Once a niche segment of backpacking, ultralight (UL) gear is gaining traction among outdoor enthusiasts who want to travel faster and further with less weight on their back. Nowadays there are countless choices of tents, sleeping bags, cook systems, and outerwear to choose from, but perhaps the most important piece of gear is the item that allows you to carry it all comfortably—the backpack. Ultralight packs are lightweight by design while also balancing carrying comfort, durability, ventilation, and organization. Below we break down our favorite models of 2023, from featured haulers from brands like Osprey and Gregory to streamlined and customizable packs from top ultralight brands. For background information, see our ultralight backpack comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
- Best Overall Ultralight Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest
- Best UL Pack for Customizing Fit: ULA Equipment Circuit
- Standout Mix of Support and Ventilation: Gregory Focal 58 / Facet 55
- Best Frameless Ultralight Backpack: Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L
- Best Fastpacking Pack: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30
Best Overall Ultralight Backpack
Weight: 1 lb. 15.6 oz.
Fabric: Dyneema (50D & 150D)
Capacities: 40, 55, 70L
What we like: Impressively light but durable, highly water-resistant, and can carry a full load.
What we don’t: Expensive; minimal organization and poor ventilation.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 is without a doubt one of the most refined ultralight packs available for a variety of hiking styles, whether you’re thru-hiking the PCT, embarking on a fast-and-light weekend adventure, or off-trail scrambling. Dyneema is the headlining feature here: This burly fabric is known for its incredible strength-to-weight ratio and tear resistance, in addition to being fully waterproof. As a result, the sub-2-pound Southwest 3400 is one of the lightest packs here but also ridiculously hardwearing, which is rare among ultralight packs. Importantly, with removable aluminum stays, a foam backpanel, and wide and supportive hipbelt, it’s also capable of carrying loads up to 40 pounds (many packs below are rated only to 30-35 lbs.).
Hyperlite’s 3400 Southwest is our top pick for dedicated thru-hikers who log a lot of miles, but it’s overkill for recreational backpackers. At $379 for the white pack ($399 for the more durable black model), the 55-liter 3400 will cost you almost twice as much as a pack like the REI Flash below. In addition, organization is very streamlined, and the lidless design might be a shock to the system for those switching over from standard backpacking fare. Finally, the Dyneema backpanel can grow swampy: If you primarily hike in hot climates or tend to run warm, you’ll want better ventilation. But you won’t find a better combination of weight savings, durability, and carrying comfort, which is what many of us look for in an ultralight pack. It’s also worth checking out Hyperlite’s Windrider, Junction, and NorthRim (these packs only differ from the Southwest in terms of pocket materials) or the new Unbound 40 below... Read in-depth review
See the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest
Best UL Pack for Customizing Fit
Weight: 2 lbs. 5.3 oz.
Fabric: Robic nylon (400D) & X-Pac laminate
What we like: Highly customizable fit; great carrying comfort and durability.
What we don’t: Not as lightweight or durable as the Southwest above.
If you were to venture out on any of the major long trails in the United States (the PCT or AT, for example), chances are you’d see many packs made by the popular cottage brand ULA Equipment. The Circuit here is their most well-rounded design: Sticking close to the standard UL formula, it features a bare-bones main compartment with a roll top, three large dump pockets, and a hipbelt pocket on each side. But what sets the Circuit apart is its wide range of sizes and fit customization: When ordering through ULA’s website, you can easily customize the hipbelt (6 sizes from XS to XXL), torso (4 sizes from S to XL), and shoulder strap style (J or S straps). What’s more, the site also includes helpful guidelines and instructional videos on how to take your measurements and dial in the right size. If you’ve had a hard time finding a well-fitting backpack, the ULA Circuit might be a game changer.
The Circuit has a lot more going for it than just its customizable fit. Carrying comfort is impressively high for such a pared-down hauler, thanks to the aluminum stay (which can be bent to fit the contour of your back), perimeter hoop, and rigid foam sheet. During a trek in Chile’s Parque Patagonia, we were impressed with how comfortably the Circuit carried a 30-pound load (ULA places its load limit at 35 lbs.), and noticed no pressure points or rubbing throughout four days on the trail. And while the Circuit can’t quite match the durability or low weight of the Dyneema Southwest above, its 400-denier Robic nylon and X-Pac laminate are significantly hardwearing and water-resistant—we’ve heard many reports of hikers using the same ULA pack for multiple long-distance thru-hikes, which speaks volumes (ULA's X-Pac Circuit is an even more durable design). In the end, the Circuit is an exceptional value at $280 and our top pick for hikers looking for a Goldilocks fit.
See the ULA Equipment Circuit
Standout Mix of Support and Ventilation
Weight: 2 lbs. 10.4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
Capacities: 48, 58L
What we like: A lightweight take on a traditional pack, with excellent ventilation and support.
What we don’t: Heavy, few fit adjustments, thin materials lack durability.
Gregory generally focuses their efforts on comfort-first, fully featured designs for traditional backpackers, but the new Focal (and women’s Facet) is a successful stab at an ultralight pack. Taking the place of the Optic (and women's Octal), the Focal resembles a standard backpacking pack at first glance, with a floating lid, well padded hipbelt and shoulder straps, and ample pockets for organization. Importantly—and like many of Gregory’s heavier designs—it also features a suspended mesh backpanel that separates the pack from the body, offering unparalleled ventilation compared to the ultralight competition. Continuing with the unique design, the Focal’s shoulder straps and hipbelt are integrated seamlessly into the backpanel mesh; with no seams to cause hotspots or rub against, this makes for a very comfortable ride.
