We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Written By
Published Aug 24, 2022 9:26 AM

For most backpacking enthusiasts, there’s an art to dialing in your gear for whatever adventure you’ve got planned, but for the ultralight backpacker, it’s a science. Every ounce carried onto the trail counts, and that starts with the backpack itself. That’s why it’s vital to do your research to find the top ultralight backpacks.

While most ultralight backpacks share common features with the more “standard” backpacks out there, there are some key differences to keep in mind. Some have frames, and some don’t. If you’re determined to keep your ultralight backpacks under two pounds, then you will almost definitely have to sacrifice features. And obviously, they’re lighter, but just how rugged can they be? We’re here to help you find the best ultralight backpacks on the market.

It’s impossible to have a top ultralight backpacks list without Hyperlite Mountain Gear represented somewhere on it. Our Best Overall backpack, the Southwest, has been a mainstay of the ultralight movement since the release of the smaller 2400 (40L) version, and the 3400 builds upon this tried-and-true pack.

The Southwest is made of advanced woven-face Dyneema Composite Fabrics, which are lightweight and extremely durable. And with a 55-liter volume and up to 40-pound load capacity, it can easily carry enough gear to last up to a week in the backcountry (plus you can fit one of these great backpacking tents in there). Plus, another feature of Dyneema is a high degree of waterproofing, which, combined with the 3400’s taped seams, makes the main compartment nearly waterproof. It’s the innate durability, lightness, and waterproofing of Dyneema that makes the Southwest cost a bit more than other similar-sized backpacks.

The exterior of the pack is simple in design, with three pockets (one on each side, and one large mesh pocket on the back), plus two hip-belt pockets for small quick access items. One complaint I’ve noticed is that the side pockets are hard to reach while wearing, which makes reaching for a water bottle annoying (although there is a hydro port that provides another option for easy water access).

Product Specs
  • Weight: 1.98 pounds (31.7 ounces)
  • Product dimensions: 34 x 10.5 inches
  • Volume: 55 liters (internal)
  • Materials: DCH150 (main body and bottom)
  • Frame: 2 x aluminum stays (rods)
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 is everything an ultralight backpacker could dream of: It weighs under two pounds, is incredibly durable, highly water-resistant, and has lots of storage space.
PROS

Made of durable, lightweight Dyneema fabric

Removable internal frame stays help transfer weight to hips

Highly waterproof main body

CONS

Pricey Some difficulty reaching side pockets

while wearing a full pack

Ultralight packs are almost by definition exotic and expensive. Most of the backpacks you’ll find, especially the higher-end products, are made of advanced materials like Dyneema and Ultra fabrics, which is why they are often expensive. But the Granite Gear Crown2 60, our best budget ultralight, manages to provide a rugged and less expensive option that has some surprising extra features above and beyond a basic backpack.

First, the generous carry capacity of 60 liters means you can carry enough gear and food to carry you a while in the backcountry (with a caveat, below). The Crown2 is made of 210D high-tenacity nylon, so it is heavier than Dyneema, but still comes out nicely to just over two pounds. However, if you’re looking to lighten the load even more, the molded frame sheet can be taken out and the lid removed, which reduces the overall weight to 1.7 pounds. The proprietary “Re-fit” hip belt is adjustable from 26 to 42 inches, so it can accommodate a wide range of body sizes.

