If you’ve been shopping for backcountry backpacks this summer you’ve likely noticed that there are more choices of quality packs in the sub-three-pound range for pretty reasonable prices than ever before. And after spending last week wandering through gear heaven at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, previewing the coolest gear that’ll hit stores in the coming months, I can report that there are a whole lot more affordable and incredibly light packs on the way.
This is a golden age of backpacks. Better packs, lower weights, totally manageable prices. An embarrassment of backpack riches.
A five minute internet search pulled up seven such packs. There’s my favorite pack, the two-and-a-half pound Osprey Exos, easily found for $190. REI’s Flash 45 is only $149. ULA will sell you their fantastic Ohm pack for $210. The absurdly light Granite Gear Crown 2, a mere $200. Gossamer Gear has at least three packs that come in around $200 and less than three pounds. The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor, one of the best packs I’ve used in years, is less than $200. I could go on.
Amazing, when considering that 15 years ago, when I bought my first backcountry pack, I paid about $200 for a then top-of-the-line, six-pound Lowe Alpine number that would probably carry less weight comfortably than any of the packs listed above.
Curious about why we’re awash in great lightweight packs for relatively low costs, I asked pro backpacker extraordinaire Andrew Skurka, who responded, true to form, from campsite while guiding on a multi-day trip through Colorado’s Front Range mountains. You know Skurka, right? Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year back in 2007. Completer of many solo thru-hikes of many thousands of miles. The man knows of what he speaks.
I asked Skurka why there are more, better packs to choose from than ever before. Basically, it’s because we asked for it.
“Consumers are asking to have everything they want—comfort, load-carrying, pockets—in lighter loads,” Skurka said. “So manufacturers are using durable but not overbuilt or over-durable materials and constructions. For example, the Y-frame instead of the traditional plastic framesheet, 100-200d nylon for most of the pack body and only 420d at the bottom.”
Will mainstream packs go even lower in weight, I wondered?
“I think low-to mid-two-pounds is the sweet spot right now,” he said. “If you go less than that, you’ll be sacrificing something, like durability or price. At Sierra Designs (Skurka works closely with the designers there) we’re asking how we can offer a more comfortable and user-friendly pack at this same weight, price point, and core features. For example, how can we improve the lumbar and scapula pad, how can we make the pockets more accessible, and how can we improve the fit for curvy shapes?”
Finally, I asked Skurka what the most important features are in a pack meant for average, multi-day, three-season backpackers.
“The average backpacker still needs a decent frame capable of carrying up to 40 pounds comfortably, and enough volume for the extra shit that they like to carry, or end up carrying. I was just in Rocky Mountain National Park for a few days, and most people still had pretty big packs, with bear cans. If you only get out for a few nights per year, you’re not learning enough to whittle down your pack to thru-hike weights and sizes.”
A decade or two ago, a pack capable of everything Skurka just listed would either weigh a heck of a lot more than today’s packs, or cost a lot more, or, more likely, both. But there are enough of us out there tromping around in the backcountry these days who demand packs that weigh as little as possible while still managing a load that average backpackers find necessary for safety and comfort, that manufacturers are pumping out awesome packs at perfectly reasonable prices, especially if you’re willing to shop around online.