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Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking

Backpacking Light Publisher Ryan Jordan outlines the benefits of small packs: load stability, bushwhacking ease, and to elicit those "Hey, you day hikin'?" comments from others.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2005-06-28 03:00:00-06

Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking

In September 2001, I met Don Ladigin (author of Lighten Up!) and others for a hike of the Teton High Route. Don was carrying his kit in a book bag (see photo, right, of Don Johnston (L) and Don Ladigin (R) in the Berry Creek drainage of the Northern Teton Range), and I was feeling ... overburdened ... with my $700 lightweight Spectra climbing pack. I learned something that week, and my pack size has been shrinking ever since.

Small volume packs offer a number of benefits for ultralight backpacking.

The obvious one: a small pack forces you to be extremely selective about the gear you take. You simply can't take a lot of stuff. And, don't cheat: it's bad style to lash a few thousand cubes worth of gear under the bungees on the outside.

But, there are more practical and less obvious advantages as well.

A small pack is more stable, so if you are doing a bit of scrambling, climbing, or fell running on your trek, it won't be sloshing around on your back and threatening you with the impact forces of a piledriver every time the pack changes, er, direction with your stride.

Bushwackers, rejoice: a small pack doesn't hang up in brush as much and you're less likely to pitch fits with slide alder grabbing your extension collar.

My favorite benefit: a small pack keeps your life simple. Limited space forces you not only to minimize the volume and weight of the gear you carry, but the number of items as well. Less gear = less to keep track of = more efficiency in the wilderness = more time spent enjoying it and less fiddling around with your kit.

Finally, small packs are cool. They tell those poor slobs toting 60 pound loadmasters that you're an ultralight backpacker without you having to say a word.

Of course, this could backfire on you. I once met a ranger in Yellowstone, 14 miles from the trailhead, who thought I was on a day, when I was actually backpacking with four days' gear in a GoLite 24. When he found out I had 3 nights and 60 miles left, he threatened to pack me out on his horse. I left him a business card and today he's a subscriber and passionate ultralighter. Why?

"That teeny little pack looked so cool."

Disclaimer: hiking with tiny packs and hardly any gear can be extremely addictive, both philosophically and practically. Such addiction, or perception of such addiction, should not be substituted for common sense, experience, and skill in using an ultralight kit in what could be life-threatening environmental conditions.


"Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-06-28 03:00:00-06.


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Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking on 06/29/2005 00:09:51 MDT Print View

A bit of talk ensues when pack weight is the topic of discussion, and especially, the weight of the actual backpack. Case in point from my own personal perspective: my passion for hiking with the 3.7 oz G6 Whisper Backpack.

However, relative to "light weight packs", not much attention is paid to "low volume packs" and their benefits.

This forum is here to serve as a companion to the editorial:

Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking and the companion reviews that were published this week on small volume packs, which are linked from the editorial and the home page.

Questions for discussion:

Do you ever use a small volume pack? Why? Which ones do you like and why?

And the biggie:

Is a small volume pack with some niceties, such as a rudimentary frame(or framesheet), a few extra pockets to aid organization, more durable fabric, etc., worth the weight over a far simpler, less durable, but perhaps lighter and larger pack?

Small Packs on 06/29/2005 01:42:18 MDT Print View

1. Do you ever use a small volume pack? Why? Which ones do you like and why?

Yes, always the smallest one I can get away with for that specific hike. I like to be descreet on public transport and on the trail. Looking like a day-hiker or trail runner.. My favorite is the Dana Design Kompressor, stripped on a few straps and with a thicker foam pad for stability and isolation for my feet while sleeping. 1000 cu in, big enough for a 3 day/2 nights/3-season lowland hike with SUL gear without kitchen. I had a GoLite Dawn, it was alright, but I could not stand the freakishly green color.. I also use an Osprey Daylite pack quite often. It is rather heavy for its volume, but quite sturdy and sits great on the back for running and biking too, even after getting rid of the straps I didn't need.

2. Is a small volume pack with some niceties..worth the weight over a simpler, less durable, but lighter and larger pack?

