Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks

Like this content? Interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail or other long-distance hiking trails? If so, check out my book of advice for planning a thru-hike, Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail: A Complete Guide. It covers everything you need to know and more than you probably thought to consider.

Ultralight backpacks are one of the so-called “Big 3” long-distance backpacking items (the other two being shelter and a sleep system). These three items will have a huge impact on the comfort of your hiking and camping experience.

Ultralight Backpack Criteria to Consider

Choosing a good ultralight backpack is important; you want to select for fit and comfort, size, features, weight, durability, and cost. This post isn’t meant to be a full exploration of those issues but rather a listing of some of the most popular ultralight backpacks used by thru-hikers. Nevertheless, before listing the packs, I offer some things to consider.

  1. Choose your pack after you buy all of your other gear. This will help you know how much space you need and what kind of weight you will be carrying.
  2. Pay attention to the recommended comfortable carrying capacity that most pack manufacturers list. Your favorite for one base weight might not be the same as for a different base weight.
  3. Some features are a personal preference and some are necessities. The PCT, for example, requires you to carry a bear canister, so choose a pack that accommodates one.
  4. View the load carrying capacities provided by brands with healthy skepticism. Most are overly generous and if you try to carry the high-end weight you will be an uncomfortable hiker.
  5. Most of the ultralight backpacks listed here are only available online so you may need to return a purchase if it doesn’t fit well or suit your needs. If your torso is between sizes, order both sizes and keep the one that fits well. A good outfitter can measure your torso length so even if you are leaning toward and online-only ultralight backpack brand it might be worth a visit to get measured and to try some of the packs available in the store to have some references to compare with your final choice.

Depending on your level of experience, you may also be well served with some online research on ultralight backpacks. For example, Darwin OnTheTrail has a useful video breaking down the various options to decide which type of pack is best for you. 

There are also lots of good videos on how to fit your pack, including this one from REI (note that most backpack companies also offer sizing advice on their websites).

Popular Ultralight Backpack Brands and Models

Below are perennial favorite ultralight backpacks used by long-distance hikers. This isn’t an exhaustive list and your perfect pack may be made by a boutique company not listed here. That said, if you are new to long-distance hiking, this is a good place to start to narrow your choice.

Gossamer Gear

Gossamer Gear Mariposa - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
Total with medium belt: 30.5 oz. (865 g) (medium Mariposa pack)
Total with medium belt: 29.8 oz. (846 g) (medium Gorilla 50)
Total with medium belt: 25.0 oz. (709 g) (medium G4-20)
Carrying Capacity:
Best with loads under 30 lbs (14 kg) but will handle up to 35 (16 kg) just fine (Mariposa)
30 lbs (14 kg) (Gorilla 50 and G4-20)
Price:
$270 (Mariposa)
$250 (Gorilla 50)
$180 (G4-20)

Gossamer Gear is a popular boutique brand based out of Austin that has been around for 20 years. The company’s primary long-distance ultralight backpack is the Mariposa (60L), though UL hikers sometimes like their Gorilla 50 and G4-20 (42L) packs as well.

One of the unique design features of the Mariposa is the different side pockets. One side has one long pocket that is useful for packing your tent or other larger or longer items while the other side has two stacked pockets. Users tend to say that the Mariposa is a very comfortable pack and that it carries slightly heavier loads than comparable UL packs, though note that it is not waterproof.

Granite Gear

GG Crown2 60 - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight (regular torso): 2.12 lbs (960 g) (if using the lid add 0.16 lb | 73 g)
Carrying Capacity: 35 lbs (15.9 kg)
Price: $200

The Crown 2 60L pack is an ultralight backpack available in stores such as REI, making it is a good option to try on in person. Unique features include a fully adjustable hip belt, an innovative Air-Current Mark 2 frame sheet with molded foam back panel, and a removable zippered lid.

Gregory

Gregory Optic - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
2.52 lbs (1.14 kg) (medium Optic 58)
2.47 lbs (1.12kg) (medium Optic 48)
2.4 lbs (1.09 kg) (small Octal 55)
2.39 lbs (1.08kg) (small Octal 45)
NOTE: Rain cover is 0.21 lbs (95 g)
Carrying Capacity:
35 lbs (16 kg) (medium Optic 58)
30 lbs (14 kg) (medium Optic 48)
35 lbs (16 kg) (small Optic 55)
30 lbs (14 kg) (medium Optic 48)
Price:
$210 (Optic 58)
$190 (Optic 48)
$210 (Octal 55)
$190 (Octal 45)

