7 Best Lightweight Backpacks of 2016
Whether you’re planning an epic thru-hike, a 5-day trek in the mountains, or a quick weekend jaunt in the woods, keeping pack weight down is key. The lighter your backpack, the more you’ll enjoy hiking, which makes a world of difference on backcountry trips.
Lightweight backpacking isn’t just for long-distance trekkers anymore. The entire outdoor industry is going lighter and there’s good reason for that. Lighter packs are more comfortable. Your backpack will be one of the four heaviest items on your back (backpack, shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), so it’s a great place to start reducing overall weight.
I’ve researched and tested dozens of lightweight backpacks to narrow this list down to the very best of the best. Whatever your hiking goals are, I hope this post helps you find the perfect pack to keep you comfortable on the trail for many years to come. Enjoy!
CRITICAL BACKPACK CONSIDERATIONS
COST - A solid lightweight backpack shouldn’t break the bank. That said, if you take care of your backpack, it will last for many years and thousands of trail miles. So it’s not a bad idea to invest in a good piece of equipment. I recommend a range of packs from budget buys to high-end purchases and talk about the pros and cons of each.
WEIGHT - Your backpack will be one of the four heaviest pieces of gear you carry on backcountry trips (backpack, shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), so it’s an important piece of gear for keeping overall weight down. The options I recommend have a good balance between weight, comfort, and durability.
FRAME - The lighter your overall pack weight, the less frame you’ll need. Most of the packs I recommend have simple frames that will be very comfortable carrying loads up to 35lbs. If you prefer to carry heavier loads, choose one of the packs I recommend with a sturdier frame.
VOLUME - The volume of your bag will limit how much gear you can carry in it. Most experienced lightweight backpackers can easily fit their gear in a 40-50L pack, even for a thru-hike. If you’re new to lightweight backpacking, you might want to choose a pack with a larger volume and work your way down. Also, if you plan to use your pack for snowy winter trekking, consider bumping up a size in volume.
DESIGN - A backpack doesn’t have to be complex to be exceptional. It’s often the companies that keep design elements simple and streamlined that make the best packs. At the end of the day, your backpack is just a sack to carry other gear comfortably. So don’t feel the need to overdo it with a ton of excess compartments, pouches, zippers, clips, and straps.
MATERIAL - Most lightweight backpacks are made from one of two materials: ripstop nylon or cuben fiber. In general, cuben fiber is lighter, but more expensive. Both materials are durable and highly functional for backpacks.
FIT - Fit is one of the most important factors in a comfortable backpack, but it’s also one of the toughest features to pin down until you have a pack fully loaded and on your back. The packs I recommend are well known for their comfort. Measure your torso length and hip belt size before ordering and you should be good to go.
BUYING ONLINE - Check the seller's return policy before you buy, but you can almost always return an unused pack within a certain timeframe after purchasing. I recommend buying your top choice, trying it on at home when you get it, and returning/exchanging it if it doesn’t fit quite right. I’ve been buying lightweight backpacks online for years and I’ve yet to have any problems.
KEY DESIGN FEATURES
MAIN COMPARTMENT - Most lightweight backpacks have one large top-loading compartment for storing the majority of your gear. That’s really all you need. Extra compartments and zippers add unnecessary weight. Pack items you won’t need until camp (shelter, sleeping bag/pad, stove) in the bottom of your pack and you’ll be set.
REAR MESH POCKET - Most lightweight packs have a large mesh pocket on the back. This feature comes in very handy on the trail. It’s great for gear you want to stow quickly or keep easily accessible, like a rain jacket or water purifier. It’s also good for airing out wet gear.
HIP BELT - A good hip belt is a critical feature of any backcountry pack. Your hip belt will hold most of the weight of your pack on your hips, which keeps your shoulders from tiring. Hip belts should be comfortable and transfer weight without slipping. Every pack on this list has a solid hip belt.
