The Best Ultralight Hiking Backpack

Advertiser Disclosure

After countless hours in specialty gear shops and on the trail spent timing switchbacks, testing base weights, and fitting straps, we are now ready to recommend the best ultralight hiking backpack for your next outdoor adventure. If you’ve read any of our other camping gear articles, you’ll know that we are big fans of getting out and hitting the trail year-round. At the end of the in-depth reviews, you’ll also find a helpful buying guide and Q&A section to help you with all the specifics you need to make fitting and shopping for the best ultralight hiking backpack as easy as possible.

No single piece of gear has a greater impact on your comfort (other than your shoes) during a multi-day backpacking trip than your backpack. The weight distribution and fit of your backpack impact how much you can carry and how long you can hike between rests. A sore back or hips make everything from sleeping to climbing more difficult.

My favorite hiking backpack for fit and features is the because of Osprey’s incredible customer service and the overall quality of the backpack’s details and fit.

Our Top Pick:

Osprey’s Exos Series has been a favorite among backpackers since its introduction in 2008. I find this to be the most comfortable backpack on the market under 65L capacity. Osprey offers Exos backpacks in smaller weights, but I find 58L to be a perfect size for my needs.

Ventilation and Fit

I live and hike in hot, humid weather most of the year. A unique tension in the back panel keeps the weight of the pack off my back. The extra airflows keeps me cooler than other backpacks I’ve worn in similar conditions. Even if you are hiking in cooler climes, you will still appreciate the way the mesh back panel keeps sweat to a minimum even during all-day hikes.

Three Size Options

The comes in small, medium, and large to better match different torso lengths. As a short-statured woman, I wear a small, which is actually a 55L pack and weighs 2.63lb empty. The standard (medium) backpack is 65L, but surprisingly weighs only 0.02lb more (2.65lb total). If you have a larger torso, the large gives you 61L capacity at 2.68lb. Whichever size you choose is designed for a total load capacity of 20-40lbs.

Extra Features

What ultimately brings me back to my Exos time and time again is the versatility.  The removable, floating lid lets me pack as much or as little as I need without carrying anything extra. The sleeping bag and compression straps are also removable, which reduces the weight even further on trips when I don’t need either set of straps.

Versatile Storage

Stretch pockets and compression straps all along the pack are perfect for stashing water or essentials without rearranging everything inside the backpack itself. When I’m hiking with trekking poles, there is even a perfect spot for stowing my poles when I need both of my hands-free. The built-in hydration sleeve holds up to a 3L bladder. I have never needed the safety whistle that comes standard on the sternum strap, but I appreciate the fact that it’s there.

The most recent version of the Exos 58 lacks pockets on the hip strap. For some backpackers, that might be a dealbreaker, but I have not had a problem fitting everything I need in the other pockets around the pack.

Legendary Warranty

As with most ultralight equipment, you get what you pay for in a hiking backpack. Osprey’s “All Mighty Guarantee” is another reason I felt comfortable shelling out money for a serious backpack.

Warranty details vary worldwide, but the U.S. policy is simple and straightforward: If anything is defective or damaged, Osprey will repair the bag. Forever. If they can’t fix what’s wrong, they will replace the backpack for free.

Any company willing to stand behind their products with such a guarantee is worth a second look. Osprey’s reputation for stellar customer service should put your mind at ease when shopping for the best ultralight hiking backpack.

The Specifics

Volume:
S 55L
M 58L
L 61L
Weight:
S 2.63lb.
M 2.65lb.
L 2.68lb.
Load range:
20-40lb.

Our Runner-Up:

Another extremely popular option among ultralight backpackers is the . This is an extremely comfortable backpack made from durable nylon treated with NeverWet water-repelling coating. The dual density shoulder straps are designed to lift the load, while the dual density hip belt features the patent pending Re-Fit design for a completely custom fit anywhere from 28-40 inches.

Weight

Out of the box, the weighs only 2.2lbs. Granite Gear is serious about reducing bulk and weight with this backpack, however, and gives you options to further reduce weight. The sternum strap, hip belt, and lid compartment are all removable for times when you want a pared-down backpack. Even the frame sheet comes out, giving you the option to cut back another 2.8 ounces or replace it try the pack with another frame.

The 360-degree compression system makes this in an incredibly versatile backpack. You can use it at full capacity with extras attached to the side and back, or you can load it up more lightly and roll the top down for a smaller overall pack. Other thoughtful features include dual hip belt pockets, a roll-top compartment that keeps things dry when you’re hiking without the lid, internal hydration sleeve with port, and multiple stretch pockets and compression straps around the outside of the pack.