We tested the women’s Facet 55L on a four-day trek in Patagonia, and came away impressed with its carrying comfort, fit, and convenient organization. Overall, the pack seems to take all of the essentials from a traditional design with no unnecessary additions, and we really appreciated the user-friendly fit and finish (which cottage brand designs sometimes lack). However, the Gregory won’t appeal to all ultralight enthusiasts—it’s relatively heavy at 2 pounds 10.4 ounces for the men’s medium, and with few removable features you don’t get much opportunity to shave weight. Further, durability is on the low side with thin 100 and 210-denier nylon. And in terms of fit, you only get the choice between three sizes—the hipbelt and torso lengths are not adjustable. But for weekend warriors, aspiring ultralight enthusiasts, or thru-hikers looking to prioritize ventilation and comfort, it’s hard to fault the Focal for its well-balanced design... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Gregory Focal 58 See the Women's Gregory Facet 55
Best Frameless Ultralight Backpack
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (210D)
What we like: A lightweight and durable frameless pack for the most discerning of UL hikers.
What we don’t: Uncomfortable when loaded down; dump pockets are not stretchy.
The majority of ultralight enthusiasts will opt for a framed pack that can handle loads up to about 35 pounds, which is an ideal pairing for long-distance thru-hikes and those carrying fairly standard ultralight equipment (i.e. a base weight around 12-15 lbs.). That said, there’s a whole category of UL packs built for serious hikers who want to travel even lighter (some folks travel with base weights in the 6-7 lb. range), including the Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Exodus here. The Exodus is characterized by a frameless design, which eliminates the stays, peripheral hoops, and rigid frame sheets commonly seen in fully featured ultralight packs, shaving a considerable amount of weight and bulk (the pack weighs in at 1 lb. 2 oz.). Because of their lower overall comfort and support, we don’t recommend frameless packs for most, but they’re a popular niche item for dedicated ULers who’ve pared down the rest of their kit, too.
Aside from the frameless design, the Exodus looks a lot like a standard ultralight pack, with a cavernous main compartment with roll-top closure, external dump pockets, and 210-denier ripstop nylon (you can also bump up to a more durable and water-resistant Ecopak Ultra version for $325). We have noticed that the side pockets are a little tight (making it difficult to pack and unpack water bottles), especially in comparison to the stretchy construction seen in packs like the Circuit above and Mariposa below. Further, with just three sizes and no adjustable components, you don’t get the kind of fit customization offered from most cottage-brand designs. But it’s all about weight-savings here, and for thru-hikers who geek out on base weights and ounce-counting, the Exodus 55L is one of the most popular frameless packs on the trail.
See the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L
Best Fastpacking Pack
Weight: 1 lb. 8.3 oz.
Capacities: 20, 30, 40L
What we like: UL pack meets running vest, with a few additional features.
What we don’t: Thin fabrics; you’ll want a padded hipbelt for loads over 20 pounds.
Fastpacking is an emerging segment of backcountry travel, combining the appeal of long, multi-day routes with a fast-and-light ethic. If you have good fitness and a light pack, trails that might take backpackers a week (or more) can be tackled in just a few days. And along with the growth of this discipline has come a new style of backpack, merging the capacity of an overnight pack with the on-the-go access and close ride of a running vest. It should come as no surprise that Ultimate Direction—a solid player in the running market—makes one of our favorite designs in their Fastpack (and women’s Fastpackher) series. With three capacities for men (20, 30, 40L) and two for women (20, 30L), you can further dial in your choice depending on your load.
The Fastpack 30 truly is a hybrid design: On one hand, it features the simple layout of a UL pack, with a cavernous main compartment, roll-top closure, and three stretch dump pockets along the front and side. But you also get the front storage of a running pack, ideal for accessing food and water on the go. And then there’s wild-card features like the side-zipper pocket (offering secondary access to the main compartment) and removable webbing hipbelt, which provides an extra bit of support for heavier loads. Overall, we love the design of the Fastpack 30 for moving quickly with minimal gear, but the thin fabrics will require extra care and you’ll certainly need to keep your weight low. Within this category, it’s also worth checking out Arc’teryx’s Aerios 30, which is heavier at 2 pounds and less comfortable for running, but is well built, has great storage, and carries gear remarkably well.
See the Men's Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 See the Women's UD Fastpackher 30
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 14.5 oz.
Fabric: Robic nylon (100D & 200D)
What we like: A lightweight, customizable design that will appeal to serious thru-hikers.
What we don’t: Less durability and fit customization than the ULA Circuit above.
Gossamer Gear is a household name in ultralight backpacking, with a popular collection of packs for a range of adventures. Their largest capacity hauler, the Mariposa 60, is one of our go-tos for everything from quick overnights to week-long missions. Despite the sub-2-pound build (for the medium frame and hipbelt), it offers 60 liters of capacity spread out between a main compartment and seven exterior pockets, and is impressively supportive for loads up to 35 pounds (we took it right up to the limit). What’s more, the feature set is clearly designed by experienced thru-hikers: You get a tall side pocket to stash a tent or shelter, two pockets on the right side for water bottles and a filter, a stretchy rear pocket that offers quick access to essentials, large hipbelt pockets, and a bear-canister-compatible main compartment. Uniquely, the removable foam backpanel is located on the outside of the pack for easy accessibility and doubles as a great sit pad for trail-side breaks and camp life.
The Mariposa joins the Circuit above as one of the most popular cottage-brand UL packs on the trail. But while the Gossamer Gear is the clear winner in terms of weight, it falls short of the ULA in a few key ways: First off, the fabric is noticeably thinner, which will be of little concern to most recreational hikers (our pack has held up well to general use and abuse) but noticeable for those who spend months of each year on the trail. Further, the Mariposa offers far less fit customization—you get your pick of three torso and hipbelt sizes, compared to the Circuit’s larger set of offerings (including two styles of shoulder straps). And finally, we found its foam backpanel to bunch up throughout a day of hiking, and many hikers will trade in another foam pad or inflatable pad in place of the stock design (Gossamer Gear also offers a more rigid SitLight Camp Seat). But for dedicated ULers that prioritize organization, the Mariposa is a bare-bones yet fully functional backpack... Read in-depth review
See the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
Weight: 2 lbs. 13.4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 400D)
Capacities: 38, 48, 58L
What we like: Excellent ventilation; ideal for those transitioning from traditional backpacking.
