Ultralight backpacking is exploding in popularity. With casual backpackers and seasoned thru-hikers alike focusing more and more on a lighter base weight, the options for a streamlined, ultralight setup on trail have expanded dramatically.
There isn’t one blueprint of what makes a perfect ultralight pack, and it really does depend on what you’re comfortable with. To help narrow down the choices, we interviewed a number of knowledgeable thru-hikers and put several models to the test to find some of the best ultralight backpacks out there.
First things first: ultralight hiking is not for everyone. If you like creature comforts like cushy sleeping pads, multiple changes of clothing, complex meals with fresh ingredients, or a full-size toothbrush, you may want to reevaluate your backpack needs.
But if you’re looking to pack light or take on extensive mileage by foot, you’ve come to the right place. While there isn’t a single ultralight backpack for everyone, we’ve noted some of the useful features and specs of each of our recommendations to help you find the best ultralight backpack for your needs. At the end of our list, be sure to check out our comparison chart, buyer’s guide, and frequently asked questions section.
The Best Ultralight Backpacks of 2023
- Best Overall Ultralight Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider
- Best Budget Ultralight Backpack: Mountainsmith Scream 55
- Runner-Up Best Ultralight Backpack: ULA Equipment Circuit
- Best for Ultralight Base Weights: Waymark Gear EVLV ULTRA
- Best for Heavy Loads: Stone Glacier Terminus 7000
- Best Comfort Ultralight Backpack: Osprey Exos Pro 55
- Weight 1 lb., 15.6 oz. (white); 2 lbs., 2.5 oz. (black)
- Volume 64.8 L (55 L main compartment, 9.8 L outside storage)
- Material DCH50 main body and DCH150 bottom (white); DCH150 main body and bottom (black)
- Outside storage Two zippered hipbelt pockets, two side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, ice axe attachment
- Lightweight yet durable fabric
- Easy to adjust the volume
- Removable aluminum stays add structure and support
- Ice axe attachment is kind of finicky to use
- Weight 2 lbs., 13 oz.
- Volume 55 L
- Material 210d Robic Dynajin nylon ripstop UTS
- Outside storage Two zippered hipbelt pockets, two mesh side pockets, double front panel storage pockets
- Comfy shoulder straps
- Solid organization with plenty of zippered pockets and access points
- Lightweight internal frame distributes loads well
- On the heavier side for ultralight packs
- Roll top closure is sometimes a little funky if pack isn’t fully loaded
- Weight 2 lbs., 5.2 oz.
- Volume 68 L
- Material ULA 400-denier Robic
- Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 2 adjustable side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, ice axe/trekking pole attachments
- Plenty of features that add to usability/comfort without adding too much weight
- Super durable
- Padded shoulder straps and hipbelt carry heavier loads well
- Side pockets are at somewhat of an awkward angle
- Not the lightest ultralight pack out there
- Weight 13.9 oz. without any accessories
- Volume 35 L or 38 L
- Material EPL Ultra 200 and 400 Black ECOPAK fabric
- Outside storage Two side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, two trekking pole loops, one ice axe loop
- Unique, well-engineered shoulder harness carries loads well without a hipbelt
- Crazy light without sacrificing durability for multi-month treks
- Comfortable padding for the base weight it is designed to carry
- Need to purchase hipbelt separately
- Long lead times since each pack is a custom order (upwards of 8 weeks)
- Weight 3 lbs., 15 oz.
