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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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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