What we don’t: Heavy; not a standout in terms of durability.
Two of the most established pack specialists in the traditional backpacking realm, Gregory and Osprey often go tit for tat with their offerings. The Exos here is no exception, giving the Focal above a run for its money with a very similar yet more time-tested (and now updated) design. Like the Focal, the Exos (and women’s Eja) strikes a fine balance between a traditional backpacking pack and an ultralight hauler, and is known for its well-rounded organization, carrying comfort, and ventilation (via a suspended mesh backpanel). The new Exos 58 builds upon the previous version with hipbelt pockets, an integrated rain cover, more durable stretch mesh pockets, and an adjustable torso length. And in testing the latest women's Eja 58, we found it to be similarly breathable on hot days and decently comfortable for carrying loads of 30 pounds and less.
Deciding between the Exos and the Focal is an exercise in splitting hairs; the reality is that if you like one of these packs, you’ll likely be a fan of the other. But there are some minor differences: The Gregory clocks in about 3 ounces lighter for the men’s small/medium (compared to the Osprey’s medium), and features slightly larger hipbelt pockets (our women’s Facet accommodates an iPhone 11 in a case, but it’s a tight squeeze). On the other hand, the Osprey is a better option for those who struggle with getting a good pack fit—it’s offered in three sizes rather than two, and now also features an adjustable torso. Plus you get slightly more durable fabrics with the Exos, although the overall longevity of the packs will likely be very similar. In the end, both designs are great options for those who prefer a traditional pack over more polarizing ultralight offerings... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Osprey Exos 58 See the Women's Osprey Eja 58
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 420D)
What we like: Great value, lightweight, highly customizable.
What we don’t: Thin nylon pack body lacks durability; fit can be difficult to dial in.
REI Co-op’s in-house gear is well known for value, and their Flash 55 pack is no exception. Designed to meet the growing interest in lightweight backpacking, the 2-pound 10-ounce, $199 Flash is a well-rounded choice for those in the market for an entry-level UL pack. REI claims the Flash can handle loads up to 30 pounds, and we’ve been impressed with its carrying comfort, thanks to the internal wire frame and padded mesh backpanel. Most of all, we love the Flash’s adaptability: With a removable lid, hipbelt, compression straps, and both hipbelt and shoulder pockets, you can modify and adjust the pack to suit your hiking style and organizational needs (removing all of these components brings the pack weight down to a very competitive 2 lbs. 3 oz.). In this way, the REI toes the line between a traditional backpacking pack and UL design better than the Gregory and Osprey above, making it a solid alternative for beginner ultralighters looking to buy from a familiar brand.
But for such a low price, the Flash does come with a number of compromises. Compared to the burly Dyneema of the Hyperlite or the thick Robic nylon of the Circuit, the REI uses thin 100-denier nylon in the body and 420-denier nylon on the bottom. We experienced no durability issues during our testing in the notoriously rugged Grand Canyon, but the Flash certainly won’t hold up to wear and tear as well as more robust packs here. Further, we’ve found the fit to be a bit difficult to dial in—the Flash 55 comes in three sizes but offers little in the way of adjustability. If you want to stay in the sub-$300 price range, the Granite Gear Crown3 below tacks on a fully adjustable hipbelt for around $40 more. But for just $199, the Flash 55 represents an excellent value for traditional backpackers wanting to lighten their load. Editor’s note: The unisex/men's Flash 55 is currently out of stock (the women's Flash is almost gone, too), but we expect to see an updated version hit the shelves in spring 2023... Read in-depth review
See the Men's REI Co-op Flash 55 See the Women's REI Co-op Flash 55
Weight: 2 lbs. 6 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
Capacities: 15, 30, 45L
What we like: An ultralight design combined with Arc’teryx’s technical savvy.
What we don’t: Not ideal for fastpacking as the hipbelt is bulky and not removable.
In a category dominated by mom-and-pop cottage brands, it’s a bit of a surprise to see an Arc’teryx pack in our ultralight article—but it’s also a sign of how popular this once-niche activity has become. The Aerios 45 is exactly what we’d expect Arc’teryx to accomplish with a UL pack, and stands apart from other models here with its high-end construction and sleek styling. You get most of the features that run standard, including a cavernous main compartment with roll-top closure, side stash pockets, and durable yet lightweight materials. But of course, Arc'teryx tacked on some additional flair, adding a front zippered pocket for quick access to essentials, zippered access to the main compartment, a breathable backpanel, and vest-style shoulder straps (similar to designs like the Ultimate Direction Fastpack above and Pa’lante Joey below). It all adds up to a souped-up and technically savvy 45-liter pack for supported thru-hikes, fastpacking, and quick overnights.
We have nothing but praise for the Aerios 45 when it comes to hiking, but it’s not our favorite design for running. First off, the backpanel and hipbelt are fairly bulky, and the latter is not removable on either the 30- or 45-liter models. What’s more, the frame is particularly noticeable, especially when compared with running-vest-style designs that move more as an extension of the body. If you’re hoping to run stretches of trail, the pack will undoubtedly feel cumbersome and overbuilt. Second, the sternum strap has a tendency to loosen over time—even while hiking, we had to snug it up every so often. But if you consider the Aerios 45 as a backpacking pack rather than fastpacking pack, there’s not much to complain about—the shoulder-strap and hipbelt pockets provide access to essentials on the go, the backpanel is more breathable than most, and it’s hard to beat the Arc’teryx high-end fit and finish. It’s a bit pricier and heavier than the competition and not versatile for longer routes, but the Aerios 45 is nevertheless a solid pick for light loads.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Aerios 45 See the Women's Arc'teryx Aerios 45
Weight: 2 lbs.
Fabric: LS07 & VX07 laminates
What we like: Highly customizable design for light loads.
What we don’t: Too small and complex for those just starting out.
