Thursday, March 5, 2009

Choosing the Right Lightweight Backpack

The right backpack makes all the difference in the world. Since you need to carry all your backpacking supplies, your actual backpack obviously represents a critical part to your comfort and success.

Many people misunderstand the functionality of backpacks and get caught up in the overhyped mass marketing of many manufacturers who claim you need a huge backpack, with every frill, and it must be capable of surviving a nuclear attack. The reality is that it makes absolutely no sense to lug around a bombproof item which is overly expensive, overly big, overly functional, and let’s face it, overly heavy.

To a lightweight backpacker there are many solid options. In fact, I’d argue that obtaining a pack anywhere from 1-3 pounds is very easy. This will immediately save you quite a bit of weight from the standard 5-7 pound backpacks on the mainstream market. To me, carrying a lighter pack makes sense. After all, my pack is merely the mechanism which holds my stuff. Why should it alone weigh as much as the contents?

To understand what pack will work best for you, it is best to understand some fundamentals about the pack itself.

First, there are essentially THREE types of backpacks:
1) RUCKSACK – The “rucksack” is the traditional name for a frameless backpack. Designs are simple and fairly lightweight. Hip belts are optional. This is the choice of many ultralight and lightweight backpackers. Structure to the pack is from a rolled up sleeping pad (described later) or the mere compacted nature of the contents.

2) INTERNAL FRAME – “Internal frame” backpacks were invented in the 1960’s by Greg Lowe. They are the main kind of backpack found on most retailer shelves. As the name implies, these packs use an internal structure to provide rigidity to distribute weight. Frames are often made of plastic, aluminum, foam, or carbon, and are used to transfer the pack load from shoulders to the hips. These packs tend to fit very snugly against the back to provide greater control and stability, although they aren’t very breathable.

3) EXTERNAL FRAME – “External frame” backpacks were used quite a bit in the 1970’s and 1980’s which gained popularity from the military. Generally, these packs offer a smaller pack bag, but maintain lots of external resources to strap things on. They tend to be big and bulky which means they aren’t very stable. They are well ventilated and tend to be less expensive. Think long and hard about what the Indians, Nordic, and Nomadic people carried and you’ll end up here.

There are two types of loading options (although one could argue that a third “hybrid” option also exists):
1) TOP LOADER – As the name implies, these packs load “from the top” into a single large bag with an upright collar. These tend to make organization a little less easy, but they are typically lighter and more streamlined. It is also easier to protect everything when it is in one place.

2) PANEL LOADER – As the name implies, these packs load from “multiple panels/pockets” to access items. These are great for organizing items, but in many cases add unnecessary weight through the use of excess fabrics (for pockets), zippers, etc.

A key component for anyone seeking an comfort is “suspension”. Backpack suspension systems come in the form of internal or external structures which are metal, plastic, carbon, fiber, or foam (or a combination). Because suspension is a component of rigidity, the type of suspension (much like many choices) is subjective. Most of these components are sewn or implemented into the back panel of the pack and distribute weight to the hips. Aluminum and plastic tend to be cheaper while carbon and titanium are lighter and potentially stronger. One easy way to gain rigidity and suspension without adding weight is to use your sleeping pad as structure for you pack and as a means of transferring weight to your hips. Simply roll it up within your pack vertically and put the rest of your gear inside it. Your pack will maintain structure and all your gear will be very protected from the elements. This will also streamline your design to help avoid any issues with tree branches or other abrasive conditions.

Proper fit requires knowing the length of your torso. At 6’6”, I have quite a long torso at 24” which is extremely difficult to fit since most manufacturers only go up to 19”. Proper measurement includes running a tape measure from the bony mass on the back of your neck between your shoulders and running the tape down the center of your back where the top of your hips would meet if a line was drawn horizontally between them. I should mention this is merely a general rule, however, because many people choose to wear their backpacks higher or lower than the top of their hips much like they would a dress belt. Hip structures for women are also different from men and people with larger hips or different walking gates may choose to wear their pack differently. The key is comfort, so don’t get caught up on trying to find a backpack that only goes to the top of your hips unless that is what you are shooting for.

