Let me start with my personal bias. I enjoy moving quickly through the mountains, and that requires ultralight gear. So, do I recommend ultralight backpacks?
Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. However, there are some caveats to that recommendation; we will talk about those below.
I understand that not everyone likes to go light and fast, but I hate heavy packs even on shorter trips with my family. I have a runner’s body and it was not meant to carry ridiculous loads.
Gear has also come a long way in the past 20 years, and you don’t necessarily have to be uncomfortable to be light, and one of the first steps to lightening your load is buying a light pack.
Are Ultralight Backpacks Comfortable?
This is the first question that I generally get when someone starts looking at ultralight packs. The answer to this is also easy. Yes, ultralight backpacks can be comfortable. They can also be very uncomfortable if used in a way that they weren’t designed.
Here are the three things you must do to make your ultralight pack comfortable.
1. Don’t Exceed the Manufacturer’s Weight Recommendation
Ultralight packs come with a weight recommendation. If you use an ultralight pack, everything else needs to be ultralight, such as your tent and sleeping setup. This is important. An ultralight pack is not designed to carry a heavy load; if you load it too heavy, it will be uncomfortable.
2. Pack it Right
With a traditional backpack, you can pretty much jam your gear in however you want, and the suspension system and back panel will protect you. With an ultralight pack, the suspension system and back panel are minimal or non-existent. Instead, how you pack your backpack gives it the structure it needs.
This is a learnable skill but it takes some practice and trial and error to get it right.
3. Get the Right Size
Traditional packs can sometimes be customized to fit a wide range of sizes, but with an ultralight pack, you might need to do some measuring to ensure you have the right fit. Most ultralight packs come in small, medium, and large and have a sizing chart on their website.
If you are unsure or are in between sizes, call the manufacturer’s customer service to see if they can help.
Also, check to see what the return policy is before you buy. It might come in handy.
How Much Do Ultralight Packs Cost?
The cost of an ultralight pack is similar to that of a traditional pack and will be between $200 and $400.
The cost mainly depends on what material is used to make the pack. More traditional pack materials like ripstop nylon will be in the $200 to $300 range. More exotic materials such as Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF) will be more in the $300 to $400 range.
If you are patient, you can usually find what you want on sale.
Tradeoffs of Ultralight vs. Traditional Backpacks
There are several things that you trade off by buying an ultralight pack.
The first thing that you trade off is robustness. I have an old, traditional pack, the Arcteryx Bora 80, that I have owned for the past 20 years. I have beat the crap out of that thing, plus loaned it out to multiple people who used it like a stolen car. It still looks awesome, except where a squirrel crewed its way into the top pocket.
For the most part, ultralight packs are less robust and you have to take better care of them, but if you do, there is no reason it won’t last a long time.
Accessories & Features
The second compromise is accessories and features. One of the ways that ultralight packs keep the weight down is to ruthlessly cut off anything that is not necessary. Ultralight packs like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla are pretty bare bones.
Ultralight backpacks are designed to carry a light load over long distances and they do that very well. It is not very surprising, then, that they do not tend to be very versatile. Think of the ultralight pack as a tool you buy for a specific use.
An ultralight backpack won’t be the same pack you grab for a family trip where you carry all the gear for the group. Nor for a hunting trip in the back woods.
That said, I have grabbed my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Junction 2400 for all sorts of things over the past year like day hikes and backcountry skiing.
Load Weight Limit
Load-carrying capacity is the last trade-off that we are going to talk about. Most ultralight packs max out at about 30 pounds of capacity, while traditional packs allow you to carry heavier loads. Although a 50-pound pack is never going to be fun to carry.
Pros of Ultralight Packs
- An ultralight pack helps set the tone for an ultralight setup
- Simplicity makes it easier to use
- Ultralight packs loaded properly allow you to explore areas that would be difficult with a heavy pack
- Ultralight packs are easier on joints
- They allow you to hike further in a day comfortably
Cons of Ultralight Packs
- Not as robust
- Lack of many features and accessories
- Can be uncomfortable if not packed right
- Have a fairly low weight limit
When Ultralight Packs Don’t Make Sense
While I enjoy ultralight backpacking, there are times when a larger, heavier load and by extension a larger and heavier backpack just make sense.
Specific backcountry activities, by their very nature, require more gear. I have a friend that loves technical rock climbing in the backcountry and another that is into backcountry hunting. These activities require heavy gear making it difficult to use an ultralight backpack.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying some creature comforts like a camp chair in the backcountry. I just don’t like carrying them on my back. Sometimes, however, it is worth it or necessary. When I do a short hike into a lake and set up a base camp for the weekend, I carry extra gear and use a heavier pack.
Another use that I get out of the heavy pack is when I am camping with my kids and I end up carrying the bulk of the food, water, and equipment. As they got older, I gave them more gear to carry themselves. But when they were just starting out it was important that they had a good time and stuck with it, so I did the heavy lifting.
The last reason I keep my old Bora 80 in the garage is when I need to lend it out. I was a Boy Scout leader for a long time and I was not about to trust my nice ultralight backpack to a 15-year-old.
I love ultralight backpacking and one of the first steps is to buy an ultralight pack. Luckily, we live in a time where there are many options to choose from and a pack for every budget and need.
If you are looking for a great ultralight pack, check out our review of some of the best out there!