These days, it seems like gear has been getting lighter and lighter. The days of bulky, cumbersome backpacking trips are done. With all the options out there, we chose the top 11 packs weighing under two and a half pounds and tested them side by side to find out which one was the ideal ultralight pack. Out of 45 models on the market, we narrowed it down to our top choices depending on specific ultralight backpacking needs. From Colorado to the Sierra Nevada to the Appalachian Trail, we used these packs, assessing their durability, comfort, features, and ability to support heavy loads. We also tested these packs in the lab to make sure their performance measured up to the manufacturer's claims. Whether you are new to ultralight backpacking or looking for the latest pack to add to your kit, we’ve done the research to determine the best option out there.
Updated October 2017
We've updated this review to provide an in-depth comparison for those on the quest to find a pack that satisfies every light and fast need. This summer, a new Editors' Choice award winner emerged, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, which easily won the hearts of our testers. Our Best Buy winner remains the same, while the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 won a new notable mention.
Though each model in this review shines in one way or another, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa scored highly across the board. This pack exceeded expectations in terms of comfort, whether it was loaded up with a 30-pound load or carrying water and snacks on a day hike. The Mariposa has the ideal set of features – pockets just where you want them, an aluminum frame, and an extra-cushioned waist belt. For a great all-around pack for any ultralight adventure, the Mariposa was our top choice.
Among our top five in the review, the Osprey Exos 48 holds its own as the most affordable pack. It carries light loads reasonably well, has the most refined and utilitarian set of features, and truly delivers when you want to carry overall loads of 20 pounds or more. Anytime we headed out carrying 30 pounds or a little more, it was difficult not to choose the Exos. Why? It just moves relatively heavy loads over long miles better than others in our fleet. As an added benefit, this Osprey model is widely available from online sources and bricks and mortar retailers. If you want to buy a pack today and head out on a lightweight backpacking adventure next weekend, the Exos 48 is your best bet. On the other end of the spectrum, concerning features, is the Granite Gear Virga 2, which costs less than the Exos, and has a very minimalist design. Depending on what you're looking for, either of these packs fill the budget niche for ultralight packs.
The ZPacks Arc Blast 55 is the lightest backpack we tested that can comfortably carry 20 to 30 pounds when you need it to, but excels when carrying 10 to 20 pounds. Weighing 21 ounces, it is a half pound lighter than any of the other top scoring packs in this review. Built with a hybrid Cuben fiber material and carbon frame components, this is the pack several of our thru-hikers testers chose for multi-month hikes when every ounce matters. If you are an experienced ultralight hiker seeking to spare another half pound or more from your Big Four base weight, the Arc Blast receives our highest recommendation. This ZPacks has received some minor updates since our review was published, including changes to the volume (more of it), frame, and belt, sternum, and top strap buckles. Its name is now the Arc Blast 55, formally known as the Arc Blast 52. We have detailed these changes in the individual review of this product.
The Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 is the smallest pack we tested in this review and the only model purposely designed for multi-day trail running adventures. We carried up to 15 pounds during a two-day trip and remained relatively comfortable. If you want an ultralight running pack with capacity for multi-day trips, this contender may be perfect for you.
The twelve competitors we evaluate here include the best and most versatile packs for lightweight and ultralight three-season backpacking, as well as a couple more specialized models for specific uses. The five highest scoring models are all great choices for thru-hiking trips that last for months and shorter trips as well. Expert backpackers will also find these packs just large enough for wintertime adventures. Read on to learn more about how we scored the packs across the test metrics and to find the top performers in each one. The rating table above shows where each ultralight pack in our review ranked in the cumulative score.
The Gossamer Gear Gorilla packed with equipment, food, and fuel for a five-day wintertime section of the Appalachian Trail. We covered a lot of miles to find the best ultralight backpacks. From the packing tests seen here, to the independent weight and volume measurements in our lab, we've done the most thorough side-by-side testing for you.
Weight-to-volume ratio is a measure we use here at OutdoorGearLab to compare packs and luggage of differing volumes. This heavily-weighted (no pun intended!) metric gets straight to the point how much does this pack weigh relative to the volume it carries? Two sets of data, generated by our lab measurements, comprise this metric. First, we measured the weight of each model on our digital scale. Then, we weighed each pack with all modular components in place. Next, we examined each for a frame, waist belt, or other pockets that can be easily removed to pare the weight down for light loads; we then stripped these features off of each pack and weighed them again.