SHOULDER STRAPS - Shoulder straps will hold a significant amount of your pack weight as well. You’ll want them to have comfortable padding and be well spaced to avoid chafing and odd pressure points. Every pack on this list has comfortable shoulder straps.
HIP BELT POCKETS - I’m of the opinion that a backpack isn’t suitable for the trail unless it has hip belt pockets. With a lightweight pack, you won’t need to take breaks nearly as often, so you’ll want some items easily accessible (snacks, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, camera, etc.). Most of the packs I recommend come with built-in hip belt pockets. If they don’t, I highly recommend buying aftermarket hip pockets.
SHOULDER POUCH - I’m also very fond of using a shoulder strap pouch on my packs. I use it to hold my camera and sunglasses while I hike. That way those items are always protected and easily accessible. A couple of the packs I recommend come with shoulder pouches, but most don’t. So you might consider an aftermarket shoulder pouch if it sounds like a good fit for you.
WATER BOTTLE HOLSTERS - Hydration is key, so your water bottles should always be easy to get to. It’s shocking to me when I test packs where I can’t reach the water bottles with the pack on. That’s just not acceptable. Every pack on this list will allow you to grab your water bottles easily while hiking.
WATERPROOFING - In general, it’s not a good idea to rely on any backpack for waterproofing. Cuben fiber is a waterproof material, but seams sewn into a pack will keep it from being 100% waterproof, even if taped. In wet weather you’ll want to pack important items (sleeping bag, clothes, electronics, etc.) in waterproof stuff sacks or plastic bags inside your pack.
HYDRATION PORTS - If you’re a backpacker that likes to use a water bladder for hydration, not having hydration ports can be a dealbreaker. I’m not a huge fan of water bladders, so it’s not as much of a concern for me. That said, most of the packs I recommend do have hydration sleeves and ports.
TOP LID - Most lightweight backpacks don’t have top lids these days in order to reduce weight. Instead, they use roll-top closures, clips, and straps to keep gear secure, which is very effective. I do recommend a couple of packs with top lids, but if you don’t have one, you probably won’t miss it.
STERNUM STRAP - Sternum straps are included on most backpacks these days. They give you the option to connect your shoulder straps across your chest for a more secure feel. It’s a nice touch when the sternum strap has an elastic section for a little give and the clip has an emergency whistle built in.
LOAD LIFTER STRAPS - Load lifter straps can be used to pull the tops of your shoulder straps back towards your backpack. This will transfer some of the weight of your pack to the front of your shoulders and release some downward pressure. Many lightweight backpacks don’t have them and they are not really necessary if you’re carrying a light load.
TREKKING POLE & ICE AXE LOOPS - Trekking pole and ice axe loops are a nice touch. They make it easy to stow your sticks when you’re not using them to hike. I find that I use mine quite often. Most of the bags I recommend come with these stowing options.
7 BEST LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKS OF 2016
WEIGHT: 1lb 10oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 30lb
The Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40 is convenient, durable, and comfortable. It has a lightweight aluminum stay frame to transfer weight to your hips. One of my favorite features of the Gorilla 40 is it’s removable SitLight pad, which acts as back cushioning while hiking, and seat on breaks or around camp. The top-zip pocket on the Gorilla is a nice touch as well.
RELATED: The GG Mariposa 60 is a larger and more popular GG pack with a similar design. It’s not much heavier either. I prefer the Gorilla 40 for the size and symmetrical water bottle holsters.
WEIGHT: 2lb 9oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The Ultralight Adventure Equipment Circuit is a comfortable, dependable, and stylish lightweight pack with the ability to carry larger loads. The sturdy and effective frame of the Circuit is a three-part system consisting of a carbon fiber hoop, an aluminum stay, and a dense internal foam pad. ULA paid close attention to every detail with this pack, and it really shows.
RELATED: The ULA Catalyst is a popular ULA pack with a larger volume and max weight limit.
RELATED: The ULA CDT is a solid frameless pack for the truly ultralight traveler.
