The Best Ultralight Backpacks of 2021-2022

Gear
Trekker and photographer Cait Bourgault tests out the Hyperlite Windrider 3400.

Ultralight backpacks help speed-focused or weight-conscious explorers cover longer distances with fewer grams. An untaxing pack helps adventurers, long-distance trekkers, and speed hikers move quickly and nimbly, cover more kilometres, and go further through varied terrain. Slim, agile kits benefit recreationists that cover big gulps of distance — say 50 to 60km — in a single day.

A feathery setup also reduces or eliminates ailments such as plantar fasciitis, arthritis, or even blisters. Ultimately, even if a border-to-border thru-hike isn’t your goal, traveling by foot with fewer grams helps ease pressure on the body and makes the journey sweeter.

Tough, comfortable ultralight backpacks

For this guide, we sought the input of the world’s top experts who spend time testing equipment in harsh conditions for the toughest expeditions and endurance feats. Those pros include Keith Heger, program director at The Northwest Passage and PolarExplorers guide, and Eric Lillstrom, Assistant Program Director and Lead Guide at PolarExplorers. We also spoke with Ted Scambos of the Earth Science and Observation Centers at the University of Colorado.

As an outdoor industry reporter, I have gear-tested and covered stories on backpacking and expedition products for nearly a decade. I have enjoyed self-guided and solo trips from obstacle-course style treks along the rugged coast of Olympic National Park to the Himalaya’s Annapurna Circuit and a first-descent whitewater stand-up paddleboard expedition down Utah’s wild Escalante River. One of the most memorable solo adventures was through the world’s first jaguar preserve to reach the second-highest peak in Belize (an adventure that requires a local guide and rightfully so.)

Hyperlite Windrider 3400, $355

Best For: All-around versatile pack for thru hiking and backpacking missions

  • Weight: 898g-984g
  • Capacity: 55L plus 9.8L
  • Pros: Waterproof material, tenacious fabric, broad external pockets
  • Cons: Fabric is not puncture-proof against sharp branches
  • Sustainability Features: None

The ultralightweight Hyperlite Windrider 3400 ($355) isn’t our lightest ultralight pick — but the pack’s all-around comfort, versatility, and functionality push it to the top. The Windrider was built with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and backpackers in mind but can also be scrunched down for day hikes. The pack’s hardy materials are made for rugged days and a thrash of elements: DCH50, a hybrid fabric that blends lightweight 50-denier polyester and Dyneema strands, both of which are extremely strong, abrasion-resistant, and impermeable to moisture.

The Windrider 3400 is a single compartment with a roll-top. Three large, deep mesh pockets wrap around the pack’s exterior, adding an additional 9.8L of haul space. In wet weather, hikers can schlepp damp, malodorous contents on the go. The mesh allows visibility and easy access to supplies.

“I tested several ultralight packs before participating in the ‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,’ which is a big expedition by any measure. Among my favorites was the Hyperlite Windrider 3400, which I ended up using for the added waterproofing. It’s been my go-to pack ever since,” said Eric Lillstrom, Assistant Program Director and Lead Guide at PolarExplorers, a guide company that leads polar expeditions and training programs. Though the waterproofing is powerful, this pack isn’t built to be fully submerged like a dry bag.

Lillstrom has used the pack for everything from an evening stroll in perfect fall weather to swimming through jungle rivers and scrambling through knee-deep mud or climbing in a blizzard.

“The biggest feature that I like is the build quality,” said Lillstrom. “I have put this bag through hell and despite looking like it’s been dyed in red clay, it has shown no sign of giving out. I’ve packed this pack to the point of bursting, cinched every strap tight, and submitted it to the whims of innumerable airport baggage handlers — the true test of any pack — and it’s done admirably. The stitching is strong, buckles are solid, and the material is unmarred.”

