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The good and bad of lightweight packs

As many of you know, some of us here have something of a soft spot for the latest technologies, such as ultralight and durable fabrics, flexible and extremely robust poles & frames, and better technical designs. These have led to significant improvements in the availability of lightweight products - but we’re also quick to mention that lightweight isn’t not the only choice available – or even the right choice sometimes.

Backpacking packs are an excellent example of this, and tend to confuse people more than other gear choices.

When you’re looking to lighten your load, it’s often really tempting to just replace your 6lb (2.7kg) backpack with a much lighter 3lb (1.3kg) option – now you’re carrying 3lbs less, so you’ll be that much more comfortable, right?

Not necessarily. Not at all in some cases.

Gearing up for a glacier trip across the Wapta in summer some years ago, I thought I’d be clever and chose a lighter weight backpack to carry all my gear – after all, we were only doing a hut to hut trip (granted, with a lot of safety gear). I was fairly proud that, whilst I was close to the pack’s limit, I was still under with my full load capability. Then reality set in. It was very wet, so I was soon carrying some totally soaked gear. Then one of my hiking buddies started to struggle – so we took weight from their pack to help out. I consider that trip to be one of the best trips that I’ve been on, and yet I ended it with substantial welts (well beyond just bruising) on both shoulders and both hips from my pack straps.

Why?

Pretty much every manufacturer on the planet goes with the same approach when taking weight off a backpack – use lighter materials for the body and, much more importantly, take out padding and structure from the frame and harness. And that’s where things get interesting.

The lighter materials will usually result in a significantly less durable pack, but with some care, you can still get a decent lifespan out of a quality piece. Just be aware that said lifespan won’t be anything like what you would get from the pack’s sturdier cousin.

The padding and structure are another thing all together - particularly with an ‘ultralight’ pack. With a lot less padding, and a significantly reduced frame, the load limits on very light packs are often just 25lbs (11.4kg) or sometimes less – and I would consider those to be absolute upper limits. That means that your gear, food, and water can’t exceed (in this case) 25lbs in total. Now, whilst that’s totally do-able, it would be necessary for you to already have a very light weight kit before you decided to pick up that ultralight pack. A 40lb (18kg) load in a pack like that can’t be effectively distributed so it will actually hurt you – which will make the trip a whole lot less pleasant that you’d planned.

The long and short of this is that those lighter packs really are excellent – but only with the level of load that they are designed for. When you’re looking to go ultralight (or just lighter than you carry now), often the best option is to pick up that pack last – once the rest of your kit is light enough to work with it.

Our recommendation is to find the pack that suits what you’re going to be doing, and what you’re going to be carrying, over the longer term. Or have a couple of different packs if that’s a reality for you. There are plenty of great mid-weight packs which can carry a moderate load that might suit your needs better. That extra pound of structure and padding won’t be noticed when it’s working for you – but you will definitely notice if it’s not.

You might be interested to know that I learned from my uncomfortable Wapta experience, so when we were doing Grand Teton for a week (and having to carry bear bins whilst in the national park) I chose my big load-bearing backpack and was totally comfortable for the whole trip.