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Discover the Benefits of Ultralight Backpacks for Hikers


An ultralight backpack is designed for hikers who try to minimize the weight they carry on their back. Ultralight backpacking is a style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and least amount of gear possible.

Here are some key characteristics of ultralight backpacks:

Backpack Weight and Capacity

Ultralight backpacks weigh very little, typically between 1 and 2.5 pounds. This is a significant difference compared to traditional backpacks, which can weigh 3 to 5 pounds or more. The weight savings are due to having a more minimalist, streamlined design and using lightweight materials.

Ultralight backpacks also have a smaller capacity, typically ranging from 30 to 60 liters. This encourages hikers to be very selective about the gear they bring and to use lightweight and highly compressible gear so it can all fit.

Minimalist Design

Ultralight backpacks are stripped of unnecessary features and pockets to reduce weight. Most ultralight backpacks do not have a top lid pocket or a floating lid, which is common on heavier packs. Instead, they have top closures, like dry bags, that roll shut before being clipped together and secured with a top strap. They also don’t have a separate sleeping bag compartment, a rain cover, side zippers, extension collars with drawstring closures, adjustable length backpack frames, crampon pockets, or dual ice axe holders found on heavier backpacks.

Most ultralight backpacks only consist of:

  • a main compartment with a top closure to store the gear you need at night for camping
  • two open side pockets and a front mesh pocket for storing the gear you want during the day like water bottles, a rain jacket, lunch, or a water filter.
  • two small hip belt pockets for storing smaller items like a smartphone, a GPS, and snacks.

This breakdown helps eliminate the need to make frequent stops to access gear buried in your pack, so you can hike farther and potentially faster during the day.

Ultralight Backpack Materials

Ultralight are typically made using lightweight fabrics or fabric laminates that are glued together such as high-tenacity Robic nylon (or Robic for short), Dyneema Composite Fabric, Dyneema Grid, Ultra Grid, Woven Dyneema, Liteskin, XPac, or Ultra. The thickness of the threads used to make these fabrics is measured in “denier” and abbreviated with a “D” or “d”which is correlated with durability. Higher deniers tend to be more durable than lower deniers when comparing different grades of the same material. For example, Ultra 400D is more durable than Ultra 100D, while 210d Robic is more durable than 100d Robic.

High Tenacity Robic Nylon and Robic are abrasion-resistant forms of nylon. They’re the least expensive fabric used to make ultralight backpacks. They’re often coated on the exterior with a PU (polyurethane coating) to make the fabric more waterproof. Gossamer Gear and ULA Equipment sell Robic nylon ultralight backpacks, amongst others.

Dyneema and Ultra are two ultra-strong and UHMWPE (ultra high molecular weight polyethylene) fibers that are much stronger than nylon. They can be woven to themselves or added to other fabrics to create the ultralight, abrasion-resistant, and tear-resistant fabrics used to make ultralight backpacks. Backpacks made with Woven Dyneema, Dyneema DCF (which is a laminate of Dyneema and Polyester) and Ultra are more expensive than ones made with nylon. Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes backpacks with Woven Dyneema and Dyneema DCF. Zpacks and others make ultralight backpacks with Ultra.

The Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 60L has a ventilated trampoline style frame.
The Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 60L has a ventilated-mesh trampoline style frame.

Ultralight Backpacks with Frames

There are four main types of frames used in ultralight packs that have them: perimeter loops, frame stays, and frame sheets, and external frames. The bottom of these frames slot into the hipbelt at the base of the pack.  They all serve to stiffen the back of the main compartment and drive the load into the hipbelt where it can be carried by your strong hip muscles.

  1. Perimeter loops are made with steel or aluminum and are 270 degree u-shaped loops or 360 degree ovals that slot behind inside the main compartment behind the shoulder straps. Many are removable to save weight, but some are in closed pockets and non-removable.
  2. Frame stays are metal rods made with aluminum or carbon fiber that fit into fabric sleeves inside the main compartment but are removable to save weight. Packs can have one or two frame stays.
  3. Frame sheets are plastic sheets embedded into a pack back panel that can also be used as frames.
  4. External frames are the ultralight version of old-school kelty external frame packs. They’re used to create a ventilated cavity behind the shoulder straps to keep you cooler and to prevent perspiration.
Most Hyperlite Mountain gear backpacks use frame stays that slot into sleeves inside the backpack.
Most Hyperlite Mountain gear backpacks use frame stays that slot into sleeves inside the backpack.

Frameless Ultralight Backpacks

Some ultralight backpacks are frameless without a load-bearing hipbelt, so that all of the backpack weight rests on the shoulders and upper torso. This limits the amount of weight that can be comfortably carried to about 25 pounds, the equivalent weight capacity of most daypacks. Gossamer Gear, Zpacks, and ULA Equipment all make frameless ultralight backpacks. So do many other companies.

Some frameless backpacks have vest-style straps, inspired by trail running backpacks, so that the weight is distributed across the shoulders and chest. Nashville Packs and Volpi Outdoor Gear make packs with Vest-style straps, as do others. (see our FAQ on Vest Style Backpack Straps vs Conventional Backpack Shoulder Straps.) 

Exceptions

The Granite Gear Crown3 60 is an ultralight backpack with a top lid pocket.
The Granite Gear Crown3 60 is an ultralight backpack with a top lid pocket.

There is no standard definition of an ultralight backpack, though most do fall within the examples we cite above. There are exceptions, however, For example, Granite Gear makes a popular backpack called the Crown3 60L which has an optional top lid pocket, which when removed covers a roll-top closure. Similarly, the popular Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 and Gossamer Gear Gorilla 50 do not close with a roll-top but a flap of fabric with a zippered (like a comb-over of sorts.)

But by and large, most ultralight backpacks:

  • weigh less than 2.5 lbs
  • have roll-top closures
  • have two side pockets and one long front mesh pocket
  • are made with lightweight fabrics and materials

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