When choosing a backpack for a long distance hike, you want something that is functional, lightweight, comfortable, durable, and preferably with a proven track record. No one wants to splash out $200 to $300, only to find their purchase coming apart at the seams after a week out in the boonies.
The following article is a compilation of trail-tested lightweight backpacks, recommended by some of the most accomplished thru-hikers in the US (with a token Australian or two thrown into the mix). All of the packs listed weigh three pounds (1.36 kg) or less, have a carrying capacity of between 36 and 63 liters, and are suitable for hikers with base weights under 15 lbs (6.8 kg)*. Each rucksack has proven itself over thousands of miles in a wide variety of terrains and conditions.
*Note: At the bottom of the article, I address why I think 15 lbs is the maximum base weight aspiring thru-hikers should consider carrying on their journeys.
The Usual Suspects
As with the ‘Thru-Hikers Gear List‘ I published earlier this year, in putting together this post I wanted to create a resource that was relevant to a wide range of hikers. With that goal in mind, the recommendations below are derived from a diverse group of very experienced ramblers, ranging between 25 and 78 years of age. Though the chronological spectrum may be sizeable, all of them backpack in an ultralight to lightweight fashion, have multiple long distance hikes under their belts, and possess a fierce love for the outdoors.
The usual suspects include: Billy Goat, Nancy “Why Not” Huber, Paul “Mags” Magnanti, Lauren “Neon” Reed, Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes, Christy “Rockin” Rosander, Justin “Trauma” Lichter, Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, Clint “Lint” Bunting, Lawton “Disco” Grinter, James “Jupiter” Hoher, Brad “Shepherd” McCartney, Renee “SheRa” Kirkpatrick, Erin “Wired” Saver and Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva.
Note: For more information on these hikers, click on the names and check out their websites and/or social media pages. In the case of Billy Goat, you will have to either do the google thing, or alternatively head out to the Pacific Crest Trail or Florida Trail and meet the men in person. If you stay in one place long enough, he is sure to come along eventually.
The items below are listed in alphabetical order. Unless otherwise noted, the weights are for fully configured medium or regular sized models, and the prices are current as of November, 2017. Note that significant modification options are available with some of these backpacks (e.g. Gossamer Gear and Six Moon Designs), and such alterations will effect the price and weight of the said item:
Gossamer Gear Gorilla: 33.6 oz / 48 L (including outer pockets) / $205
The fully featured Gorilla is by no means the lightest pack on this list, however, it may well be the most comfortable for carrying weights between 15 and 30 lbs. It is also one of the most configurable models, sporting a removable lid (2.8 oz), frame (3 oz), hip belt (7.7 oz) and SitLight pad (2.1 oz), which slips into the outer back pocket. Personally speaking, I’d be tempted to knock 5 oz off the overall weight by losing the pad and the lid; both of which are redundant if your keep the frame and line the inside of your pack with a trash compactor bag.
The Gorilla is the pack of choice for triple crowners such as “The Trail Show” hosts, POD and Disco, as well as Heather “Anish” Anderson, who took the pack on her record setting Appalachian Trail hike in 2015. Christy “Rockin” Rosander, a 60 year old uber-grandma from California, used the Gorilla on her thru hikes of both the Sierra High Route and the Wind River Range in 2016. Here is an excerpt from Rockin’s review:
“The new shoulder straps are curved and super comfy. This summer we often carried extra gear for snow, bear, and food protection: ice axe, microspikes, bear spray, solo bear canister or Ursack). The Gorilla handled the extra weight perfectly. The new Gorilla has an optional integrated belt and frame. You can actually slide them together. I think it really helped with stability in class 3 climbs, snow travel, and going up and over boulders. Plus the hip belt is very comfortable. No rubs.”
Gossamer Gear Kumo – 19.6 oz / 36 lt / $165
Known for it’s durability, lightweight and wide and comfy shoulder straps; the Kumo is the long-time pack of choice for accomplished long distance ramblers such as Dirtmonger, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas and Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy (each of whom has hiked over 10,000 miles with the pack). I myself used the Kumo on the Colorado Trail a couple of years ago, as well as on many shorter hikes in Mexico and Australia.
Comparing it to the Burn, the Kumo has a wider profile, an over-the-top closure system (rather than the traditional roll top style), and despite what the specs may say, I’ve always felt it has a slightly larger capacity than the MLD model. I think both packs offer great value for money.
