Going Lighter Guide: Packs III — Ultralight

This is where I get excited — ultralight packs. Partially, I get excited because — well — I am a bit of a geared (though I’m trying hard to curb the tendencies. Ultralight packs run from very minimalistic bags that can be used by runners and those hiking in very good weather (and don’t need to carry much stuff) up to bigger frames packs and those that have some kind frame system but very light systems. However, for the hiker and backpacker, probably the best thing about these packs is the design.

The vast majority of packs in this category are produced by small, niche, producers. These specialist manufactures all have a background of trail hiking and mountaineering. As a result you can expect many — if not all — of the features of the packs to make sense top the leg distance hiker. Pockets are simply in the most convenient place. Shoulder straps are comfortable as well as functional. Back pockets for stuffing in wet gear a proper sized pockets that actually allow you to stuff in gear. You don’t get top heavy lids with pockets because they simply encourage you to make your pack top heavy with stuff that shouldn’t be in the lid. These packs are like the performance cars of the hiking world. Well, I exaggerate but you get the point.

The good news for anybody looking at exploring this category for the first time is that the ultralight pack industry is now very mature; most have been doing this stuff for a long time. There are many companies out there now who started as niche producers but have now matured nicely — Ron Bell’s Mountain Laurel Designs, Ron Moak at Six Moon Designs for example. Then there are companies who have grown into quite impressive ventures — Gossamer Gear and Z Packs for example have grown exponentially since their early days of producing essentially for long distance trail walkers. Almost every year now a new company comes along echoing the origins of these established players. You the consumer has the choice — to go with the new kids on the block (which is exciting) or to go with the tried and the tested. But if you are in the UK you can be even more excited as we now have our own home-grown manufactures making a real impact; more on this later.

What do we mean here?

Essentially you will find three kinds of packs in this range.

At the very low end are specialist packs aimed at mountain runners, mountain marathon people and ultra, ultra lightweight hikers. I had one of these for a while but I found that the UK weather almost always saw me packing more than the pack was comfortable with. But it you are in a dry climate these can make a lot of sense.

Next we have the mainstream ultralight packs. Here you will find a pack big enough to take a decent load but which is often frameless. Many offer in pack sleeves that can be filled with sleeping mats to give a bit more comfort and support. With a lightweight gear collection these should keep you happy with three or four days worth of supplies without any problems.

At the heavier end of things we have packs that employ some kind of frame system, although this is usually a very lightweight system. Often you can remove the frame for lighter trekking conditions and employ the frame if you are on a trip that will involve carry more supplies.

Weight Guide

I shall use my main pack as a reference; this is the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus pack which I have been using for the best part of a decade now.

My Exodus weighs 600 grams (1.3 lbs). I re-enforce this with two sections of a foldable foam pad that weighs 60 grams; this adds both comfort and load carrying capacity.

It is always helpful if you can see how the capacity of the pack is distributed. The total capacity of the Exodus is 55 litres or 30 litres is compression straps are used to reduce the bulk. However, the full breakdown is more useful:

Main pack volume: 40 litres, main outside (back) pocket 5 litres, side pockets 5 litres.

The pack also comes with an extension collar for larger loads — this can hold about 8 litres.

In my view any decent ultralight pack should give you this breakdown as it helps you plan and ensure that buying what you want.

 

The Exodus specs above give you an idea of what you might find. A frameless pack will be about 600-700 grams and one utilising a basic frame will probably be around 800 grams.

 

Frameless or Frame?

This very much depends on the hiking you are undertaking. At the lighter end of the scale you will find packs that have no hip belt, or a hip belt that is removable. These are fast and light packs probably best employed on shorter UK trips or longer trails in, say, the US but where the weather is good and you don’t have to carry as much.

For me, in the UK, my main backpack will always have a hip belt but it might not have a back system, indeed mine does not. This pack is quite comfortable carry up to about 12 kilograms which is adequate for most of the trips I do. The sleeping mat inset makes things a bit firmer, more comfortable in terms of the contents digging into your back and a little better for carrying. If I am hiking solo then I never have a problem. For some reason when there are two of us hiking I always end up carrying more weight which you notice on days when you are stocked up to the max with food, but I can live with it.

For the majority of my trips I am rarely carrying more than four days of food — think of a UK event like the TGO Challenge or a UK trail. For this kind of arrangement this pack works very well. I could, of course, go for a mainstream pack like one of those I mentioned in the previous post but that pack may be more than a kilogram heavier.

 

Removable Frames

Increasingly we are seeing packs with removable but lightweight frames; these can give you extra comfort with load carrying but the packs can easily be stripped down for shorter trips or UK summer trips.

The first person I saw using this system was Brian Frankle at ULA Equipment. My Catalyst pack was designed as a load carrier. It had a foam pad in the back that enclosed two, thin, metal rods. You bend the metal rods to fit the shape of your back. This system works very well in may experience.