- Volume 115 L
- Material X-Pac and SG ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) blend fabric
- Outside storage No pockets, but plenty of sinch straps to attach things to
- Super low weight for the volume and how much it’s designed to carry
- Carries and distributes the weight of heavy loads well
- Very durable
- Pretty specific design for a niche need
- Huge profile
- Weight 2 lbs., 1.2 oz. (S/M); 2 lbs., 2.6 oz. (L/XL)
- Volume 55 L (S/M); 58 L (L/XL)
- Material NanoFly recycled 100-denier UHMWPE ripstop nylon with DWR
- Outside storage 1 zippered & 1 elasticated hipbelt pocket, 2 side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, ice axe/trekking pole attachments
- Excellent suspension system that transfers loads well
- Cozy shoulder harness
- Fantastic breathability
- Fully featured
- Easily accommodates a bear can
- Z-style side compression straps aren't our favorite
- Heavier than other ultralight backpacks
- Thin hipbelt padding is noticeable with heavy loads
- Weight 1 lb., 13.2 oz. (small); 1 lb., 15.2 oz. (medium); 2 lbs., 1 oz. (large)
- Volume 60 L (36 L main compartment, 24 L exterior pockets)
- Material 100- and 200-denier Robic high-tensile strength nylon
- Outside storage 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 3 side pockets (1 large dump pocket, 2 small water bottle pockets), front mesh shove-it pocket, ice axe attachment
- Phenomenal organizational features
- Approachable price point
- Made with durable but light Robic nylon
- Not the best ventilation
- Zippered top pocket difficult to use when pack is fully loaded
- Weight 2 lbs., 6.4 oz.
- Volume 60 L
- Material 210-denier high-tenacity nylon
- Outside storage Two zippered hip belt pockets, two side water bottle pockets, ice axe attachments, stretch mesh shove-it pocket, elastic water bottle lash on shoulder straps
- Low weight with a high load capacity
- Super durable
- Comfortable and versatile
- The lack of a metal stay makes the load shift around some during use. This can be purchased separately.
- Weight 13 oz. without any accessories
- Volume 30 L, plus an extra 15 L external capacity
- Material ULTRA 200
- Outside storage Two side water bottle pockets, large front shove-it pocket, ice axe attachment (optional), bottom stretch mesh pocket (optional)
- Crazy lightweight, yet durable enough for a thru-hike
- Tons of loud colors to choose from to spice things up on trail
- Long front shove-it pocket affords a good deal of external storage
- Need to purchase hipbelt separately
- Pretty low 20-pound weight limit
- Long custom pack lead times (upwards of 8 weeks)
- Weight 1 lb., 2.8 oz. (short torso height); 1 lb., 4 oz. (medium torso height); 1 lb., 4.4 oz. (tall torso height)
- Volume 55 L (42 L main compartment, 2.5 L each side pocket, 8 L front mesh pocket)
- Material 1.6 oz./sq. yd. Dyneema Composite Fabric on the inside, with an extra layer of 50-denier polyester on the outside
- Outside storage Two side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket
- External carbon fiber frame transfers loads to the hips well
- Carries heavier loads than many other ultralight packs very comfortably
- Front mesh pocket is not stretchable, limiting the amount of gear you can fit in it
- Weight 1 lb., 5 oz. (complete pack); 16 oz. (stripped down)
- Volume 35-40 L (main compartment) + 11.8 L (outside storage)
- Material Ecopak EPLX 200 (main body); Ecopak EPX200 (side pockets); Venom UL (front shove-it pocket)
- Outside storage Two side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, bottom shove-it pocket, optional shoulder pockets, stowable ice axe loop
- Durable, thoughtful design
- Unique dedicated camera clip on shoulder strap
- Optional modular Y strap for easy bear canister attachment
- Comfortable tapered shoulder harness
- Long lead times when not in stock
- Lightweight hipbelt clip is somewhat difficult to close when under tension
- Weight 1 lb., 10.8 oz. (regular); 1 lb., 11.5 oz. (long)
- Volume 55 L (regular & long)
- Material Robic High-tenacity nylon (100D and 210D) with Barrier DWR
- Outside storage Two zippered hip belt pockets, two side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, ice axe attachments
- Simple, quick adjustability
- Durable, thoughtful design
- Quite affordable
- Easily accessible side pockets
- Compression straps are difficult to effectively use without a frame
- Need a foam sleeping pad to add rigidity
- Weight 2 lbs., 12 oz. (S/M torso); 3 lbs., 2 oz. (M/L torso)
- Volume 40-60 L
- Material 100-denier nylon Honeycomb/420-denier nylon Oxford
- Outside storage Two zippered hipbelt pockets, two mesh side pockets, two stretch mesh hydration pockets on shoulders, ice axe attachment
- Adjustable volume from 40-60 L
- Quite durable
- On the heavy side for an ultralight backpack
- Weight 1 lb., 14.1 oz. (white); 2 lbs (black)
- Volume 49 L (40 L main compartment, 9 L outside storage)
- Material DCH50 main body and DCH150 bottom (white); DCH150 main body and bottom (black)
- Outside storage Two zippered hipbelt pockets, two side water bottle pockets, front dual-access stretch pocket, daisy chains
- Durable material choices
- Plenty of external storage
- Taped seams/fully waterproof fabric
- More features than other HMG packs
- Claimed weight carrying capacity is ambitious
- Weight 1 lb., 2 oz.