No, no niceties for me please. A main compartment+top lid pocket & possibly mesh pockets on the sides for water/wet gear, that is enough. With backpacks with lots of pockets and straps everywhere, I always tend to look in all the wrong ones before finding what I'm looking for..


Paul Grube
(plosive) - F

Locale: Above Cache Creek, CA
. on 06/29/2005 10:12:05 MDT Print View


Edited by plosive on 07/14/2005 10:42:26 MDT.

Dan Healy

Locale: Queensland
Macpac Adventure Racing pack on 06/30/2005 19:09:45 MDT Print View

For the past year my self and girlfriend have been mostly using Macpac 35amp which is about the size of a normal 45l (approx 2700ci) pack. I normally carry a total of 7 - 14kg with this pack (I carry all the food, shelter, cooking gear so as to make a happy trip and have her come out more often!).

The extra weight of a 35amp is relative – I weigh 86kg and compete in mtb races and adventure races. 1050g is only 1.2% of my body weight so the extra 300g or so (of a 35amp over a lighter pack) does not mean as much to me as a less fit 72kg person.

Features: shock cord system for 2 water bottles – on the front straps!, 2x food and gadget pouches right where you need them – in front of you!, easy to get at side pouches with the closing system so your beanie, gloves and WB jacket does not fall/get ripped out (no other pack comes close here), 2 organising pouches on the top lid, shock cord on the rear for wet tarp or jacket. All this means I am not stopping to get at different clothes, food, changing a jacket etc. Also taking a photo or using binos is easy (clip the binos on the front straps) so I tend to do it more. All leading to a more enjoyable and hassle experience.

The suspension system allows me to comfortably carry 10kg all day for 5 days and not start wondering where the finish of the trip is. In Australia we regularly carry 3 to 5 litres of water so pack weights can get to 12kg+ very easily. Try doing that with a sleeping mat as suspension!

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Macpac Adventure Racing pack on 07/01/2005 02:27:16 MDT Print View


when my pack wt was heavier, i would place either some old arrow shafts i had laying around cut to length, or more frequently, the pre-bent, shock-corded hoop pole of my bivy into the pad pocket, or b/t the rolls of my sleepingpad inside (depending upon which pack i was using at the time) of my frameless pack. this, effectively, acted as stays to prevent collapse of the virtual frame formed by the pad.

just a thought.

Edited by pj on 07/01/2005 02:54:30 MDT.

Ken Bennett
(ken_bennett) - F

Locale: southeastern usa
Re: "Small" = ? ci on 07/02/2005 17:29:52 MDT Print View

If you look in the "Large but Lightweight" gear review on the main page, you'll see the Atmos 50, which is about 3000 cubic inches. So 3000ci = Large <g>.

Ryan mentions the GoLite 24 pack in his essay, which is 1250 cubic inches. Hope that helps.


James Augustine
(chirodr) - F

Locale: Southern California
How light can you go? on 07/04/2005 11:24:35 MDT Print View

I just came back off a Mt. Williamson climb (California Sierra), west face, 12 mile, one way, 9000 feet gain, over 4 days, and used the GoLite Infinity pack, Kahtoola crampons, Grivel air tech racing axe, food, water (100 oz Platy bladder), Ryan's essentials (Arc x bivy and bag), titanium 700 mug, backpacking light's small spork, Gigapower stove and fuel, cocoon pullover, golite ether wind shirt, some extras, weighing 27.5 pounds. Can I go lighter on this?


Jim Augustine

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Mt. Williamson on 07/04/2005 11:48:16 MDT Print View

one of my favorite death marches.did you do the "normal" west side route or something technical?
I've enjoyed the NW buttress in the past. and there's always George Creek--about 10,000 feet of gain.

What was your base weight (everything less food/water/worn clothing) ? It sounds as though you did a great job keeping weight down but hard to evaluate w/o more info--a more complete gear list possible?

As far as packs go, the Infinity is an excellant choice. Most any pack that was significantly lighter
would probably be too fragile for such use. At least until Dr. Jordan's packs are on the market.

