5 Best LIGHTWEIGHT Backpacks of 2019

JUMP TO:  ZPACKS ARC HAUL ZIP  /  HMG 3400 SOUTHWEST  / OSPREY EXOSAARN NATURAL BALANCE /  ULA CIRCUIT

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On a multi-day backpacking trip, your backpack will be your closest companion during daylight hours. You want to get along with it. And it is a companion for whom there is very little compromise. 

Luckily, our list of best-in-class backpacks includes a number of lightweight and ultralight entries that can help to make your back's life that much easier on the trail. The great thing about many of these designs is that choosing a lightweight backpack doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice comfort or carrying capacity.

Some of the best lightweight and ultralight backpacks do tend to have a sweet spot when carrying loads up to around 35 lbs (or 16 kg). But such weights should be achievable on most multi-day hikes. Possible exceptions include longer backcountry expeditions where resupply may not be possible, or desert hikes where excess water may need to be carried.

Nonetheless our list also includes some innovative designs such as the Aarn Natural Balance bodypack, which has front packs that dramatically increase carrying capacity without making your back take the extra load.

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Best Overall: ZPACKS ARC HAUL ZIP

WEIGHT: 27.5 oz (0.78 kg)

VOLUME: 59 litres

MAX. RECOMMENDED LOAD: 40 lbs (18 kg)

PROS: Ultralight, Basically waterproof, Customisation options, Ventilation along back

CONS: Expensive, Not as cushioned as heavier backpacks

BEST FOR: Ultralight hikers

The Zpacks Arc range of backpacks are easily among the contenders for best-in-class in ultralight multi-day backpacks. For most big adventures you would want to be considering Zpacks larger packs which have stated load carrying capacities up to 40 lbs (18 kg). Their packs in that range are separated based on two main features: material (DCF vs Gridstop) and access (top loading vs front loading). Here we briefly give you the finer details on these key differences.

In terms of materials, the Zpacks backpacks come in two forms. Either a Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), also known as cuben fiber, or a heavier duty Gridstop fabric. The former is the material the earliest Zpacks backpacks were made from, while the Gridstop fabric is a more recent addition to the Zpacks line.

The Gridstop is slightly more durable (for example abrasion resistant) and can support heavier loads. The downside is that since the material supports heavier loads, the Gridstop packs have a slightly larger volume and therefore weigh a bit more. However, the difference in weight is somewhat negligible - for example, the Arc Haul (Gridstop material) weighs only 85 grams more than the Arc Blast (DCF material), but that weight penalty provides you with an additional 8 litres of volume in the main pocket. So, unless you are aiming to reduce your every ounce of your base weight, we think that the Gridstop packs are the way to go (for the benefit of the added durability and volume).

The other factor distinguishing the multi-day backpacks in the Zpacks range is access. The original Zpacks design came with top access only, achieved via a roll top closure (similar to what is often seen on dry sacks), and a large mesh pocket on the front of the pack. This design is available on the Arc Haul (Gridstop material) and Arc Blast (DCF material) backpacks. 

A more recent addition to the range is a large front zipper access (similar to what is often seen on travel backpacks) as well as a zipper enclosed front pocket. This design is seen on the Arc Haul Zip (Gridstop material) and Arc Zip (DCF material) packs.

At Ultimate Gear Lists our top choice from the Zpacks range is the Arc Haul Zip, with it's slightly more durable Gridstop fabric and convenient front loading zipper.  We find that this works for us, since we can load our tent last into the front pocket, and also enjoy the option to use either the top access - which we find convenient for accessing certain items during the day - or the front access - which we find convenient for unloading our entire kit when we get into camp.


WEIGHT: 32.1 oz (0.91 kg)

VOLUME: 55 litres

MAX. RECOMMENDED LOAD: 35 lbs (16 kg)

PROS: Ultralight, Basically waterproof, Durable, Simple design

CONS: Expensive, No ventilation along back

BEST FOR: Ultralight hikers, Those who value simplicity

The HMG Southwest packs are an awesome range that provide comfort, volume and durability all in an ultralight package. They are made from Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), a material that - although expensive - is extremely lightweight and waterproof. In conjunction with the fully tapped seams a roll-top closure, this ultralight backpack is near-on waterproof. Although, we always recommend using internal dry sacks for your gear to be sure (for excellent ultralight options consider the HMG Roll-Top Stuff Sacks or the Zpacks Roll-Top Dry Bags).

