Most truly ultralight backpacks are frameless, hip belt optional, and only designed to carry maximum recommended loads up to 20 pounds. While backpacking this light isn’t for most people, the increased availability of ultralight backpacking gear and access to know-how on the Internet and through social media has made it more achievable than ever.
Convention has it that you’ll want to drop the weight of your gear (minus food, water, and fuel) to 10 pounds or less to go ultralight, including the weight of your backpack. One way to do that is to use a backpack made with ultralight waterproof materials like Dyneema DCF or XPac. Another option to pick a simple, minimal pack that’s light on features or is a low volume pack that saves weight by requiring less material to make.
Here are the 10 ultralight backpacks that we recommend that manifest these qualities.
Be sure to read our Ultralight Backpack Selection Guide below which explains these tradeoffs in greater detail.
Note: If you want a lightweight backpack that has a frame or frame stays and a fully-featured hip belt, can comfortably carry 25-40+ pounds, but still weighs between 2 – 3 lbs, see our article, The 10 Best Lightweight Backpacks of 2021.
1. Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L
The Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus is a 55 liter, frameless, fully-featured backpack that only weighs 18 oz. It’s made with Dyneema DCF and is seam-taped so it is virtually waterproof, although a less expensive DX 210D Ripstop Nylon version is also available. The Exodus is set up like a typical ultralight pack with a roll-top closure, rugged front mesh pocket, and two side water bottle pockets. It has a minimal but non-removable hip belt and comes with an innovative compression system that lets you reduce its volume from 55 liters to 30 liters when you need less capacity. Read the SectionHiker Exodus Review.
The Superior Wilderness Designs Superior 40 (15 oz) is a frameless ultralight backpack with 48 liters of capacity: 40 liters in the main compartment and 8 liters on the exterior. The pack made is with XPac, which is an ultralight waterproof material that is more abrasion resistant than Dyneema DCF. It is not seam taped, however, so waterproof stuff sacks or a pack liner are recommended. The Superior 40 has a removable hip belt and a maximum recommended load of 18-20 lbs. The base model is available in black or white and includes your choice of colored pockets, a top Y-strap, front mesh pocket, side water bottle pockets, and a roll top. SWD also offers a slew of low-priced customization options for the Superior 40 that allow you to tailor the Superior for your needs.
The Atom 40 (14.8 oz) is made by Atom Packs, a small backpack manufacturer from the UK that has quickly established an international reputation. The standard Atom 40 has an XPac body and Robic water bottle pockets, but you can also have the pack body made with Liteskin, Dyneema DCF, or 210 Robic Nylon. The Atom 40 is frameless, does not have a hip belt, and has a max recommended load of 20 lbs. The main body holds 35L and the external pockets hold 5L. It has roll top with a top webbing strap, elastic cord over the back panel that can be used to carry a foam pad (similar to the Zpacks Nero), a mesh front pocket, side water bottle pockets, stretch shoulder strap pockets and a stretch bottom pocket with a trash port (similar to the Pa’lante V2).
The Zpacks Nero 38 is frameless Dyneema DCF backpack that weighs 10.7 oz and has a max recommended load of 20 lbs. It’s a roll-top pack with a front mesh pocket and DCF side pockets. The back of the pack has elastic to hold a foam pad (like the Atom Packs Atom 40). The main body is 25L in size, the front mesh pocket holds 8L and the two water bottle pockets hold 2.5L each. The Nero has a removable webbing hip belt that can also be repositioned higher or lower on the back panel to better match your torso length. The Nero’s interior is also seam-taped making it virtually waterproof. Read the SectionHiker Nero 38 Review.
The Waymark Thru is a minimal, frameless pack with a roll-top closure, side water bottle pockets, and a front stretch pocket. It’s made with XPac, which is waterproof and more abrasion resistant than Dyneema DCF, in addition to being less expensive. The Thru ranges in volumes from 38-42 liters depending on your torso size and is best suited for base weights (minus water, fuel, and food) of 10-13 lbs. While a fully padded hipbelt is available, you can also choose to use a 1″ removable webbing strap instead. Waymark lets you pick different colored fabric panels when you order the Thru, so you can truly personalize it. The Thru is available in a wide range of torso and hip belt lengths so you can really dial in the fit. We think the construction and attention to detail on Waymark’s packs is top-notch and think you will too.
The LiteAF Curve 35L has a main body with 35L of gear storage, with an additional 10L in external pockets, totaling 45L. Made with Dyneema DCF, it’s a roll-top backpack made with the usual side stretch pockets and a front mesh pocket found on ultralight-style packs. But the thing that really sets LiteAF apart from other DCF pack makers is the wide range of garish colors and patterns they offer. If you’re sick of white, black, or grey colored DCF backpacks and want a pack that lets your freak flag fly, check out their color palette. The Curve 35L is available with two styles of removable minimal hip belts and a wide variety of other options. The max recommended load is 20 pounds, which you’d expect with any frameless backpack.