While Granite Gear’s suspension system (called the “Vapor Current Mark 2”) does a good job distributing the load you’re carrying, some indicate that the shoulder strap padding gets stressed considerably after the pack passes 20 to 25 pounds of gear. By the time you reach the 35-pound load capacity, the strain is pretty uncomfortable. So while this is a fantastic choice for a budget-friendly pack, you may want to look at a higher-end product (or a traditional backpack) if you plan on carrying heavy loads.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 2.36 pounds
  • Product dimensions: 23.5 x 13 x 8 inches
  • Volume: 60 liters
  • Materials: 210D high-tenacity nylon
  • Frame: internal polypropylene
Why It Made The Cut
  • Ultralight backpacks are known for being light on features, but the Granite Gear Crown2 60 not only comes with some handy extras, it does so at a great price, as well.
PROS

Lightweight, molded frame sheet provides support, weight transfer

Removable top lid with storage capability

Great price

CONS

Heavy loads (25+ pounds) are less comfortable to carry

Side pockets difficult to access while wearing

Best Eco-Friendly

REI is a “co-op” dedicated to serving its members with quality gear, but also invests significant time and resources into enhancing sustainability processes for its products. Among its initiatives is working with the Swedish group Bluesign Technologies, which monitors the sustainability practices of businesses, awarding the “Bluesign” label to those that demonstrate sufficiently sustainable processes in making products. REI’s Flash series is made using materials that meet Bluesign’s eco-friendly criteria, and so warrant being the best eco-friendly ultralight.

Besides being eco-friendly, the Flash 55 is a well-priced (just under $200) 55-liter backpack that delivers quite a bit of value. The design is well thought-out, with easily accessible side pockets, hip belt pockets, and a mesh “rain shield pocket” on one shoulder strap, where you can store a phone, map, compass, etc. (although some note the pocket is a little too small for larger cell phones).

Although a solid ultralight, the comparatively thin 100D nylon can tear easier than higher denier fabrics. Another issue is the Flash 55’s hip belt will reportedly loosen from time to time, which will inevitably shift your pack load to your shoulders. Neither of these are show-stoppers, especially for the budget-conscious or beginning backpacker, but definitely be aware.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 2.10 ounces (medium)
  • Product dimensions: 30 x 14 x 12 inches
  • Volume: 55 liters
  • Materials: 100D ripstop nylon (main body), 420D nylon bottom
  • Frame: internal steel
Why It Made The Cut
  • REI is known for encouraging outdoors stewardship and environmental responsibility, and making eco-friendly products, as well. The Flash 55, along with many other of its backpacks, are Bluesign-approved.
PROS

Removable 5.75-liter top

3D contoured hip belt for comfort and weight transfer

Made from sustainable materials

Good price

CONS

Main body material not as durable as many packs

Hip belt slips

Mountain Laurel Designs was founded in 2002 by Ron Bell, an avid ultralight enthusiast before most had ever heard of the term. Over the years, his company has refined its gear to get the most pack out of the least amount of weight, and the Exodus shows the results of this kind of dedication.

While previous iterations of the Exodus were made of Dyneema, Mountain Laurel decided to upgrade to EcoPak Ultra in its newest version of the Exodus (although Dyneema is still an option). The pack is bare-bones, giving you what you really need for backpacking, and a little more. The main compartment holds 40 liters, and the rest of the 55 to 58 liters (depending on size) is made up of the mesh pocket on the back, the two side pockets, and the extension collar. Although not actually waterproof, the seams of the Ultra version are fully taped, giving it a high degree of water resistance.

Wearers of the Exodus uniformly love it (which is a big reason it is the best frameless ultralight on this list), with no consistent issues with the build except that, when full, water bottles in the side pockets can be hard to access. Another issue I find is that, in a way, Mountain Laurel “cheats” to get to its low weight by omitting “optional” items like the sternum slider (included) and hip belt pockets (sold separately), which are things that many people expect to have. Add in two pockets and the slider, and you’ve only increased weight by 2.75 ounces, so it seems a little extreme to not include these features.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 18 ounces (medium)
  • Product dimensions: 35 x 12 x 7 inches
  • Volume: 58 liters
  • Materials: Ecopak Ultra 200/400 or DX 210D ripstop nylon
  • Frame: none
Why It Made The Cut
  • The latest Exodus 55L represents years of innovation and evolution and uses the most advanced materials to create one of the lightest and most durable frameless backpacks available.
PROS