The latest incarnation of the Kumo is a bit heavier than earlier models, mostly due to the beefier, pocket-sporting hip belt (3.1 oz). That said, as with the other Gossamer Gear packs, it is easily configurable, and if you lose both the belt and the SitLite pad (2.1 oz)……..voila……..you have yourself a 14 oz pack.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa – 32.7 oz / 60 L / $215
The Mariposa is Gossamer Gear’s best selling backpack. It sports a removable internal frame, load lifters, lots of pockets, and tips the scales at just over 2 pounds. It represents a very good option if your base weight is between 12 and 15 lbs, and is the favourite pack of serial thru-hiker and blogger extraordinaire, Erin “Wired” Saver: “The Gossamer Gear Mariposa fits me so naturally that I sometimes forget I’m even wearing it.”
I got to personally see the Mariposa in action during the recent traverse of Bolivia’s Cordillera Real range. My hiking buddy, Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva used it during the arduous trip, deciding to upsize from his trusty Kumo, due to the extreme conditions (i.e. extra layers) and seven day food carry. He gave it a thumbs up at hike’s end for its load carrying ability.
Granite Gear Crown2 60 – 2 lb 2 oz / 60 L / $199
Lightweight, durable, and at just under $200, one of the best value backpacks on the market. The Crown2 60 is the latest incarnation of Granite Gear’s classic Vapor Trail and Crown V.C.60. The latter was used by uber-hiker, Justin “Trauma” Lichter, during our Copper Canyon Traverse in 2013, and notably during his winter thru hike (with Shawn “Pepper” Forry) of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014/15.
The Crown2 differs from its highly regarded predecessors, in that it has a fully adjustable hip belt with zippered pockets, as well as an optional top lid. According to Phillip Werner at Section Hiker, the Crown2 is “a worthy successor to the V.C.Crown 60” and “the best backpack Granite Gear has ever made.”
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest – 29.3 oz / 50 L / $300
Over the past couple of years, I have put the HMG 2400 Southwest pack through the backcountry wringer, with extended trips in Southwest Tasmania, South Dakota’s Badlands, Bolivia’s Altiplano and the Sangre de Cristo Range. I have regularly loaded it with 25 to 40 lbs due to large water and food carries, and it has held up like a champ. The fixed hip belt and slim profile assist on the balance front when scrambling over technical terrain or negotiating steep snow slopes. The HMG Southwest packs are by no means the lightest or cheapest packs in this category, however, in my experience they rate close to the top in regards to durability, stability and load distribution. As for things I don’t like about the pack, the hip belt pockets come to mind; the zippers can be fidgety, particular in cold and/or wet weather.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest – 31.1 oz / 65 L / $340
The 3400 is the same as the 2400 with just a little more volume. If your three season base weight is between 12 and 15 lbs, go with the 3400. If it’s below 12 lbs, opt for the 2400.
Lauren “Neon” Reed and Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes (pictured below) have been hiking continuously with the 3400 packs since November, 2015, on their thru hike of the Americas. Here are their impressions after a couple of thousand miles through the Andes (so far!):
Mountain Laurel Designs Burn – 13.5 oz / 38 L / $180
Between 2010 and 2016, I hiked more than 19,000 miles (30,577 km) carrying an MLD Burn (spread over two packs). This included multi-week trips in Australia, New Zealand and the calendar year triple crown of 2012. Over the years I’ve found it comfortable carrying weights up to 22 lbs (10kg), and it has proved itself extremely durable for something so light. The one issue I had with the Burn were the shoulder straps, which were a bit narrow and tended to wear over time. In recent years this problem has been addressed by MLD, and the straps are now both wider (2.5″) and thicker (0.8″). If you are looking for even wider straps (probably not a bad idea), MLD will replace the Burn versions with the 3″ Prophet straps for a nominal fee.
Fellow MLD Burn enthusiasts include my frequent hiking buddy Greg “Malto” Gressel, and Triple Triple Crowner, Lint Bunting. In regards to the latter, earlier this year he introduced me to a term that I had never heard before (and still makes me chuckle): “Tiny pack envy.” According to Lint, when he saw me rocking a Burn during our 2012 meeting on the CDT, he thought to himself, “…….crap! That darn Aussie has a smaller pack than me!” Sure enough, he soon had one of his own, which he subsequently ended up using on multiple triple crown thru-hikes over the next four years!
Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet – 16 oz / 48 L / $195
I think the frameless Prophet is an excellent option for folks with a base weight of between 8 and 11 or 12 lbs, whose total pack weight (i.e. including perishables) infrequently exceeds 22 lb. If you regularly carry more than that, I would opt for an internal framed pack. Why? In short, internal frame packs with a fixed hip belt offer superior load distribution between your shoulders and hips (i.e. they’re more comfortable and stable under heavy strain), no small matter if you are regularly hauling lots of water and/or more than five days worth of food.