- Volume 58 L
- Material ECOPAK Ultra 200/400 in MLD Gray+Black, MLD Dyneema X 210 denier UHMWPE Ripstop in Wasabi Green or Gray
- Outside storage 2 side water bottle pockets, front shove-it pocket, trekking pole and ice axe attachment
- Accommodates a bear bin
- Built with ultralight but durable material
- Thoughtful, streamlined design
- Side pockets are quite tight
- Hipbelt is pretty short
Ultralight Backpack Comparison Chart
|Ultralight Backpack||Price||Weight||Volume||Material||Outside Pockets|
|Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider||$379||1 lb., 15.6 oz. (white); 2 lbs., 2.5 oz. (black)||64.8 L||DCH50 & DCH150||5|
|Mountainsmith Scream 55||$160||2 lbs., 13 oz.||55 L||210d Robic Dynajin nylon ripstop UTS||6|
|ULA Equipment Circuit||$280||2 lbs., 5.2 oz.||68 L||ULA 400-denier Robic||5|
|Waymark Gear EVLV ULTRA||$265||13.9 oz.||35 L-|
|EPL Ultra 200 and 400 Black ECOPAK fabric||3|
|Stone Glacier Terminus 7000||$649||3 lbs., 15 oz.||115 L||X-Pac and SG ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene||N/A|
|Osprey Exos Pro 55||$290||2 lbs. 1.2 oz. (S/M); 2 lbs. 2.6 oz. (L/XL)||55 L (S/M); 58 L (L/XL)||NanoFly recycled 100-denier UHMWPE ripstop nylon with DWR||5|
|Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60||$285||1 lb., 13.2 oz. – 2 lbs., 1 oz.||60 L||100- and 200-denier Robic high-tensile strength nylon||6|
|Granite Gear Crown3||$240||2 lbs., 6.4 oz.||60 L||210-denier high-tenacity nylon||5|
|LiteAF Ultra 30L Curve||$265||13 oz.||30 L +|
|Zpacks Arc Blast 55L||$375||1 lb., 2.8 oz. – 1 lb., 4.4 oz.||55 L||Dyneema Composite with an extra layer of 50 denier polyester||3|
|Evolved Supply Co. The Ranger||$250-330||1 lb., 5 oz. (complete); 16 oz. (stripped down)||35-40 L + 11.8 L||Ecopak EPLX 200, Ecopak EPX200, and Venom UL||4|
|Granite Gear Virga3||$200||1 lb., 10.8 oz. (regular); 1 lb., 11.5 oz. (long)||55 L||Robic High-tenacity nylon (100D and 210D) with Barrier DWR||5|
|Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60L||$230||2 lbs., 12 oz. – 3 lbs., 2 oz.||40-60 L||100-denier nylon Honeycomb/420-denier nylon Oxford||6|
|Hyperlite Mountain Gear Unbound 40||$369||1 lb., 14.1 oz. (white); 2 lbs (black)||49 L||DCH50 main body and DCH150 bottom (white); DCH150 main body and bottom (black)||5|
|Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L||$245||1 lb., 2 oz.||58 L||ECOPAK Ultra 200/400 in MLD or MLD Dyneema X 210 denier UHMWPE ripstop||3|
Why You Should Trust Us
The GearJunkie team ranges from casual weekend backpackers to full-blown thru-hiking dirtbags, and have put thousands of hard-earned miles on a variety of different ultralight backpacks in a range of conditions and landscapes. We know what it’s like to get to the end of the day with a sore back from a poorly fitting or overloaded pack. We’ve therefore tried to whittle this list down to the absolute best models that won’t weigh you down, but also offer a comfortable ride over big-mile days.