This ultralight backpack uses a minimalist style design, with a frame based on two curved aluminium stays and an internal foam back panel for comfort. While the set up on the HMG Southwest is more comfortable than many other ultralight backpack designs, it is still a minimalist design. We feel that it is sufficient for lightweight backpacking where loads won't exceed 30 to 35 lbs (13.6 to 15.9 kg). But if comfort - for example, extra padding or perhaps airflow behind the back - is your main concern, then perhaps look elsewhere.

We believe the HMG 3400 Southwest provides the ideal volume for almost all multi-day backpacking adventures. It has an internal pocket of 55 litres, with external pockets providing additional volume. The benefit of the additional space is that you won't need to overstuff the pack, thereby increasing comfort. However, if you are aiming to minimise your base weight, then consider the HMG 2400 Southwest which will save you 2 oz (58 grams) as well as a few dollars. Although the internal pocket on the 2400 Southwest is 40 litres, so you will lose 15 litres of volume compared with the 3400 Southwest model.


Best on a Budget: OSPREY EXOS 48

WEIGHT: 41.1 oz (1.17 kg)

VOLUME: 48 litres

MAX. RECOMMENDED LOAD: 40 lbs (18 kg)

PROS: Slightly cheaper, Comfortable, Ventilation along back

CONS: Heavier than others on the list, No hip belt pockets

BEST FOR: Those who value comfort and price

We like to think of the Osprey Exos 48 as providing a bridge between the worlds of traditional full frame backpacks and specialised ultralight backpacks. The Exos provides much of the comfort and many of the features found on traditional backpacks. However it is more lightweight than a traditional full frame backpack. This makes it perfect for those looking to start shedding a few ounces from their base weight.

The Exos is not as lightweight as many of the other backpacks found on this list, but it is also — arguably — more comfortable for carrying mid-weight loads (e.g. 30 to 40 lbs).

As is typical of most Osprey backpacks, the Exos is flooded with features. This is actually sometimes one of our gripes with Osprey packs — the number of straps, pockets, and flaps can sometimes get a bit unwieldy and irritating. However the most recent version of the Exos has removed the hip belt pockets and several small pockets on the shoulder straps. These seem like slightly odd choices of pockets to discard — we usually find hip belt pockets very useful! However, it has helped to streamline and simplify the Exos a bit.

The Exos does retain a whole host of other features though. The flip top lid has both an external and internal zippered pocket. There are attachment points for trekking poles, an ice axe, and a sleeping pad. You’ll find additional web loop attachment points on both the lid and front of the pack for attaching additional pieces of gear. There are also multiple entries to the large stretchy mesh side pockets.

 

The Osprey manufacturer video highlights the features found of the Exos.

 

A particularly useful feature is that the flip top lid on the Exos is removable. This adds versatility around how you can choose to use the pack — there is an integrated thin flap jacket cover that means you can still cover the top of the bag when the lid is removed (i.e. to seal it off from rain etc).

But the real strong point of the Exos is not its features, but its comfort. Particularly for mid-weight loads that other ultralight backpacks on this list would start to struggle with slightly. Many of the ultralight backpacks on this list begin to get a bit uncomfortable with loads above 30 lbs. The Exos however has a well ventilated back panel and foam hip belt that helps to distribute loads in that range more comfortably.

Note that the Exos also comes in a women’s specific version known as the Osprey Eja. It also comes in a range of volumes: 38, 48, and 58 litres.

The Exos is manufactured by one of the worlds most popular and well-known backpack manufacturers. It is therefore both slightly cheaper and more widely available than some of the slightly more niche ultralight backpacks on our list, hence it has been awarded the Exos our Best Buy on a Budget. But in all honesty our heart lies with other backpacks on this list. If you are into lightweight backpacking and are willing to spend a little more money, then aim for one of the lighter more specialised backpacks on our list.