The 55L internal capacity allows most trekkers to remain in the wild for 5-7 days before a resupply. An integrated foam back panel and two removable, contoured aluminum stays give optional support. Four side compression straps provide lateral support and a Y-shaped top strap condenses the stack. The dual-density hip belt comes with foam and two external zippered pockets with YKK zippers. The interior has a hydration mesh sleeve and additional pockets to stash gear. The shoulder straps also have daisy chains and are connected by an adjustable, elastic sternum strap. At capacity, the pack can handle up to 18kg. Plus, the fabric along the bottom is doubled for reinforcement.

What are the compromises of this Hyperlite pack? “It’s not the most comfortable pack I’ve ever had, but there are always sacrifices when you go ultralight, said Lillstrom. “It can also be pretty loud [the fabric is crinkly], especially when new, so you might annoy your tent mate if you’re rustling around in it for a midnight snack.”

See the Hyperlite Windrider 3400

Zpacks Arc Blast 55L Backpack, $349

Best For: Enjoying airflow against your back while covering big distance 

  • Weight: 575g
  • Capacity: 55L
  • Pros: Mesh back panel hovers stack and enables airflow, water-resistant material, padded shoulder straps
  • Cons: Material and mesh not extremely durable against rocks, concrete, or gravel
  • Sustainability Features: Renewable and bio-based Dyneema, packageless products, sustainable shipping (biodegradable, compostable, recycled, or recyclable materials)

The Arc Blast 55L Backpack ($349) was likewise developed to weather Appalachian rainstorms. This pack is one of the few ultralight backpacks with a taut mesh back panel, which hovers the bundle off the carrier’s back for comfort and airflow. The patented Arc Frame system stiffens the pack while transferring the pressure off the shoulders and onto the hips. The tension of the mesh panel can be dialed in, which alters the frame’s curve for a preferred fit.

The exterior is water-resistant, thanks to the 50-denier Dyneema polyester fabric, as are the taped seams and attachment points. The roll-top closure allows hikers to compress the ultralight pack as the shipment size dwindles. The 6.35cm-wide padded, contoured shoulder straps and hip belt provide comfort, cushion, and texture for grip. Two slanted side pockets can hold 1-1.5L bottles, which are accessible with the pack on. And a center-placed port guides the tube of a reservoir, which can be hung inside or outside the pack. A single large, stretchy exterior mesh pocket offers quick access to gear or a place to dry soggy apparel. Removable straps on the top and base allow hikers to strap down extra possessions.

Overall, the Arc Blast pack is adaptive with adjustable conveyer-belt style shoulder straps and an interchangeable, removable hip belt. Both the shoulder straps and the load lifter straps attach to the frame for additional mass transfer and stability. With a 55L volume, this pack can transfer up to six days of food. Standard bear canisters, such as the BearVault 500, fit in the upper half of the pack.

See the Zpacks Arc Blast 55L Backpack

Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus DCF 55L, $290

Best For: Organizing gear via a dozen attachment points plus the daisy chains

  • Weight: 510g
  • Capacity: 55L
  • Pros: Wide shoulder straps with plenty of cushion, extremely lightweight, nearly waterproof
  • Cons: Water bottles in the side pockets can be hard to reach while wearing the pack
  • Sustainability Features: None

At only 510g, the Exodus DCF 55L ($290) defines the ultralight pack category — plus, it’s famous. This frameless pack debuted on-screen in Backpacking in the Lake District with Chris Townsend. For the unfamiliar, Townsend is one of the most experienced long-distance walkers and product testers in the UK. The pack also received an award from Backpacker magazine as one of the best full-sized, full-featured frameless, lightweight options on the market.

This water-resistant Dyneema DCF pack is seam-taped and can brace a bit more than the recommended 11kg. The roll-top fastens via studs and three buckles. Attachment points are placed along the exterior for the integrated front shock cord. A full row of daisy chain loops sits along each shoulder strap. Side straps, ice ax loops, and base volume adjusters are available for trekkers.

Two 2.5L side pockets offer a garage for water bottles. A 5L mesh front pocket totes quick-grab gear, a damp jacket, or smelly socks. The sternum strap features a whistle-lock buckle. The non-removable hip belt is minimal but padded, comfortable, and durable. Note: the back panel is not padded. This ultralight pack’s max volume is 55L including the 6L extension collar. The pack is 30.5cm wide, 17.8cm thick, and 89cm high.

