So you’ve finally put together the perfect gear setup; lightweight, efficient, and tailored specifically for you. Now what do you put it all in? The options for backpack builds, material, sizes, and manufacturers are endless, but there are a few questions to ask yourself to help narrow down all of the choices.
How many days on the trail between resupplies do you estimate doing?
The answer to this question will help determine the size (how many liters) of pack to get; if you are doing more than a two or three days, you’ll probably need 20L or more. Spending more than a week on trail between resupplies? Depending on your choice of food items, you may need anywhere from 40 – 60L or more of space in your pack, assuming your trip is planning for mild weather.
What kind of weather conditions do you expect to experience?
The weather conditions on the trail you are hiking, during a specific time of year, in a particular part of the world will have a huge impact on your pack choice, because of the (extra) specific gear you may need to bring along.
Hiking in the rainy season? You may choose to add a pack liner or use a pack made with a waterproof material and add an umbrella or rain pants to your load. Heading up a snow covered peak in January? You might need crampons and an ice pick, as well as a four season tent, sub zero sleeping bag, and a lot more clothing than your ultra light summer bag can handle. Expedition-style adventures can demand huge pack volumes souring into the 100 Liter zone.
How much can you do without?
If the weight of all of the gear and supplies you intend haul is less than 20lbs, then you can look into the ultralight backpack market. Super strong-for-their-weight materials like silicone impregnated nylon or Dyneema composite fabric, are nearly 100% waterproof and extremely light, eliminating both the need for a waterproof pack liner and easing strain on your shoulders.
If your load is light enough and you have tough shoulders, you can opt to loose the hip belt, significantly reducing the weight of your pack, which is included in your total base weight.
What is your budget?
Most of the cutting edge materials revolutionizing the backpack industry these days, come with a cutting edge price tag to match. If you have $300+ to spend on a high end pack, you won’t be disappointed; the manufactures of these products typically make items by hand and, in some cases, to order.
However, if your budget is somewhat limited, these same companies typically make similarly designed bags, with a great performing, but not quite as high end (read: light weight or waterproof) materials. You can easily supplement these less expensive packs with waterproof pack liners, which can be made of high end fabrics, or just one or two tough trash compacter bags used to keep your gear dry.
Here are the stats and my humble opinions on some packs I’ve seen and used:
Ultimate Direction PB 2.0 Adventure Vest – $89.99
Weight: 15.5 oz (21 oz with included bottles)
Volume: 11L (671 sq. Inch)
Obviously, being an “Adventure Vest”, the PB (Peter Bakwin) 2.0 has a much smaller volume than a traditional backpack, so it typically gets saved for more niche activities. This is my go to pack for SUL (Super Ultra Light) trips, when I am able to employ my sub 5 lb set up. Typically these are short jaunts in fair weather, where I don’t need to bring many extra articles of clothing or many days worth of food.
The consultant for the design of this pack is Peter Bakwin, legendary ultra/trail runner and moderator of the FKT (Fastest Known Time) records board, an unofficial, but highly respected and referenced record of which hikers have hiked which trails in the shortest amount of time.
Mr. Bakwin helped design this pack to be fast and light and able to help the athlete stay on the move and maintain high speeds, unimpeded by the unruly size and unbalanced nature associated with running in a traditional backpack. Most people would use this vest for adventure racing, trail running, or ultra running, though it certainly has its place in the backpacking community.
For me, this pack has been a dream for short trips. The small volume requires you to take way less than even a typical ultra light backpacker would. I really enjoy the feeling of that challenge looming over my head every time I pack or plan for a trip; just how little can I make do with this time? I am constantly in the process of trying to implement new gear solutions, that are lighter, but also smaller in volume as well.
There are plenty of external attachment points on the PB 2.0, allowing you to turn yourself into a human Christmas tree by hanging gear on the outside of the vest instead of taking up valuable internal space. I have begun experimenting with outer pack attachments and pairing with unique “Front Pack” systems like the Ribz Front Pack to achieve the volume (mainly for food) that I would need to use this pack on a thru hike.
Unfortunately the PB 2.0 vest is no longer available on Ultimate Direction’s website , though it can be found on amazon. Ultimate Direction is currently pushing its latest iteration of the PB Adventure Vest 3.0 .
I will say that I was really excited when Ultimate Direction released the PB Adventure Vest 3.0, with its larger 16 liter volume and revamped features. Unfortunately for me, the newest version of the PB vest did not live up to the hype that I created for it. First of all, the vest fits very differently from the previous two versions. I ordered an XL, per my PB 2.0 size, and it hung on me like a mumu . A sizing problem would have been easy enough to reconcile, but before attempting to exchange it I gave the pack a thorough inspection.
I did like the reconfiguration of the stretch mesh pockets and water bottle pockets, including the addition of a huge “Burrito Pocket” on the front of the vest. However, the claimed increased volume of 16 liters (compared to 2.0’s 11L) did not translate realistically to me. The total volume of the pack includes all of its little pouches and pockets, which can be deceiving. I found the compartments on the 3.0 mostly broken up into small volume sizes, hindering my ability to take more than one or two larger volume items, such as a sleeping bag. The way the storage was divided did not work as well for me, as a backpacker, as the 11 liter PB 2.0 pack does.
I want to reiterate that these vests were not designed with multi-day trips in mind, much less week long or thru hikes. I am offering my opinion as an amateur long distance hiker. I imagine that adventure racers and ultra runners may have very different opinions about both of these packs.
Backpack Light 50L – $119
Pack Weight: 2lb 1.5oz
Max Volume: 50 liters
This is the closest pack available to one of the 2010s’ most popular packs – the Golite “Jam”.