The Northern Ultralight Sundown has a main body with 36L of gear storage, with an additional 10L in external pockets, totaling 46L. It’s made with XPac and available in a wide range of colors. The Sundown is a roll-top style ultralight backpack with side and front mesh pockets. It’s designed as a modular backpack that has several removable features, so its weight ranges from 18.6 to 26.2 oz, depending on how it’s configured. In addition to an optional hip belt, it’s the only pack in our top 10 with optional frame stays, which boost its max recommended carry to 25-30 lbs. One of the things that makes the Sundown such a delight to carry is the relative narrowness of its main body, which gives the pack a very lively feel. Read the SectionHiker.com Northern UL Sundown Review.
The Gossamer Gear Kumo 36L is a 21 oz frameless ultralight backpack made with Robic Nylon that can be stripped down to 15 oz by removing its optional components. Out of the box, the pack comes with a removable hip belt, an optional sit foam pad, a front mesh pocket, two side bottle pockets, and elastic side compression. But it bucks the norm with a fold-over top flap with a handy map pocket, instead of the roll-top found on most ultralight frameless packs. That flap serves double duty as the pack’s extension collar but can also be used like a top lid to compress gear, including small bear canisters, against the top of the pack. The Kumo is a great pack with a huge following in the thru-hiker and section hiking community. Read the SectionHiker Kumo Review.
The Gossamer Gear G4-20 is a 42L frameless ultralight backpack that weighs 25 oz and can carry up to 25 lbs comfortably. The G4-20 has a front stretch mesh pocket, two side pockets including one that’s large enough to carry a shelter, an external map pocket, and a roll-top closure. Its internal storage capacity is 30L with 12L in its mesh and side pockets. The well-padded hip belt, which includes pockets, is not removable, but you can ditch the molded foam sit pad covering the pack’s back panel and reduce the pack weight to 21.7 oz. Read the SectionHiker G4-20 Review.
The ULA CDT is a frameless 54L backpack that weighs 24 oz and has a maximum recommended load of 18 lbs. It is made with durable 400D Robic Nylon, and has a main compartment with 36L of closed storage, with 18L of space available in its open pockets. The pack is available with a roll-top or a cinch-style closure, with or without a hip belt, a stretch mesh front pocket, side pockets, and two hip belt pockets. The CDT is available in a wide range of torso sizes and available with female-friendly S-shaped shoulder straps and several hip belt sizes. Multiple color options are available as well. We like the CDT because it provides a lot of value and flexibility for a very reasonable price. Read the SectionHiker CDT Pack Review.
How much volume do you really need in an ultralight backpack, when you’re really trying to get your TOTAL pack weight below 20 pounds? It’s hard to make a blanket recommendation because it ultimately comes down to the climate you plan to hike in and what your clothing, sleep insulation, shelter, nutrition, and water needs will be. For general three-season conditions, most UL backpackers find that a 40L pack provides more than enough volume for a 3-5 day trip, including gear, food, fuel, and water. It gets much more difficult to fit everything you need into a 30L backpack, however, unless you can resupply more frequently, you go stoveless, or you don’t need to carry much water. However, given the list of packs above, there’s not a huge weight penalty for carrying a higher volume pack than you need, since they’re all so lightweight and you can compress them using a roll-top closure or side compression.
Ultralight Backpack Fabrics
Most ultralight backpacks are made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF), XPac, or Nylon (Robic, Cordura, Dyneema X, etc.) In terms of durability, XPac is usually the most durable in terms of abrasion resistance, then DCF, and then Nylon, although it depends on the denier or weight of the material used. DCF and XPac have both revolutionized UL backpack manufacturing because they’re so lightweight.
The biggest areas of wear and tear on a backpack is the base, where you put it down on the ground, and the side pockets, especially if they’re made with mesh. Most UL pack makers have switched to more durable mesh, use more durable stretch mesh that has finer holes and is less prone to snagging, or have switched to making external pockets with solid fabrics for better durability.
DCF and XPac are both waterproof materials so they won’t absorb water when it rains. DCF has the advantage that it can be seam-taped which greatly increases the waterproofing of a backpack. While XPac can be seam-sealed, most people don’t bother and line their packs with trash compactor bags or use waterproof stuff sacks. Very little water will get in anyway. It’s much the same with Nylon although it will absorb water, can make your gear wet, and takes a while to dry out. See the following FAQs for more advice and reader discussion:
The hip belts found on frameless backpacks are not load-bearing because there’s no frame to transfer to load to the hips. This explains why many ultralight packs don’t have them, they’re removable, or stowable, and only made with webbing if they’re included at all. Their only real purpose is to provide an anchorage for hip belt pockets or to prevent the pack from bouncing against your torso if you walk fast.
Since the hip belts are not load-bearing, all the weight will rest on your shoulders. When choosing packs, you should consider how much shoulder strap padding you prefer and the strap width that you find most comfortable.
Gender-Specific Backpack Features
An increasing number of UL pack makers are including S-shaped backpack straps on their packs, that are more comfortable for women because they accommodate breasts more comfortably. Many men also find them more comfortable than the J-shaped shoulder straps that were used previously.
Shorter torso lengths are also increasingly available to accommodate women, who on average, aren’t as tall as men. However, matching your exact torso length is a little less critical on a frameless backpack because the hip belt is not load-bearing. The fitting process is actually more similar to fitting a daypack (without a hip belt) than a regular framed backpack, although matching your torso length is still a good benchmark to aim for.
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