Best for Long Hauls: AARN NATURAL BALANCE

WEIGHT: 
     50 oz / 1.41 kg (without front packs)
     60 oz / 1.70 kg (with front packs)

VOLUME:
     63 litres (without front packs)
     78 litres (with front packs)

MAX. RECOMMENDED LOAD: 
     Not specified (but at least 50 lbs / 23 kg)

PROS: Comfortable, Waterproof, Heaps of volume

CONS: Heavier than others on the list, Fiddly to get set up

BEST FOR: Those who require lots of volume, Those who struggle with back pain

The Aarn range is an innovative line of packs designed to change the way you carry a load on the trail. Like all Aarn packs, the Natural Balance consists of a backpack and two detachable front packs. 

The system is designed so that the centre of gravity (of the overall weight of the pack) is passing directly through your hips and legs. This means you do not need to counterbalance your backpack using your own body weight. This helps to keep your balance centred, thereby improving mobility and reducing stress on your shoulders and back.

The Aarn Natural Balance is the lightweight model of the large capacity packs in the Aarn range. The volume of this pack is pretty massive. Including the front packs, the small and large versions provide 78 and 83 litres of volume, respectively. To improve the counterbalancing, we suggest loading heavy items such as water and food in the front packs. This also makes them convenient to access on the trail, without having to remove the pack.

For shorter trips, with a total weight under 33 lbs (15 kg) we suggest considering one of the ultralight backpacks in our list, for example, the Zpacks Arc Haul Zip or the HMG 3400 Southwest. But if you are going to be carrying big and/or heavy loads - or you have back problems - then the Natural Balance's innovative design could dramatically improve your overall comfort on the trail.  

The Natural Balance comes with internal dry sack linings to ensure this pack is fully waterproof. However the dry sacks can be removed if you want to save weight. For more details on the features of the Aarn Natural Balance (e.g. it's comfortable hip belt and frame) as well as more info about it's innovative design, check out our full review.


WEIGHT: 41.0 oz (1.16 kg)

VOLUME: 68 litres

MAX. RECOMMENDED LOAD: 35 lbs (16 kg)

The ULA Circuit is one of the most popular lightweight backpacks amongst thru-hikers on the major US long-distance trails. And with fairly good reason. It is comfortable, and strikes a good balance between weight and durability. It is also a bit cheaper (but also heavier) than some of the ultralight backpacks we recommend, like the HMG 3400 Southwest or the Zpacks Arc Haul Zip.

The Robic fabric and the mesh back panel used on the ULA Circuit are tough, so you do not need to worry about treating this backpack gently. The only downside of the durability and construction of this pack is the added weight. If you are a thru-hiker looking to minimise your weight and counting every gram, then there are lighter packs out there that you may wish to consider. Nonetheless, the ULA Circuit is still in the lightweight category, and with it you get a bit of extra volume and comfort than some of the ultralight packs.

The Circuit comes with a harness that can comfortably support weights of up about 30 lbs (13.6 kg). Beyond that the harness starts to struggle a bit, and we wouldn't want to carry more than 30 lbs for prolonged periods. The back panel on the ULA Circuit doesn't allow for any airflow, but we don't see this as an issue. However, if you prefer airflow, then alternative packs like the Osprey Levity, Osprey Exos, or Zpacks Arc Haul - which use a mesh back panel - may be a better option.

The Circuit comes with inbuilt hip pockets on both sides. ULA Shoulder Strap Pockets can also be added, but incur additional weight (1.8 oz / 51 grams, per pocket) and cost.

ULA offer several torso lengths and hip belt sizes so that you can dial in the right fit. If you are between torso lengths, then it is possible to shift the hip belt up or down the back panel.

Lastly, if you are set on a ULA backpack but looking for something even lighter then check out the ULA Ohm 2.0. (34.5 oz / 0.98 kg, 63 litres).


MORE INFORMATION

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Happy hiking and take care out there in the wild!