See the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus DCF 55L

Arc’teryx Alpha FL 40, $240

Best For: Alpine travel from mountaineering to ice and trad climbing

  • Weight: 708g
  • Capacity: 40L
  • Pros: Very durable, ergonomic shoulder straps
  • Cons: Unpadded hip belt, no exterior mesh pocket for smaller items, lacks external water bottle pockets
  • Sustainability Features: None

The Alpha FL 40 ($240) is one of the most bombproof minimalist packs for fast travelers in our lineup. The streamlined, light design has the chops to withstand various environments from the Matterhorn to Western Canada. The pack also has features to support ice or rock climbing.

Overall, the design of this Arc’teryx pack is simple, durable, and comfortable. A rigid back panel helps to prop the cargo. The shoulder straps are ergonomic but allow a range of motion while in action. The ax attachments are slender but dependable and a top strap can secure a rope. An additional six lash points are integrated around the pack, too. The sternum strap is adjustable and removable. The hip belt is a straightforward 4cm-wide webbing with a buckled closure.

The waterproof pack is made with taped seams plus 70-denier and 420-denier ripstop nylon. The latter is coated in waterproofing, light, and very strong. Inside the main body, one pocket is available to secure goods. A small external pocket has a water-tight zipper and key clip. The crisscrossed webbing system on the front of the pack can bound bulkier gear like a windbreaker or crampons. The pack height is 63cm, width is 30cm, and depth is 25cm.

See the Arc’teryx Alpha FL 40

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Backpack, $270

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Backpack (R). Photo: Aaron Ibey and @ibeyprofin

Best For: Heavy-hauler for carrying that bigger load 

  • Weight: 833g-944g
  • Capacity: 60L
  • Pros: Spacious top pocket on cap, roomy hip belt pockets, resilient body fabric
  • Cons: Difficult to reach into the long, mesh side pocket while wearing pack and back panel is not very breathable
  • Sustainability Features: None

The Mariposa 60 ($270) offers roomier storage capacity than our other favorites and can bear 16kg. The additional space is attractive for long trips — like through the Alps or in the Himalaya — with fewer pickup points and when changeable weather requires more gear. The supportive U-shaped wire frame transfers weight to the ergonomic hip belt, which is wide, well-padded, and stiff. A thick foam back pad is removable and doubles as a ground mat for lounging. Load lifter straps allow hikers to make fit adjustments. The shoulder straps are sturdy and broad, too.

The lid has a unique roll-top that combines with an over-the-top closure via two buckles. Altogether, there are seven built-in pockets, including three side options: One long mesh pocket can stash a tarp or single-person tent. On the pack’s other side, two shorter mesh pockets hold a water bottle and nosh.

A large stretch mesh pocket lives on the front of the Mariposa 60 pack. Hikers can stow other daily necessities in the zipper-enclosed top pocket, which is surprisingly spacious. And there are two large pockets with zip closures on the hip belt. An inner hydration sleeve is available to cradle a reservoir plus tube guides on both shoulder straps.

The material is a tough 100- and 200-denier Robic nylon fabric. Yet an air mesh fabric on the shoulder straps and hip belt prevents friction. There are external loops for an ice ax, exterior hardware to transport trekking poles, plus an array of attachment points.

Trekkers can choose between three belt size options. At sundown, don’t fret over your goods: Bear canisters fit vertically or horizontally in the central compartment of this backpack.

See the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Backpack

Six Moon Designs Minimalist V2 Ultralight Backpack, $235

Best For: Large variety of shoulder strap options

  • Weight: 992g -1,153g
  • Capacity: 49L plus 10L
  • Pros: Prolific variety of pockets, vest harness (optional) distributes weight
  • Cons: Tad heavier than other ultralight packs, vest harness (optional) can be restrictive for hikers with larger chests
  • Sustainability Features: None

Six Moon Designs packs were also among Lillstrom’s favorite gear while training for the World’s Toughest Race. This 59L ultralight backpack ($235) shines for its adaptability and function. The Minimalist is a top-loader with a dry bag-fashioned closure.

