Light as a Feather

How Ultralight Backpacks Are Becoming Mainstream


September 18, 2019 Buying Guides By Photo by Mountainsmith

When Michael and Melanie Tilton go into the wilderness, they each carry a backpack with a base weight of around seven pounds. That single-digit figure includes all of their gear — from sleeping necessities to clothing — but not consumables like water, fuel and food. It also lands them squarely in a weight-defined category called “ultralight.” A traditionally diehard set existing on the fringes of hiking culture, ultralighters are hikers who carry a base weight under 10 pounds, compared to more typical backpackers who might lug 20 pounds and up, plus consumables, into the wilderness.

“I’ve never been in a position where I needed something that I didn’t have,” Melanie says. “I think that ultralight backpacking makes you think about what you can live without or makes you do without certain things. You adapt.” One example of that mindset is the couple’s tendency to forgo what most folks view as backpacking necessities, like a stove, so they can stay light and hike big miles.

Michael explains further that huffing less weight puts less strain on the body, too. “It’s simply better from a health perspective, and for enjoyment,” he says.

Last year, the couple completed the Triple Crown — hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Appalachian Trail — in a single calendar year for a total of almost 8,000 miles of walking. After stumbling upon the Instagram account for LiteAF, an ultralight gear company that was just emerging at the time, Michael reached out, and ended up carring a prototype backpack on parts of the CDT and AT.

“We were the first people to actually pay Chris Millard, the founder, for a pack,” Michael says. “After we used his pack from Rawlings, Wyoming, to the end of the CDT, there were some things we didn’t like before we got onto the AT.” The Tiltons sent Millard an email, letting him know what could be changed. Millard went back to the drawing board, and among other modifications, he altered the foam inside the shoulder straps and removed a V-strap from them.

With the altered bags in their hands, the Tiltons wrapped up their AT hike. “The backpack was perfect,” Michael says, adding that they’ll tote the same bags on future long-distance hiking trips — an affirmation of the durability of Millard’s design.

That pack, now called the Curve, is available in four different sizes and is part of LiteAF’s growing arsenal of gear that includes fanny packs and soon, shelters. Millard, a former project manager in the construction industry who makes everything by hand in Vincentown, New Jersey, recently added an updated style of the Curve called the Fast-Track. It’s designed specifically with thru-hikers in mind, weighing only one pound yet boasting up to 45 liters of space.

Millard achieves that featherweight by excluding features common to traditional backpacks: bulky zippers, compartments and external straps. He uses Dyneema Composite Fabric, formerly known as Cuben Fiber, which is a waterproof, incredibly durable yet lightweight fabric comprised of a variety of materials like fiber monofilaments, PVC and Polyethylene.

Michael says the quality of LiteAF packs is noticeable right away, with sturdy stitches, obvious attention to detail, and thoughtful designs you can only get with a handcrafted item. “There are 50 different companies doing it, and he’s doing it the best I’ve seen.”

Only a few years ago, it was challenging to find companies making ultralight gear. Those who wanted to lighten their load to the extremes existed on the DIY fringes — many resorted to making or modifying their gear and doing things like ripping straps off of backpacks or opting to hike with a tuna can and alcohol instead of a stove. Today, among the growing crowd of thru-hikers, UL packs have soared in popularity, with plenty of companies ready to meet the demand by exclusively focusing on UL products. Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear and Zpacks are just a few.

While plenty of cottage companies still produce the bulk of UL gear, the hardcore sect of backpacking has recently begun to infiltrate the mainstream. Osprey made waves in 2018 when it released the Levity, an ultralight backpack weighing in at under two pounds in a 45-liter capacity. Additionally, Mountainsmith, which has for years produced conventional backpacking gear, leaped into ultralight this year with the release of the Zerk 40 backpack. It’s the culmination of two years of testing in the field over 5,000 miles with the help of pro hiker Tom Gathman, who is better known as the Real Hiking Viking.

Cody Durham, Lead Designer at Mountainsmith, says that Gathman had tried several ultralight packs but hadn’t found a good fit. “Tom told us there was a need for an ultralight backpack that was capable of doing 1,000-plus miles and not getting tossed in the garbage,” Durham says.

The team, eager to create a solution, found inspiration within the ultrarunning community and the vests that athletes commonly wear, which are made to fit more like apparel than a bag. Mountainsmiths’s designers decided not to use Dyneema in favor of 100-denier nylon and 200-denier Spectra double rip-stop fabric. At 25 ounces, it’s not the lightest pack on the market, but the designers tout its comfort and durability as something you won’t find with other brands. Plus, it’s backed by a well-established name in the gear world.

Mountainsmith’s marketing director Cameron Bumsted affirms that ultralight backpacking isn’t some new trend; it’s not going anywhere. If anything, he says it’s only growing, transitioning from a select group of core hikers into the weekend warrior and day hiking crowds. “The Zerk was designed for ultralight thru-hikers, but people have been using it on day hikes,” he says. “It validates what we set out to do with an ultralight pack, which was to create something really versatile and gets people thinking about ultralight design outside of the thru-hiking community.”

Fast-Track by LiteAF $300

Levity 45L by Osprey $250

Zerk 40 by Mountainsmith $220

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