If you’re after a classic ultralight gear experience, look no further than Six Moon Designs’ Swift X. This pack offers a ridiculous amount of customization, including the choice between two different sets of materials, standard shoulder or vest-style straps, frameless or framed configurations, multiple hipbelt sizes, and more. Set up in various ways, the pack ranges from 1 pound 10 ounces to just over 2 pounds, and can play double-duty for everything from quick-moving fastpacking missions to week-long stretches of trail (like most packs here, the Swift X maxes out at 35 lbs. with the suspension-hoop frame). And Six Moon Designs also offers the Swift V, which swaps in more affordable Robic nylon and appeals to the budget-conscious hiker with a $250 price point.
As we mentioned in the Exodus 55L write-up above, the choice between a frame or frameless pack will largely come down to the weight of the rest of your gear. Six Moon Designs recommends an 8-pound base weight when using the Swift X without the frame, which bumps up to 12 pounds with the suspension hoop. We like a frame pack for most backpacking trips, but there are certainly times when our load is so light that the additional rigidity feels cumbersome and overkill. With a pack like the Swift X, you have the versatility to opt for either configuration (and the 49L capacity pulls off both well), whereas packs like the Zpacks (below) and Osprey and Gregory above have a fixed frame that cannot be removed. We don’t recommend the Six Moon Designs for those just dipping their toes into the ultralight world, but if you have the rest of your gear sorted and like to configure your pack to the adventure at hand, it’s a premium choice from a trusted brand.
See the Six Moon Designs Swift X
Weight: 1 lb. 8.7 oz.
Fabric: Dyneema (3.5 oz/sqyd)
What we like: A comfortable and nicely appointed pack for an impressively low weight.
What we don’t: Expensive; uses thinner Dyneema fabric than Hyperlite packs.
Zpacks has been a pillar of the ultralight cottage industry since its beginnings, providing a one-stop shop for “The Big Three”—packs, shelters, and sleeping bags—with a reputation for impressively low weights. Case in point is their Arc Zip Ultra 62L, which checks in nearly a half-pound less than most competitive UL packs. Showcasing Zpacks’ unique design, the Arc Zip Ultra uses an external frame (most frames are internal) to distribute the load and pull the pack away from the body, along with a lycra panel to support the back. This construction encourages airflow, isolates the pack’s contents from the body without the added weight of a foam backpanel, and provides support for loads of up to a whopping 40 pounds. Given that the Zpacks is built with Dyneema—which suffers in terms of breathability—this suspended backpanel makes the pack a nice alternative to the swampy Hyperlite Southwest above.
The Arc Zip Ultra’s low weight is even more impressive when you factor in its organizational system, including a large zippered opening on the front for easy access to the main compartment, similar to traditional backpacking packs three times the Zpacks’ weight. The rest of the pack’s design is top-notch, including a very adjustable suspension system, lots of external pockets, taped seams for water resistance, and more. Our biggest gripe with the Arc Zip Ultra is price—at $449, it’s the most expensive pack here—and the thin 3.5-ounce-per-square-yard Dyneema isn’t as durable as the Southwest’s 3.5- and 5-ounce material (the Zpacks is also offered with an even thinner 2.92 oz/sqyd Dyneema). But for a top-of-the-line combination of weight, comfort, ventilation, durability, and ease of use, it doesn’t get much better.
See the Zpacks Arc Zip Ultra 62L
Weight: 2 lbs. 9.3 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
What we like: Great organization and customizable design.
What we don’t: Lacks a premium fit and finish; does not use recycled materials or PFC-free DWR.
Though not quite a household name like backpack giants Hyperlite or Osprey, Granite Gear has quietly established itself on the ultralight scene as a brand to trust. One of their most popular all-rounders, the Crown3 is reminiscent of a traditional backpacking design, with a relatively large volume (60L), zippered lid, and array of external straps and pockets to keep even the most organized hikers happy. With a molded plastic frame sheet, the pack is supportive up to 35 pounds (add an aluminum stay to increase the load limit to 43 lbs.), and a highly adjustable hipbelt can accommodate bodies of most sizes. Finally, if you’re traveling with a particularly light load, it’s possible to remove some of the components (the lid, hipbelt, and frame sheet) and drop weight by a full pound.
We should note that the previous model of this pack held our top spot for best budget ultralight pack—so why the lower rating for the Crown3? The updated version left us mildly disappointed after a recent 43-mile backpacking trip. Our main gripe is the short and squat build, which felt ungainly and squirrelly on off-camber terrain (the lack of stabilizer straps at the waist did not help). What’s more, with arguably too many straps (we removed a number of them before leaving home) and oversized pockets, the Crown3 lacks the premium finishes of the Osprey and Gregory above. And finally, while much of the competition has turned to recycled fabrics and PFC-free DWR finishes, Granite Gear still lags a bit behind. We might be singing a different tune about the Crown3 if the price were still low at $200, but at $240, the latest version is now less competitive than most packs here... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Granite Gear Crown3 60 See the Women's Granite Gear Crown3 60
Weight: 1 lb. 14.4 oz.
Fabric: Dyneema (50D & 150D)
What we like: A purpose-built pack for serious thru-hikers.
What we don’t: With just 40 liters of internal capacity, you’ll need a pretty dialed UL kit.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s 3400 Southwest gets our top spot this year, but we’d be remiss not to also include their new Unbound 40. With a sleek 49 liters of capacity (40 on the inside, 9 on the outside), this pack was purpose-built for thru-hikers tackling long trails like the PCT, AT, or CDT. Compared to the Southwest, the Unbound features better on-the-go storage, including larger side pockets and a Dyneema Stretch Mesh pocket on both the front and bottom of the pack (the latter is great for storing trash or wet gear). What’s more, it cuts weight with streamlined 5/8-inch webbing and hardware and a single lightweight aluminum stay (most Hyperlite packs have two). Finally, you get updated features like exterior seam binding (resulting in a sleeker interior and improved water resistance) and a V-pull cinch that tightens the top and bottom of the hipbelt separately for a closer fit.