Ultimately, the Minimalist isn’t the lightest choice but it’s one of the most comfortable. The pack weighs close to 1,000gm and can amass up to 16kg of luggage. For heavier hauls, a removable hoop frame transfers weight to the hip belt, and an adjustable torso length tailors the fit.

Long-distance hikers who enjoy streamlined access to their supplies relish in the design’s brag-worthy pockets. Five pouches are on the exterior — on the rear, top lid, and sides — and two large sacks are on the shoulder straps. The removable hip belt features two spacious pockets. The pockets are made with 4-way stretch mesh. Inside the pack, a small interior stash pocket is zipper-secured.

One of the ultralight pack’s most unique attributes is the personalized upper configuration: Adventurers can choose traditional shoulder straps or a vest harness that’s similar to a trail running vest. The latter is a superior choice for some long-distance hikers: It’s made of stretchy, breathable mesh.

The design lacks cushion, but the close-fitting coverage helps to mitigate jostle during quick movements and enhances balance on uneven terrain. The harness also broadly distributes weight, which helps alleviate concentrated soreness in the shoulders, back, and hips. Note, however, that a handful of hikers with larger chests found that the vest was too restrictive during aerobic action.

Recently, the brand launched an optional 3-layer 210-denier fabric, the VX21, that’s waterproof and stout. The tradeoff? The VX21 weighs 161g more than the Nylon Robic blend. Even so, the Minimalist V2 backpack is not completely impermeable to moisture. Rather than using a rain cover, some trekkers pair the pack with its tailored 50L Pack Liner to protect crucial gear.

See the Six Moon Designs Minimalist V2 Ultralight Backpack

Osprey Exos 48, $200 and Osprey Eja 48, $200

Best For: Trail comfort and back support as a top priority 

  • Weight: 1,134g- 1,179g
  • Capacity: 42-51L depending on size and gender
  • Pros: Very comfortable harness system, trampoline-style mesh back panel for ventilation and alleviation of hot spots, aerated shoulder straps and hip belt compliment sweaty adventures
  • Cons: Not a close-fitting pack, instability exists when chock-full, lacks hip belt and shoulder pockets
  • Sustainability Features: None

This ultralight backpacking pack ($200) is ideal for weekend overnight trips and can lug up to 18kg. There are three sizes in the lineup, which includes women’s specific versions, dubbed the Eja. The ladies’ iterations have narrower shoulder straps, shortened lengths, and accentuated curves. Otherwise, the features across all the packs are identical.

At more than 1,000gm, this Osprey backpack provides slightly more comfort than more barebones sister packs. Overall, the design employs squishy, nonabrasive materials that are comfortable on the back. The pack’s tensioned back panel is a form-fitting, trampoline-style mesh for ventilation. It also eliminates pressure points or rub spots. The frame is a light wire alloy that is low weight but muscular.

Altogether, the skeleton is stout and evenly distributes weight between the hip belt, back, and shoulders. To brace against the elements, the pack body uses 100-denier nylon plus a 210-denier nylon bottom. The shoulder straps and soft, thick hip belt are likewise breathable, thanks to their mesh material.

Two side pockets and one front pocket are made of stretch mesh. The side compression straps — above the mesh pockets — are great for hugging items like tent poles. Two removable lower straps can tote a sleeping pad.

The Exos 48 and Eja 48 removable lids boast top and bottom pockets with zipper closures. (If you nix the lid, there’s a redundant closure.) An internal hydration sleeve can accommodate a 3L reservoir. When hands-free mileage is preferred, there’s a trekking pole carry that you can access in transit without removing the pack. And the ice ax attachment has a nice bungee tie-off.

One caveat: There are plenty of stash pockets and attachment points but no hip belt or shoulder strap pockets. Also, the squishy design of the pack is not close-fitting, which leads to a lack of stability while scrambling. Ultimately, this pack thrives while traveling along singletrack. If trail comfort is the top priority, this is the best backpacking backpack on our list.

