10 Best Ultralight Backpacks

10 Best Ultralight Backpacks

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.

Make / ModelVolumeWeightFabricPrice
Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 5558L18 ozDyneema DCF$290
SWD Superior 4048L15 ozXPac$180
Atom Packs The Atom 4040L14.8 ozXPac$235
Zpacks Nero38L10.7 ozDyneema DCF$199
Pa'lante Packs V2 Lightweight Backpack31L, 37L17 ozXPac$240
Zimmerbuilt Quickstep36L9.75 ozDyneema DCF$150
Granite Gear Virga 254L19 ozCordura Nylon$140
Gossamer Gear Kumo36L21 ozRobic Nylon$165
Gossamer Gear G4-2042L25 ozRobic Nylon$180
ULA CDT54L24 ozRobic Nylon$145

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 2020.

1. Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L

Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55 DCF
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.

Check out the latest price at:
Mountain Laurel Designs

2. Superior Wilderness Designs Superior 40L

Superior 40 Backpack

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.

Check out the latest price at:
Superior Wilderness Designs

3. Atom Packs – The Atom 40L

Atom Packs Atom 40

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).

Check out the latest price at:
Atom Packs 

4. Zpacks Nero 38L

Zpacks Nero 38
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.

Check out the latest price at:
Zpacks

5. Pa’lante Packs V2

Palante V2
Pa’lante Packs V2 is a simple ultralight backpack that’s made with Xpac and weighs 17 oz. It has rolltop with a top strap, a front stretch mesh pocket, 2 shoulder strap stretch pockets, female-friendly S-shaped shoulder straps, a stashable hip belt that tucks away when not needed, and side water bottle pockets. Its chief innovation is a clever stretch bottom pocket with a trash port (like the Atom Pack’s Atom 40) that can be used to store food, trash waste, or an umbrella for fast access while wearing the pack. The V2 is available in two torso lengths, a small (16″) which has 31L of volume and a large (19″) which has 37L.

Check out the latest price at:
Pa’lante Packs

6. ZimmerBuilt QuickStep Pack 36L

Zimmerbuilt QuickStep
The ZimmerBuilt QuickStep is a 36L backpack made with Dyneema DCF that weighs 9.75 oz. The base pack is extremely streamlined with 28L of internal storage and 8L external, a roll-top, and front and side mesh pockets. While you can use it like that, most people will want to add a few of the custom options available like shoulder strap padding, a sternum strap, or a minimal removable hip belt. While ZimmerBuilt is chiefly known for their custom backpacks, we like the low price of the QuickStep and its simplicity.

Check out the latest price at:
ZimmerBuilt

7. Granite Gear Virga 2 54L

Granite Gear Virga 2 58
The Granite Gear Virga 2 is a high volume, 54L, frameless backpack that weighs 19 oz and is made with Cordura Nylon. The Virga 2 is a rolltop backpack with lots of external compression straps that can be used to strap gear to its exterior. A durable front mesh pocket and side water bottle pockets provide plenty of external storage so you can hike all day and keep everything you need close at hand, but the hip belt is not removable. While the Virga is made with more conventional materials, you’ll love the price and the fact that you can order it off the shelf and get it in a few days. Read the SectionHiker.com Granite Gear Virga 2 Review.

Check out the latest price at: 
Backcountry | Moosejaw | Amazon 

8. Gossamer Gear Kumo 36L

Gossamer Gear Kumo Backpack
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.

Check out the latest price at:
Gossamer Gear | Garage Grown Gear

9. Gossamer Gear G4-20 42L

Gossamer Gear G4-20 Backpack
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, and 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.

Check out the latest price at:
Gossamer Gear 

10. ULA CDT Backpack

ULA Equipment CDT Backpack

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. 

Check out the latest price at:
ULA | Garage Grown Gear

Ultralight Backpack Selection Guide

Ultralight Backpack Volume

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:

Hip Belts on Frameless Backpacks

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.

Sizing

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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15 comments

  1. Volume and pack weight is great, but you should also list max load rating for each pack. It’s listed for some, but not all of the packs listed.

    • The max load of any frameless pack is usually 20 lbs. Maybe slightly higher if it has a sewn and padded hip belt, but not much. I say this pretty clearly in the first sentence of the article. There’s no point in listing in the table too if it’s the same for all the packs.

  2. Great review. I always look forward to Section Hiker. I carried the Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet 48 Liter for several AT section hikes and last year I moved up to the MLD Exodus 55 Liter. Because of my experience I ordered the Exodus with no hip belt. The quality of the design and materials is impressive. There is a reason for every, and nook and cranny of this pack! At 61 years old I’m younger than some and older than most. My Exodus and ultra light packing has allowed me to keep enjoying hiking. I’m looking forward to many more years, Lord willing.

  3. Weight of Quickstep in the chart is incorrect. Should be 9.75 oz?

  4. Any chance of an upcoming review on the G4-20?

  5. Noticed that ULA lets customers choose X-Pac material, but it’s well hidden in the customizer option. I’m looking for a pack modified for women that as much as possible soaks up less water. It’s bad when the water weight one carries isn’t drinkable kind but rather is the water absorbed in the pack. This option from ULA has sparked my interest as most of packs made in the Dyneema clan of fabrics are not modified for women.

  6. Hi
    Your article is excellent. Thankyou. I’m 59 years old and I want a pack that I cantake up to 20lb of gear with me on 3 to 4 day/overnight mountain trail treks, leaving my main pack, most of my gear and my main tent at base. For this I need a frameless pack of around 36 to 50L capacity that’s both lightweight and packable inside my main 80L pack when not in use. I’m always on foot.
    Including the Exodus (hard to find in the UK), I like the look of some of these in your article. Which are the most packable/foldable when empty please?
    Thankyou.
    I’m in the UK.

  7. Gabriel Henderson

    Given how much you like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60,
    I’m wondering why it didn’t make this list? Thanks in advance!

  8. KS Ultralight is making incredible custom UL packs with customization options not available from many of the other great pack makers listed above. I’m surprised that outside of a small but vocal cult following on Reddit, they don’t seem to get a lot of attention.

    The KS50/40 are framed ultralight packs, and the KS4/3 are frameless empty bags. Depending on your BW, both options are worth looking into & comparing.

    Yes, the KS website is challenging to navigate; but there is a logic to it that makes sense once you get the hang of it. The owner, Laurent, is very responsive to emails as well.

    I own two packs from KS, and I can’t recommend them enough. Lead times are typically pretty short as well (for now), which is becoming increasingly rare in the custom UL gear world.

  9. i am wondering how the gossamer gear g 420 compares to a granite gear crown 2 38 without the framesheet? they seem to be very similar in weight, but i am slightly under the impression that the framesheetless granite gear would carry weight slightly better?

    • The granite gear crown 2 38 carries much better because it has a framesheet and an adjustable length hip belt.

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