Before you set out to REI or pay hundreds of dollars in the internet just for the promise that somebody somewhere may eventually stitch together a geeked out pack for you and for you only (one off), you should think about what do you want to do out there.
Can you run a marathon distance several times in a week? How much time do you have to hike? How old are you? Where are you based at the moment? Do you have friends and family along the trail? How long can you wait for a pack?
In an ideal world you would be like twenty-five, have all kind of backpacking experience, live in Colorado, so you can make sure to have the latest and greatest in micro-grid hoodies (if a YT personality wears a Melly, apparently the person is legit), friends and family are organized in shifts around the clock, seven days a week, ready to help you within hours along the trail and you would have 100k subs on your YT-channel, so Zpacks and Katabatic gear would regularly check in with you and make sure, their gear works for you.
And when not, they would produce replacements within 24 hours and deliver it to you to places like Shelter Cove, at no cost for you, despite claims from resort employees there, that they have to drive “two hours in the mountains” just to reach Shelter Cove from the nearest Post office. Dixie, who runs the channel “Homemade Wanderlust” never complains about the customer service of gear companies. She has nearly 200k subs. Others are sometimes not so lucky.
In a non-ideal world, you live on a mountain, way back in a deep valley in Switzerland (no, not in Sweden, but south of Germany). When you write to Waymark gear, they will tell you, that there is no international shipment available (happened to me in 2018)
Hopefully you are somewhere in between and well organized. Have no clue about your speed, your hiking style and what your body can handle? Doesn’t matter. If you want to do a longer hike, let’s say from Georgia to Maine or from Mexico to the Canadian border, some variables remain the same in every situation.
What you don’t carry can’t break on you. What you don’t carry will not increase your base weight. Gossamer Gear has a pretty clever ad-claim: Take less, do more. The day you find the YT channel from a hiker called Jupiter, your jaws may drop. Maybe you get even confused, as he has done a video with the ultimate ultralight-hiking jokes, he is one of the most super ultralight-hikers and one of the few, who actually has hiked more than 5k miles in one season (sadly, there is in general a correlation between the geekiness of gear and the miles hiked with it. If you don’t believe it, check out the gear Mr Legend hiked his Calendar Year Triple Crown with – nothing special, most items on the budget side. Others left a trail after 200 miles but carried only the finest in Zpacks gear).
Better than having no clue is still to have realistic expectations on how fast you can or how slow you can permit yourself to go. Every year hundreds of hikers set out in Campo, armed with money, time and useful equipment. Soon after, they report to have done their first twenty-mile day. If they report their first thirty-mile day less than a week later, they usually report a fourteen-day break another week into their hike. To let their shin-splints heal, because they go too fast too early without having gained their trail legs.
If you know how much time you have and how fast or slow you are gone hike, you can pack accordingly. Have eight months of time for the PCT? You will spend more time in camp and more days in towns. An ultra-light setup doesn’t make too much sense in such a scenario. Pack more lenses for your camera, a Big Agnes Tiger Wall tent (the dream mansion, available in DCF – although some say it’s not so great), a tablet computer to read all the fancy books you wish to have read a long time ago, a big towel and swim wear (if you don’t like to show your private parts) to hang out in hot springs and town clothes, since you will have a lot of time to do sight-seeing also in places where you would be the only hiker-trash person.
Yes, you will not see this kind of equipment on YT gear-videos because nobody on YT will admit to taking it easy. Except mostly women who give a shit about what others may think of them since they are simply standing above childish competitions and they tend to finish their hikes without problems.
In “having-time” scenarios an Osprey, Deuter or a Gregory pack is a good choice. If you like it fancier and you have already donated thousands of dollars to useful organizations like No more deaths, but have still some stockpiles of cash left, visit an Arc’teryx store and get a Bora. All these packs offer a sturdy internal frame, which you will need to carry the weight of all your comfort items comfortably. Mesh creates an air-gap between your back and the body of the pack – with Arc’teryx you get even spoiled with a visible carbon fiber (look alike, it’s fake) back panel. Under no circumstances, however, should you go over 60 liters of volume. Even if you move slower, base weight is still important. If you are not in a comfort scenario 40 liters are fine with three-season gear. If you start on Springer Mountain at the end of January, you may need 50 liters.
So, what do you do if you are antisocial, have not much time for your hike, hate nature and you can do more than 30 miles every day because your body allows you to run more than one marathon distance per week? You can still buy a standard lightweight pack which will show up at your doorstep within a “reasonable” time (or even next day). The most common ones are from Hyperlite Mountain Gear HMG and Gossamer Gear. Katabatic Gear has lightweight packs on the shelf and sometimes there are ready made packs available from Waymarkgear. There is also Six Moon Designs with a unique harness design, Mountainsmith with a new model for 2019 and ÜLA Equipment who allows you to do some neat customizations. If you need your pack to match your quilt exactly, ÜLA can help you. Also, Granite Gear makes nice packs who are a good choice.
Pa’lante Packs equips the famous and the rad ones (like her highness, the international queen of chips, Lady Heaps, who is missed dearly in the US, when she is not hiking, as she happens to live in New Zealand), the company is formed around legendary triple crowners and video artists, but every production run of their packs is sold out within hours. And the packs have no frame whatsoever.
One off their leading pack engineers has even a degree in engineering (and has designed aircraft seats), so they know what they are doing, and it shows in their packs. It is still not advisable to start your long-distance hike with such a radical pack, if you have no previous long-distance experience and putting your comfort-oriented load in such a pack is a recipe for getting horrible back pains. Comfy loads will not fit anyways.