See the Osprey Exos 48 See the Osprey Eja 48

Kelty Women’s Asher 55 ($130) and Asher 55 ($130)

Best For: Trekkers on a budget or just getting started

  • Weight: 1,229g-1,242g
  • Capacity: 55L
  • Pros: Can carry up to 25kg, more durable material than lighter weight packs
  • Cons: Heavier-set than the elite ultralight family
  • Sustainability Features: None

With a $130 tag, these two streamlined Jack-and-Jill internal frame backpacks are the most economic and lightweight in our gear den. The primary sacrifice is their weight. The suspension system has a lightweight steel frame along the pack’s perimeter. But the package hits the scale at more than 1,200gm — nearly double the weight of pure ultralight packs. For newcomers to speedy or big-mileage days, the bill savings could take priority over the most superb materials (at least, to start).

For women, the Asher 55 top-loader delivers a female-specific torso fit. The other features are shared with the male-specific Asher 55. Ventilation on the back panel helps trekkers stay cool. Daisy chain attachment points allow clipping on miscellaneous gear.

The internal hydration sleeve accommodates an alternative to bottled water. There’s also a sleeping bag compartment, an organizational detail that many backpackers appreciate but might make some thru-hikers cringe.

Pockets include two large mesh slots for bottles and a large front pouch with a zip closure. The hip belt dishes up a stretchy pocket and there are trekking pole loops. The pack also has load lifter adjustment. Sizewise, these ultralight packs are 68cm tall, 42cm wide, and 28cm long. Also, the material blend is 600- and 420-denier polyester, which hangs tough while traversing forests and brush.

See the Kelty Women’s Asher 55 See the Asher 55

Patagonia Ascensionist Pack 55L, $219

Best For: Eco-friendly fabric and multifunctional for lightweight treks or alpine expeditions

  • Weight: 1,280g
  • Capacity: 55L
  • Pros: Tough material, tensioning straps have many configurations
  • Cons: On the heavier end
  • Sustainability Features: Bluesign-approved, 100% recycled nylon and polyester

For trekkers who value protecting the planet, investing in sustainable products could be a top priority. Enter the Patagonia Ascensionist ($219), the most eco-friendly pack in our closet. Designed with the insight of alpinist Steve House, this streamlined model is a send tool for climbers and supports light-and-fast kilometres on foot.

First, the pack’s body fabric is bluesign approved. The fiber mix includes 420-denier 100% recycled nylon, which decreases the brand’s dependency on petroleum while eliminating material discards. The lining is 200-denier 100% recycled polyester, derived from plastic bottles, which reduces carbon emissions by 59% compared to virgin polyester. The fabric has a waterproof polyurethane coating for weather resistance and tenacity. Thicker material reinforces the bottom of the pack on rocky ground.

The aluminum frame is malleable, enables movement, yet backs multi-day, ultralight pushes. The pack configuration is also fairly customizable. Backpackers can remove the lid, frame, hip belt pads, and over-the-top rope carry system. The tensioning straps with buckle closures can be girth-hitched to daisy chain loops all over the pack, which are also carry points for random gear. The ice-ax carry is adjustable to secure a variety of tools. The sternum strap is adjustable, too. There’s an internal pocket for safe item storage and another zippered pocket on the lid. And an integrated rain cover can help shield the goods.

Fit-wise, the Ascensionist 55L pack rests close to the body and feels secure while moving on trails or scrambling over rock fields. Some hikers found that the pack carried comfortably on the cushioned hip belt and shoulder straps when fully laden. Others felt that the weight was too concentrated on the shoulders. They don’t recommend filling this pack with more than 11kg.

See the Patagonia Ascensionist Pack 55L 

Mammut Ducan Spine 50-60, $250 and Mammut Ducan Spine 50-60 Women, $250

Best For: Long-distance trekking with comfort as a priority and PFC-free treatment

  • Weight: 1,410g-1,520g
  • Capacity: 50-60L
  • Pros: Two options for trekking pole carry
  • Cons: Heavier on the scale
  • Sustainability Features: PFC-free DWR

This lightweight 60L trekking pack ($250) is heavier than others on our list but doesn’t skimp out on that extra bit of comfort. The Mammut Ducan Spine 50-60 Women ($250) features female-specific shoulder straps, hip belt, and back dimensions. Otherwise, the men’s and women’s pack versions are matched.