This discussion should probably be on another thread as I realize that this started as " small packs for ultralight bp-ing "--sorry.

Edited by kdesign on 07/04/2005 12:03:33 MDT.

John Davis
(JNDavis) - F

Locale: Isle of Man
Metric measurements on 07/06/2005 15:01:39 MDT Print View

I can cope nicely with beer in pints, petrol in litres, distances in miles, ascents in metres and temperatures in Celsius, Kelvins or Fahrenheits, but cubic inches leave me dazed.

I once worked out that there were 61 cubic inches to a good, old litre. Am I right. And does it matter when manufacturers measure volumes differently.

liter conversion on 07/09/2005 01:47:33 MDT Print View

I think the conversion formula from liters to cubes is .66 x liters = cubes

Anders Bentsen
(andben) - M

Locale: Oppdal
Re: liter conversion on 07/09/2005 02:15:06 MDT Print View

liters to cubic inches: liters/0.016= cubic inches. Hope this could help.

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Metric measurements on 07/09/2005 03:52:52 MDT Print View

you're right John

1L = 61.02374 in^3 (i.e. cu. in.)

as is Anders

1 in^3 = 0.01638706 L

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
litre conversion on 07/09/2005 05:45:49 MDT Print View

the lazy way would be to type a search for the conversion. There are many sites that will do it for you. Just plug in the numbers and bingo.

Oliver Budack
(Snuffy) - MLife
_ on 07/09/2005 12:31:33 MDT Print View

Why dont the americans use metric units like the rest of the world? Then there would be no problem :P


paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: _ on 07/10/2005 03:37:08 MDT Print View

Why not switch?
1. It's what we're used to. Metric system has been taught to children in school - even in the 'dark ages' when i was a kid. Perhaps with the hope that one day we might switch??? Although, whether we switch or not, it is very impt to know the metric system if one is involved in various scientific fields. It's still unusual to hear metric equivalents here in the U.S. (e.g. i'll often say it's 400m or 800m, or 3 'kliks' instead of 440yds/0.25 mi, etc. - do i ever get strange looks, even from my co-workers who also are familiar with the metric system, being engineers). Temperature is still my stumbling block, however. I'm forever performing mental conversions back and forth (unelss it's a common C Temp, e.g. 20 deg C, 25 C, 37C - can't think in Celsius yet. For years had my Audi automobile's climate control set for Celsius display (as a learning aid), but it didn't help much (mainly b/c it dealt with a restricted temp range, which i got to know well, but for OAT it was more difficult - maybe you can't teach this old dog any new trick (besides my wife hated having to always ask me to what number she should adjust the temp to - see case in point, viz. people are unfamiliar with it & resistant to change - in the interest of matrimonial harmony, my Audi's climate control system was returned to English units).

My daughter studied abroad in London, England & found to this day some people there still have some problems with various aspects of the metric system (mostly older people probably, but i didn't query her more specifically on this point).

2. Too expensive to switch, especially nowadays with the proliferation of both mechanical, electro-mechanical, and electronic 'gizmos' of all types, in homes, automobiles, etc. Although, I would think that with so many imported, cost would not be that great since perhaps, in some/most cases, metric equivalents already exist. Perhaps they wouldn't sell as well to the people in the good 'ol USofA???

Well, this is my...

0.0167567 EUR (which = $0.02, or 2cents)

...on the matter.

[note: if this subject expands with replies, perhaps we should take it to the 'Chaff' thread where it would more properly belong.]

John Chan
Small volume packs vs mid-ultralight on 08/02/2005 10:21:24 MDT Print View

I think it really depends on the application of the pack.
Small volume packs with slightly heavier materials would be a benefit if your route takes you over rugged class 4 terrain where you need mobility and there's a risk of pack abrasion. The downside of the system (for me) is the flip-side of Ryan's argument. Less pack size = less versatility for a group. If you are trying to make big miles with a partner in tow sometimes you'll have to "pick up the slack" when either of you falls behind. Not easily done without excess cubes in your pack. With a proper compression system in the larger pack you can retain a virtual frame right up till the end of the trip with some improvisation.

