7 Best Lightweight Backpacks of 2018
Whether you’re planning an epic thru-hike or a quick weekend jaunt, keeping pack weight down is key. A lightweight backpack will allow you to cover more miles using less energy, and will ultimately make backpacking way more fun.
Lightweight backpacking isn’t just for long-distance trekkers anymore. The entire outdoor industry is going light and there’s a good reason why: Lightweight backpacking is way more comfortable, plain and simple. Your backpack will be one of the four heaviest items on your back (backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), so it’s a great place to start reducing overall weight.
We’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, we hope this post helps you find the perfect pack to keep you comfortable on the trail for many years to come.
For more of our top gear recommendations, have a look through these popular CleverHiker Gear Guide links:
CRITICAL BACKPACK CONSIDERATIONS
PRICE - 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 either. We recommend a range of packs on this list from budget buys to high-end products 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, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), so it’s an important piece of gear for keeping overall weight down. The options we 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 we recommend have simple frames that will be comfortable for carrying loads up to around 35lbs. If you prefer to carry heavier loads, choose one of the packs we 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 winter trekking, consider bumping up a size to accommodate heavy, bulky gear.
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 lightweight 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 Dyneema Composite Fabric (formerly cuben fiber). In general, DCF is lighter and more water resistant, but also more expensive. Both materials are durable and highly functional for backpacks.
FIT - Fit is one of the most important factors for a 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 we recommend are well known for their comfort and we've tested them extensively in the field. 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 time frame after purchasing. We recommend buying your top choice, trying it on at home, and returning or exchanging if it doesn’t fit quite right. We’ve been buying lightweight backpacks online for years and we’ve yet to have any problems.
KEY DESIGN FEATURES
MAIN COMPARTMENT - Most lightweight backpacks have one top-loading compartment for storing the majority of your gear. That’s really all you need. Extra compartments and zippers add unnecessary weight and complexity. Pack items you won’t need until camp (tent, sleeping bag/pad, stove) in the bottom of your pack and you’ll be set.
FRONT MESH POCKET - Most lightweight packs have a large mesh pocket on the front (the side facing hikers behind you). 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 - With a lightweight pack, you won’t need to take breaks nearly as often, so you’ll want to have certain items easily accessible, like snacks, sunscreen, lip balm, camera, etc. Most of the packs we recommend have built-in hip belt pockets, but if they don’t come standard, we recommend buying the aftermarket hip belt pockets that fit your pack.
SHOULDER POUCH - We're also fond of using shoulder strap pouches on our packs. We mainly use them for easy camera access while we hike. A couple packs we 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 in the backcountry, so your water bottles should always be easy to access. It’s shocking to us when we test packs that won’t allow us to grab a water bottle while hiking. That’s just not acceptable.
WATERPROOFING - In general, it’s not a good idea to fully rely on any backpack for waterproofing. Even seam-sealed packs made from waterproof materials will develop small leaks over time, so we always recommend protecting important items (sleeping bag, clothes, electronics, etc.) in waterproof stuff sacks or plastic bags inside your pack.
HYDRATION PORTS - If you prefer drinking from a water bladder while hiking, a pack without a hydration port could be a dealbreaker. We’re not huge fans of water bladders, so this isn’t a big deal for us, but most of the packs we recommend do have hydration sleeves and ports.
TOP LID - Many lightweight backpacks don’t have a top lid these days in order to reduce weight. Instead, they use roll-top closures, clips, and straps to keep gear secure, which is very effective. We 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 towards the backpack. This will take some of the downward pressure off your shoulder straps and transfer it to the front of your shoulders and chest. Many lightweight backpacks don’t have load lifter straps these days and they’re 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. We find that we use ours quite often and many of the bags we recommend come with them built in.
7 BEST LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKS OF 2018
WEIGHT: 1lb 12oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 40lb
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest strikes an exceptional balance between weight, weather resistance, and durability. This burly backpack has a minimal design, but it’s frame is highly effective and feels sturdier than most lightweight packs. The unique DCF fabric and taped seams on the 2400 make it one of the most weather-resistant and durable lightweight packs we've ever tested, hands down. If you pair the 2400 with some of HMG’s waterproof stuff sacks/pods, you’ll have an almost completely waterproof system. The main downside with the 2400 is it’s higher price due to the DCF fabric, but this pack will last for years if treated with care. Also, the 2400 is quite comfortable, but it isn't overly padded, so don't expect extra-cushy comfort. If your ultralight setup isn't quite dialed in or you want the ability to carry bulkier winter gear, we recommend bumping up to the 3400 or 4400 model. The HMG 2400 Windrider (also in 3400 and 4400) has the same design with mesh exterior pockets.
LEARN MORE: Check out our full review of the HMG 2400 Southwest.