“Mammut packs work well and have a good array of features, which is why I tend to choose their packs. I prefer a good pack that I get at a reasonable price and use it until it’s old. I use my bigger ones in Antarctica and the smaller ones on day hikes with science gear in Costa Rica’s rainforest,” says Ted Scambos of the Earth Science and Observation Centers at the University of Colorado.

One of the most unmatched details of this sleek pack is the Mammut Active Spine Technology. The back system adapts on the fly to the spine’s natural movements to enhance comfort on rigorous climbs or heavy carries. Testers found that the design allowed a greater range of shoulder and hip movement. This leads to less overall fatigue. An internal metal frame distributes the heap. To complement the roll-top entry, a convenient front-facing zipper runs the length of the pack for easy access to buried gear.

An included rain cover protects gear from the elements. Two pockets are on the hip belt and another two mesh pockets are on the shoulder straps. And hikers found that the two side mesh pockets are accessible on the go. The women’s pack is 30cm long, 63cm high, and 34cm wide. With small differences, the men’s pack is 29cm long, 64cm high, and 34cm wide. Both pack shapes are narrower toward the bottom, where it’s best to stash heavier supplies.

The strong exterior material is composed of 9% polyester and 91% polyamide. Bonus: There are two trekking pole carries. Hikers can attach their independent poles vertically, along the sides of the Ducan Spine pack, or use the quick attachment for both poles along the hip belt.

See the Mammut Ducan Spine 50-60 See the Mammut Ducan Spine 50-60 Women

Photo: RBPhoto

How to choose an ultralight backpack

The best type of ultralight backpack is one that supports your body shape and health. Pay attention to the pack size and recommended load weight and how that suits your personal stature. The best pack choice is one that carries the minimal amount of gear for a specific hiker’s comfort and survival in the environment where they explore.

For instance, carrying a required hammock for jungle trekking in Belize occupies a different amount of pack space than a 4-season, one-person tent needed for a 2-day mountaineering jaunt on Mount Baker in Washington. The packs on our list are a great launchpad of considerations, but your choice depends on your trek goals. As you consider different pack options, look at these features:

Size

The size backpack that you need for an expedition trip in any climate depends on the trip’s duration, the amount and type of gear required for safety and comfort, and if there are resupply points for consumables along the way. Consider the furthest distance between any two resupply points that you will need to travel, which influences the max overall weight between those stop points.

The size backpack you need also depends on your torso length, body shape, and weight. A loaded pack for recreationists should only weigh up to 20% of the backpacker’s body weight.

Capacity 

Capacity goes hand in hand with size. The most common capacity for ultralight backpacks in our guide is 55L. Some packs run as low as 40L. Others go up to 60L but they aren’t as common.  For instance, the 60L Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Backpack carries 16kg of gear.

In contrast, the general pack size for a 1-3 night backpacking trip is 30 to 50 litres. A larger multi-day backpacking trip might be 50 to 70 litres, for less than one week. There are no 70-litre pack options in this guide since that volume generally pushes hikers well above the ultralight sector.

Backpack Weight

The core, favored ultralight backpacks in our guide weigh 500-600g with a carrying capacity of 55L. A well-designed 510g pack could likely tote 11kg of supplies.

As packs expand in size, they include comfort features, such as padding and pockets, and hardier materials, and their weight goes up.

Material

Pack bodies use fabric that’s durable, strong, and weather-resistant or waterproof. Parts of the pack, such as a mesh hip belt and pockets, sometimes have more breathable material. Packs often have a reinforced swath on the bottom of the pack, where hikers set it down.

The lightest ultralight packs are often made with a Dyneema and polyester blend, with a strength rating range of 50- to 150-denier. Other packs have nylon, polyester, or a blend that includes those two fibers. The Kelty Asher 55, for example, includes two types of polyester, 420- and 600-denier. Even fewer packs come with recycled materials, but the Patagonia Ascensionist Pack 55L is one of the few that does.