My system "experimental" tries to address this dilemma. Below are the essential components that make the system work.

5 night trip into Killarney La Cloche trail (100 km)

Day 1:

-Granite Gear Virga (adjusted to mid-volume)
-3'x2' reflectix sheet (for virtual frame and extra warmth)
-Hennessy Hammock + supershelter (in snakeskins and lashed overtop pack)
-Nunakak Ghost in medium silnylon stuff bag
-Hennessy open cell foam insulator in stuff bag

with associated gear + food + 1 L water

Base pack weight = 10.95 lb
Total pack weight = 20.65

Day 5:

-Granite Gear Virga (compressed to lowest volume)
-3'x2' reflectix pad (rolled tighter)
-Hennessy Hammock + supershelter in snakeskins (moved to inside of pack)
-Nunatak Ghost (in pack, without stuff sack, allowed to freely expand)
-Hennessy open cell foam pad (outside stuff sack augmenting the reflectix virtual frame component)
-other gear

Base pack weight = 10.95 lb
Water weight = 2.2 lb
Total pack weight = 13.15 lb

So this system works because some gear (the shelter) starts out lashed to the pack but can be brought into the pack when food is depleted, and the compressible gear can also be used to retain tension for the virtual frame to work properly. You also have the option to re-arrange stuff to accomodate gear from your partner if he/she is struggling.

My thoughts,


John S.
(jshann) - F
Paging Moe on 09/08/2005 19:24:44 MDT Print View

Moe, what do you do with your water bottle while hiking with the Dana Design Kompressor? It has no side pockets correct? Do you use hiking poles?

Steven Scates MD
(scatesmd) - MLife
pack size on 09/16/2005 10:52:26 MDT Print View

I've been out for a bit, but have access again to the forum-just as I plan a 4 day hike to Yosemite next week!

I am going lighter than in the past, with my 38#s of stuff. I bought a GoLite Infinity, which saved 5# from my Arc Bora. I changed to an Arc Alpinist bag and tarp. I'm at 16# base, much better, but a ways to go.

The biggest problem for me remains the small volume of the pack. I think it will work, but a few items eat a lot of volume (pad, Micropuff jacket, Nunatek pants, rain gear).

Do you fit everything into these small volumes by brute force/compression sacks or tie anything outside? Before I move to anything lighter, the volume of couple of items will need to shrink.

Thanks for the great forum to everyone,


paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: pack size on 09/16/2005 13:48:41 MDT Print View

multi-prong approach:

1. smaller, lighter gear
2. frequently accessed items in outside pockets (e.g. rain gear, windshirt, water treatment, water bottles - even sometimes the water bladder, depending upon the pack)
3. other than summer (can use the smaller GossamerGear G6), a good-sized pack, e.g. GossamerGear G5 (in your case the GossamerGear Mariposa internal frame pack would be more appropriate due to your current base pack wt.) - both are larger than the Infinity.
4. a pad which is no more than 48" in length, though usually just a torso-length pad. furthermore, using the GossamerGear G5 or Mariposa, the pad goes in a pocket on the outside of the pack, freeing up space/volume inside of the pack. The pad goes against the back for padding & comfort & is readily handy for use as a sit-pad during rest stops.

Edited by pj on 09/16/2005 13:49:20 MDT.

Patti Binder
(quiltbinder) - MLife

Locale: Southwestern Indiana
pack size on 09/16/2005 21:07:25 MDT Print View

One option: Don't use stuff sacks for clothing or sleeping bag. Use a good strong waterproof pack liner and stuff everything in together. Eliminating those spaces between stuff sacks makes a lot more space. And the stuff like kitchen and food that needs stuff sacks nestles down in the soft stuff, eliminating more gaps. Saves weight of all those stuff sacks, too.
Have fun on your hike.

Steven Scates MD
(scatesmd) - MLife
pack size on 09/17/2005 15:31:52 MDT Print View

Thanks for the advice.