Gregory’s men’s Optic comes in 48L and 58L sizes while the Octal for women comes in 45L and 55L sizes. All models use the AeroSpan ventilated suspension and come with a custom-fitted rain cover. The On-The-Go Bottle Stow makes accessing your water easy without having to contort your body or remove the pack. You can also swap out the top zippered pocket and go lighter with an included ultralight weather flap.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear

HMG Windrider - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
2.0 lbs (907 g) (Junction 3400)
1.98 lbs (898 g) (Windrider and Southwest 3400)
Carrying Capacity:
Up to 40 lbs (18 kg)
Price:
$390 (4400 models)
$355 (3400 models)
$320 (2400 models)

Hyperlite Mountain Gear has become increasingly popular in the past few years. The company offers three main ultralight backpacks in three sizes (2400 or 40L, 3400 or 55L, and 4400 or 70L) for the Southwest and Windrider and just two for the Junction. The main design difference is the type of pocket materials used. The Windrider uses mesh for all external pockets, the Southwest uses only fabric for external pockets and the Junction uses a combination of the two (mesh for the large front pocket and fabric for the two side pockets).

Speaking of external pockets, users tend to rave about how spacious the main front pockets are on these packs (9.8L). All packs are made with 100% waterproof Dyneema® Composite Fabrics and are pretty basic (one large chamber with an internal sleeve and a roll down top closure). All models come in two color options: white and black. Black uses a sturdier version of Dyneema® making it slightly more durable (and slightly heavier).

Although HMG is mostly an online shop, select packs (currently the Southwest 2400 and 3400) are now available at some REI locations.

LiteAF

LiteAF Curve 1024x1171 - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight: 25/32 oz. (708/907 g) (weight will vary due to torso size and hip belt size)
Carrying Capacity: Up to 35 lbs (16 kg)
Price: $315 base price (some options are extra)

LiteAF is a brand that focuses on smaller, waterproof ultralight backpacks (available using either Dyneema® or X-Pac fabric). The main model is the Curve and it is available in three frameless sizes (30L, 35L, 40L) and a full suspension 46L model, with some customization possible. If you aren’t an experienced UL hiker, a frameless pack isn’t recommended. If you are, LiteAF packs get rave reviews, both for the quality of the pack and the service provided.

Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD)

MLD Exodus - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
18 oz. (455 g) (Exodus DCF 55L)
17oz. (430 g) (Prophet DCF 48L)
Carrying Capacity:
20-25 lbs (9-12 kg) (Exodus DCF 55L)
18–25 lbs (8–12 kg) (Prophet DCF 48L)
Price:
$290 (Exodus DCF 55L)
$285 (Prophet DCF 48L)

Mountain Laurel Designs isn’t as popular as some of the other brands listed here, but they make good packs and have loyal customers. Their packs are also extremely light. The primary models suitable for a thru-hike are the Prophet DCF 48L and the Exodus DCF 55L (there is another Exodus 55L model that isn’t waterproof). Note that both are frameless and have fairly low carrying weight capacities so these packs are really meant for experienced UL hikers.

Exodus vs. Prophet? The main pack bag dimensions and outside pockets are the same size. The Exodus has a 5″ taller extension collar and the webbing part of the hipbelt is 1.5″ vs 1″ on the Prophet. The Prophet weighs about 1 ounce less. The Prophet is available in a size Small, but not XL. Those are the only differences.

Mountainsmith

Mountainsmith Zerk40 - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight: 1lb 13oz. (822) with accessories, 1lb 11oz. (765 g) without accessories
Carrying Capacity: Up to 30 lbs (14 kg)
Price: $219.95

Mountainsmith makes the highly rated Zerk 40 ultralight backpack, co-designed with The Real Hiking Viking, a renowned thru-hiker with thousands of hiking miles under his belt. It’s a small, frameless pack that is really best suited for experienced UL hikers. I didn’t actually see a Zerk during my AT thru-hike but I am dubious of their 30 lbs (14 kg) carrying capacity claim.