Dyneema

Dyneema is one of the strongest fibers on the planet and has an incredible strength-to-weight ratio. The filament is 15 times stronger than steel, impervious to UV light and chemicals, waterproof, lightweight, and durable.

Dyneema is used to develop a variety of human and vehicle armor for the military and law enforcement. It’s also used in mooring ropes, lines, and nets for commercial fishing and maritime use.

PFC-Free DWR

A handful of brands in the outdoor industry have developed non-PFC DWR options. Traditional DWR treatments are full of fluorocarbons, which are resilient chemicals that enhance a product’s durability and overall life. However, these fluorocarbons (aka perfluorocarbons or PFCs) are toxic and can’t biodegrade.

Last year, the European Union even banned perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a type of fluorocarbon, and related compounds. Scientific research backs the legal move: The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that these negative composites are carcinogenic for humans and that they pollute air and drinking water. Another University of Oxford study linked fluorocarbons to infertility.

Great Smoky Mountains. Photo: @thetrailalone and Mariposa 60 Backpack

Pockets

The most minimalist ultra-lightweight packs might feature 1-2 pockets in addition to the main compartment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some decked-out ultra-lightweight packs feature 7-9 pockets. Pockets are usually made out of a mesh or stretch material with a zipper or elastic cord closure.

Pockets can be internal, external, removable, such as those on a removable hip belt. Exterior pack pockets can be located on the pack sides, hip belt, shoulder straps, top lid (also known as the pack’s “brain”), and front. Some pockets are long and can hold a rolled-up tent or poles. Others are shorter for water bottles. Some ultralight packs have a hydration sleeve inside.

Structure & price

Backpacking backpacks are made with either an internal frame, an external frame, or they’re frameless. The lightest ultralight backpacks are frameless or have a removable frame. A frame might provide additional support and comfort, which could be a priority to some trekkers, but increases the grams.

The general price range for ultralight backpacks is $360 on the upper-end and $130 in the budget arena. Most ultra-lightweight packs cost $200-$299.

Sustainability features

A handful of these ultralight packs have components of sustainable design while others have none. In this guide, Zpacks leads the charge. In the Arc Blast 55L Backpack, the brand uses renewable and bio-based Dyneema and a packageless shipping process. Shipping is also further sustainable through the sole use of biodegradable, compostable, recycled, or recyclable materials.

For the longevity of the planet and human exploration, it’s essential for brands worldwide to prioritize high-level product design that also pushes the needle forward on environmentally-friendly materials, fabric treatments, sourcing, and manufacturing solutions that are less toxic for people and the earth.

A few other sustainable design features in these packs include PFC-free DWR, Bluesign-approved materials, and use of recycled fabrics like nylon and polyester.

Hell Canyon’s Snake River Trail. Photo: Mike “FeMike” Unger

Ultralight backpacking: Consider your load

If hikers are comfortable with cutting their payload to travel light — and not overstuff the pack — and are aware of continual product care, then an ultralight pack is a solid upgrade. Ideally, the transition to an ultralight pack means that the user’s other equipment is lightweight, packable, and strategically selected, too.

Ultralight backpack applications

Ultralight packs aid thru-hikers on long-distance treks with frequent resupplies, such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.

Beyond trekking, an ultralight pack is perfect for multi-sport ventures like sea kayaking or stand-up paddleboard expeditions when you need to stash a bag on the watercraft. Paddlers can then enjoy a backpacking detour in the middle of a long water trip.

Base weight 

Base weight is the complete weight of your consistent gear including your shelter, pack, and sleeping bag, and pad. The items that change day to day — water, food, and stove fuel — don’t count in the base weight. Generally, an ultralight backpacker carries a base weight of 5kg or less. A lightweight backpacker usually carries a base weight of less than 9kg.