Extremely light while having generous volume capacity

Can choose pack materiel to be either Ecopak Ultra or Dyneema

Curved side panels, S-shaped shoulder pads, compression straps help secure and stabilize load

CONS

Very bare-bones; extras like hip belt pockets cost extra/add weight

Side pockets hard to reach while wearing

Best Men’s Ultralight

Our best men’s ultralight backpack, Durston Gear’s Kakwa 40L, delivers a lot for such a light backpack: true 40-liter storage capacity in the main compartment (versus a total of 40 liters by including pockets), a lightweight U-shaped aluminum frame which works with shoulder load-lifters to help draw the load closer in for more efficient weight transfer, hip belt pockets, and even a camera pocket on the shoulder strap. Add to this the fact that it’s made of Ultra 200 material, and this is one fantastic ultralight backpack at a mid-range price.

Users almost universally love this pack, but one potential drawback for someone used to more traditional backpacking is the size. A 40-liter pack for a traditional backpacker is pretty small, so if you’re not a practiced ultralight enthusiast, you may find the Kakwa insufficient for an extended time in the backcountry (over three to four days). So if you’re planning to disappear for a while with this pack, you’ll want to lighten your other gear, as well.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 28.5 ounces (large)
  • Product dimensions: 35-inch height, top circumference 36 inches, bottom 31 inches
  • Volume: 40 liters
  • Materials: Ultra 200
  • Frame: inverted U-frame, hollow aluminum
Why It Made The Cut
  • Although the high-quality Durston Gear Kakwa ultralight can be (and is) used by men and women, unisex designs are often geared more toward male bodies.
PROS

Lightweight but comes with plenty of features

Removable hollow aluminum frame provides support for heavier loads

CONS

On the small side for extended backpacking

Best Women’s Ultralight

The Osprey Lumina is designed to conform more with a woman’s body type and is a little shorter than the Levity 60 (the male frame version). It’s made to be durable, using a mix of 30D Cordura Silnylon Ripstop for the main compartment and Osprey’s NanoFly 210D Nylon/200D ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) material for the bottom and accents. That translates into one rugged backpack.

Our choice for the best women’s ultralight backpack is designed with a large front bellowed pocket for storing large items like rain gear, and two side pockets (which are reportedly quite tight). The fixed top lid has a zippered compartment for additional small-item storage, and there are also lid loops for attaching additional gear, if needed. Combined with Osprey’s well-designed Lightwire suspension system and the generous storage space, you may be tempted to overload this pack. You don’t want to do that.

Although very well-designed, as an ultralight backpack, the Lumina has a load limit of 10 to 25 pounds. However, a number of backpackers have noted that the shoulder straps are on the thin side, and the closer you get to the max load limit, the more uncomfortable the pack gets. With this in mind, the Lumina may be best for true ultralight backpackers who can keep their carry load to under 25 pounds.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 1.94 pounds (medium)
  • Product dimensions: 28.35 x 15.75 x 13.39 inches
  • Volume: 60 liters
  • Materials: 30D Cordura Silnylon Ripstop
  • Frame: aluminum
Why It Made The Cut
  • Osprey’s most popular backpacks usually have men’s and women’s versions. For the ultralight backpacker, the Lumina 60 is made to conform comfortably with a woman’s shape while offering rugged reliability.
PROS

Well-designed suspension system/aluminum frame back panel for support

Mesh back panel for breathability and comfort

Backed by Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee, for life

CONS

Short shoulder strap pads make carrying upper load limit uncomfortable for some

Side pockets difficult to access when wearing pack

Things to consider before buying an ultralight backpack

The important thing to think about before purchasing an ultralight backpack is to make sure that’s really what you want. Ultralight gear is almost always high-quality, but it’s different from a traditional backpack and very different from, say, a rucksack (speaking of, here are some great rucking backpacks). I’ve read a lot of customer reviews of ultralights, and I couldn’t help but notice how many people seemed to think the ultralight was just like a regular backpack, but lighter. This is not the case. 