Osprey

Osprey Exos48 - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
2.65 lbs (1.20 kg) (medium Exos 58)
2.57 lbs (1.17 kg) (medium Exos 48)
2.53 lbs (1.158 kg) (small Eja 58)
2.45 lbs (1.11 kg) (small Eja 48)
1.95 (0.88 kg) (medium Levity 60)
1.85 lbs (0.82 kg) (medium Levity 45)
1.87 lbs (0.85 kg) (small Lumina 60)
1.79 lbs (0.77 kg) (small Lumina 45)
Carrying Capacity:
40 lbs (18 kg) (Exos/Eja)
25 lbs (11 kg) (Levity/Lumina 60)
20 lbs (9 kg) (Levity/Lumina 45)
Price:
$220 (Exos/Eja 58)
$200 (Exos/Eja 48)
$270 (Levity/Lumina 60)
$250 (Levity/Lumina 45)

Osprey has long been the most popular brand of long-distance hiking backpacks, though in recent years its lead has slipped as the other boutique brands listed here have gained in popularity. Still, Osprey offers some excellent options and an incredible All Mighty lifetime guarantee (with countless testimonials to it being real, not marketing hype). The main selling points for Osprey packs are their comfort, which can more comfortably handle heavier base weights and keep the main pack away from your back to improve air flow. The primary disadvantage is that they tend to be heavier than the newer UL packs available.

Osprey has many different models to choose from, but the Exos (men’s model) and Eja (women’s model) are the most popular options for thru-hikers. Both are available in 48L and 58L sizes. Some hikers prefer the larger (65L) and heavier Atmos (men) and Aura (women) models but most stick to the Exos/Eja. Osprey has also recently launched the Levity (men) and Lumina (women) series in an attempt to keep up with the UL challengers. Those are available in 45L and 60L sizes.

REI

REI flash 55 mens - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
Small: 2.56 lbs (1.16 kg)
Medium: 2.63 lbs (1.19 kg)
Large: 2.69 lbs (1.22 kg)
NOTE: Removing all Packmod accessories saves 7 oz. (198 g)
Carrying Capacity: 30 lbs (14 kg)
NOTE: I found the maximum carrying capacity to be more like 35 lbs as I occasionally carried 30+ with no discomfort.
Price: $199

REI’s Flash 55 is a still-underappreciated ultralight backpack, probably because it was only redesigned in 2019 to compete as a long-distance hiking backpack. It’s the pack I used for my entire Appalachian Trail thru-hike and it’s a great pack for a great price (especially if you buy it with your 20% member discount coupon). It can carry a pretty decent load comfortably (I personally found it more comfortable than the Osprey Exos pack I also tried on in the store).

Do note that I had one pretty significant and annoying issue using this pack. After many miles with it, the hip belt started to become loose and needed to be re-cinched. This became a more and more frequent occurrence as my hike progressed. The few other thru-hikers I met using the pack complained of the same issue. I don’t know if that design problem has been solved with a new update or not, but one reviewer says 2.5 inch cam buckles solve the problem nicely or you can choose to get it replaced thanks to the great warranty policy of REI.

Also note that there is a women’s version too.

Superior Wilderness Designs

SWD Long Haul 50 DCF - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
22-27.7 oz. (624-785g) (Long Haul 50 DCF)
32 oz. (907 g) (VX21 Long Haul 50)
35 oz. (992 g) (X42 Long Haul 50)
25.5-31.5 oz. (723 g) (Long Haul 50)
Carrying Capacity: Up to 35 lbs (16 kg)
Price:
$335 (Long Haul 50 DCF)
$269 (Rugged Long Haul 50)
$265 (Long Haul 50)

Superior Wilderness Designs offers two different packs, the Long Haul and the Superior, in different sizes and fabrics. The Long Haul 50 is likely the one that will interest you as a thru-hiker. It’s a 50L pack with 10L additional external pocket storage. The pack is modular and most features are removable when not needed. The regular and rugged versions use waterproof X-Pac material, but they are not seam sealed. The DCF version is seam sealed. Hip belt pockets and other accessories can be added and all packs are hand-made in Michigan (so plan ahead and expect a long lead time for delivery).

ULA

ULA Circuit - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
25 oz. (709 g) (+ 4 oz. for roll tops) (CDT)
33.1 oz. (938 g) (Ohm 2.0)
36.6 oz. (1.04 kg) (Circuit)
46.7 oz (1.32 kg) (Catalyst)
Carrying Capacity:
18 lbs (8.2 kg) (CDT)
30 lbs (13.6 kg) (Ohm 2.0)
35 lbs (16 kg) (Circuit)
40 lbs (18 kg) (Catalyst)
Price:
$145 (CDT)
$225 – $240 (Ohm 2.0)
$255 (Circuit)
$280 (Catalyst)
NOTE: customizing colors will cost $50 for standard fabric and $70 for X-Pac fabric. And you have to customize the colors to choose the X-Pac material so add $70 to all the prices above for that option.