Chris Carter, one of the authors of this guide, has significant experience putting various ultralight backpacks through torture and torment, having thru-hiked the Triple Crown of long trails in the United States: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. He’s navigated the sinking sadness of a mid-hike pack failure, and knows the importance of choosing a model that fits your needs, and will last the distance.
Every gram counts when trying to pare down your base weight. So, while testing these packs, we considered factors such as durability, value, useability, and functionality of each accessory and feature to determine the quality of the pack. After weeks of putting each model through the wringer on fast and light backpacking trips, we feel confident recommending each of these backpacks to those wishing to push the limit and lighten their load on long trails.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpack
We’ve all had that moment of frustration as new backpackers where we realize we’ve overpacked, and contemplate chucking half the gear we brought off the next overlook.
It’s the top of the first climb of the day, sweat is pouring off you, your shoulders want to kill you, and suddenly that five-pound tent you thought would be essential starts sounding a lot less awesome. You get home, saw your toothbrush in half, and start to research.
If you’ve decided to pull the plug and join the ultralight cult, there are some things you need to consider. First, it has to be done carefully as you are still headed into the backcountry with this kit, and need to be prepared for all the unexpected twists and misadventures mother nature loves to throw our way.
Don’t focus too much on going lightweight that you sacrifice essential elements of safety in the wild, or bring a setup that is going to fall apart after 2 days on trail.
A reliable ultralight kit starts with a functional, solid backpack. With so many options on the market, it can be hard to decide what to go with, and you should think about the elements that you will encounter on your trip, and the level of comfort you want, before making a decision. Below we’ve broken down several factors to consider when choosing the best ultralight backpack for your adventure, which hopefully streamlines the process.
Ultralight Backpacks Fabric Selection and Weather Resistance
Ultralight backpack manufacturers have the difficult challenge of offering an extremely lightweight package while also being durable enough to hold up to months of abuse on rough trails through bad weather. For that reason, these packs are constructed with the latest, most durable materials on the market, which often explains the high price tag.
Some of the most common fabrics found in ultralight packs are Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), Ultra, ECOPAK, X-PAC, and nylon (such as Robic or Cordura). Each of these fabrics has different benefits and uses, which impact the weight, durability, and weather resistance of the packs they construct.
Many people look at ultralight packs and think they are waterproof, since they often resemble the classic roll-top closures of dry bags, or are made with shiny reflective material. While the fabric of some of these packs is highly water-resistant, you will still want to add additional rain protection to your gear for when the weather turns foul.
Our testers like to use separate ultralight Dyneema dry bags for contents that absolutely need to stay dry (such as electronics, a first aid kit, a puffy jacket, and a down sleeping bag), with a large lightweight pack liner that always stays in the backpack, protecting everything. The two most popular waterproof pack liners are Nylofume bags, such as this one sold by Waymark Gear, and polyethylene bags, such as this one sold by Gossamer Gear.
We’ve found this to be the best, lightest, and cheapest, way to ensure that your gear stays completely dry. And you don’t have to waste time desperately fitting a rain cover over your pack as a freak storm sweeps in, as the inside contents are already protected. Just make sure there’s nothing too important in the external shove-it pocket.