There are also extreme ultralight backpackers who target a base weight of 2kg. This is cutting-the-toothbrush-down-to-a-stub obsessiveness and is not very common. While these numbers can help provide structured progression, they’re fluid. The most important part of piecing together ultralight backpacking gear is that you’re creating a kit that works well for your body, enjoyment, goals, and days en route.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Photo: Osprey

Trimming weight

Compute your current kit’s base weight, including your nonnegotiable items such as the pack, sleep shelter, stove, and sleeping bag. Subtract your backpack’s weight from that amount to help determine which ultralight backpack on this list is compatible with the gear you currently own, based on the recommended load weight.

Then, consider what items you typically bring backpacking but don’t use or might not need, such as a tent footprint, plate, and bowl, or extra clothing. Be honest about the equipment that’s worth the extra weight, such as an extra camera in addition to your phone, or a dedicated GPS unit and a map. A first-aid kit is always recommended.

Bigger backpacks 

Mountaineering and long-distance expeditions require their own style of packs. “Ultralight for big expeditions is a pretty small category. For big expeditions with a pack, you’re generally carrying a good bit of weight, so having a comfortable pack — like my Gregory Baltoro 85 — is ideal. I haven’t found many ultralight packs that are comfortable with a heavy load,” says Lillstrom.

These behemoth bags range from 80 to 110 litres or more. They are heavier, capable of hauling a large quantity of equipment, and able to carry more weight overall. Keith Heger says, “I use the Osprey Xenith 105 for big expeditions like summiting Vinson in Antarctica or Denali in Alaska. This is hardly an ultralight pack but it fits the bill for my guiding purposes. Pack weights on these expeditions can exceed 40% of your body weight.”

Ultralight backpacks: Subpar features

Lightweight packs work best when hikers have resupply points, as none of these packs can hold tremendous weight or more than a week’s fare. Here are the ultralight backpack details that may or may not serve you on a trek.

Padding

Overall, ultralight packs often have streamlined features in order to cut mass, such as unpadded waist belts and shoulder straps. These packs may lack internal dividers, hip belt pockets, or a pack cap.

However, clever components are woven throughout the design, such as attachment points and large mesh pockets for easy access and to dry out damp apparel. Many designs are customizable for torso or shoulder size. Some include removable straps to reduce weight even more.

Structure

The tradeoff with ultralight backpacks is that they can be less robust and lack structure compared to heavier backpacks. Ultralight packs aren’t typically the best choice for mega-expeditions and lofty mountaineering hauls because they’re smaller and aren’t built to withstand major hefts.

Durability 

With some, the extremely lightweight materials may be thin, easily erode or tear, or seams can deteriorate. Trekkers need to be aware that thick brush, sharp tree branches, sharp rocks, thorns, or cacti can pierce this space-age material. All high-end gear lasts longer if it’s well-cared for.

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About the Author

Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton

Adventure Journalist Morgan Tilton specializes in travel and outdoor industry news. She’s received multiple North American Travel Journalists Association awards including multi-accolades for “Wild & Broken: A First SUP Descent of Utah’s Escalante River,” an essay about her 100-mile SUP trip down the country’s most remote whitewater with four friends. When not typing, she’s splitboarding, running, paddling, or throttling in Southwest Colorado’s mountains, where she grew up and lives.

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Bill D.
Bill D.
1 month ago

This is the most helpful article of the many I’ve seen on this topic. It excels in clarity, organization, comprehensiveness and analysis. Thank you. Now, will you choose for me?

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Tripp Maxwell
Tripp Maxwell
1 month ago

Why is an American company like Outdoor vitals never included in these reviews? Is it because they are not sold at REI? You won’t see Chicken Tramper either.

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Ben
Ben
28 days ago
Reply to  Tripp Maxwell

Maybe they could be included if they fit the category of “best”. And the OV pack? Really? Sorry.

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Ben
Ben
28 days ago

The pic you used for the HMG Windrider is the wrong pack. That’s the HMG Southwest. The pockets are the giveaway (and the only difference between the packs).

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Michelle H.
Michelle H.
25 days ago

Any pack over 1 kg is NOT an ultralight pack.

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Addison
6 days ago

I would love this backpack! I could finally get out on the trail with my mom since I am too young to go alone. Thanks, for all the gear tips btw, really helped me pick out the right lightweight and high-quality gear for me.

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