A slightly lighter system — that carries slightly lighter loads — uses more simple rods, often made of carbon. Colin Ibbotson at Tramplite made packs with two carbon rods; I don’t think is producing packs anymore but this system worked very well as was complemented by long standing gear people such as Chris Townsend.

Again, the first time I saw this system in use was from ULA in this case their Circuit Pack. The Circuit uses a carbon frame to provide the extra stiffness and by all accounts this system worked very well although I have never owned on. A number of ultralight manufactures use something very similar these days,

It’s Your Choice …

You can go frameless or utilise a lighter or slightly heavier frame. For example, the load bearing capacity of the carbon hooped ULA Circuit is about 15 kilograms (35 lbs). ULA’s heavier Catalyst (with the heavier rod system) can carry about 18 kilograms. To be honest fewUK backpackers should really need to be carrying 18 kilograms, but the option is there for you.

You will often see similar ranges from other specialist companies to include a truly frameless pack, a pack with a light frame and a pack with a heavier frame.

I intuitively look at the lighter options but you may not. The heavier pack systems take you into competition with more mainstream companies. Your specialist pack may be similar specked but may cost more. However, you can almost guarantee that the functionality of the specialist pack will be greater and you will appreciate this while you are on the trail.

Fabrics

Once you get down to below 1 kilogram in weight you really have to be careful about the use of fabrics to get even lighter. I mentioned Dyneema in my last post as a very tough and abrasive resistant fabric. Ultralight manufactures cleverly mix a material like Dyneema with lighter fabrics. Expect the heavy wear areas to be of Dyneema but you will find other less critical parts of the pack utilising lighter fabrics where toughness is not as critical.

Perhaps, the lightest offering for pack material is cuben fibre. This fibre is very strong and very light — it is used for high performance yacht sales for example. However, it is not as tough when it comes to abrasion. I wouldn’t recommend this for UK hiking where — ifs you are like me — you are basing through gorse and all kinds of other horrible undergrowth (yes I know I should improve my navigation skills). Cuben fibre packs are designed to be used on the long USA trails and often they are simply discarded at the end.

I’ve mentioned Dyneema but there are other equivalent fabrics such as Robic. Hunt around the lightweight sites and you’ll soon get to know them.

Ultralight Comes to the UK

And now — and this is very exciting — we have our own lightweight industry developing in the UK. Above I mentioned Tramplite but I don’t think Colin is producing packs any longer, However, Tom Gale’s  Atom Packs — based in the Lake District — are taking the world by storm and although still young the company is growing at an impressive rate.

Atom Pack’s line follows the formula above. There is a runner’s pack, a frameless pack (the original Atom), an Atom with a carbon hoop (a-la ULA Circuit) and a load carrying pack with rods (a-la ULA Catalyst). Thinking about it this range seems to be very much inspired by ULA but this is no bad thing.

What you get from Atom is Tom’s design nouse. Tom has walked a number of the USA long distance trails and is still a trail walker. The little design features here are super — check out the pocket that runs along the bottom of the pack!

I’m beginning to think of replacing my main pack and at the moment my choice would almost certainly be the Atom + (with the removable carbon hoop).

You will find a lot of web content about Atom and — as a young company — you will see young reviewers utilising things like YouTube. You will find a growing collection of very happy punters.

Atom’s range is growing quickly and on the website you will find all of the guidance and design specs that you would need. Atom also have a custom order service so you can add all kinds of extra bells and whistles — just don’t add to much weight!

 

The Verdict

Ultralight packs such as these are for everyone and I’d encourage everyone considering a high performance pack to check these out. You will be paying a premium price but you will be getting an exceptionally functional piece of equipment.

If you want to explore the heavier end of this product range you will find yourself coming into competition with mainstream manufacturers but you will almost certainly get a better design. I mentioned in the previous post that these days cut-price companies can simply design by ordering different features from a Vietnamese producer who is almost certainly making pack for a number of companies — can I have Gregory shoulder pads and Osprey pockets please? 

What you won’t get from the bottom end of this market is the functionality of something designed from scratch by an experienced tail walker who still enjoys trail walking. If you can afford it this kind of experience is irreplaceable.

So, there you have it. Ultralight back packs are for everyone — even you! You just have to decide what kind of hiking you need the pack for!

Research

I’ve mentioned a number of companies here but there are many others who produce equally innovative products. I’ve mentioned the most established (and those from the UK) because I’ve known them longer. As ever the place to look for info is the backpackingight.com website and especially its user forums. If you like spending ours reading about exciting stuff then great. If you just want a great pack then the mainstream ultralight producers will serve you well.

 

For me the lightweight thing comes down to reducing weight across the board. Why consider a 2 kilogram pack when I can have something as functional that weighs just 800 grams? Take this philosophy into other gear categories and you will soon see your overall pack weight coming down quickly.

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