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Why ultralight packs aren’t as good as you think they are

The world of ultralight hiking can sometimes be obsessive (trust me, I’ve been there). Reducing pack weight can often be a really good thing but this isn’t always the case, and many pieces of ultralight gear can actually make your life harder rather than easier. The most prominent of these would be none other than your hiking pack – the basis of all your adventures out on the trail.

For almost has long as they have been around, hiking packs have weighed a ton! Their evolution was slow in the early days, they were mostly being made out of heavy canvas which had nowhere near the room we have today. Since then, they have come a long, long way and now we have the choice between lots of brands and models which are made to suit any type of body.

This obsession for the lightest possible base weight led to the complete redesign of the gear we use today, including the hike pack but this hasn’t meant they have always been getting better. The early redesigns added functionality, comfort and support for your body, but the problem of big, heavy packs turned up to ruin the party. We changed the materials they were made of, opting for lighter and more robust fabrics but the want for lighter gear didn’t stop there.

As development of ‘Ultralight’ gear progressed, it became apparent that you couldn’t keep all the amazing advances in pack technology while also reducing weight further. So they started to remove more and more of the added functionality they had added to the ultralight packs. Modern day ultralight packs still don’t look like what they had when they still used canvas but functionally they aren’t too far apart, having many of the same features and limitations.

Though it may sound great we have made packs lighter, there are some real problems which arise from doing this. One of the problems is that you lose all that support we added to the pack, making carrying heavier loads harder than it would be if you caried the same amount of gear with a slightly heavier pack. This is obviously a big issue for anyone who is doing a longer hike, as the repeated strain of days of hiking can take a serious toll on the body and even more so when using a pack which doesn’t sit right on your body.

Another problem that arises from these ultralight packs is their durability. Every step in the production process is made to be as efficient and lightweight as possible but this can often sacrifice the long-term durability of packs. I’ve always seen hiking packs as a lifelong investment, and I know people who have kept the one pack for over 30 years, so when choosing a pack, I think it’s something which is very important. Nobody wants to pay $500+ for a pack which in 5-10 years will be falling apart and will need costly repairs.

Finally, I think losing all that functionality is a huge shame! Why should we go backwards in innovation just for the weight savings. Many packs now come with detachable daypacks, centre access from zips in the middle of the pack and built in pack covers. Although I always want to carry less, I know I’m going to enjoy my time outdoors more when I’ve just got those small things which make it all that bit easier.

So, I hope you will join me on this journey of good gear over light gear as I think it is something really important to the way we hike. Of course, I’m still a sucker for the latest and the greatest in ultralight but sometimes I think it is good to take a step back and look at the big picture of what we are actually losing by saving weight.

Written by Josh Welch


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Katrina Hemingway
Katrina Hemingway
Mar 27, 2023

Josh, I totally agree with you. I'm a senior hiker who has walked 2,655kms of the PCT in 2019. I used an Osprey Xena 70 at the time. It weighed 2.5kgs but it can carry 20kgs and oft times when I was carrying a 7-day resupply and bear canister I was comfortably carrying this weight and sometimes more. This reliable well made pack carried the load beautifully.

In an effort to keep my base weight down, I trimmed my sleeping bag weight and tent weight with UL purchases and I attempted to do the same with my pack choice. It is these big 3 items where you have the best chance of trimming significant weight. I researched extensively the UL…

Josh Welch
Josh Welch
Mar 27, 2023
Replying to

Great to hear I’m not alone! I find it hard to get my weight below about 17.5kg, especially when entering an alpine environment where you need a lot more gear than you would usually take. I also love my Osprey and appreciate the older brands which make gear the right way! (Not to say I don’t spend far too much on ultralight gear)

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