In general, Ultra, ECOPAK, DCF, and X-PAC are waterproof to some degree, though the packs that use them may not be seam-taped, and water will seep through in prolonged bad weather. Most hikers who use these packs will still use a pack liner or cover in significant rain to keep their gear dry. Materials such as Robic nylon, on the other hand, will absorb water slowly over time and allow your pack contents to get wet.
The introduction of DCF and X-PAC to the backpacking scene represented a pretty significant jump in ultralight fabric technology due to their incredible strength-to-weight ratio. Packs such as the Zpacks Arc Blast have secured their spots as the lightest packs in their size range because of DCF, with the ability to carry loads of up to 35 pounds while maintaining an impressive, ultralight weight.
Ultralight Backpacks Volume Selection
The volume of your ultralight pack is an important part of the selection process, and depends heavily on how dialed in your base weight is. Ideally, you want to have a sub-10-pound base weight while wearing ultralight packs, which includes everything aside from consumables (such as food, fuel, and water).
This is largely because, in order to achieve such a low weight, ultralight backpacks are generally not as durable or supportive as traditional, heavier backpacking backpacks.
Overpacking them will result in faster deterioration over time, and they just won’t hold the load as comfortably on your back. For that reason, you want to make sure the gear you are packing is also as ultralight as possible if you are going to be using an ultralight pack.
For most ultralight hikers, a 40 L pack will provide enough volume for a long weekend trip, or a 3- to 5-day push between towns on a thru-hike. This will always depend on the climate and terrain you intend to hike through, but for general three-season use, 35 L to 40 L should suffice. Some packs, like Hyperlight’s 3400 Windrider, or Sierra Designs’ Flex Capacitor, can expand or contract a good deal to accommodate different volumes of loads.
As hikers obsess further over every gram in their packs, truly committed ultralight backpackers can whittle their entire thru-hiking kit to fit into 30L or smaller packs, but this comes with some notable sacrifices.
Using simple tarp shelters (or even a rain poncho) in lieu of tents, going stoveless, or carrying less food helps to save weight, but not everyone is ready to take that leap.
Hipbelts on Ultralight Backpacks
For a couple of reasons, many ultralight backpacks have a removable hipbelt or no hipbelt at all (such as LiteAF’s Ultra 30L, or Waymark Gear’s EVLV ULTRA, which have optional hipbelt additions). This is primarily found in frameless ultralight packs. Many hikers that have already dialed their base weight well below 10 pounds find that they can save even more weight by leaving the hipbelt off, without sacrificing too much comfort.
With frameless ultralight packs, hipbelts are not as load-bearing as traditional packs, as there is no frame for the load to be transferred to. The hipbelt really only helps keep the pack close to your body while hiking, preventing it from jostling around, since you optimally will be carrying a weight that won’t overly fatigue your shoulders.
While most ultralight packs will still have a hipbelt, they will often not be as padded as traditional packs (such as the hipbelt on Mountain Laurel Designs’ Exodus 55L), and you may have the option of removing them entirely. You can still find great ultralight options, such as the Granite Gear Crown3, that have solid suspension, ventilation, and support at the cost of a slightly heavier package.
It’s important to think about the comfort level you are looking for in your pack, and how far you are willing to go to cut more weight.
Packing an Ultralight Backpack
You want to pack an ultralight backpack in much the same way that you would pack a traditional backpack, however, there are some additional considerations that are important to note. Namely, ultralight packs cannot carry the same weight that traditional packs can, so it is important to have as minimal and lightweight a kit as possible. This will not only prolong the life of your ultralight backpack, but will make it feel a lot more comfortable over the long haul.
As previously mentioned, you will ideally have a base weight that is under 10 pounds. Starting at the bottom of your pack, place your lighter, fluffier items like a sleeping bag and other elements of your sleep kit. These will serve as a “pillow” on your lumbar on top of which some of your heavier items can sit.
