I think of trekking as travel which involves a significant amount of walking while carrying all the gear you will need. Nights are spent in huts, hostels, guest houses, inns, or hotels. These trips might be a few days, or a longer trip such as walking the Camino De Santiago or the Alpe Adria Trail. Unlikely wilderness backpacking, there isn’t a need to carry cooking gear or a shelter, nor do you need to carry multiple days of food or water. Often you don’t even need to carry your next meal because there will be several cafes between your day’s start and stop points. As a result, the volume of the pack can be smaller than a traditional backcountry backpack.
Trekking packs are a similar to travel packs, but put more of an emphasis on carry comfort and optimizing a the volume to weight ratio. Travel packs typically prioritize organizational features and “clean lines” – making the pack attractive and easy to slide in an out of spaces without getting tangled. Being carry on size is highly desirable for both.
When I can keep the weight of my gear to below 9lbs I use a packable version of the Gossamer Gear Vagabond Jet. This pack weights 10 oz, holds 23L, and is of course, packable. When I need to carry more I use my wilderness backpack, a 2nd generation, 40L Gossamer Gear Gorilla. The Gorilla is larger than I need, but I already own it, it fits in the carry-on sizers, and it gets the job done.
Before talking about packs, a few words about what you put into the pack. I strongly encourage people to adopt a minimalist, ultralight, pilgrim approach to trekking. I have some notes about traveling light which captures some of the lessons I have learned over the years. Rather than bringing lots of luxuries, bring only the essentials. Let being unencumbered be your luxury. Researchers found that people can carry between 7-12% of their body weight without a significant impact to their energy level on long walks. When people carried more than this, they became noticeably more fatigued. My personal experience is that I am closer to 7%, and that carrying more than 9lb on just my shoulders becomes uncomfortable after more than a couple of hours. My wife found her sweet spot is around 6lb.
Ultralight trekking packs are smaller volume packs that are often used for fastpacking and ultralight backpacking. These packs typically weight less than 1 lb and have no built in structure other than maybe a thin sheet of foam. 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 often minimalist waist belts which primarily stabilize the pack, though might be able to transfer some load off the shoulders and onto the hips.
Packs with less than 30L I would recommend:
- REI Flash 22: I find it too small, but some people love it
- Gossamer Gear Vagabond Jet
- Matador Beast28: no personal experience but seems well liked by owners
- Mystery Ranch In-and-Out 22L
I can’t provide an informed recommendation for ultralight packs for larger volumes. I decide in 2010 that for back country adventures I was always going to carry >9lbs, and at that weight I was happy for a pack to be a bit heavier to get a good hip belt and some sort of frame. I stopped paying attention to the frameless packs. The following are several manufactures which have a good reputation
- Atom Packs (UK)
- Gossamer Gear
- Granite.Gear (Virga 2 not lightest but durable and reasonably priced)
- KS Ultralight Gear: Built to order (semi-custom)
- LifeAF Packs
- Northern Ultralight (CDN)
- Nashville Cutaway Pack
- Zimmerbuilt: custom made backpacks
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 / vest only 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 packs I would recommend looking at:
- Arcteryx AERIOS Family: Modern materials, clean design, carry comfort was ok for me but not great. I know several people who love how it carries. A bit too tall to be carry-on legal.
- Durston Kakwa 40: 23″ long, so not carry-on for some airlines, nice design at very good price for the design, quality, and materials.
- Gossamer Gear Gorilla: one of the comfortable packs for me carrying less than 25lb but not as attractive as others. Light fabric so seems to have less “structure” than some other packs. In otherwords, a bit ugly, but gets the job done.
- 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. Beloved by many.
- Osprey Sportlite 25L: no personal experience, but a quick try at REI suggested it was worth a further look.
- Osprey Talon/Tempest Family: A Camino trail favorite of people from North America. Comfortable carry.
- Osprey Levity / Lumina Family: too long for carry on but comfortable carry. Great in hot weather.
- ULA Camino: Heavier that others but great carry comfort and easy access. If I didn’t own the Gossamer Gear Gorilla and needed to carry a heavier load, this is the pack I would select.