ULA is one of the most popular boutique ultralight backpack brands. They offer one frameless and three framed ultralight backpacks that might interest you for a thru-hike: CDT, Ohm 2.0, Circuit, and Catalyst. All get good reviews, with many users singing the praises of the packs for the comfort as well as the service of the company. Previously, none of the packs were waterproof but now all offer a waterproof X-Pac material option (for an extra fee above the prices listed here).

The CDT is the lightest option and has a 54L volume but it is a frameless pack so it is better suited for lighter weights and more experienced hikers. The other three framed packs are basically similar options with different sizes and weight carrying capacities so you should choose the one that suits your gear/weight needs (the Ohm 2.0 is a 63L pack, the Circuit is a 68L pack, and the is a Catalyst is a whopping 75L pack). ULA allows a fair amount of customization, notably colors, custom embroidery, shoulder strap option, and hip belt size, though you do pay extra for color customization.

Waymark Gear

Waymark Thru - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
23.5-26 oz. (M/L torso with fully padded hip belt)
18-19.5 oz. (M/L torso with fully removable hip belt)
Carrying Capacity: 10-13 lbs base weight (unclear what the maximum weight is)
Price: $240

Waymark Gear Co. offers the THRU as their flagship minimal, frameless ultralight backpack made for ultralight hikers. It’s available from 38-42 liters depending on torso size and is best suited for hikers with a base weight of 10-13 lbs, so this is really a pack for experienced hikers only. Choose either a 1” removable or a fully padded hip belt.

Zpacks

zpacks ultralight backpack - Lightweight Hiking Gear: Popular Ultralight Backpacks
Weight:
20.3 oz. (575 g) (Arc Blast 55L)
22.6 oz. (642 g) (Arc Haul 62L)
21.1 oz. (599 g) (Arc Air 60L Robic)
Carrying Capacity:
35 lbs (16 kg) (Arc Blast)
40 lbs (18 kg) (Arc Haul)
35 lbs (16 kg) (Arc Air)
Price:
$349 (Arc Blast)
$325 (Arc Haul)
$299 (Arc Air)

I am not sure if Zpacks has officially taken Osprey’s crown as most popular thru-hiking ultralight backpack or not, but it’s definitely one of the most popular brands you will see in use. The company previously offered two different packs that are both quite popular, the Arc Blast and the Arc Haul. There’s now also an Arc Air option that seems to replace the bendable carbon stays with pre-curved stays, which probably make it an easier to use pack.

All models utilize the signature Zpacks “arc” innovation to keep the pack off your back for increased comfort and air flow and they are some of the lightest framed packs on the market. The Blast is a 55L pack made with Dyneema and the Arc Haul is a slightly larger 62L and uses Gridstop fabric (the Air offers different materials and sizes). All packs are highly water resistant but not necessarily waterproof, though the Dyneema or Robic materials should give better water protection.

Note that people tend to either love or hate their Zpacks backpacks. I think that mostly is due to the durability of them. I have personally seen many hikers have quality and durability problems. To be fair, I think there are two reasons for that: (1) durability is basically a tradeoff you make to get such a lightweight pack and (2) many thru-hikers use this pack with far too heavy a load. I think those with UL base weights tend to be happier with the packs and get more use out of them.

Ultralight Backpacks Quick Comparison

It might be helpful to see some of the options I just covered above together in a table. I am not including any frameless packs because I think those aren’t realistic choices for most people new to thru-hiking. For some brands I just chose one of the packs and sizes I think is representative rather than all of the options.

PackVolume (L)WeightLoad CapacityPrice
Gossamer Gear Mariposa6030.5 oz (865 g)35 lbs (16 kg)$270
Granite Gear Crown 2 60L602.12 lbs (960 g)35 lbs (15.9 kg)$200
Gregory Optic 58582.52 lbs (1.14 kg)35 lbs (16 kg)$210
HMG Junction 3400552.0 lbs (907 g)40 lbs (18 kg)$355
MLD Exodus 55L DCF5518 oz. (455 g)20-25 lbs (9-12 kg)$290
Osprey Exos 58582.65 lbs (1.20 kg)40 lbs (18 kg)$220
REI Flash 55552.63 lbs (1.19 kg)30 lbs (14 kg)$199
SWD Long Haul 50 DCF5022-27.7 oz. (624-785g)35 lbs (16 kg)$335
ULA Ohm 2.06333.1 oz. (938 g)30 lbs (13.6 kg)$240
Zpacks Arc Blast5520.3 oz. (575 g)35 lbs (16 kg)$349
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Like this content? Interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail or other long-distance hiking trails? If so, check out my book of advice for planning a thru-hike, Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail: A Complete Guide. It covers everything you need to know and more than you probably thought to consider.

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