The Specifics

Torso length:
S 15-18″
M 18-21″
L 21-24″
Weight (including lid):
S 2.26lb.
M 2.36lb.
L 2.46lb.
Internal dimensions:
23.5″x13″x8″

An Even Lighter Option:

On single-night backpacking trips or excursions where you will be running more than walking, look for something even more compact. The best ultralight hiking backpack I’ve found for running trails is the . Everything you give up in design and versatility is made up in the way this backpack stays in place while you jog up and down the trail.

You will find many of the same features as on other ultralight hiking backpacks with a few exceptions:

  • The sizing options are limited to S/M and M/L.
  • The fabric is water resistant (but not waterproof).
  • No optional top to expand capacity.

Design

Some hikers will find the minimalist design to be ideal, especially those who prefer a simple, compact backpack. The is so light that you will barely be able to feel it on your back when empty. Even with a slimmer design, you can still fit a hydration bladder of up to 3L in the special bladder sleeve.

Other features include daisy chains for securing gear, mesh pockets for better visibility, a removable front belt, and large front pockets. I really appreciate having a front pocket large enough to hold a water bottle. Although I usually hike with a hydration pack, I like having the easy access to a water bottle as well.

The Specifics

Sizing at chest:
S/M 66-112cm
M/L 76-127cm
Weight:
24.85 oz
Dimensions:
27.6″x11″x11″

Specifically for Women:

I started with my first Exos pack long before Osprey released its Eja line designed specifically for women, but I can’t wait to give the a try.

The has all of the features I love in the Exos line scaled down for a smaller frame. You can expect the same quality craftsmanship, versatile storage options, and comfortable fit that makes Osprey a top brand for ultralight backpackers year after year.

As with the , the lid, sleeping bag straps, and compression straps are all removable to cut down on bulk and weight. Once again, the is backed by Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee—if you ever have any problems with your pack, Osprey will make it right. With three sizing options (extra small, small, and medium), there is a perfect bag for every hiker on the trail.

The Specifics

Volume:
WXS 52L
WS 55L
WM 58L
Weight:
WXS 2.5lb.
WS 2.53lb.
WM 2.56lb.
Load range:
20-40lb.

How to Choose the Best Ultralight Hiking Backpack

When shopping for the best ultralight hiking backpack, fit is the number one consideration. Nothing else matters more than how you feel carrying the backpack. No fancy material or webbing can make up for a backpack that makes you sore every time you try to hike. Ultimately, it is more important to find a backpack that fits you than it is to purchase a particular brand or style. Other factors to evaluate are the weight of the pack, the total capacity each pack can hold, and any extra storage or special features.

Finding the Best Fit

The best way to fit a hiking backpack is to try it on. Some hikers even prefer to borrow a friend’s backpack for a few excursions before committing to a purchase since there is nothing quite like trying it out on the actual trail. Either way, look for a backpack that is sized appropriately for your torso height. All of the backpacks on our list come in multiple sizes, so you should be able to find one to fit your body length. Check the product specifics for exact sizing information, especially if you are ordering a backpack online and need to measure the fit remotely.

The second most important part of fitting a hiking backpack is finding a hip belt that fits comfortably across your hips. The vast majority of the backpack’s weight will be carried by your hips as opposed to your shoulders or back. This is incredibly important; if your hip belt does not fit properly, you risk injuring your back and shoulders with the weight of the pack.

Most hip belts are adjustable, which will help you find a good fit. Be aware that it’s not just the length of the hip belt that matters. You will also want to find one that feels comfortable across your hips in regards to width and padding. Some brands also include pockets in the hip belt itself. If you are considering purchasing a backpack with hip-belt pockets, make sure you can unzip the pockets with one hand. If you need both hands to unzip a pocket, there is no real benefit to putting it right at hip level.

Although not as critical as how a backpack fits on your torso and hips, the load-lifter and sternum straps should also fit comfortably in an ideal hiking backpack.

How Heavy is too Heavy?

This article focuses on ultralight hiking backpacks, but even within the ultralight classification, weights range widely. Ultralight backpacking is more about an approach to packing than any specific weight. Your overall goal should be to pack only what you need and nothing else. Ultralight backpacking will let you move faster and get packed up in less time each evening. For the purposes of this article, I’m only including backpacks under 3 pounds total.

As materials improve, ultralight gear is getting lighter and lighter. Top-of-the-line backpacks from a decade ago are now being replaced by entry models when it comes to weight. It is wise not to focus on the numbers alone when making a backpack purchase, but they can give you an idea of what you can expect from your backpack. Most of the backpacks on this list are designed to carry 20-40 pounds of gear (including the weight of the backpack). All backpacks will be more comfortable if you do not fill them to their very limit.

I would recommend aiming for closer to 20 pounds than 40 with any of the backpacks on this list. Of course, your ideal pack weight will be different from mine or any other hiker on the trail. As with all aspects of fit, you will need to decide what works best for you. The easiest way to make that decision is to try multiple options on an actual backpacking trip. There is no simulation or measurement as exact as evaluating how you feel at 4 pm on an all-day hike.