Patti, I had multiple stuff sacks that led to dead space as you described. I'll repack without them, since they were not compression sacks anyway. If that doesn't do it, I'll pick up the packs as suggested by Paul.

The main culprit is a heavy, non-compressable pad (an exped!-but I'll try to change to the pads from BPL. Last year at this time, at 11000ft, it dropped to 9 deg F, and the ground was really cold. The Thermarest froze me all night. I've used the exped on snow with no coldness at all, but this is 2 lbs extra, so there must be a better way).

Sorry to drift, but your advice is exactly what I have needed to try to improve.

Thanks again, I'll repack again.


Re: Paging Moe on 09/27/2005 05:58:06 MDT Print View

I've mostly used a belt pouch for the water bottle. and sometimes kept extra water in a platypus inside the Dana Kompressor. Works fine I think.

I never use poles for regular hiking, only in the winter with snowshoes.


Robert Ebel
(poop) - F

Locale: Earth Orbit
Re: pack size on 12/09/2005 18:36:26 MST Print View

Instead of using one big liner or many small bags I go in between. I like the sleeping bag and camp jacket in a bag of their own and then use some oversize bags for the rest of the stuff so it can all flow together and eliminate those dead spaces.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking on 12/10/2005 08:15:06 MST Print View

I use a 1100-1400 (variable) pack not counting 3 outside pockets which total less than about 600 when the pack is loaded. The pack weighs 5.75 ounces.

Load control: structure is from two fitted, horizontal stuff sacks for the quilt and the hammock. These help the bag hold its 11x6 cross section. The quilt goes on the bottom, smaller sacks come next, then the fitted foodsack, which changes size and cannot be used for structure as a result. The hammock comes next at just below shoulder strap height. Finally any extras such as first aid and the sanctum sanctorum. Putting non-fitted sacks between and above the fitted sacks takes up the odd spaces left by the cylindrical sacks.This is a folding top, top compressing bag with compressor cords over the top and a 'burp valve' to purge air. The design is similar to several UL bags now on the market.

Frame: Top compression and the horiaontal stuff sacks take care of all the structure I need on a UL pack without a hip belt. Although I sometimes use a folded pad fragment to take up space (even 1100 cu in is a bit much) when the pack is fully loaded for a multi-day walk, the pad rides outside until the load gets eaten down.


Pockets: For me pockets are critical to isolate items that could cause problems inside the pack such as fuel, water and wet tarps. My back pocket is for the tarp, and has generous drain holes or netting, depending on my mood when I make one of these. Fuel and water ride in the side pockets.

Durable fabric: Durable fabric is a non-issue. I rarely wear a pack out. Just retire them when I want to experiment with something new. Never had one tear up on the trail.

Frame/sheet: Not needed with a beltless pack except as noted above to take up space.

Edited by vickrhines on 12/11/2005 09:25:10 MST.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Small Packs for Ultralight Backpacking on 12/10/2005 12:06:16 MST Print View


Edited by vickrhines on 12/10/2005 12:19:38 MST.

Craig Shelley
(craig_shelley) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Golite Continuum on 12/10/2005 17:35:55 MST Print View

I like the Golite Infinity, which was previously reviewed on this site but the Continuum is nearly identical with just a smaller volume, 2050 ci according to Golite (without hood, the volume for the long is probably a little more).

The weight for the Continuum without hood for the long is 958g (2lbs 1.75oz). I'm thinking of removing the back pockets from mine because I just don't need the volume.

I don't have a big need for volume. As I've gone to a lighter pack, the volume is also reduced dramatically. However, I backpack in the desert frequently and water is not that dependable. Consequently, I frequently have more weight than someone that can get by with a liter or less of carried water weight.

In my opinion, the comfort of the Continuum is well worth the little extra weight of the pack itself.

I don't have anything to do with C & C Outdoors (other than being a customer), but you can buy a Continuum from them for $95 with free shipping. They had some for $65 but they are now gone.

I generally backpack without trails, so a small pack is a big plus.

Craig Shelley