Flyweights for the back – the world of ultra-light backpacks

5. June 2020

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Can you still remember your first trekking tour or multi-day hike? I remember mine well, I had borrowed a backpack and it was far too big for the tour I was doing. Of course, it’s never possible to leave empty space in a backpack, so I managed to fill it with all sorts of odds and ends until the backpack was full to the brim. Of course, this was far from ultra-light; it was more ultra-heavy. This meant that, despite the backpack having a good carry system and numerous other features, it was not only heavy, but became a real problem.

Anyone who has had a similar experience will have surely proclaimed, “Next time, I’ll put less and lighter things in my backpack!” But what’s the best way to do this if you want to save weight in the backpack itself as well? Let’s go deeper into the world of (ultra) lightweight backpacks.

What makes a ultra-light backpack different from a traditional backpack?

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At the end of the day, weight on the back matters.

The ultra-light class distinguishes itself above all by one thing: minimal material usage. In order to produce a backpack with a capacity of approx. 70 litres for trekking, that weighs less than one kilo, you have to do without anything non-essential. This includes things like an internal frame as well as thick padding. Another pretty significant way to save weight is in the materials that are used.

This sounds like it would produce a pretty crude, basic backpack. Obviously, this is not the case in practise. Let’s take a look at where weight can be saved on backpacks and some of the finer details:

 

frame and carry system

Ultra-light backpacks generally don’t have a frame. The reason for this is very simple: less inside means less weight. This is why elaborate frame constructions and the associated carry systems are deliberately omitted. In order to achieve good carrying comfort, it is important that the backpack is not too heavily loaded and is packed in the optimal manner. In another article, we have summarised the most important do’s and don’ts when packing a backpack. I’ll give you one simple trick here though:

Use a sleeping mat (in the ultra-light sector, these are usually made from foam) to stiffen the back panel. This not only ensures that the rucksack is stable, but also that the mat is neatly stowed away. Companies such as Exped also offer conventional backpacks, such as the Mountain Pro 40, which can be slimmed down as required, to reduce its weight by almost a third.

Compartments and Pockets

There is no question as to the practicality of compartments in a rucksack. However, these compartments also add extra weight and often result in the rucksack being packed according to organisation rather than functional benefits. That’s why most ultra-light rucksacks don’t have additional compartments. These backpacks often only come with a large main compartment and 1-2 smaller compartments or pockets. Many ultra-light rucksacks also have a roll-top closure, so there’s no lid compartment or similar. Depending on the model, ultra-light backpacks may also have attachment points for pieces of equipment. A holder for walking poles or ice tools is almost standard. Compression straps are crucial on most larger ultra-light rucksacks. They are particularly effective on bags larger than 45 litres. Backpacks of this size are usually completely sufficient even for multi-day tours.

Materials

It is also possible to save weight in the materials. Lighter and often thinner materials are not necessarily worse than their heavier counterparts. Materials such as Dyneema allow quality, durable products to be produced in the lightweight segment. It’s important that these materials  aren’t overloaded – but then that would kind of miss the point of an ultralight backpack.

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It’s in the name: the Radical 80 from Ferrino is radically light

Sharp and pointy objects shouldn’t be loose in the main backpack; they should either be packed carefully or attached to the outside of the bag. If you want to see a good example of a large yet lightweight and durable walking backpack, we recommend the Radical by Ferrino. This large walking backpack has removed everything that adds on extra weight. In addition, lightweight materials such as Cubic-Tech and Dyneema have been used, ensuring that the backpack is robust and resistant despite its low weight.

Preconceptions and misunderstandings

It sometimes feels like the world has split into two camps: the ultra-light enthusiasts and the durability fanatics. During discussions with friends and colleagues, and during the research for this article, I have come across several preconceptions, incorrect beliefs and unresolved questions. Therefore, I have once again listed three of the most frequent discussion points. I won’t take sides with either the ultra-light group or the ultra-heavy club.

  • Preconception 1: ultra-light = ultra expensive

In short, that’s not true. And in more detail – it’s not always true. Admittedly, in the ultra-light range there are pieces of equipment which, due to their material, design or innovative technologies, are considerably more expensive than other comparable pieces of equipment. However, this is also the case with “normal weight” equipment. Especially with backpacks, however, ultra-light backpacks, due to their mostly rather simple design (no elaborate carry system etc.), come off well in price compared to their conventional counterparts.

  • Preconception 2: Ultra-light = ultra sensitive
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Even when climbing, less weight is often more!

This preconception must also be challenged. However, the question also depends on what the backpack is actually supposed to do. If you are looking for a super robust backpack for spelunking and chimney climbing, then ultra-light backpacks might not be the right choice. But for (multi-)day hikes and trekking tours, there are numerous ultra-light backpack models that can easily keep up with their heavier counterparts in terms of durability.

  • Preconception 3: Ultra-light = ultra uncomfortable

Admittedly, changing from a backpack with a sophisticated carry system to one with a rather simple contact back was strange for me at first. But that was also because I was imagining carrying a heavy weight, and that’s not what ultra-light rucksacks are designed for. It wouldn’t make any sense to save all the grams possible on your backpack, only to then fill it with heavy equipment. A clear distinction must be made here. If I want to travel with lightweight, minimalistic luggage and the trip allows, then an ultra-light backpack is certainly a good choice. But if my tour requires me to carry a lot of equipment as well as food and water (which isn’t freeze-dried), I’ll need a backpack that is suitable for heavier loads. In this case, I should just try to reduce the weight of the contents to a minimum.

Conclusion

Ultra-light backpacks certainly have their place. Depending on their usage and contents, they can contribute to a successful and enjoyable tour. If you’re looking to join the ranks of the ultra-light, the backpack is certainly one of the pieces of equipment where you can save the most weight. However, it’s important to make sure that the model you want fits your usage and personal needs. What are your experiences with lightweight backpacks? Are there any other preconceptions you would like to dispel? Leave a comment!

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