Using the best expedition backpack in Alask

Ultralight High Volume Packs For Carrying Extra Gear & Supplies

You don’t need to be on a literal expedition to justify hiking with an ultralight expedition backpack. Whether you’re base camping, winter camping, carrying climbing gear, or require at least a week’s worth of food, these ultra large, surprisingly light packs will carry it all without themselves weighing you down.

The average ultralight expedition backpack in this round-up weighs just 37.5 oz, and carries 77 liters. That’s 2-3X less than the average pack in its size class, and upgrading would make a hypothetical 40 lb load 5-10% lighter. Don’t settle for heavy packs; they make an already heavy load even heavier.

Ultralight Expedition Backpack Criteria:

  • Fits 70+ liters
  • Weighs 3 lbs or less
  • Load capacity 40+ lbs
  • Full Frame

Jump ahead for tips on choosing an ultralight expedition backpack and why you should avoid traditional packs. While you’re here, don’t miss our guides to backpacking packs, fastpacks, daypacks, EDC packs, running backpacks, shoulder strap pockets, water bottle holders, and winter backpacking.

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Ultralight Expedition Backpack Quick Picks

Ultralight Expedition Backpack Comparison Table

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Model Price ($) Weight (oz) Total Volume (L) Volume/Weight (L/oz) Materials
Claimed Load Capacity (lbs)
Zpacks Arc Haul 70 399 21.8 70 3.2 Ultra 40
HMG SW 70 425 39.3 80 2.0 DCF 60
HMG Porter 85 475 42 85 2.0 DCF 60
ULA Ultra Catalyst 399 40.1 76 1.9 Ultra 40
ULA Catalyst 320 44.4 76 1.7 Robic 40
*Gregory Baltoro 75* 360 79.7 75 0.9 Nylon 55
*Osprey Aether Plus 85* 440 99.7 85 0.9 Nylon 70
  • * These models are listed for statistical comparison/reference, but are not ultralight, and are not recommended
an ultralight expedition backpack
ULA Equipment ULTRA Catalyst expedition backpack

ULA Equipment ULTRA Catalyst

The ULA Equipment ULTRA Catalyst is our pick for best expedition backpack because it has all of the right features, stats, and materials. First and foremost, Catalyst is constructed with Challenge ULTRA fabric, which is waterproof and stronger than competing option, including Dyneema. ULA designs their packs to last beyond a thru-hike, so for 99% of users, it’s unlikely to ever fail. Weighing in at 40 oz, it’s right on the bullseyes for its size class. What’s more, the weight transfer is really great, and supplemented by tall load lifters to adjust how it carries and increase shoulder comfort. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it has more and better external storage than similar packs, offering the ability to fit an entire daypack’s worth of gear throughout the side, hip belt, and massive front ULTRA stretch mesh pocket.

  • Price: $399
  • Weight: 40.1
  • Total Volume: 76L (52 main, 24 exterior)
  • Materials: Challenge ULTRA
  • Claimed Load Capacity: 40 lbs
  • Pros: Best-in-class materials. Waterproof durable fabric. Most external storage. BV500 fits horizontally. Good weight transfer and load lifters.
  • Cons: Doesn’t sit upright while loading.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 70 expedition backpack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 70

The HMG Southwest 70 is the larger sibling to Southwest 55, one of the best selling and most popular ultralight packs of all time. Constructed with super strong and 100% waterproof Dyneema fabric, including static pleated side and front pockets, this one is made to last. Despite the lack of load lifters and non-aerated back panel, HMG packs always seem to carry comfier than you’d expect, and we’ve hiked thousands of miles in them without issue.

  • Price: $425
  • Weight: 39.3 oz
  • Total Volume: 80L (70 main, 10 exterior)
  • Materials: Dyneema
  • Claimed Load Capacity: 60 lbs
  • Pros: Ultralight. Simple and durable. Waterproof durable fabric.
  • Cons: No load lifters. None aerated back panel surface. Expensive.