Bulkier, heavier items such as your cooking kit, food, and tent, should go in the middle of the pack and be situated as close to your back as possible. By putting these items in the middle of your back, you alleviate a significant amount of stress from your shoulders or lower back, which is particularly important with ultralight backpacks.
Finally, at the top of your bag, you want to pack lighter items that you may need to use throughout the day, such as a midlayer or rain jacket.
Since ultralight backpacks also tend to have less padding than other packs, you want to be more aware of how your gear is fitting inside your pack, in order to avoid things poking uncomfortably into your back.
When packing more featured, framed models — like Osprey’s cushy Exos Pro 55 — you don’t have to be quite as careful, as the load isn’t jutting directly into your back. Most ultralight backpacks force you to think carefully about how your gear meshes in the pack, so it doesn’t sit uncomfortably against you, but this isn’t as big of a consideration when the frame separates the load from your back.
These framed models also allow you to carry heavier loads, since more of the weight is transferred to your hips through the rigid structure of the frame. Additionally, compression straps work much better on framed backpacks than frameless ones, as there is built-in structure to compress the load against. This means you can often achieve a tighter, less wobbly package while bounding along the trail with framed packs.
Getting ultralight gear in the mail can sometimes be a disconcerting experience. You just dropped $300 on this package and you can barely feel it in your hands!
While it may seem flimsy and fragile, most ultralight backpacks on the market are constructed with the leading ultralight and ultradurable materials out there and can take quite a beating. There are some elements to consider, however, when choosing the right pack for you.
If going as light and fast as possible is your biggest concern, and you have the budget to be able to replace gear as it deteriorates, choosing an ultralight pack purely for its weight could be a good option. If you want an ultralight option, but also plan on putting it through a little more torture and want some comfort along the way, you might want to look at a more durable, slightly heavier model.
Buying an ultralight pack is an investment that has the potential to greatly improve your backpacking experience. The ability to travel light and fast not only increases the amount of wilderness you can enjoy in a given time, but can also reduce the beating your body takes on a demanding backpacking trip, allowing you to hike further and limit injuries.
Ultralight Backpacks: Pros & Cons
Ultralight backpacking means keeping your entire load low. Your base weight, including all your gear — except consumables like food, water, and fuel — should be under 10 pounds.
And that’s where these packs shine. They are light themselves, thus adding very little weight to your back, but they also carry light loads comfortably and can stand up to reasonable on-trail use.
You really need to keep your weight down with these packs (Flex Capacitor and Stone Glacier Terminus excluded). Most of them won’t serve you well if you load them heavy, so they’re a little less versatile than more robust backpacks.
Where does this matter? If you own just one backpack and plan to use it for hiking, ski mountaineering, and rock climbing, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Also, some of these packs aren’t super durable for off-trail hiking, so be sure to scrutinize materials closely if you plan to use them while bushwhacking.
Ultimately, you will have to decide if you’re willing to trade creature comforts for minimal weight. For those who’ve made the leap, the above are some of the best ultralight backpacks on the market.
Ask 100 hikers about their favorite ultralight pack and you’ll get a dozen different answers. But like all backpacks, the most important aspect is that it fits your body perfectly and is adjusted properly! If you don’t know how to fit a pack, it’s worth a trip to an outdoor shop to talk with a qualified salesperson.
If you can keep your packing weight low, yes, an ultralight backpack is worth the investment for many hikers. However, it’s worth noting that ultralight packs require the user to understand how to pack efficiently to keep their load weight quite low, usually less than 25 to 30 pounds.
If you expect your gear will weigh more than that, an ultralight backpack will probably not be a good choice, as many won’t support heavy loads very well.
Your base weight is the weight of all your gear not counting things you consume such as water and food. So it includes things like your stove but does not include the food you cook.
Most ultralight backpackers consider a base weight of 10 pounds to be a good measure of ultralight backpacking. Get it down to 5 pounds, and you’re in the superlight backpacking range. For more casual, lightweight backpacking, you can stretch the weight up to about 20 pounds.