Osprey Exos 58 – 2 lb 10 oz / 58 L / $220
Osprey Exos 48 – 2 lb 8 oz / 48 L / $190
The feature-laden Exos is possibly the most popular backpack on the thru-hiking circuit. It offers excellent value for money, and is the go-to model for hikers who don’t like sweaty backs. Long time users rave about it’s ability to carry medium to heavy loads (i.e. 15 to 35 lbs), though with its tensioned-frame it may not be the best option for hauls that are significantly lighter than that. In short, if your base weight is 12 lbs plus and you like the idea of ventilation between you and your pack, the Exos is worth a look.
Fellow Aussie, Brad “Shepherd” McCartney, used Osprey Exos packs on all of his Triple Crown hikes (Exos 58 on the PCT, and the Exos 48 on the CDT and AT) between 2015 and 2017. Here is his take on the Exos 58:
“There is a reason why this is the most popular pack on the PCT. It’s a great pack able to carry heavy loads comfortably when needed; think big water carries in the desert or heavy bear barrel and food loads in the Sierra. Several times I swapped packs with other hikers on the PCT, in order to try out some of the well known lightweight brands. I wanted to like the lighter weight brands, but honestly they were to uncomfortable for me.“
Pa’lante Packs Simple Pack – 13 oz / 40 L / $220
The “Simple” backpack is a bare bones and gossamer weight frameless model, that sports some thoughtful design features that many in the Ultralight hiking community seem to love. I first heard about it through Dirtmonger and Lint, but I’ll leave it to James “Jupiter” Hoher, who hiked from Canada to Key West with the Simple pack on the ECT in 2016/17, to explain its appeal:
“I think the Simple Pack takes everything we love from the classic frameless rucksack, and adds features you may not have known you wanted such as integrated lycra mesh shoulder pockets, and a fancy bottom pocket for food. It comes in a surprisingly durable package, that doesn’t sacrifice ounces for add ons. I’ve used my current model for around 5,000 miles, and I’m looking forward to putting another 5,000 miles on it in the not too distant future.”
Six Moon Designs Fusion 50 – 3 lbs / 55 L / $210
Tipping the scales at right on three pounds (fully configured), the Fusion 50 is highly rated for it’s load distribution and heavyweight carrying abilities. With an adjustable length frame, along with various hip belt and shoulder harness options, it is made for tweakers looking for a customized backpack at a reasonable price. Renee “SheRa” Kirkpatrick (Triple crowner, cross-country skier, and Coordinator for the Oregon Desert Trail) took the Fusion 50 on her 2016 CDT hike. Here is an excerpt from her post-trip review:
“Ron Moak (Six Moon Designs) and Brian Frankle (founder of ULA packs) worked on a pack to bridge the gap between the ultralight crowd and the average backpacker, a place I fall into on the spectrum of backpackers and the weight they carry. This pack was sufficient to carry up to 7 liters of water and 8 days of food, and held up well when I had a pair of skis strapped to it. I often had all three exterior pocks maxed out, and despite one instance of shoving a water bottle into an already maxed out side pocket and splitting a few of the seams (completely my fault), the construction was bomber and held up well to the trials and tribulations of a 5+ month hike.”
ULA Ohm – 34.5 oz / 63 L / $210
This pack is a perennial favourite of my old mate, Billy Goat. The Ohm has a slimmer profile than the other ULA models, which helps to keep the weight of the load as close to the back as possible. A useful feature when negotiating snowbound or rugged off-trail terrain. You can remove the frame if you choose (saving around 5 oz), however, for a pack with this much capacity, you are probably better off leaving it in. If you are looking for even more support to negotiate the heavy carries, try the best selling ULA Circuit, which is wider (easier fit for larger-type bear canisters), 6.5 oz heavier and with a 68 L capacity.
ULA CDT – 24 oz / 54 L / $145
The CDT is ULA’s lightest, cheapest and most bare bones pack. In a previous incarnation it use to be called the Conduit. One of my all-time favourite hiking buddies, Mike “The Gambler” Towne continues to rock this pack after more than a decade of regular use in the High Sierra and thru hikes of the PCT and Hayduke Trail. If you are looking for a frameless, tough as nails pack that will last for years, the ULA CDT is worth consideration.
One of the most no-frills hiker’s I know, Paul “Mags” Magnanti, had the following to say about the CDT:
“The ULA CDT is not sexy, cutting edge, or the lightest pack out there. What the ULA CDT ends up being is a well designed and proven workhorse, made for those who want to keep it light, get off-trail, and occasionally do more than prime three-season backpacking. And at $145 it is a very good bargain. I suspect, much like my ULA Catalyst, it is a pack I will use for years to come.”
ZPacks Arc Blast (external frame) – 21.2 oz / 55 L / $325
The Arc Blast has a loyal following amongst lightweight hikers who enjoy the on-trail stability provided by an external frame pack. Indeed, devotees claim that it is comfortable carrying loads of between 25 and 30 lbs. When you take into consideration that it tips the scales at a mere 21 oz, it may well be the leading pack in regards to load carrying-to-weight ratio.