We’ll be testing the Unbound 40 this winter on a multi-day trek in Southern Patagonia, and will be sure to update this review with our findings. If you’re thinking of opting for this pack over a model like the 3400 or 4400 Southwest, there are just a few considerations to keep in mind. For one, 40 liters is a tight squeeze for multi-day treks, and you’ll want to be sure the rest of your equipment is similarly streamlined (for an easy solution, Hyperlite also offers the Unbound sleeping quilt and trekking-pole shelter). Second, the Dyneema Stretch Mesh isn’t as durable as the Hardline used on the Southwest’s pockets, so you’ll want to take care on brushy trails and around sharp rocks. But for the right hiker, the Unbound 40 is a great mix of durability and convenience at a super low weight.
See the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Unbound 40
Weight: 2 lbs. 2 oz.
Fabric: Ecopak (200D & 400D)
Capacities: 40, 50L
What we like: Durable construction and a 50-pound load limit.
What we don’t: Handmade aesthetic isn’t for everyone; long lead time.
Based in Michigan, Superior Wilderness Designs (SWD) is a small cottage brand with a variety of made-to-order UL packs and accessories. Within their lineup of internal-frame and frameless packs, the Long Haul 50L is their most popular model. Like many of the packs here, the Long Haul features a simplified design with roll-top closure, three external dump pockets, and myriad external attachment points (you can purchase hipbelt pockets separately through SWD), and checks in just over 2 pounds for the 50-liter version. Notably, SWD gives it a 50-pound load limit, which is significantly higher than similar designs like the Mariposa and Circuit above. And the pack also stands out in terms of materials: SWD recently switched from X-Pac and Dyneema to Ecopak, a new and entirely recycled fabric that is said to be even more durable and abrasion resistant than the aforementioned fabrics while still offering a high level of water repellency. In the case of the Long Haul, you get 200-denier Ecopak on the pack body and 400-denier on the bottom, which should stand up to some serious abuse.
Only time will tell how Ecopak fares compared to more traditional fabrics like nylon and Dyneema, but all signs point to the Long Haul being a durable, ultralight workhorse (is that an oxymoron?)—and we appreciate that SWD is displaying a real commitment to eco-friendly practices, which isn’t always easy or economical for a small business. It’s also worth noting that SWD also offers a few frameless designs, which (like the Exodus above) are a great option for serious ULers who want to shave even more weight. Keep in mind, though, that due to being such a small operation, all of SWD’s packs are handmade to order, which means you won’t be able to try the Long Haul on at your local shop before buying—and at the time of writing, the wait time is about 12 weeks. But for a pack made by thru-hikers, for thru-hikers, the Long Haul is another solid pick.
See the Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul 50L
Weight: 1 lb. 13.6 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (30D & 210D)
Capacities: 45, 60L
What we like: Ventilated yet lightweight; a pared-down version of the Exos above.
What we don’t: Thin fabrics and not supportive for heavy loads.
Released in 2018, the Levity represents the evolution of Osprey’s tried and tested ultralight pack, the Exos (above). Weighing just 1 pound 13.6 ounces for the 45-liter version, the Levity is competitively lightweight yet more featured than most sub-2-pound designs, with a supportive metal frame, zippered lid, and effective ventilation system borrowed from Osprey’s more traditional packs. As we see on the Focal and Exos above, the Levity also integrates the hipbelt and shoulder straps into the suspended mesh backpanel, which both bolsters carrying comfort and saves weight.
But in our opinion, not all of Osprey’s weight-shaving tactics result in a better pack. For one, the Levity’s body is built with 30-denier nylon, which is so thin it’s see-through (the more abrasion-prone bottom is 210D). While we didn’t have any issues with these fabrics while testing, they’re unlikely to hold up during a months-long thru-hike or travel in bushwack-y terrain. In addition, the Levity’s thin hipbelt quickly becomes unsupportive at its weight limit (Osprey recommends 5-20 lbs.). For better durability and carrying comfort at a lower weight (including backpanel ventilation), the Zpacks Arc Zip Ultra above is a solid contender, but it’ll cost you considerably more at $449. On the other hand, the Osprey Exos or Gregory Focal are logical choices, especially for those who want to stick with a more traditional backpacking design. But for light loads, the Levity nevertheless offers great ventilation and convenient organization at a relatively low cost. Editor’s note: For spring 2023, the Levity and Lumina are being replaced with the new Exos and Eja LT, which will feature the same NanoFly material used in the outgoing models... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Osprey Levity 45 See the Women's Osprey Lumina 45
Weight: 14.8 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (100D & 210D)
What we like: A premium design with great styling and thoughtful features.
What we don’t: Only comes in one size; no hipbelt.
Merging ultralight gear with a hefty dose of urban styling, Utah-based Pa’lante has amassed a cult following since its beginnings in 2016, regularly selling out of packs immediately upon release. The small company offers four frameless pack designs, each handmade with a specific purpose in mind (they also sell a kit that includes everything you need to sew your own pack). Among their models, the Joey here is their fastpacking pack, joining the ranks of the Ultimate Direction Fastpack above as a minimalist hauler that prioritizes a close fit and on-the-go shoulder storage. For seasoned ULers well-versed in tarp shelters, foam sleeping pads, and alcohol stoves (you’ll want to keep your base weight in the 5-8 lb. range), it’s an intriguing choice.
The Joey is hard to beat if you’re a sucker for aesthetics, but at $240 it’ll cost you significantly more than the Fastpack 30 above (which features 6L more carrying capacity). The Pa’lante also lacks the zippered pockets and full side-zip access to the main compartment that you get with the Ultimate Direction, and forgoes a hipbelt completely. What’s more, it only comes in one size, while the Fastpack 30 comes in two sizes for both men and women. But the Joey is nevertheless designed with an impressive attention to detail: The shoulder pockets accommodate a 1-liter Smartwater bottle, the exterior has a sleek and seamless look, and, like all Pa’lante packs, the Joey features a stretchy stash pocket on the bottom panel for even more on-the-go storage. If you’re a serious fastpacker with a dialed kit of ultralight gear, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more premium design.