The most detailed lab testing with these products was our independent measurement of pack volume - since nominal volume measurements from manufacturers are difficult to compare, we decided to perform our own test. Although an ASTM standard exists for measuring pack volume and many pack manufacturers perform ASTM testing, some report the capacity of only the main pack as the nominal measurement, while others include pockets. The ASTM test doesn't provide for measuring external pocket volume, which is significant on these packs. In our experiments, we measured the volume of the main pack, the main exterior pockets, and the lid (when present).
After we filled the main compartment of each pack with ping pong balls to measure volume, we then measured the volume of external pockets and lids. We found all the top performing packs have similar total volume measurements.
To provide an example, the Gossamer Gear Gorilla is described nominally as a 38-liter pack and the ZPacks Arc Blast as 55 liters. However, we found these two models were nearly identical in volume, both when performing our laboratory volume testing with ping pong balls and when packing in the same kit for a five-day wintertime trip on the Appalachian Trail. The weight-to-volume ratio is the most significant contributor to total scores, accounting for 35 percent. The Granite Gear Virga 2 and ZPacks Arc Blast 55 earned the best scores. These are the two lightest packs we tested and forego many of the features that are common on other models. Neither has hip belt pockets, and the Virga doesn't have a frame. By combining an incredible weight-to-volume ratio with a surprising level of carrying comfort, the Arc Blast won our Top Pick Award for Ultralight Enthusiasts.
The ULA Circuit and ULA Ohm 2.0 earned the next best scores for weight-to-volume ratio, and they each measured a tiny bit better than the middle of the field with all their modular components in use. Both were also top performers when we compared "stripped weight" to "stripped volume." We were especially impressed by the ULA Circuit, which has a larger carrying capacity than the Ohm 2.0, but weighs almost the same. Unlike the Granite Gear Virga 2 or the ZPacks Arc Blast, both of these are fully-featured with hip belt pockets and can carry heavier loads in more comfort.
The results of our laboratory measurements of weight-to-volume ratio. The two highest scoring models forgo features that we love like hip belt pockets (though they are available as modular add-ons). The high scoring Gorilla and Top Pick winning Arc Blast have the best average weight-to-volume ratios after the frameless Virga 2.
Of course, we all want an ultralight pack to be feather-light, but it must carry our load comfortably to be worth it. For each of these packs, we judged load-carrying comfort for two loads: 15 lbs and 30 lbs. We then averaged each pack's performance in both categories to generate our carrying comfort score. Fifteen pounds is a perfect comparison weight for ultralight hikers on a short trip, while thirty pounds is a fair comparison weight for lightweight hikers on shorter trips, ultralight hikers carrying a week's worth of food, or for those brave enough to travel in the winter. While some packs are capable of being stripped of their frame and waist belt, our evaluation of "great, good, or poor" for carrying 15 lbs and 30 lbs is with the frame and waist belt in use. We would recommend stripping down a pack completely when carrying 12 pounds (or less) total weight.
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa, Gossamer Gear Gorilla, and the ULA Ohm 2.0 earned our highest scores in this category, for carrying both 15 and 30-pound loads. Also, these three packs are the easiest to strip of frame and waist belt if and when you want to carry 12 pounds or less. At this low weight, we feel frames, and even waist belts are not necessary.
Nearly every day out with these packs, we put them on the scale before hiking, noting how well each carries 15 or 30 pounds (and the loads in between). At the end of our testing period, we also loaded each pack with 30 pounds, and hiked the same hill up and down to confirm our field testing.
Also notable in this metric are the next highest scorers. The Osprey Exos 48 carries 30 pounds more comfortably than any other we tested, but we found the tensioned frame a bit "turtle shell-like" for much lighter loads. The Arc Blast 55 also earned a high score. It carries 15 to 25 pounds as comfortably as any other pack, but we found 30 pounds to be a bit of a stretch regarding maintaining comfort.
