This is the third video in our Lightweight Backpacking Foundations video series - Ultralight Backpacks. This series will help you learn how to backpack lighter and will cover a wide range of equipment options for ultralight backpacking. We also have a full Gear Guide on our site to help you find the best lightweight tools on the market.
For those of you that prefer to learn by reading, we've included episode notes as well as room for future updates and comments below. We hope you enjoy our content and we look forward to hearing your feedback!
Check out the backpacks page of our gear guide if you're interested in seeing our favorite ultralight backpack picks.
The concept of an ultralight pack is pretty much the same as a traditional style backpack. Both have one large compartment for storing the bulk of your gear, a few small pockets for items you'll want to be easily accessible, a hip belt and shoulder straps to cary the weight, and a frame to give it structure and comfort.
The key differences in ultralight packs can be seen in the lightweight materials they're constructed with, the more minimal frames they utilize, the smaller volumes that they carry and the general simplicity of the packs themselves.
Now, some of those qualities might sound like negatives, but it really just depends on your priorities. For example, if you're not carrying a bunch of bulky camping gear, you won't need a pack that can hold 70 liters, built with heavy fabric, and a thick frame for support. With a lightweight focus, you'll be able to choose a minimal pack and feel much more comfortable on the trail, while still getting all the structure and durability that you need.
Traditional backpacks will generally weigh around 4 to 7 pounds, where ultralight backpacks are usually in the 2 pound range and can sometimes be are as light as 1 pound or less. If you'd like to see some examples, check out our Ultralight Backpacks gear recommendations page to view some of our favorite models.
Ultralight backpacks are a great place to save weight and they'll provide one of the biggest weight saving opportunities on your back, but you shouldn't expect to be able to jam them full of heavy gear. That's not really what they're designed for. Don't get me wrong, I've carried 40-50 pound loads in UL packs without any problems, but they're usually designed to carry around 30-35 pounds.
Traditional backpacks are usually built with thick and sturdy materials, like nylon fabric. They are manufactured to be strong and made to take a beating. The problem is, your legs, back, and shoulders are also going to take a beating under all that weight.
Ultralight backpacks reduce weight by using thinner, high-tech fabrics that are tough enough to handle the rigors of the trail. UL companies utilize materials like cuben fiber and ripstop nylon to reduce weight while still delivering fantastic performance. Cuben fiber is extremely light but tends to be more expensive, where ripstop nylon tends to be slightly heavier but easier on the wallet.
It's true that lightweight packs won't be quite as durable as traditional packs, but they are still very tough. I have personally trekked with many ultralight backpacks, some for thousands of miles, and I've only needed to make a few small repairs along the way. If you take good care of an ultralight pack, it will last for many years and thousands of miles.
Ultralight backpack frames are another key differentiator. For some new lightweight backpackers, it can take a little getting used to an ultralight frame, but most find them to be very comfortable. Traditional backpacks are built with rigid, sturdy frames to carry heavy cargo, but you don’t want to be carrying heavy cargo, so you won't need a heavy frame.
Ultralight packs have minimal frame structures, but they are still quite effective. There are a range of different options for lightweight packs from frameless to sturdy metal frames. Some frameless ultralight packs can even be paired with foam sleeping pads to give them more structure and comfort. Other UL packs use metal stays or carbon fiber frames to provide rigid support.
Traditional backpacks tend to have lots of pockets, straps, clips, and zippers for compartmentalizing your gear. While that might seem like a convenient benefit, all those extra materials add up to a lot of weight and are often unnecessary.
Ultralight backpacks cut out a lot of those extras with design simplicity. They tend to have one large top-loading compartment, a stretchy mesh pocket on the back, water bottle holsters on the sides, and hip belt pockets for easily accessible gear.
If you're the type of hiker who likes to compartmentalize your gear, many pack manufacturers offer add-on pouches and pockets to their packs. Customizing your pack like that will usually cost a little extra and add a little weight too. We actually find that having all your gear in one top-loading compartment is more convenient once you get your packing system down.
One very important consideration when making the jump to a lightweight pack is the question of capacity. Traditional packs will usually hold between 60-80 liters in volume (3,660 - 4,880 cu in). Ultralight backpacks will have slightly less room, usually in the 40-60 liter range (2440 - 3,660 cu in).
Again, more space sounds like a good thing right? And it is, to a point, but there are two big problems with having a larger volume pack. First of all, increasing the volume of a pack will increase it's materials and it's weight. But the bigger problem is that if you have more space in your bag, you'll be tempted to fill that extra space with more gear, most of which probably be unnecessary.
One great benefit to carrying ultralight backpacking equipment is that you won't need as much space in your pack. You'll be carrying less gear overall, and the tools that you take will be lighter and smaller than traditional gear. So all you'll really need is a comfortable system for carrying a smaller and lighter amount of gear.
If you're new to lightweight backpacking and you're nervous about how much gear your pack will hold, there are some great options for large volume ultralight packs to choose from as well. A backpack with a volume range of 60-70 liters should be large enough for the vast majority of backpacking trips.
If you’re confident and fully committed to going light, you should be totally fine with a bag anywhere in the 40-60 liter range. A lot of great ultralight packs are around the sweet spot of 50 liters (3050 cu in), which is our preferred size for 4-7 day backcountry trips.
- A lightweight pack can lead to huge weight savings, which your legs and shoulders will thank you for.
- A new pack can be a good place to start saving weight, but be prepared to carry a smaller amount of gear and have less volume.
- Lightweight pack frames are usually less rigid than traditional pack frames, but you won’t need as much structure when you're packing light.
- For a pack with more support, don't choose a frameless design. Instead, choose an pack with stays or a lightweight metal frame.
- If you're planning to pack really light, choose a pack with a minimal frame structure or a frameless design.
- If you’re concerned about storage space, make sure to stick to a bag with a higher volume capacity.
- Packs that hold 40-60 L (2440 - 3,660 cu in) are pretty common for long-distance, lightweight backpackers.
- 60-80 L (3,660 - 4,880 cu in) packs are a better fit for those that are worried about needing to carry lots of gear.
- Ultralight packs are generally less durable than traditional style packs, but if you treat your ultralight pack with care, it will last for thousands of trail miles.
If you decide to make the switch to a lightweight pack, you'll be shocked at how light your new backpack feels and you'll love the newfound freedom on the trail. To see our favorite picks for ultralight packs, check out our backpack recommendations page.