See the Pa'lante Joey
|UL Backpack||Price||Weight||Fabric||Capacities||Load Limit||Frame|
|Hyperlite 3400 Southwest||$379||1 lb. 15.6 oz.||Dyneema (50D & 150D)||40, 55, 70L||40 lbs.||Yes|
|ULA Equipment Circuit||$280||2 lb. 5.3 oz.||Robic (400D) & X-Pac||68L||35 lbs.||Yes|
|Gregory Focal 58||$250||2 lb. 10.4 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||48, 58L||35 lbs.||Yes|
|MLD Exodus 55L||$245||1 lb. 2 oz.||Nylon (210D)||58L||20-25 lbs.||No|
|Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30||$180||1 lb. 8.3 oz.||Polyester||20, 30, 40L||Unavail.||No|
|Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60||$285||1 lb. 14.5 oz.||Robic (100D & 200D)||60L||35 lbs.||Yes|
|Osprey Exos 58||$260||2 lb. 13.4 oz.||Nylon (100D & 400D)||38, 48, 58L||30-35 lbs.||Yes|
|REI Co-op Flash 55||$199||2 lb. 10 oz.||Nylon (100D & 420D)||55L||30 lbs.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Aerios 45||$250||2 lb. 6 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||15, 30, 45L||Unavail.||Yes|
|Six Moon Designs Swift X||$350||2 lbs.||LS07 & VX07 laminates||49L||35 lbs.||Yes|
|Zpacks Arc Zip Ultra 62L||$449||1 lb. 8.7 oz.||Dyneema (3.5 oz/sqyd)||62L||40 lbs.||Yes|
|Granite Gear Crown3 60||$240||2 lb. 9.3 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||60L||35 lbs.||Yes|
|Hyperlite Unbound 40||$369||1 lb. 14.4 oz.||Dyneema (50D & 150D)||49L||40 lbs.||Yes|
|SWD Long Haul 50L||$299||2 lb. 2 oz.||Ecopak (200D & 400D)||40, 50L||50 lbs.||Yes|
|Osprey Levity 45||$250||1 lb. 13.6 oz.||Nylon (30D & 210D)||45, 60L||20 lbs.||Yes|
|Pa’lante Joey||$240||14.8 oz.||Nylon (100D & 210D)||24L||Unavail.||No|
- UL Backpacks vs. Traditional Backpacks
- Frame vs. Frameless Packs
- UL Backpack Weight
- Carrying Capacity
- Load Limits
- UL Backpack Features
- Materials and Durability
- Water Protection
- Sizing and Fit
- The Ultralight Cottage Industry
- Completing Your UL Kit
Most traditional backpacking packs range from about 50 to 80 liters and weigh anywhere from 3.5 to 6 pounds. On the other hand, ultralight (UL) packs range from 40 to 70 liters in capacity and weigh less than 3 pounds, with some uber-minimalist designs checking in just over a pound. But aside from being lighter, how does an ultralight pack differ from a standard backpacking pack?
First off is organization: Instead of an array of zippered pockets gracing the interior and exterior, ultralight packs typically feature just one main compartment accessed through a drawstring or roll-top closure, along with stretchy dump pockets on the sides and rear of the pack. A second distinguishing feature is a pared-down suspension system—while traditional backpacking packs have bulky stays and frame sheets, most ultralight packs keep it simple with just one or two lightweight stays or a carbon fiber perimeter hoop (some UL packs forgo the frame completely—more on this below). It’s for this reason that the majority of ultralight packs have load limits around 30 to 35 pounds, while traditional packs can carry up to 50 pounds (or more). Finally, ultralight backpacks differ in terms of their materials, employing much thinner nylon (for example, the Gregory Focal uses a 210D nylon base compared to the more traditional Baltoro’s 630D base) or more expensive fabrics known for their high strength-to-weight ratios.
One final trait that differentiates UL backpacks from traditional models is the ability to customize, both before and after purchasing. Many ultralight packs are handmade to order by small cottage brands, which gives you the ability to pick your fabric, hipbelt and torso size, shoulder strap style, additional components (like hipbelt or shoulder pockets), and more. Once you have your pack, you can continue to tweak it, with most designs featuring a number of removable parts (great for shaving weight) or customizable components like compression straps. With larger brands entering the space this isn’t always a given—for example, the Gregory Focal is far less customizable than the ULA Equipment Circuit—but it will always be a fun hallmark of the UL world and a big selling point for cottage brands.
While most of the top ultralight packs have an internal frame that distributes weight and provides load-bearing structure, there’s also a whole category of frameless designs. In general, framed packs are the better all-rounders: They can comfortably carry more weight (frameless packs tend to slouch), have larger capacities, and often offer improved ventilation. Overall, if your base weight is above 10 to 12 pounds and you plan to be on-trail for more than a few days, a pack with a frame will be more comfortable. On the other hand, a frameless pack (like the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30) is typically lighter and can carry less weight and volume. This may be appealing if you’re very focused on keeping weight down—after all, it’s easy to fill whatever space is available—and with less rigid components, they operate more as an extension of your body (certainly better for running). Which type of pack you decide on will likely come down to how much weight you’re carrying, length and style of trip, and experience level.
As we mentioned above, ultralight packs generally check in under 3 pounds. Models that hover on the heavy side of the spectrum, like the Osprey Exos (2 lbs. 13.4 oz.), are fairly similar to traditional backpacking packs, but stripped down with thinner fabrics, less external pockets, and more streamlined suspension. If you’re new to ultralight gear, this is a good place to start. Around the 2-pound mark, you have packs like the Hyperlite 3400 Southwest (1 lb. 15.6 oz.) and ULA Circuit (2 lbs. 5.3 oz.), which feature fairly minimal organization (no lids) and backpanel designs, although they still have internal frames and fully supportive hipbelts and shoulder straps. These are the meat of the category and our top recommendation for most ultralight enthusiasts and thru-hikers. At the lightest end are frameless packs like the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L (1 lb. 2 oz.) and a few outlying frame packs like the 1-pound-8.7-ounce Zpacks Arc Zip Ultra 62L. As you might expect, uber-ultralight packs are the most compromised of the bunch, and in our opinion best reserved for experienced hikers with dialed ultralight kits.