Zpacks Arc Haul 70

Zpacks Arc Haul 70

Statistically speaking, Zpacks Arc Haul 70 is unlike any other expedition backpack in this guide. At 21.8 oz, it’s roughly half the weight of its peers, and 50% lighter than standard sized ultralight packs. It also features an external, curved carbon frame paired with a trampoline-style back panel, which blocks lumps and ventilates. While Arc Haul’s weight transfer is excellent, the frame itself is not as burly as others in this guide, and is better suited to carrying lightweight high volume gear – the perfect option for 0 degree sleeping systems and puffy parkas. The best-in-class Challenge ULTRA fabric is waterproof and more durable than DCF. Our biggest pet peeve is that the hip belt pockets are sold separately and crank the list weight and price slightly higher than lets on at first glance.

  • Price: $399
  • Weight: 21.8 oz
  • Total Volume: 70L (57 main, 13 exterior)
  • Materials: Challenge ULTRA
  • Claimed Load Capacity: 40 lbs
  • Pros: Most ultralight. Great weight transfer. Durable waterproof fabric. Frame with trampoline back panel reduces sweat. Made in USA. BV500 fits horizontally.
  • Cons: Modest frame durability. Hip belt pockets sold separately. Expensive.
ULA Equipment Catalyst

ULA Equipment Catalyst

For most of the same reasons that we love its ULTRA sibling, we also love the original version of ULA Equipment Catalyst. Available in a bevy colorful Ripstop Robic Nylon fabrics, this pack is strong, reasonably lightweight, and nicely affordable. Catalyst has been one the top 5 most popular packs on the PCT and AT, so you can trust it will support you for weeks or months on end without fail. Enjoy best-in-class external storage capacity, effective load transfer, spacer mesh back panel, horizontal bear canister fit, and nice load lifters.

  • Price: $319
  • Weight: 44.4 oz
  • Total Volume: 76 (52 main, 24 exterior)
  • Materials: Robic Ripstop Nylon
  • Claimed Load Capacity: 40 lb
  • Pros: Good value. Good weight transfer and load lifters. Aerated back panel. BV500 fits horizontally.
  • Cons: Doesn’t sit upright while loading. Fabric isn’t waterproof.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 85 expedition backpack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 85

HMG Porter 85 is a gear swallowing monster, and the largest ultralight expedition backpack in our quiver. Its durable, waterproof Dyneema dry-bag style main compartment is approximately twice the volume of typically sized backpacking packs. Unlike the other expedition backpacks in this guide which were designed primarily for backpacking, Porter was intended more for climbing, canyoneering, skiing, and bushwhacking where you don’t need or want side pockets due the likelihood of falling, inverting, or otherwise losing gear. While accessory pockets can be strapped on, they’re not as large or effective as true side pockets. Like all HMG packs, it is surprisingly comfy, despite the lack of a back panel and load lifters. This pack is a beast!

  • Price: $475
  • Weight: 42.0
  • Total Volume: 85L (85 main, 0 exterior)
  • Materials: Dyneema
  • Claimed Load Capacity: 60 lbs
  • Pros: Largest interior compartment in weight class. Waterproof durable fabric.
  • Cons: No external storage pockets. No load lifters. Expensive.

winter backpacking gear in action

Expedition Backpack Buyer Info

Why we prefer an ultralight expedition pack

It might seem intuitive to choose a pack with a more built out frame to carry a heavy, expedition grade load. In some senses this is true; it likely is comfier on the shoulders. But the extra frame/material/cushion weight of traditional packs like those made by Osprey or Gregory vs an ultralight pack from HMG or ULA constitutes a 2-3x increase, and will be less comfortable on your legs, knees, and back.

The added weight of “comfort features” offsets the benefits they create by increasing pressure on your knees and back, ultimately yielding a net comfort decrease. Expedition loads are heavy enough and adventurers should jump at every opportunity to reduce weight. Your pack should help solve the problem, rather than making it worse.

When to Choose an Expedition Backpack

  • Literal expeditions
  • Winter backpacking
  • A week+ without resupply
  • Carrying a full-size bear can
  • Base camping
  • Addition of climbing gear
  • Hauling gear for the whole family
  • Pack rafting
  • Carrying trail work gear
  • Guiding

alaska bushplane

Best Expedition Backpack Conclusion

Thank you for reading our guide to the best expedition backpack, where we hope you found your new favorite ultralight workhorse. These models are lighter than traditional expedition packs, and easily outperform them in the backcountry with superior materials and significantly higher volume-to-weight ratios. Happy hiking!

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