Trekking Packs

I think of trekking as travel which involves a significant amount of walking while carrying all the gear you will need. Nights are typically spent in huts, hostels, guest houses, inns, hotels, yurts, or maybe tent provided by a guide. These trips might be a few days, or a longer trip such as walking the Camino De Santiago or the Alpe Adria Trail. Unlikely wild / wilderness / backcountry backpacking, you don’t need carry a shelter or cooking gear and typically food and water can be refilled frequently. Sometimes you don’t even need to carry your next meal because there will be a cafe or pub between your day’s start and stop points. As a result, the volume of the pack can be smaller than a traditional backcountry backpack. Ultralight backpackers who use low volume gear can use “trekking” packs for fully self supported back country trips / wild camping.

The ideal trekking pack is a similar to a typical travel packs, but put more of an emphasis on carry comfort and optimizing the volume to weight ratio. Travel packs typically prioritize organizational features and “clean lines” – making the pack attractive, visually appropriate for urban settings, and easy to slide in and out of spaces without getting tangled. Being carry on, or even personal size is highly desirable for both.

My Choice

When I can keep the weight of my gear to below 9lbs I use a discontinued version of the current Gossamer Gear Vagabond. When I need more space / weight I now use a Hanchor TUFA which was picked up on a whim when in Taipei. For the previous 10 years I used my wilderness backpack, a 2nd generation Gossamer Gear Gorilla. It is a bit unwieldy for urban use, but it got the job done. The Gorilla fits in all the carry-on sizers I have tried placed diagonally and has fit in overhead storage going tail in (e.g. not taking up 2 spots in the overhead). If I needed to regularly carrying more than 20 pounds or 40 litters I would pick up a ULA Camino.

Minimizing Weight

Before talking about packs, a few words about what you put into the pack when trekking. I strongly encourage people to adopt a minimalist, ultralight, pilgrim approach. I have some notes about traveling light which captures lessons I have learned over the years. Rather than bringing lots of luxuries, bring only the essentials. Let being unencumbered be your luxury. An example is my packing list for a 800km Camino walk.

Conventional wisdom is that people carry a backpack that’s less than 20-25% of their body weight. There were several experiments run by the US and by the Swiss military. The key finding IMHO was that on extended (8+ hour) exercised that fit / trained individuals had a measurable increase of fatigue and a drop in agility when they carries more than 10-12% of their lean body weight. This has been my personal experience. In a well designed pack I feel no more tired at the end of a 20 miles walk carrying <12% of my lean body weight as compared to carrying no pack at all. The caveat is that I have some issues with my shoulders. If the pack does a good job transferring weight to my hips I can carry between 15-20 lb with no pack related fatigue. If all the weight is all on my shoulders I need to keep the weight to 6%, around 8lb or the shoulder pain starts to fatigue me. My wife found her sweet spot is around 6lb.

Ultralight Packs

Ultralight packs were first popularized for long distance backpacking and are now used for a variety of activities. These packs typically weight around 1 lb and have no built in structure other than maybe a thin sheet of foam or plastic. Proper packing is critical to carry comfort. Most of these packs support the weight via shoulder straps, though some packs use something more like a vest to spread the weight over the entire torso and also keeps the pack stable if you move rapidly. Some packs offer minimalist waist belts which primarily stabilize the pack, though might be able to transfer some load off the shoulders and onto the hips. Conventional wisdom is that ultralight packs are good up to 15 lbs or so, and beyond that it’s better to use a pack with some sort of frame. I have found that if I am carrying more than 8 lbs I want some sort of frame and hip belt which effectively transfers load.

Generally when trekking, I like to be carrying <=30L. Packs I would recommend:

