Thursday, May 14, 2009

Backpacks and Packweight on the PCT

I'd guess the average baseweight among thru-hikers this year is a little under 15 lbs. I'd recommend using a frameless pack for baseweights of 10-12 lbs or less, and a frame pack for over 12. 90% of PCT'ers are using frame packs (almost all internal frame), the most popular of which this year is the finely-made ULA Catalyst (which I am carrying from Kennedy Meadows to Lake Tahoe). Everyone seems to love their ULA packs.

Behind the Catalyst in popularity is probably the Golite Pinnacle, which is one of the few frameless packs that can be bought retail. Other popular packs are others in the ULA line, the Golite Jam2, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus, Granite Gear packs, and occasionally some Osprey, Six Moon Designs, and other packs. I have only seen one other person ("Lint") with another Mountain Laurel Designs pack like myself. I highly recommend them. I have not seen anyone with a lighter backpack than myself (not the baseweight, but the backpack itself). I have met one person with a sub-8 lbs baseweight, and she was a girl ("Cat").

If you can get your baseweight minus pack to under 10 lbs, then you can switch to an ultralight frameless backpack and instantly drop another 2 pounds (a kind of snowball weight-dropping effect). Then, you can walk more miles and have fewer days between resupplies, meaning less food to carry.

I recommend the well-built and minimalist Mountain Laurel Designs and Zpacks backpacks. Their translucent cuben fiber packs are the lightest reasonably durable packs on the market (weighing as little as 6 oz). It may be too late to order an MLD pack for a trek this summer, but Zpacks is accepting orders through the end of MAY and has a turnaround of about a week. If you've got a low baseweight with a 2 or 3 lbs pack, getting a crazy light Zpack mailed to you on the trail is a quick way to drop 2 lbs. The Golite line weighs a pound more than the truly ultralight packs and are not as carefully designed or sewn, but should be sufficient for most hikers. Used ultralight packs can be found at the Gear Swap forum. I have bought many things at this forum.

When you're already out on the trail, it may seem like a daunting task to get ahold of some ultralight gear and trade out your equipment, but it can be done. You'll need to take some time online to peruse and order gear and arrange to have it mailed to a resupply point a couple weeks up the trail. You'll probably have to make some phone calls to clarify the shipping address and method.


  1. Great comments, very helpful for me researching packs for pct. How did you like your MLD pack? Any further comments about it?

  2. After all is said and done, I recommend a pack that is comfortable to 30 lbs. or at least 25 lbs. Even if you're ultralight (packweight around 8-10 lbs. or even less), chances are your pack will weigh over 20 lbs. much of the time, occasionally even reaching 30 lbs.

    The MLD pack's straps were too narrow and become uncomfortable at over 20 lbs. New MLD packs have beafier straps. However, the waist belt construction does not seem optimal for carrying 25+ lbs.

    Zpacks now has the option of adding some side stays for stiffness, but I would guess this only adds maybe 2-4 lbs. to the comfortable weight limit, because they are not connected structurally to the waist belt and the shoulder strap attachments.

    At this point I would recommend either going super ultralight (< 7 lbs.) baseweight and doing everything possible to keep under 20 lbs almost all the time, or getting a lightweight pack with a good, functional frame and a waist belt that connects to the pack body in the center, not on the sides and has a curved frame of some sort.

    The Gossamer Gear Gorilla probably meets these requirements and appears to be more comfortable than your standard frameless pack up to about 25 lbs. That would be good enough for an ultralight PCT thru-hike.

    Other options are some of the lightweight packs in the ULA line. I'm still waiting for the perfect sub-600 gram frame pack to come out.

  3. Zpacks are good for 20-22 lbs. or less and will be pretty thrashed by the end of a thru-hike. If you go the SUL route, it's a good option.