Most ultralight packs feature less carrying capacity than traditional backpacking packs, checking in anywhere from 30 to 60 liters. This is based on a few factors: For one, UL gear is typically a lot more streamlined than traditional backpacking fare, so you don’t need a high-volume hauler to fit it all in. Second, a pack’s capacity places a limit on how much you can bring, which is essential for moving fast and light. But do keep in mind that a pack’s capacity does not always correspond to its load limit: For example, the Osprey Levity 60 has a capacity of 60 liters and the Gossamer Gear Kumo (not listed above) maxes out at 36 liters, but they both have load limits of 25 pounds. In other words, just because you have a certain amount of space doesn’t mean you should fill it (more on this in the Load Limits section below).
For most ultralight hikers, we recommend a 55- to 60-liter pack, which sums up the majority of our list above. If you’re headed out for a quick overnight, you might be able to get away with a pack in the 40-liter range, and fastpackers might go even smaller to stay nimble on the trail. That said, it’s not a bad idea to err on the side of more capacity than less: Packs with roll-top collars are particularly versatile—you can extend the collar for day one of your trip and cinch it down when your food supply begins to dwindle. External pockets can also expand and contract with a changing load (it’s important to note that this space is included in the pack’s total volume). In the end, the rest of your gear will determine what size pack you need for any given adventure, so we recommend dialing in your kit before opting for a smaller design.
Importantly, a pack’s load limit is not the same as its carrying capacity, nor do the two always go hand in hand. While the carrying capacity specifies the pack’s volume, the load limit—provided by the manufacturer—describes the maximum weight at which it will be comfortable. In most cases, frame packs will have higher load limits than frameless designs, thanks to the metal components that help distribute the weight throughout. You’ll also want to consider factors like the structure of the frame (is it minimalist or fairly robust?), shoulder strap and hipbelt padding, backpanel rigidity, and more. We recommend that most hikers aim for a 30-to-35-pound load limit, which can support a base weight up to 20 or so pounds (depending on the length of your trip and how much food and fuel you’re bringing).
What is Base Weight?
A key aspect to consider when deciding on an ultralight pack is the base weight of your backpacking kit. Base weight is a term used to describe the heft of all of your gear (shelter, stove, layers, etc.) excluding consumables (like water, food, and fuel). While some backpackers have base weights as heavy as 30 pounds (or more), under 20 pounds is considered “lightweight,” while about 12 pounds and under is “ultralight.” Some serious ounce-counters even have base weights as low as 5 pounds, thanks to niche gear like hammocks, tarps, sleeping quilts, alcohol stoves, and more. Having a low base weight is especially important for long-distance, unsupported thru-hikes, as it means you can pack more food and stay longer on the trail. If you’re just getting started with lightweight or ultralight backpacking and your base weight isn’t under 20 pounds yet, we recommend upgrading to lighter gear first before opting for an ultralight pack.
Pockets and Organization
In the name of weight-savings, ultralight packs are intentionally minimal in organizational features. Almost all ultralight packs have one large main compartment with external dump pockets on the sides and rear and, in most cases, hipbelt pockets. This storage allows you to keep water, layers, and other essentials accessible without having to dig into the main body of the pack. Heavier, more traditionally styled packs like the Osprey Exos and REI Co-op Flash 55 have more features such as top lids, additional external pockets for organization, and straps to attach gear externally—if you’re transitioning over from a standard backpacking pack, you might appreciate these familiar features. Finally, most ultralight packs are compatible with removable components (usually sold separately) such as hipbelt and shoulder strap pockets, which allow users to customize the pack to their needs and lighten the load whenever possible.
Closure System and Access
To keep complexity and weight to a minimum, most ultralight packs will feature either a roll-top closure or drawcord with a lid. Roll-tops are the more popular choice, as they provide additional weather resistance and expandable capacity, all while remaining lightweight and reducing the need for excess fabric or materials. They’re especially functional when paired with highly water-resistant fabrics like X-Pac or Dyneema, providing a high level of water resistance in a streamlined design. In contrast, cinch-top closures are less common, and are almost always paired with top lids—like on the Osprey Exos, Gregory Focal, or Granite Gear Crown3. While we generally sway toward roll-top closures for their water resistance and versatility, drawstrings are easier to operate, and the additional top-lid storage will be a boon for many.
Compared to traditional designs, many ultralight packs (particularly those from cottage brands) offer a range of customization, both before and after purchase. This is a hallmark of the ultralight industry and a massive selling point for many. For example, when purchasing the ULA Circuit, you can choose between four torso sizes, six hipbelt sizes, two styles of shoulder straps, five colors, and two materials (Robic nylon or X-Pac), and you can even add on an embroidery if you’d like. After purchase, these packs can continue to be tweaked: You can remove the stay, swap in a different foam backpanel, move around accessory straps, and more. And many brands also offer a variety of compatible accessories (including hipbelt and shoulder strap pockets).
While we’re big fans of customization for experienced backpackers, we don’t recommend these packs for everyone. The ordering process can be convoluted, and if you’re just getting into ultralight backpacking, it’s nice to have some decisions made for you. Further, unless you’re especially particular about things (i.e. you have enough experience to know your preferences), you likely won’t need to customize your pack after purchase. But for those who love to geek out on gear, it’s a really nice option to have. On our list above, the cottage brands that offer a high amount of customization include ULA, Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs, Superior Wilderness Designs, Pa’lante, and Mountain Laurel Designs.