WEIGHT: 2lb 8oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 40lb
The Osprey Exos 48 is a cushy lightweight pack with excellent all-around value. The Exos has a sturdier frame than most lightweight packs, will carry heavier loads comfortably, and won’t break the bank either. One of our favorite features of the Exos is it’s tensioned-mesh back panel, which contours the back nicely and increases ventilation on the trail. This pack also comes with some convenient extras like a removable top lid, FlapJacket cover, and small shoulder strap pouches. The biggest downside with the Exos in our eyes is the mesh exterior pockets aren't as durable as we'd like them to be. Also, the water bottle pockets are a bit too high, making it difficult to grab a drink on the go. If your ultralight setup isn't quite dialed in or you want the ability to carry bulkier winter gear, we recommend bumping up to the larger Osprey Exos 58.
NOTE: Osprey just released a new version of the Exos as well a women's version called the Eja. We haven't trail-tested them yet, but we're pretty disappointed they don't have hip belt pockets. For those looking to shave even more weight, in Spring 2018 Osprey is releasing their ultralight Levity (men's) and Lumina (women's) packs (no hip pockets on those either). Full reviews to come.
WEIGHT: 2lb 9oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The Ultralight Adventure Equipment Circuit is a comfortable, lightweight backpack filled with features many pack companies charge extra for. The circuit’s unique, three-part frame transfers weight to the hips and gives hikers a really comfortable ride on the trail. ULA pays close attention to every detail with their pack line, and it definitely shows with the Circuit. The Catalyst is a popular ULA pack with a larger volume and max weight limit. The CDT is a frameless pack for the truly ultralight traveler.
WEIGHT: 1lb 5oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The ZPacks Arc Blast is a featherweight pack that’s an excellent fit for thru-hikers and ultralight backpackers. This pack’s unique arching frame creates a taut mesh back panel that provides great ventilation when properly packed. The Blast also has torso adjustment straps, so you can dial in the perfect fit. This pack is made with DCF fabric, which makes it highly water resistant and insanely light, but it also significantly ups the the price. In addition, features like hip pockets, trekking pole holders, and internal pouches cost extra. The Arc Haul is a good option for those willing to carry a few extra ounces for increased durability.
WEIGHT: 2lb 1oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 is a convenient and comfortable lightweight pack. One of our favorite features of the Mariposa is its removable SitLight pad, which acts as back support on the trail and a cushy seat around camp. This pack has a simple aluminum stay frame, well padded shoulder straps, and a removable hip belt. The Mariposa’s top-zip pocket is also a nice touch for storing small items, but we're less thrilled about it's asymmetrical side pockets. Gossamer Gear also offers the smaller Silverback 50 and Gorilla 40 packs.
WEIGHT: 2lb 5oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 35lb
The redesigned Granite Gear Crown2 (men’s & women’s) is a comfy lightweight pack with a large volume and an affordable price tag. The Crown2 has a unique, fully-adjustable hip belt and removable top lid. It’s simple frame consists of a moulded foam pad and and full-length, removable plastic sheet. This pack has a large volume, but it also compresses nicely when not fully loaded. The Granite Gear Blaze is a similar design pack with a stronger frame, adjustable torso, and larger front mesh pocket.
MAX WEIGHT REC: 25lb
The Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet is a featherweight frameless backpack designed for experienced ultralight travelers. This pack is simple and strong, keeping weight to an absolute minimum for those looking to crush miles. It’s a frameless pack, meaning you’ll need to travel very light and pack it carefully to keep it comfortable. Adding hip belt pockets will cost extra on this pack, but we wouldn’t buy a pack without them. MLD also makes the similar 38L Burn and 58L Exodus packs.
The following backpacks didn’t make our final list, but they’ve got a lot of good things going for them. In this section we'll try to quickly highlight each pack's main strength and explain why it didn’t make the final cut. And you never know, maybe one of these packs will be the right fit for you.
Having a tough time finding exactly what you’re looking for in an ultralight pack? Then check out ZimmerBuilt. They build custom ultralight backpacks for serious lightweight trekkers.
WEIGHT: 2lb 12oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 30lb
The REI Co-op Flash 45 (men’s & women's) is an affordable option for hikers looking to keep their pack weight down. It has a all the features you’ll want in a lightweight pack including a comfy hip belt, foam back panel, and removable top lid. We prefer the fit and feel of the Exos 48 over this pack, but the Flash 45 does have a price-to-weight ratio that’s tough to beat.
WEIGHT: 3lb 10oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 45lb
The REI Flash 65 Pack (men's & women's) is another good budget option for hikers, but this model can carry heavier loads and more volume. The downside to that equation is extra weight. We prefer the fit and feel of the Exos 58 over this pack, but the Flash 65 does have a comfortable frame, solid hip belt, and some nice features - like a full-body zipper to access any item in your pack.
WEIGHT: 4lb 6oz
MAX WEIGHT REC: 50lb
Okay, so you’ve read our 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 (men's & women's). This pack will hold 50 pounds much more comfortably than any ultralight pack, and it's still lighter than most traditional packs. At 4lb 6oz, the Atmos is heavier than the packs we choose to hike with, but it’s a favorite in many backpacking circles.
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- And More: CleverHiker Gear Guide
We hope this guide was helpful for finding the best backpack to fit your needs. If you want to provide feedback or recommend an item we missed, please use our contact form to get in touch.
Thanks for reading and happy trails!
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