Backpacks are commonly made of all different kinds of fabric which include industrial-grade nylon (most common), SilNylon (most common for lightweight backpacks), and even Cuben Fiber (lightest and most waterproof). Each option has merits depending on your environment and needs.

Many have a tendency to buy a backpack and then the rest of their gear. This is completely backwards. Buying a backpacking should only be attempted after you have all your other gear because you’ll need to know if your gear fits in the backpack. When you shop for a backpack, don’t be bashful about bringing it with you to determine the size you need and to test out carry comforts.

Now that you have an idea of the different kinds of packs, a key question to ask is what a lightweight backpacker should choose. First, lose the notion that you need something bombproof or something that you could find at any outdoor retailer. There are several small cottage industry companies which offer outstanding lightweight backpacks which, in my opinion, are a far greater option than those offered by mainstream manufacturers. In fact, I’d argue that many mainstream manufacturers are slowly starting to see the value of designs offered by these cottage industry manufacturers and future designs are clearly changing leaning more towards lightweight and function. As expected, cottage industry manufacturers deal with autonomy of scale. In essence, they likely choose or can’t afford to send manufacturing overseas or to places with cheaper fabrics or labor. So, if their labor or fabric costs more, then so will their products. A highlight is that they can implement changes on a whim and their customer service is far more personal often willing to add or change things just for you. Personally, I haven’t been scared off prices from the cottage industry at it seems any piece of outdoor equipment worth any value is expensive to some extent and I don’t think prices have been inappropriate in most cases.

So what backpack should you use? Well, it depends on what you’re doing, you’re pack (contents) weight, your environment, and your personal comfort. Dyneema-X fabric is popular with many cottage industry manufacturers such as ULA Equipment (, Mountain Laurel Designs (, Six Moon Designs ( and GoLite ( This stuff is incredibly durable and a state-of-the-art fabric. If I could only choose one fabric, this would be it. This fabric is also good for bushwhacking and other abrasive conditions and is highly water resistant. These packs usually run from 1-2 ½ pounds. For those who desire to go lighter, SilNylon is a choice offered by cottage manufacturers such as Gossamer Gear (, Fanatic Fringe (, and Mountain Laurel Designs ( SilNylon is very durable and highly water resistant, although it would not hold up well in abrasive conditions. It is a good choice for someone who has a pack weight of 20 pounds or less including consumables (food, water, fuel, etc.). These packs run anywhere from 10-25 ounces. For those who really want to go ultralight, Cuben Fiber is the latest and greatest fabric on the market which is extremely strong for its weight, waterproof, and can stand up to quite a bit. These kinds of packs are anywhere from 3-8 ounces with all the frills, just make sure you get a thicker quality of Cuben if you want the best option. The leading manufacturer of Cuben Fiber backpacks is Z-Packs ( Ripstop and Nylon which are highly durable and less expensive fabrics are used by Granite Gear ( which offers full suspension lightweight packs that are both affordable and very popular.

For those seeking a pack, I wouldn’t waste a single ounce of time looking at mainstream gear simply because you can get lighter and better stuff through the lightweight cottage industry. This may change in the future, but it hasn’t yet. I don't want to imply that mainstream gear isn't quality or adequate - because the fact remains that there is a lot of good stuff on the market from many different vendors. For me though, if I had to choose between nearly identical stuff and one weighs less, then I'm selecting the lighter option regardless. At present, and quite simply, the cottage industries have an edge on the mainstream industries in this area. Having used, or owned backpacks from all of the manufacturers below, I highly recommend any of them:

· ULA-Equipment (
· Gossamer Gear (
· Mountain Laurel Designs (
· Six Moon Designs (
· Granite Gear (
· Fanatic Fringe (
· Z-Packs (

The only downside to picking from one (or more) of these vendors is that these packs often aren’t sold in stores. As such, you may need to buy it just to try it out and then eat the shipping costs if you need to return it. I’ve done this many times and the effort to get the right equipment is well worth the shipping costs. I have also found many of these cottage industry manufacturers are willing to send me samples of their products at no cost. To find out if this is an option, just ask.

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