Going Ultralight: Lessons in Packing Less, Playing More

Start your transition with Hyperlite’s Southwest Pack

The worst thing about ultralight gear? Once you’ve acquired one piece—a tent, a pack, a sleeping bag—it’s really hard to stop. It’s designed that way, of course—ultralight gear works best as a dialed-in system.

My first major foray into truly minimalist gear came this summer, with Hyperlite’s 3400 Southwest Pack. It’s a far cry from the pack I’ve been using, a 65-liter Osprey Arial circa 2009. The pack weighs just 2.2 pounds—less than half the weight of an Arial—thanks to a streamlined construction with no frame, no zippers, and a lightweight, papery fabric called Dyneema making up the body. It’s one of the lightest packs for its carrying capacity on the market, and at $340 to 360 (depending on size, color), it’s one of the pricier options for ultralight packs as well.

There’s a real learning curve when it comes to ultralight gear. I set out to take my 55-liter Southwest pack on a mountaineering trip in the Cascades and ended up not being able to fit even two-thirds of my gear in the bag. My cushy sleeping bag, a NEMO Rave, wouldn’t fit horizontally in the bottom of the pack, no matter how furiously I compressed it. My sleeping pad—an ultralight Sea to Summit—fit the bill, but my water purification system—the somewhat bulky but ever-reliable and efficient MSR Sweetwater—was definitely not going to work. And that was just camping gear. With snow protection, a harness, carabiners, rope, crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet, this was not the right trip for the pack, and I ended up leaving it at home.

I was surprised, because my 65-liter pack fit everything handily, with a little extra space to boot. Though the 3400 is a 55-liter pack, it feels, somehow, smaller than that. With no frame (it’s supported instead by aluminum stays), it’s not as comfortable hauling heavy loads as something a little bulkier might be. And the low-profile compression straps aren’t particularly easy to use to increase carrying capacity. That said, that’s not what this pack is for.

Ultralight gear isn’t typically very versatile, and it’s not meant to be. If you want a pack to take on a trip with your kids, where you’ll be hauling all the food, group gear, and then some, this isn’t the pack for you. If you want one bag to take on your weekend overnights and your deep-mountain climbing epics, this also probably isn’t the bag for you. But if you’re ready to get the rest of your gear dialed in as light and packable as possible, you’re willing to leave behind the camp chair and the six-pack, and your activities have a minimal gear requirement, give this pack a chance. You might just fall in love. After a summer of figuring out how best to adjust my gear and expectations, I certainly did. (Note that Hyperlite does offer packs with a larger carrying capacities and more outside storage, as well as packs designed more specifically for mountaineering and backcountry skiing).

The Southwest pack really shone on a three-day section hike of the Appalachian Trail. The pack comfortably fit a non-ultralight tent, sleeping bag, pad, clothes, food, and camp gear. On our first night, a huge downpour started and didn’t let up for a full 24 hours. The near-waterproof Dyneema fabric and roll-top design meant everything in my pack stayed totally dry. I was carrying less than I did prior to getting this pack, and was grateful to not be messing with anything more than the essentials in a downpour. In foul weather, everything you’re carrying is just one more thing liable to get wet, heavy, and possibly damaged. It was the first time I understood what ultralight converts mean by less is more—when things get complicated, having more crap to tote around isn’t usually going to simplify or alleviate anything.

Hyperlite sells “organizing pods” for their packs, which operate somewhat like a stuff sack but are designed to fit neatly in their packs and provide additional protection from the elements, thanks to their waterproof fabric. With a small and a large pod, I organized my little hardgoods—utensils, headlamp, compass, camera—and my clothing. The extra volume in a Hyperlite pack sits at the top, where the roll-top can compress or expand depending on your needs, so I kept my lightweight, bulky organizing pods at the top, and heavy items lower down to help the load sit comfortably on my hips.

The frame-less design is surprisingly comfortable. I usually end up with collarbone hickeys and serious neck pain after a few days of hauling gear on trail, but I’m abrasion- and knot-free after a few days with the Southwest. It sits well and snugly on my body and doesn’t swing. Of course, this could definitely be due to the fact that I generally carry about 30 pounds in it, lighter than a typical load with my previous setup. Anything much heavier would push the pack into uncomfortable territory.

Once I got used to the Southwest, I was able to appreciate the versatility it does offer: thanks to the low-profile roll top, the pack is great for day-hikes and side missions. It also means you could use it as an airplane carry-on, since the pack’s size isn’t determined by a rigid frame. Plus, as you run through your consumables, you don’t end up with empty space—you can just roll the pack down.

Despite the fact that the compression straps aren’t the most utilitarian, the pack’s outside storage pockets are excellent. I didn’t want to put a soaking wet rain fly inside my pack, and it comfortably fit into the outside pocket. Usually, I’d strap it down to the outside, which would let the rain fly get wetter, look goofy, and be cumbersome. Instead, it fit neatly in the pocket, protected from rainfall, rocks, and tree branches. In dryer weather, the pocket comfortably held trail runners, chacos, and extra food. The hip pockets are ample—big enough for my iPhone 6, snacks, chapstick, and a compass.

The hydration pack compatibility could use tweaking—the placement of the hole is low, bringing the tube around my arm rather than over my shoulder. Also, after a few trips, I found a small abrasion in the Dyneema on the upper portion of the pack. It’s not quite a full-blown hole yet, and I’ve ripped holes in just about every other pack I’ve owned, too, but it seemed early to be dealing with wear-and-tear.

Overall, this is an awesome pack. Comfortable, waterproof, minimalistic and darn good-looking. Now to replace the rest of my gear…

$340-360 • BUY


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Showing 2 comments
  • Brandon

    What tent were you using with this pack?

    • Abbie Barronian

      I used two: a Hyperlite Ultamid (review to come!), but more commonly a good ol’ REI 2-person half-dome. It accommodated both comfortably. Note that I always pack my tent loose (so I didn’t have it in a neat tent bag, but rather shoved into every possible cranny, which I find more space-efficient).

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