Backpanel: Padding and Ventilation
In both framed and frameless packs, the backpanel serves to add rigidity, prevents objects from poking through when the pack is fully loaded, and lends a plush feel for long days on the trail. Compared to the heavier and highly padded backpanels on traditional backpacks, most ultralight packs feature streamlined designs that include just a small amount of foam or padded mesh. The Hyperlite Southwest’s backpanel, for example, is a simple piece of Dyneema fabric with a ¼-inch piece of foam on the inside; the ULA Circuit beefs things up a little with plush, mesh-covered padding. However, these designs (especially the Hyperlite) do little to encourage ventilation, which can make things particularly swampy on hot days. If you want to prioritize ventilation, look for an ultralight pack that features a suspended mesh backpanel, which leaves space between the pack and the body for air to flow. These designs include the Gregory Focal, Osprey's Exos and Levity, and the Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 62L.
Importantly, many ultralight enthusiasts like their backpanel to be able to serve more than just one role. Many will swap out a pack's existing backpanel for a folded foam pad, which they'll use as a sleeping pad once they get to camp. Others will use the included backpanel as a sit pad for trailside breaks and time at camp. Packs like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa make this particularly convenient—the foam backpanel is placed on the outside of the pack and can easily be removed. On the other hand, more traditionally minded packs like the Osprey Exos and Gregory Focal do not have removable foam backpanels. In the end, if you're diligent about counting ounces and don't mind a bit of pack customization, this is a really nice feature to look for.
Part of what allows ultralight packs to be built so lightweight is the development of new and innovative fabrics. Dyneema, for example, is generally the lightest fabric. It’s waterproof and has good abrasion-resistance, but it’s also the most expensive (on our list, we see it only in the Hyperlite Southwest, Unbound 40, and Zpacks Arc Zip Ultra). On the opposite end of the spectrum is nylon, which comes in many weights, labeled by denier (D), typically from 100-denier to 400-denier or more. Nylon itself (without a durable water-repellent finish) is not waterproof like Dyneema. It’s slightly heavier and less durable, but relatively inexpensive. A compromise between the two is X-Pac, which offers good durability, weather resistance, and affordability for the weight. An even more recent addition to the fabric lineup is Ecopak, which is entirely recycled and meant to be even more durable than either Dyneema or X-Pac, and also lightweight and waterproof. We haven’t yet tested Ecopak, but it’s a good sign that it’s being put to use by well-established companies like Mountain Laurel Designs, Pa’lante, and Superior Wilderness Designs.
Most ultralight packs are not waterproof, though the fabrics they’re made of might be, if they're made of Dyneema, X-Pac, or Ecopak. With Dyneema or X-Pac, we rarely worry about water intrusion through the fabric itself—more often than not it comes through seams, zippers, or the top closure (this is why many packs feature a roll-top closure). Nylon, on the other hand, is less water-resistant, and extended precipitation will begin to absorb into the fabric, potentially penetrating into the pack body. For this reason, a number of nylon packs are sold with an integrated or included waterproof pack cover, which is well worth the weight for hiking in wet conditions. And regardless of your pack’s weather resistance, it’s always a good idea to use waterproof stuff sacks or trash bags for packing your sleeping bag, layers, and other essentials.
You can concern yourself with load limits and base weights until your head spins, but the reality is that a lightweight pack won’t be comfortable unless it fits well. The good news is that ultralight packs come in a range of sizes and no shortage of after-market adjustments. Cottage-brand packs are known for allowing you to customize before you buy: For example, when purchasing the ULA Circuit, you can choose between four different torso lengths, six hipbelt sizes, and J or S straps to match your body type. If your body doesn’t match what are deemed “normal” proportions, the ability to select both torso length and hipbelt size can be a real benefit. On the other hand, brands from larger companies like Osprey and Gregory generally come in just a few sizes (often specified by the torso length), but many of these packs have adjustable components: The Osprey Exos has 4 inches of play in the torso length, for example, while the Granite Gear Crown3 features a fully adjustable Re-Fit hipbelt.
One of the benefits to buying from a brand that sells their products in brick-and-mortar stores (such as Osprey, Gregory, Hyperlite, and REI Co-op) is the ability to try the pack on before you buy. But while this is a nice perk, we’ve also had a lot of success buying from cottage brands online. Most of these brands have detailed instructions and charts to help you select a well-fitting pack, and we’ve found their customer services to be incredibly helpful both before and after purchase.
Once a niche segment of backcountry travel, ultralight backpacking has seen a huge amount of growth in the last few years, supported by cottage industry companies—like Gossamer Gear, Zpacks, and ULA—pushing the envelope with ever-lighter and higher-quality gear. Most of these companies were founded by thru-hiking enthusiasts who noticed a gap in the market, and they continue to be small mom-and-pop operations with a strong “by the people, for the people” ethic. It’s only recently that bigger brands like REI Co-op, Osprey, Gregory, and Arc'teryx are entering the scene with their own ultralight options.
Most cottage brands have a number of things in common. First, the designers and manufacturers are users of the gear themselves, which results in well-thought-out products that nail the details and often allow the buyer to customize sizes, materials, features, accessories, and more. Further, since these are small companies, most of the gear is handmade in the United States.
While we love this culture and encourage you to support it, keep in mind that you can expect longer wait times between ordering and receiving your items (Superior Wilderness Designs has an 18-week wait at the time of writing, and you're lucky if you can even track down a Pa'lante pack). And perhaps the biggest downside for most consumers: You won’t find brands like ULA and Gossamer Gear on the shelves at your local retailer, meaning you won’t be able to see your pack or try it on before buying. Luckily, most of these companies include detailed videos and descriptions on their websites and have reasonable return policies.
Ultralight backpacks are one of our favorite pieces of gear, but with streamlined carrying capacities and load limits, you’ll need to ensure that the rest of your equipment is fairly lightweight too. When shopping for ultralight gear, your main focus will be on “The Big Three”—a sleeping bag (or quilt), sleeping pad, and backpacking tent or shelter. Within these categories, there are fairly mainstream models that are particularly popular among the UL crowd, and a number of well-loved cottage-brand designs, too (similar to what we see in the picks above).
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