To simplify our findings for load carrying comfort even further, we've broken down each of our three award winners' niches as far as load carrying comfort goes:
Best for 10-20 lb loads: Top Pick for Ultralight Enthusiasts: ZPacks Arc Blast 55
Best for 15-25 lb loads: Editors' Choice: Gossamer Gear Mariposa
Best for 20-35 lb loads: Best Buy: Osprey Exos 48
Looking towards Wyoming from near Rabbit Ears Pass on the Continental Divide. With this pack's very affordable price, we wanted to be able to recommend it to backpackers on a very tight budget. Unfortunately, it just doesn't deliver the performance necessary.
Manufacturers constantly seek to find the right balance of features for ultralight backpacks. Eliminating most creates a very light pack, but including the right features can greatly increase comfort, versatility, and ease of use. The lightest two packs we tested, the ZPacks Arc Blast and Granite Gear Virga 2, both earned top scores in our weight-to-volume ratio metric; their total scores reflect the trade-offs required to be the lightest: reduced load carrying comfort at heavier weights and reduced ease of use as a direct consequence of eliminating features.
In our individual reviews, we provide a thorough description of each pack's features not covered elsewhere. When covering big miles on the trail, features like easily accessible side pockets for your water bottles, waist belt pockets for snacks, and a convenient place to keep maps handy are a huge benefit. This is also where we detail how each pack accommodates a hydration bladder and just how much stuff you can stow in the exterior pockets.
The Osprey Exos 48 incorporates so many features and it's really head and shoulders above the rest. While most manufacturers pick and choose which elements they think are the most useful, Osprey provides nearly every storage, lashing, and compression feature you can imagine. This is super convenient but contributes to the pack's relatively heavier weight. The Gossamer Gear Mariposa also earned top scores in this category with its well-placed side pockets, over-the-top closure mechanism, and large mesh back pocket. Additionally, the ULA Ohm 2.0 received high scores in this metric, though the Gossamer Gear packs both have a large external back pocket, which the OHM 2.0 lacks. We love how much you can stuff in the Gossamer Gear pack pockets compared to the small volume of the Ohm's exterior pocket.
The Osprey Exos 48 is the most featured pack of this bunch. 2:1 waist belt adjustment, waist belt and shoulder strap stow pockets, extensive use of compression and lashing straps, hydration pockets and ports...the list goes on and on. While this is the second heaviest pack we tested, it has the broadest and most utilitarian set of features. Seen here in the shoulder strap pockets are sunscreen and water treatment drops...super convenient.
While our carrying comfort metric is focused on how well each pack can carry either 15 or 30 pounds in its full configuration, our adaptability metric focuses on other considerations when you may want to scale your pack up or down in carrying capacity. While on a thru-hike or a week-long adventure in the backcountry, your total bulk and weight will fluctuate up and down between re-supplies and for weekend trips sometimes you'll need to carry a substantial load, but other times you may carry very little. A pack whose design allows the frame and waist belt to be easily removed for very light loads is more adaptable.
While stripping the pack down is an excellent feature for light loads, a kit that allows you to strap bulky but light items to the outside is a bonus when you need to carry big loads. Each of these competitors has multiple ways to add bulky items, like a closed cell foam pad, to the outside. And while in general, we are not a big fan of lids for ultralight packs, they do create one key advantage the ability to carry bulky items on top of the main compartment secured under the adjustable lid. The Osprey Exos 48 and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 3400 both earned a top adaptability score because of their ability to carry heavy loads well with tons of external lashing options. The Hyperlite pack also has a very tall roll top, similar to the one found on the ULA Circuit, that provides a great place to store extra bulky items when a significant food resupply occupies the main pack.
The best packs provide the ability to scale up and down in volume or carry big light items easily on the exterior. The incredibly light Arc Blast still maintains the important feature of lash straps for a foam pad.
Our adaptability score also considers ease of use with a bear canister. This will be irrelevant to some, but bear canisters are required by regulation on some portions of the PCT and AT. The BearVault BV500 is perhaps the most common bear canister used by weight-conscious hikers in areas where bear-proof food storage is required in the backcountry. We loaded each pack up with a common three-season kit and five days of food in the BV500 to see how well it fits inside and how much room is left over for the rest of your stuff. If you regularly carry a bear canister of this size, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider and the Gossamer Gear Mariposa are compatible with this can.
The very tall top of the Windrider 3400's main pack allows you to scale up and down in pack volume. When you go big, you will want your lightest bulky items up top.