If you can get a Pa’lante pack, however, do it. You can still sell it on e-Bay and make a profit or you can put it in your cupboard at home and having it sent to you as soon as you got rid of all the camping equipment you don’t use anyways, because you found out, that you enjoy to hike 30 miles per day, every day.
If you are on pilgrimage and you plan to insert small gravel stones into your shoes to intensify the suffering since some religions glorify this, a running vest styled pack from Ultimate Directions or Salomon is a good idea too. Their straps have no cushion but seams along the edges of the straps. They will start to cut into your collarbone after maybe two days.
There is Zpacks, who has a factory in Florida and gets out quite a volume. They have one-week lead time at the moment and their packs are extremely lightweight. Their Duplex tent is famous on the triple crown trails. With the packs, they even offer a frame and an Osprey styled mesh that sits on a patented arc-design, hence the names arc blast and arc haul. Their packs should however be tested during one week of heavy hiking prior to go on a long-distance trail, because in the past they delivered occasionally some Monday-packs, who fell apart faster than expected or were badly tailored. Their packs are built to hold out during one thru-hike but are lighter than everything else, mostly.
If you don’t like Zpacks but still want the lightest in lightweight because you find Jupiters gear too heavy, you can also go to LiteAF.
Zpacks is one of the few “full assortment companies”, meaning that you can get a big part of your entire long-distance gear from the same company. Everything is ultra-lightweight but not everything is always an immediate hit within the long-distance community. It is clearly the equivalent of Formula One in hiking – sometimes it breaks, but it is really lightweight.
If you have some months of time before starting your long-distance hike, you are in the best position to get a real sweet pack. To put your ultra-light equipment in a heavy mainstream pack makes no real sense. On the other side, you want a stable and tested design.
There are companies who sometimes put individual packs they make on Instagram. The tree top contenders in this market at the moment (2019) are Superior Wilderness Designs SWD, Waymarkgear and Atompacks from England. Below the line there is a one man show called Zimmerbuild. If you ask kindly, Redpaw packs and the Backcountrybanter may also build you a pack – if you like it super exclusive, the later three can help you and they don’t scam you as they are all well-known and respected in the long-distance community.
Joe, aka the Backcountrybanter worked in the outdoor industry and he knows everything about packs. I think it’s fair to call these packs experimental, but if you are a nerd and don’t mind having a race-prototype pack (like an LMP1 in packs) these are the kind of labs you are looking for. There are even active long-distance hikers who build packs and sell them but so far nobody tailors directly on the trail (as far as I know) so they sell like less than five packs per year as they are out hiking the rest of the year.
You can configure all of these packs according to your needs, choose the colors and so on. Atompacks for example will insert carbon-fiber rods as a removable frame as an option. They are built by hand by people who did embark on long-distance hikes themselves, have more than 5k miles experience and take it personal when their packs fall apart before at least 5k miles. The materials are much better suited for long-distance hiking than the ordinary rip-stop nylon you get with an Osprey or other mainstream packs. Osprey and Gregory have started to make lightweight packs as well, but you get all the disadvantages from their traditional packs, such as clunky frames and cheap materials. And they cost the same or more than the carefully hand-crafted packs from cottage companies who often sit in the US and have their production here.
Because the materials on these handmade packs are stronger, the seems are stronger as well. These packs are not waterproof, but they are used without a pack cover. Instead a pack liner keeps your stuff dry since the outer shell does not take on water like a sponge – something mainstream packs with all their straps and cushioning do.
It is possible to weld certain fabrics like Dynema, but according to Tom Dale from Atompacks, the necessary equipment starts at 15k $ but it becomes really useful starting at 30k $ – something not even Zpacks has invested so far. Big Agnes however is able to sell you a tent with welded seams (from their crazy light line, which unfortunately tends to generate also crazy interests on your credit card account).
Another possibility for waterproofing would be to tape the seams, like it is done with rain jackets. If you can’t find tape on the seams of your rain jacket you plan to hike long-distance with, you should do research about the type of jacket you have. It’s no coincidence that in 100-mile trail races a rain jacket is defined as something with such tape on the seams, mandatory for runners to carry, if the race director orders it. If you don’t have a taped jacket, they will not let you cross the starting line at big competitions like UTMB. With taping the seams of packs there is however a problem: Mechanical wear and tear-strength on the seams which has them flexing a little bit all the time. There are companies who do tape their seams, for example Hyperlight Mountain Gear, HMG.
With liners you can even go extremely fancy: Hightail designs, a company who delivers the highest fashion level for long-distance hiking, will sell you a pack-liner for 100 $. You can get the same functionality from a trash-compactor bag but who does not want to get something from a company who proudly equips people like the legendary Dirty Avocado?
Some words about costs: Even the fanciest custom pack, made out of unicorn skin with the typical striped Thylacine fur on top, blessed by the likes of Andrew Skurka for additional spiritual strength, will hardly set you back more than 400 $. Compared to the importance such a pack has for your hike, this is ridiculously cheap. You can always get it cheaper but even a useful, REI branded pack, starts at 200 $. A long-distance hike isn’t cheap at all and if you have to save 200 $ on your pack you are in for a devastating disappointment. In this case, you should learn more about budgeting a long-distance hike before getting any new pack.
Please don’t write to your preferred pack company to ask them, if they could send you a pack for free. They will not do it as they get dozens of such mails from aspiring thru-hikers every day. Once you are a triple crowner and you plan to do the eastern continental trail, companies will send you stuff automatically, if they have a change to know about your rad hikes.