Triple Crowner, sexagenarian and all-around hiking rockstar, Nancy “Why Not” Huber, swears by her Arc Blast, and carried it during all of her triple crown hikes between 2011 and 2014. In subsequent years she has continued to use the AB in various locations around the globe, including the Pyrenees, Alps, High Sierra and Wind River Range. Take it away, Nancy:
“I’ve had 2 ZPacks packs. A 2011 Blast made out of “regular cuben fiber” and the 2014 ArcBlast model in the “hybrid cuben” fabric. Each one has over 5000 miles on it. I’ve gotten my money’s worth……….I am 5’6” and have a short torso (17 inches!) It’s been a struggle to find a pack that fits. My ArcBlast was custom made with shorter stays. The ArcBlast is made to flex the stays to get air to your back and improve weight transfer to the hips. That didn’t work for me and I found it more comfortable to leave the stays straight. I had ZPacks move the top attachment of the shoulder straps down an inch to accommodate the straight stays. The new version of the ArcBlast allows the user the adjust this attachment point. As with any pack, less weight translates to more comfort. So as long as I keep my base weight down and don’t hike where I need to carry huge amounts of food and water, the ArcBlast is the most comfortable pack I’ve used.”
“RBW” stands for recommended base weight:
- Gossamer Gear Gorilla – 33.6 oz / 48 L / $245 / RBW – 10 to 13 lbs.
- Gossamer Gear Kumo – 19.6 oz / 36 L / $165 / RBW – 6 to 9 lbs
- Gossamer Gear Mariposa – 32.7 oz / 60 L / RBW – 12 to 15 lbs.
- Granite Gear Crown2 60 – 2.12 lb / 60 L / $199 / RBW – 10 to 15 lbs.
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest – 29.3 oz / 50 L / $300 / RBW – 9 to 12 lbs
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest – 31.1 oz / 65 L / $340 / RBW – 12 to 15 lbs.
- Mountain Laurel Designs Burn – 13.5 oz / 38 L / $180 / RBW – 6 to 9 lbs
- Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet – 16 oz / 48 L / $195 / RBW – 8 to 11 lbs.
- Osprey Exos 48 – 2 lb 8 oz / 48 L / $190 / RBW – 9 to 12 lbs.
- Osprey Exos 58 – 2 lb 10 oz / 58 L / $220 / RBW – 12 to 15 lbs
- Pa’lante Packs Simple Pack – 13.7 oz / 40 LT / $220 / RBW – 6 to 9 lbs.
- Six Moon Designs Fusion 50 – 3 lbs / 55 L / $210 / RBW – 12 to 15 lbs
- ULA Ohm – 34.5 oz / 63 L / $210 / RBW – 12 to 15 lbs.
- ULA CDT – 24 oz / 54 L / $145 / RBW – 9 to 12 lbs.
- ZPacks Arc Blast – 21 oz / 55 L / $325 / RBW – 8 to 12 lbs.
The 15 LB Maximum
I realize that after reading this article some of you may be thinking, “.…those packs look good, but I don’t think I could fit all my gear into any of them.” If that’s the case, and I’ll put this as delicately as I can, chances are you are carrying too much stuff. Might be time for some culling or downsizing.
I believe a first time thru hiker can safely and comfortably complete a three season journey on a triple crown-type trail, with a base weight of no more than 15 lbs / 6.8 kg (that’s being conservative). That’s your pack weight minus consumables, and not counting the gear that is actually on your person (e.g. shirt, shorts, shoes, etc.).
In this day and age, innovative designs combined with increasingly lightweight, yet still durable materials, have meant that manufacturers now produce incredibly lightweight equipment, without unduly sacrificing performance or safety. When coupled with the fact that there is so much information on the subject easily accessible online, there is no logical reason why someone should be carrying any more than a 15 lb base weight (Note: If you are considering a post thru hike career as a high altitude porter in Nepal, please disregard the previous sentence).
“So how do I get started?”
Thorough research and time spent in the field. In regards to the former, be aware that not all sources are created equal. As with anything, there is a lot of less than stellar information online about how to go “lightweight.” Click here for a list of credible backpacking related websites, many of which offer sound advice regarding lightening your pack weight. For female-specific information, I would add the following two sites, Walking With Wired and Lady on a Rock, both of which are full of she-hiker gear suggestions and tips.
In regards to specific lightweight gear manufacturers, here is a list of companies that I or trusted hiker buddies, have used over the years. The list is by no means exhaustive, and there are definitely other folks out there making high quality lightweight gear suitable for thru-hikers. For a more comprehensive compilation of gear makers, see the Ultralight Sub-Reddit; if it’s lightweight and backpacking related, chances are you will find it on this page.
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