Total Capacity

Capacity and weight are closely related. The more your backpack can hold, the heavier it will be when fully packed. Your ideal capacity will also depend on how long you will be backpacking and in what conditions. Some gear requirements, such as a sleeping bag or hammock, are the same for trips of any duration.

Other supplies, such as food and water, change dramatically with the length of your trip. If you will be hiking for a week in hot, dry weather, you will need to carry significantly more water than you would on an overnight trip in the fall.

For most backpackers, a 40-50L backpack should be more than enough for a weekend trip (1-3 days). If you prefer to follow ultralight packing procedures, that same backpack may be able to hold adequate supplies for up to 5 nights in the right conditions.

All of the backpacks on this list fall in the 35-60L range. Like I mentioned earlier, your backpack will be much more comfortable if you avoid packing it to the very brim. Even if you want to aim for 40L, a 55L backpack will give you some wiggle room for winter camping—when you will need bulkier clothes and blankets—or trips where you need to carry extra water or food.

Extra Features

The best ultralight hiking backpacks often come with special features. Use this list of some of the most common so you can decide what you need (and what you don’t):

  • Panel access: Some backpacks include a zippered side panel that allows you to reach items in the middle of your backpack without unpacking everything from the top down.
  • Removable lid: The option to add or remove the pack lid gives you even more flexibility when it comes to the weight and capacity of your overall setup. Many of the removable lids double as day packs or waist packs for short trips away from camp.
  • Attachment points and pockets: Look for a place to hang or store your trekking poles, ice axe, cell phone, and a water bottle. Even though the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35 is the smallest backpack on this list, it does have an exterior pocket big enough for an extra pair of shoes—perfect for switching between hiking boots and running shoes mid-trip.
  • Hydration sleeve: If you already have a water bladder, it may fit inside a special hydration sleeve inside your new hiking backpack. The best backpacks also feature a port where the tube can slide out of the backpack without getting in the way.
  • Bear box: Do you need to carry a bear canister? If you are hiking in certain areas, bear-proof containers are a must for your food and toiletries. In that case, look for a backpack with a wide enough design and a large enough capacity to hold the bear box of your choice.
  • Sleeping bag straps or compartment: Some bags come with special straps below the backpack for wrapping around your sleeping bag. Choose a backpack with removable straps. That way, you can use them when you need them and ditch the weight when you don’t. Another option is a sleeping bag compartment that functions like a stuff sack built right into your backpack. 

Wrapping Up

In the end, you will need to choose the hiking backpack that best fits you: your torso, your hiking style, and your goals for capacity and weight. If you are in the market for an ultralight hiking backpack this season, start with the four fabulous backpacks on this list. Chances are you will find just what you need in the 35-60L range.

Q&A

Q: Can I buy a hiking backpack online without trying it on?

Yes! Most of the best ultralight hiking backpacks are available online directly from the manufacturer or through third-party sellers. Online shopping makes it possible for you to get specialty camping and hiking gear anywhere in the world. As someone who lives in a rural area, I can appreciate how nice it is to have access to niche gear that I’d never be able to find in my local community.

That said, do take care if you are ordering a backpack sight unseen. Finding a backpack that fits your torso and hips is incredibly important. No matter how comfortable the reviews claim a bag is, you need something that is comfortable for you. Getting the proper fit online requires careful measuring and research. If you can’t try a backpack on before ordering, be sure you know what the return and exchange policy is in case you need a different style or size.

Q: What is the best brand for ultralight backpacking gear?

There is no single best brand. The best brand for you will have a lot to do with your budget and item availability in your area. When I shop for quality gear, the first place I start is with a brand’s reputation and return policy. I need gear that will stand up to many years of serious use. As a result, I’m much more willing to spend my hard-earned money on something that comes from a company that backs up its products with a generous return policy.

Fellow backpackers will also tell you how they feel about their gear and experience with a particular brand. I have gotten quality brand recommendations from friends and complete strangers on the trail. If a company makes quality products and takes care of its customers, you will hear about it.

When it came to the best ultralight hiking backpack, I ended up choosing the over other fantastic backpacks because of Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee.

Q: Is there a right way to pack my gear?

Yes! Learning to pack your hiking backpack effectively will go a long way to making the pack sit more comfortably and your gear easier to find when you need it. Contrary to what you might think, packing your bag is more complicated than simply organizing your gear by what you will need first. Weight distribution is very important as well. Aim to have your heaviest items in the middle of the backpack. The bottom is a good place for bulkier items you’ll use at camp. The very top works well for items you will need during the daytime hike. Save the outside pockets and attachment points for bulky, unusually-shaped, or frequently-used items. If you need more help, search for a step-by-step video tutorial online.

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