  • Gossamer Gear Vagabond Jet: at 46x27x15cm 18/10.75/5.75 inches carry-on acceptable all airlines and if you don’t overfill it, will fit into the sizer for personal items on most airlines. Comfortable to carry. Reasonably light weight, appropriately durable, with good enough organizational features since it’s a small bag. I like how you can access it when you set it down on the ground. Optional waist belt. The GG Fast Belt does a nice job stabilizing, the Tom Bihn foam belt actually does some load transfer.
  • ULA Dragonfly: 30L, very comfortable shoulder straps, durable, pricy. A /r/onebag favorite.
  • Durston Gear Wapta: No experience, but it seems to be a very well designed ultralight pack using innovative materials and construction techniques. Coming to the market in 2024.
  • Zpacks Bagger Ultra 25L: No personal experience. Expensive. Made from Ultra fabric which is waterproof, durable, light weight, and has some stiffness so the bag doesn’t flop too much when you load / unload it. Fairly large zip opening and some nice pockets. Disappointed that it doesn’t have an unpadded hydration / laptop sleeve. Also available in a 40l size and has an optional hip belt.
  • Osprey Daylite 26+6: When in compressed configuration meets most airlines “personal size item”, but can expand to hold more when extra space is needed. Some nice organizational features, though lacks a laptop slot.
  • REI Flash 22: Many people love it. I didn’t find anything particularly remarkable with this pack.
  • Mystery Ranch In-and-Out 22L: one of the most comfortable carrying packable daypack currently made with a zipper access. Moderate weight and size when stored.
  • Matador Beast28: folding frame is gimmicky… not that effective, but a decent carry comfort if you keep weight below 10-12 lbs.
  • MountainSmith Scream 25: No experience but looks look promising.

I can’t provide an informed recommendation for ultralight packs for larger volumes. From my experience most ultralight backpacks are bags with shoulder straps made from a variety of technical fabrics. I didn’t find most particularly comfortable when carrying >9lbs, and many seemed over priced. In 2010 I realized that for back country adventures I was always going to carry >9lbs at which point I want a pack with good hipbelt and some sort of frame, even if that resulted in carrying a pack that was 1lb heavier. The following are several manufactures which have a good reputation, though most I have no personal experience with:

  • Atom Packs (UK): Built to order (semi-custom), multiple size with light frame and belts which can be optionally added.
  • Dandee Packs: custom made: select shoulder straps, materials, torso length, volume, accessories.
  • Gossamer Gear: Good range of products, several of which can be configured with frames. Factory made and easily ordered
  • Granite.Gear: Virga 2 not lightest but durable, reasonably priced and I found it more comfortable than most of the frameless packs I tried in 2010.
  • KS Ultralight Gear: Built to order (semi-custom)
  • LifeAF Packs: Built to order (semi-custom)
  • MLD: one of the grandfathers of ultralight packs
  • Palante: Handmade frameless packs with minimal customization
  • Nashville Cutaway Pack: Built to order (semi-custom) with harness style attachment
  • Six Moon Designs: One of the early makers of ultralight packs that can be configured a number of ways. Factory made and easily ordered. Many people love their packs. I found one of their now discontinued packs, the StarLight very comfortable. For whatever reason there newer packs haven’t seemed significantly better than the average ultralight packs.
  • SWD: Built to order (semi-custom)
  • Japanese companies
  • Zimmerbuilt: custom made backpacks

Lightweight Packs

In my mind what distinguished a light weight pack from an ultralight pack is that it has a hip belt which can comfortably support >80% of the packs weight, requiring the shoulder straps for stabilization. There are two key features for this to work. First, the pack needs to have some sort of structure. While the ultralight packing might accomplish this by tight packing, it’s rare for this to work for more than 15lbs. This means that the pack will have some sort of framesheet, stays, or loop which keeps the body of the pack rigid. These packs also need a comfortable hip belt. This typically requires a combination of padding and some sort of rigidity which can not be provided by webbing. Some of the ultralight companies listed above also make packs with light frames. Some packs I would recommend looking at:

