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 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 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. Note: ultralight backpackers who use low volume gear can use “trekking” packs for full on back country trips

Trekking packs are a similar to 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 and easy to slide in an out of spaces without getting tangled. Being carry on size is highly desirable for both.

My Choice

When I can keep the weight of my gear to below 9lbs I use a lighter version of the current Gossamer Gear Vagabond. When I need to carry more I use my wilderness backpack, a 2nd generation version of the Gossamer Gear Gorilla. The Gorilla is larger than I need most of the time, but I already own it, it fits in the carry-on sizers, I can cinch it done for smaller loads, and it gets the job done.

Minimizing Weight

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 Packs

Ultralight trekking packs are smaller volume packs that are often used for day hikes, fastpacking or ultralight backpacking. These packs typically weight less than 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.

For ultra minimalist, packs which are <25L I would recommend:

  • REI Flash 22: I find it too small, but some people love it
  • 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.
  • Matador Beast28: folding frame is gimmicky… not that effective, but a decent carry comfort if you keep weight below 10-12 lbs.
  • Mystery Ranch In-and-Out 22L
  • Zpacks Bagger Ultra 25L: No personal experience. Nice mix of features but ridiculously expensive.

I can’t provide an informed recommendation for ultralight packs for larger volumes. In 2010 I decided 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. From my experience most ultralight backpacks are bags with shoulder straps made from a variety of technical fabrics. I didn’t find any particularly comfortable and many seemed over priced. The following are several manufactures which have a good reputation

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:

  • Durston Kakwa 40: 23″ long, so not carry-on for some airlines, 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 so/so.
  • 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.
  • Granite Gear Crown2 36l: 23″ long but can scrunch to fit into most sizers if you haven’t overpacked. Very comfortable carry and light weight, but light of organizational features.
  • Hanchor TUFA: Frameless pack with a clean design and a pad pocket which is almost as effective as the long discontinued Six Moon Designs StarLite pack, e.g. I could carry up to 20lbs with reasonable comfort.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mystery Ranch Scree 32: no personal experience, but reported by trustworthy people to have a very comfortable carry and is carry on size for most airlines.
  • 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
  • Osprey Farpoint/Farview: Not as good weight vs volume of other packs, but carries well with more “travel luggage” features. Effective volume seems smaller than the advertised 40l.
  • Northern Ultralight (CDN)
  • ULA Atlas: The ULA Dragonfly, beloved by travelers on steroids. Length is listed as 23″ so might be an issue with some very picky airlines.
  • ULA Camino: If I didn’t own the Gossamer Gear Gorilla and needed to carry a heavier load, this is the pack I would select. Pack itself is heavier than ideal but reasonable given the durability of its materials.

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