This pack's well-cushioned shoulder and hip pads make it feel like a resting pillow on your back. One of my favorite features is the removable back panel - great for an easy seat on a rough surface. Ahh... and don't forget the awesomely airy front mesh pocket.
Weight: 2 lb 9.0 oz
Capacity: 68 L
For a backpack under 3 lbs, the ULA Circuit provides a ton of cushion, volume and support. 68 Liters is going to provide plenty of space for large loads in winter or long distance backpacking with a week long food supply. Complete with spacious hip pockets, side water bottle pockets and a massive mesh front panel.
Instead of cuben fiber, ULA uses rip stop nylon. The nylon comes in a variety of fun colors - green, red and purple. ULA-Equipment is known for it's unique water bottle holsters on the front shoulder straps for drinking while hiking. It's trekking pole holsters are also second to none.
Weight: 2 lb 0.0 oz
Capacity: 55 L
Hyperlite Mountain Gear is an ultralight icon and the 3400 Windrider backpack is one of the products that makes them so great. The high-tech cuben fiber material helps keep this pack at a flat 2 lbs. The material is so water-proof, you can usually get by without using a pack cover or liner at all.
The sleek design and minimalist style make it a true ultralight pack. I love how big the front mesh pouch is and how breathable the big holes are. Other features: a sternum strap whistle, removable aluminum frame 'stays', seam sealed hip pockets and a top loading roll top enclosure.
Weight: 2 lb 0.8 oz
Capacity: 58 L
Osprey Packs is the commercial leader of quality backpacking packs. They are the biggest brand on this list and make up the largest portion of AT and thru-hiking packs. They have a great warranty policy, a reasonable price tag, and prioritize comfort and support.
You would think this extra comfort puts them in a slightly heavier category - not the Exos 58. At a hair over 2 lbs, the Exos provides everything you would get from a 4 lb pack... without the weight.
The signature concave metal frame is known for its' breathability and allowing air to flow in between your back. Note this frame sticks out from your back and, to me, can sometimes feel like a turtle shell. See the smaller Exos 48 as well.
Weight: 2 lb 2.0 oz
Capacity: 60 L
Granite Gear made an awesome minimalist backpack with the Crown2 60. No extra pockets or frills. A single roll-top main compartment complete with big exterior pouches and simple compression straps.
It does not get any more affordable than the Crown2 either. This comes with all of the features of any great thru-hiking pack - weighs near 2 lbs, has the ideal amount of pockets, adequate volume, extremely supportive frame and internal hydration sleeve. And, for all of you folks who want a brain, the Crown2 comes with a removable one.
This is the best bang for your buck backpack on the market.
Weight: 1 lb 5.0 oz
Capacity: 55 L
ZPACKS Arc Blast is the Holy Grail of ultralight backpacks. It is by far the lightest framed pack on the list. Even with Dyneema fabric, it is still a mystery how ZPacks gets a 55 liter pack... with a complete frame... to weigh this little.
Similar to Osprey's Exos, the Arc Blast has a concave frame ideal for keeping your back as airy as possible. There are hip pockets available to attach for $25 extra.
Weight: 1 lb 0.0 oz
Capacity: 57 L
Mountain Laurel Design's Exodus weighs a whopping 1 lb. As in less than half of the weight of other packs on this list. Why? Well, it is completely frameless and does not come with load lifters or hip pockets. If you have a hyperlight load though (20 ish lbs), this baby could be your ticket to becoming a fastpacking speed demon.
The Exodus is constructed from a high quality Dyneema and Silnylon fabric blend. Complete with full sized-pack features like trekking pole loops, airy pockets, compression straps and bungy attachments
Weight: 2 lb 0.3 oz
Capacity: 61 L
The Helios 55 needs to be on the ultralight radar more often than it is. Katabatic Gear is a small company making killer products. A similar design to HMG's Windrider - cuben fiber pack with a roll-top loader.
The ventilation back panel is so cofortable, it feels like something I want to fall asleep on. Its stretchy hip pockets are just as comfortable to touch. I'd like to see the external pockets more ventilated and the side pocket unobstructed by the compression strap. Overall, fantastic lightweight backpack though. Check out the Artemis model.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.