  • ULA Camino: If I didn’t own the Gossamer Gear Gorilla and needed to carry a heavy load, this is the pack I would select. Very well made from good quality materials. I found it super comfortable to 30 lbs, and expect it would be as comfortable as a 40 lb pack can be 🙂 thanks to a good frame, shoulder straps, and hip belt. It is a max size carry-on for major US airlines when the rolltop is rolled all the way down, but can be let out to provide more volume if you aren’t worry about carry on size limits. For example, all your gear fits in the compressed form, but the top can expand so you have room for multiple days of food and water. Pack itself is heavier than a classic ultralight pack, but reasonable given the durability of its materials. Access is from top and front. When made from Ultra fabric there is a bit of stiffness, so even when empty the pack doesn’t flop down making it easier to pack. Not the best pack to compress, so not great when carrying a small volume load.
  • Mystery Ranch Scree 32: A durable pack which is a bit heavy. Comfortable carry up to 25lb, has adjustable torso length and a very comfortable hip belt which is removable. Size L is listed as 21″ tall, but I measured it to be 22″. Good access with some nice organizational feature. Has a hydration pocket but it would not be adequate for storing a normal size laptop.
  • Hanchor TUFA: Frameless pack with a clean design and a pad pocket which provides a frame which is almost as effective as the long discontinued Six Moon Designs StarLite pack. I found this pack very comfortable up to 22lb and have used it up to 30lb . I found it’s carry comfort slightly better than the HMG SW2400. Size “R” is 22” tall, but if slightly underfilled can be pressed into 18” sizer since the foam will flex.
  • Gossamer Gear Gorilla: one of the most comfortable packs for me carrying less than 25lb. Light fabric so has less “structure” than some other packs which makes loading / unloading less convenient than a number of the packs listed here. Size large with frame is 23”, but so long as it’s slightly underfilled, will fit diagonally in 21” sizers and goes in overhead strait so not taking up extra space if carefully placed.
  • Durston Kakwa 40: 23″ long and a bit stiff, so will might be an issue with companies that are really strict about carry-on. Nice design at very good price for the design, quality, and materials. Some people love carry comfort. I found the the shoulder straps good and the hip belt decent but not class leading.
  • Granite Gear Crown 2 36l: 23″ long but can scrunch to fit into most sizers if you haven’t overpacked. Comfortable carry and light weight, but light of organizational features.
  • REI Trail or Rucksack 40. Seems to be beloved by many people. I didn’t find it particularly comfortable to carry, size L is technically more than 22″, and and is not as light as some of these other options.
  • Hanchor Breccia Travel Backpack: The suspension of the Tufa with panel access and some organizational features. Max size carry on. Around 3lb. No personal experience, but expect carry comfort similar to the Tufa.
  • Hanchor Marl: Clean design made from VX21 fabric with an excellent frame. Size “R” is 22″ tall. Similar to HMG Southwest but better carry comfort for me.
  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400: all but the “tall” size are 21″ or less. Very durable and weather resistant. The hip belt produced hotspots for me and I found the shoulder straps so/so… I like the shoulder straps on my Gossamer Gear Vagabond better. Beloved by many who do ultralight wilderness backpacking.
  • Osprey Talon/Tempest Family: A Camino trail favorite of people from North America. Comfortable to carry with some nice technical / organizational features.
  • Osprey Farpoint/Farview: Not as good weight vs volume of other packs, but carries well with more “travel luggage” features which an adjustable harness so can fit a range of torso lengths well. Effective volume seems smaller than the advertised 40l.
  • Northern Ultralight (CDN) Cottage gear company which is reported to make some excellent backcountry packs. No personal experience but several people I trust and correspond with really like their packs.
  • ULA Atlas: The ULA Dragonfly, beloved by travelers on steroids. Length is listed as 23″ so might be an issue with a number of airlines.
  • Decathlon ???: When walking the Camino a bunch of people had packs from Decathlon which they really liked. I think of Decathlon as the Ikea of outdoor gear: good design, very low price, acceptable quality. No personal experience with their backpacks, but would be worth a look.

Mixing Backcountry and City

The big issue when mixing onebag (carry on) travel with true, multi-day back country backpacking in moderate to colder conditions is having enough volume for the food and water when it the back country, but for the bag not to be floppy/empty when in the city. There are three ways to manage this:

  1. Use a bag which is “expandable”. The best example of this is the ULA Camino, which you can vary volume by how much the roll-top is let out.
  2. Leave front country items behind. If there is a place to safely store the items you only use in the city, like a laptop, formal clothing, etc then you might free up enough space for food.
  3. Move items (ideally high volume but soft) into a stuff sack which you lash onto your pack, leaving room inside for food.

Other Recommendations

2 Comments

  1. Hey there! Thanks for this amazing write-up.

    Maybe I’m taking one-bag/minimalism too far, but I’ve been interested in a versatile bag that does it all when I need to – personal item/daypack size to carry-on size and more.

    I was curious about your thoughts on Hanchor Tufa as an under seat bag? I’m a Small torso size and I see you have mentioned that the Regular (22″ foam pad) will squeeze into an 18″ sizer. Have you also tried it without the foam pad?

    The Hanchor Marl looked like a better option with the compression straps allowing it to compress down to a 20L daypack, but I’m assuming it won’t work under seat that well unless I remove the frame.

    Thanks for your time!

    1. I haven’t tried using it without the pad. As to it being personal sized / fit under the seat… it will depending on the plane configuration and the airlines policies.So long as I don’t stuff it, it has been able to function under the seat on a number of flights. Ironically I have noticed that with several airlines, the dreaded middle seat often has more room under the seat.

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