The founder of Golite began a new company, My Trail Company, and began manufacturing all sorts of new products, most with heavy nods to the Golite designs. I have not personally tried out any of the “My Trail Company” products, so this review is for the Golite Jam backpack that I used on my 2012 Mountains to Sea Trail thru hike.
The Golite Jam was the first ultralight backpack I purchased. Before my first thru hike in 2012, I had used an old Kelty external frame backpack for expeditions with my Boy Scout troop. In 2003, I upgraded to my first internal frame pack – a massive Gregory Lassen…that weighed OVER five pounds!
When I first slipped on the Golite Jam, the difference in comfort (with and without the bag fully loaded) was insane. It felt like I had wings on instead of a pack. At the time, I had some other pieces of ultralight equipment, but putting on that pack marked my rebirth as an Ultralight Hiker.
The thing that made the Golite Jam so insanely popular at the time of production was how super comfortable the bag was. The materials, cut, design, and suspension made the pack feel lighter. The way it sat on the body felt like a hug. The Jam also included features that are considered standard nowadays; ice ax loops, internal water bladder clip with hydration ports, daisy chain, and roll top closure were all included.
The bag was not waterproof, though the gridstop fabric was very water repellent and the dyneema threads (white stripes) made it extremely durable – they are 3X stronger than Kevlar and 15X stronger than steel.
On my MST thru hike, the largest resupply that I picked up was nine days worth of food (@1.17 lbs per day). With all of my gear and that huge care package, the Jam was packed TIGHT. I could not get the roll top to roll and clip shut, so I had to employ the extra material at the top of the back with the drawstring closure in order to keep all of the contents inside. The top of the bag towered over my head for a few days, throwing of my center of gravity until I ate through some my supplies. That said, it still worked!
If My Trail Company began manufacturing a waterproof/dyneema composite fabric version of the “Backpack Light”, I would buy it – in hopes that it would feel as comfy as the Jam once did, but be lighter and higher performing by implementing some of the technological advances in fabrics and materials over the past 5 years.
At $119, this could be the perfect entry level pack for someone transitioning into the ultralight world. Again, I have no experience with this specific pack, but its predecessor changed the way I thought about what a backpack could/should be. I bet you would be hard pressed to find a pack of similar quality for this price.
Arc Blast – $325 (Base)
Weight: 21.0 ounces (595 grams)
Body dimensions: 7″ x 12.5″ x 30″ (18 cm x 31.8 cm x 76 cm)
Volume: 42L main body, 2.5L each side pocket, 8L center pocket, 55 Liters Total
Matrial: 2.92 oz/sqyd Dyneema Composite Fabric (formerly Cuben Fiber)
Arc Haul – $299 (Base)
Weight: 24.0 ounces (680 grams)
Body dimensions: 8″ x 12.5″ x 30″ (20 cm x 31.8 cm x 76 cm)
Volume: 49L main body, 2.5L each side pocket, 8L center pocket, 62 Liters Total
Material: 4.2 oz/sqyd Gridstop fabric
Zpacks is one of the most popular ultralight backpacking cottage companies in the world right now. You can find their gear being used on almost every trail and campsite in North America. Their attention to detail, capacity for custom orders, customer service, patented design innovations, and use of the most high end materials has cultivated a cult following. Premium products come with a premium price tag, but with Zpacks, you absolutely get what you pay for.
For my Florida Trail thru hike, I wanted a pack with durability and options. The Arc Haul provides both.
First, Zpacks patented “Flexed Arc” frame allows for infinite adjustments, creating a space between your back and the backpack’s surface (see empty space between frame and pack above). This increases ventilation and suspend’s the pack’s load, making it feel lighter.
The Arc pack comes in two variations, depending on your preference of fabric.
The “Arc Blast” is made from DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric – formerly Cuben Fiber), which is super strong for its weight and as close to 100% waterproof as you can get these days. However, you do sacrifice durability with this ultralight fabric choice; it is not as resistant to abrasions and punctures as gridstop fabric, which the “Arc Haul” is made from. According to Zpacks, the Haul will probably last more that one thru hike; the Blast may or may not.
My Arc Haul made it through 1101 miles of The Florida Trail with not a single sign of wear, but for a couple of tiny snags on the back mesh panel; incredible!
As far as options, Zpacks offers many that you can apply to most any of their bags. I tricked out my Arc Haul with two DCF shoulder strap pockets, two DCF hip belt pockets, one DCF “multipack” bag that hangs off the front of the pack, and trekking pole holders (a simple yet genius elastic loop system for stowing your poles). All of these storage options created an easy to use organizing system for me to access while on the move.
The only complaints I have about the pack are minor. In order to remain as lightweight as possible, Zpacks opted to use very thin, narrow, and ,in my humble opinion, slick adjustment straps all throughout the Arc packs. In high stress areas, during dynamic movements, the straps can become twisted in the adjustment buckles. Also, overtime, some of these straps began to slip through the buckles in tiny increments, causing me to have to readjust the straps every hour or so.
Also, in an attempt to create a pack that is extremely customizable, the Arc packs have over 10 strap adjustment points (not including roll top and shock cords). The hip belt has four adjustment points, the should straps have three each – top, bottom, and load lifter. This is an awesome concept, but the design does have a flaw. When the pack is off, this is not really an issue once you are familiar with the system. However, if you are trying to adjust either of the points on the upper shoulder straps while you have the pack on, it can be very confusing. Because many of the adjustment points are close together, it is very difficult to know which strap you are pulling on, if you can’t see them.
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