How durable can a sub-two-pound backpack be? The answer is that most are surprisingly quite durable. That said, many of these packs require a little more care and attention than load monsters that weigh five or six lbs and use much heavier fabrics and frames. If you plan to carry more than 30 pounds most of the time, the packs in our backpacking backpack review will serve you better. So how durable SHOULD an ultralight backpack be? As a baseline, to achieve an above average score, we estimated that a pack must last for a least one thru-hike of a trail like the PCT or Appalachian Trail. The best of these packs will see you through many thousands of trail miles!
A number of factors go into our rating for durability, which contributes 10% of the total scores. First and foremost, we consider the types of fabric used for the main body of the pack and the exterior pockets. All of these areas are subject to abrasion, especially the pockets (if you tend to stuff a lot into them). There are always trade-offs in design; for example, incredibly light main pack fabrics are less durable than robust 200 Denier nylon ripstop fabrics. The Mammut Creon Light 45, a pack designed more for off-trail, alpine scrambling, is made of notably durable fabric.
The main fabric of the ULA Circuit is likely the most durable over the long haul, but its carbon frame is a liability for rough handling. Our durability rating also considers frame durability and pocket fabrics.
Additionally, the stretchy exterior pocket fabrics that we love for function tend to be more prone to snagging on tree limbs or abrading on rock in comparison to non-stretchy pockets. Unfortunately, it seems that you can't have it all. In our experience, a stretchy main exterior pocket with durable side pockets is the best compromise. This type of design is found on the award-winning Gossamer Gear Mariposa.
While it is the case that you'll need to treat your pack nicely (it is your home on your back!), we also take into consideration whether sitting on it while it is loaded or rough handling in the back of your van or truck could break the frame. To this end, we think that if you are focused on durability or if you are known to be rough on your gear, you should choose a pack with an aluminum frame versus carbon fiber. The rugged aluminum frame is one of the many small factors that lead us to prefer both of the Gossamer Gear packs to the two ULA packs. The carbon rod frame found in the ULA Ohm 2.0 and the ULA Circuit is significantly more fragile. Out of our top scorers, the Mariposa and Windrider are the two models we felt comfortable sitting on without the worry of breaking something.
The top five scoring packs in our review all packed with the same load: 13 lb base weight and five days of food and fuel. What items you carry, and where, in the external storage is a matter of personal choice. We like to have our rain gear, snacks and water, and often our cookset handy for quick breaks (with coffee!).
A rain cover for your backpack has long been one of the key accessories to ensure your backpacking kit stays dry through rainstorms. The Osprey UL Raincover is a reliable and widely available choice, as are the covers from Sea to Summit.
The Windrider is one of the only backpacks we tested that is essentially waterproof.
Waterproof roll-top style dry bags or Cuben stuff sacks are an excellent choice for both organization and moisture protection inside your backpack. Sea to Summit's ultralight Sil-Nylon bag is also an ideal choice. For those seeking to shave off the grams, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, ZPacks, and several other ultralight manufacturers produce a large variety of Cuben fiber storage and stuff sacks.
Lining your backpack with a contractor's plastic garbage bag, or better yet a trash compactor bag has long been a great option to ensure your kit stays dry during long rainy days on the trail. While one of these should last you for a week or more with a little care, you would replace it often while thru-hiking. Cuben fiber pack liners are the state-of-the-art in super light and durable waterproof pack liners. The models available from ZPacks are the best we've seen.
An ultralight backpack is just one of the many products featured in our Dream Backpacking Gear List. Check it out for all of our "dream" backpacking gear and clothing in one spot!
If you're interested in cutting weight even further, the video below demonstrates how to use a sleeping pad as a back pad in an ultralight backpack.
There are a lot of advantages to going ultralight, and we hope these analyses and assessments will help you drop weight in your kit without sacrificing features you love. While low weight is key, it's not the only piece of the puzzle. If you need more help in narrowing down your options, be sure to check out our Buying Advice article for further tips and tricks.
We hiked high and low, from the Continental Divide to the Appalachian Trail, to find the best ultralight backpacks! Here, our lead tester, Brandon, celebrates another beautiful day in Rocky Mountain National Park with the Osprey Exos 48, our Best Buy winner.