light-sky Traveling light: backpacks

By Barry Kauler
Page updated: March 12, 2016

Pushing minimalist hiking to the extreme, I evaluated overnight hiking with only a waist-pack:
Traveling light: waist-packs
Lots of fun! However, it is pushing the limit to add a tent, especially a "proper" tent (dual-skin, dome), so I investigated the next-step up, ultra-light backpacks.

If you go into any camping store, backpacks on display are mostly 1.5kg or more. I searched the Internet for packs that are close to 0.5kg ...yes, they do exist.

I have a particular requirement, and most of the ultra-light backpacks will fail here. The backpack must have hip straps and be of adequate design to carry all of the weight on the hips, not hanging off the shoulders.
This requirement narrows the field considerably.

In the range 350gm to 700gm weight, they are all frameless at the lower end, and some with frames at around 600 - 700gm.
I intend to do comparative reviews of what I consider to be the pick of the bunch. For now, I have only acquired one of them, the Gossamer Gear Pilgrim 36:

Gossamer Gear Pilgrim 36

This is a frameless pack, and having only used framed packs before, both internal and external, I had doubts whether I could pack it rigidly enough so that all the weight is carried on the hips.
I was not encouraged by online user reports, as nearly all photos showed the pack (and similar packs) hanging off the shoulders. These are experienced guys, yet they are carrying this pack primarily on the shoulders.

OK, it is a small pack, actually only holds about 28 litres in the main compartment (about another 8 in the external pockets), so it won't be carrying much weight. So these big tough guys have no problem slinging this off the shoulders.
Me, on the other hand, I have a "bad back" and must carry all, or nearly all, the weight on the hips.

I must also state that a hike is a more pleasant experience when little or no weight is carried on the shoulders, regardless of your physical condition.

I have another consideration: I would like to take the pack as "carry on" luggage when flying. Qantas states that a carry-on bag must weigh no more than 7kg and be no bigger than 48cm long x 34cm high x 23cm deep.
Framed packs have a problem with that length, whereas frameless packs can fit, or be squeezed to fit. ...with some caveats, as I will explain.

Anyway, here is where I bought it, and links to reviews:

The Pilgrim 36 costs US$179, but for me AU$330 including postage from the US, direct from the manufacturer:

Here is a review, by "Barefoot Jake":

Another review, by Steven Shattuck:

I bought the Medium size, as a chap at Gossamer Gear informed me the distance from bottom of hip belt to anchor-point of shoulder straps is 20 inches, which is fairly close to spot-on for me (he also stated that the Large size is 22 inches).

Well, it isn't really 20 inches, as I now have it and can measure it. It is at least 48cm (18.9 inches), up to 49cm (19.3 inches) if the top of the pack at the shoulder-strap anchor-point is very tightly packed. Still OK for me.
The main thing is that I want the anchor-point of the shoulder strap to be nearly level with the shoulders, not pulling up nor pulling down. There is no tensioner.

Actual weight, including the foam back insert, is 563gm.

Packing the pack

One very nice thing about the Gossamer Gear backpacks is the removable corrugated mat, that provides breathing space between back and pack, and can double as a seat or minimalist sleeping mat.

So, the pack already has some structure, but it needs something else to hold it upright and rigid. To improve rigidity, I decided to insert a cut-down closed-cell-foam mat, like this:

I purchased a closed-cell foam mat from Kmart, in the Sports Section, for AU$4.
Its dimensions are given on the label as 150 x 50 cm, however at home I measured the width as 51.1cm. Thickness is 6mm.

i cut off a length, 717mm long at the top, 732mm long at the bottom, and the offcut weighs 61gm.

The idea is that it will just fit inside, with no overlap.

I debated using 10mm thick mat, however, the space inside is very small and I want to be able to, hopefully, lay my sleeping bag flat, so as to keep the rectangular shape of the pack interior.

I was able to, just, insert my Sea to Summit Micro II sleeping bag flat on the bottom of the pack. I packed the rest of the space and achieved fairly good rigidity.
However, I won't detail the exact list of items packed, nor how, as that is variable depending on the type of excursion -- look at the bottom of this page for links to field trips, that do have the exact packing details.

Hip belt

I would like to comment on the hip belt of the Pilgrim, as I feel that Gossamer Gear could have done a better job. Two photos to illustrate my complaint:

The flaps on the sides of the Pilgrim are OK. Thin, but that's OK. However, the strap is only 26mm (1 inch) wide, which I feel is a bit too narrow, given that it has to strap fairly tightly across the stomach.

I have included a snapshot of the Mountainsmith Daylight waist-pack for comparison. Notice the very thin mesh flap, that light shines through -- oh so breathable, and quite comfortable.
The Pilgrim has a pocket over most of the outside of the flap, so can't really have the same degree of breathability.
But, notice the strap width on the Daylight, it is 36mm (1.42 inches). Oh so much better.

I will give it a go as-is, but after an overnighter will consider whether I need to replace that strap with a wider one. If so, I will need to find someone who can do that for me!

Carry-on bag


Pilgrim conclusions

A pack with fixed height, from bottom of hip-belt to shoulder-strap anchor point (or to tensioner, if there is one), is only going to suit a person with closely-matched torso length. That is, unless you are one of those tough guys who don't mind a pack hanging off the shoulders.
Gossamer Gear make the Pilgrim in three sizes, Small, Medium and Large. As I was given incorrect length for the Medium size, if you enquire about the other two, politely request that they go and actually measure it.

My only other concern is the width of the hip straps. This is a big issue for me as I have setup this pack to carry all of the weight on the hips. So, it has to be a comfortable hip belt.
Maybe for others this might not be such an issue. The other reviewers didn't mention it, so obviously it was not an issue for them.

Field tests

The "proof of the pudding is in the eating". So, actual testing on the trail is required:

(c) Copyright Barry Kauler 2016, all rights reserved.
Please do not copy this page anywhere, instead link to it. I will probably be editing it every now and again, so it is wise to link to this original page.