WEIGHT: 2lb 5oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 40lb
The Osprey Exos 48 is a cushy lightweight pack with convenient extras and the ability to carry heavier loads. Not to mention it comes at an affordable price. The Exos has a stout aluminum frame coupled with a tension-mesh back panel. This design provides excellent back ventilation when the pack isn’t crammed full. A removable top lid, FlapJacket cover, and shoulder strap pouches are a few of it’s rarely included extras.
RELATED: The Osprey Exos 58 is a larger and more popular Osprey pack with the same design. It’s not much heavier either. Both are great options, I just prefer the smaller size.
WEIGHT: 1lb 5oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The ZPacks Arc Blast is a featherweight backpack with a unique ventilation design. It’s frame is constructed from arching carbon fiber supports (hence the name) and a taut mesh back panel. This pack provides excellent back ventilation when it isn’t too full. The Arc Blast pack is constructed with cuben fiber, which is one of the reasons it’s so insanely light. The main downside of cuben fiber is that it’s expensive, so this pack comes at a premium cost. Hip belt pockets also cost extra. This pack is a good option for the truly ultralight traveler.
RELATED: This pack also comes in a 45L and 60L size. The ZPacks Arc Haul is also a good option. It's the same design built with a more durable fabric. It costs a little less, but weighs a little more.
WEIGHT: 1lb 12oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 40lb
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Windrider is a burly, light, and highly weather resistant backpack with a solid feel. It has a simple design that keeps weight to a minimum. The frame of the Windrider is a combination of removable aluminum stays and foam padding. Though the frame is simple, it’s very effective and feels sturdier than many lightweight packs I’ve tested. This pack is made with cuben fiber, which keeps it light, but also makes it more expensive.
WEIGHT: 2lb 2oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The Granite Gear Crown V.C. is a comfy lightweight pack with a large volume and an affordable price tag. The frame of the Crown V.C. is a combination of a molded foam back panel and a removable full-length plastic sheet. This pack has a large volume, but it also compresses nicely when not fully loaded. My main gripe with this pack is that it doesn’t come with hip belt pockets and I’m not a fan of Granite Gear’s aftermarket hip pocket options.
RELATED: The Granite Gear Blaze is a similar design pack with a stronger frame, adjustable torso, and larger back mesh pocket.
WEIGHT: 1lb 1oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 25lb
The Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus is a featherweight frameless backpack designed for truly ultralight travelers. This pack is simple and strong, keeping weight to an absolute minimum. It’s a frameless pack, meaning you’ll need to travel very light to keep it comfortable. As with all frameless packs, too much weight will make this backpack awkward and uncomfortable. Hip belt pockets cost extra for this pack.
WEIGHT: 3lb 10oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 50lb
The REI Flash 65 Pack (or Flash 60 for women) is another good budget option for people looking to try a lighter pack without a big financial investment. I prefer the weight and features of the Exos 58 over the Flash 65, but it does have a very comfortable frame, a solid hip belt, and some nice extras - like a full-body zipper to easily access any item in your pack.
WEIGHT: 4lb 6oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 50lb
Okay, so you’ve read my advice on hiking light and you’re just not sold. Or maybe you love the gear you have and carrying little extra weight doesn’t bother you. If that’s the case, check out the Osprey Atmos 65 AG (or AURA 65 AG for women). This backpack will hold around 65L and has an airy suspension designed to carry 50lb comfortably. At 4lb 6oz, it’s heavier than the packs I prefer to hike with, but it’s still a lot lighter than many traditional packs on the market and it has all the features you'll want.
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Disclosure: The trust of my audience is of the utmost importance to me. That’s why I only recommend equipment I love from companies I trust. I have not been paid to review any of the products listed above. A couple of items were provided to me for free to review, but I purchased most of this equipment myself. Also, I am under no obligation to give positive reviews to any of the products listed above. This gear just rocks. This page contains affiliate links. Check out my terms page for more info.