An ultralight backpack is designed with the expectation that your gear will also be ultralight, particularly your shelter and sleep systems. It’s not that you can’t use one with your more standard gear, but you’ll likely find the comfort evaporates quickly as you cram the heavier, bulkier gear into the lighter, thinner material that makes up an ultralight pack. This is especially true if you opt for a frameless version. These types of packs, although designed to use things like compression straps to distribute the load you’re carrying, simply don’t have the extra support afforded by an ultralight frame backpack.

Another thing to keep in mind is to be sure you are properly fitted for the pack you plan on buying. Traditional backpacks often have adjustable torso functionality. This is not the case with ultralight packs, as complex frames or adjusters add weight. Most of the packs on this list come in multiple sizes that are better suited for specific torso lengths. 

FAQs about ultralight backpacks

Q: How much does an ultralight backpack cost?

A: One might think that because an ultralight backpack is lighter and often has fewer features, it would be less expensive than a traditional backpack. One would be wrong. Although there are some backpacks on this list under $200, most quality ultralights are usually north of that.

Q: Are ultralight backpacks comfortable?

A: Yes, if you know how to pack it and you follow the recommended load limits. Ultralight packs usually omit some padding compared to traditional packs, so smart packing is essential, but many users say they forget they’re wearing an ultralight backpack when it’s packed smartly. 

Q: Are ultralight backpacks worth it?

A: These packs are totally worth it if you want to keep your total backpacking weight to under 25 pounds or so. Ultralight enthusiasts are passionate about dropping every gram, so if that sounds like you, you’ll want one of these backpacks.

Final thoughts

Ultralight backpacking requires a somewhat different mindset than “regular” backpacking. Often, the lower weight comes with the expectation that the user knows how to dial in their gear to get the full advantage of their ultralight backpack.

Keep in mind that a lot of ultralights (like the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L) are frameless, and although may technically be able to carry a lot of gear, should never be loaded with more than 25 pounds. Without a frame, the load simply will increasingly rest on your shoulders and back, and create problems. To increase comfort, many ultralight enthusiasts will cut a foam pad in the shape of the backpack to place against the back, which rests on their back. This provides some lightweight support and keeps anything hard poking from behind. 

You may decide that you simply want to lighten your load, but you’re not sure if you’re ready for the ultralight experience. We’ve got you covered there too, by the way. We’ve also reviewed the top EDC backpacks, which will help you get out into the world using a smaller footprint while also carrying less weight.

Methodology 

To get to the best ultralight backpacks, we use a mix of product and user research, expert evaluations, and personal experience from within the Task & Purpose gear team. I also extensively reviewed ultralight backpacker forums on various social media platforms to get a sense of what’s popular with the folks who live and breathe the “ultralight lifestyle.” By using these resources to guide me, I decided to focus on backpacks that were under three pounds total weight and were reliably durable according to user reviews. I then took this info and started to narrow down contenders for our list. 

As is typical at this point, I like to compare ultralight backpacks on my developing list to what other experts are saying. For this article, I found these “best of” articles very helpful: Switchback Travel, Section Hiker, and GearJunkie. Without a ton of personal experience with ultralight backpacks myself, I found these guides extremely helpful. But I will caution that sometimes the expert opinions didn’t always align with what some users experience, so reading through social media forums was a great way to give a reality check to these ultralight backpack reviews. 

For our choice of the “best eco-friendly” ultralight backpack, I did something similar to our best backpacking backpack guide. The nonprofit organization Bluesign is internationally recognized for its tracking of sustainability processes and materials used by various industries like outdoor gear makers. So our choice for this award, the REI Co-op Flash 55, had to be recognized by Bluesign as using approved materials. 

For more on how we evaluate our guides, check out the Task & Purpose review guidelines.