Finished Ultralight Backpack

finished pack

Finished backpack, weighing in at 11 ounces.

This is the final post on the homemade ultralight backpack project.  Now that you have an ultralight backpack, you need to know how to take care of it.  The main point of ultralight gear is to carry less weight when you go hiking.  If you try loading this pack with 50 pounds of gear, it will fall apart on you very quickly.  A light pack like this is only designed to hold about 20-25 pounds of gear, meaning that you might need to make a few changes to the rest of your gear before you hit the trail.  If you find a very light tent, light sleeping bag, and light bedroll, you can really reduce the weight this bag is going to have to take.  A good ultralight tent will weigh 2-4 pounds, the bed roll around a pound (a Thermarest type, the blue foam is only 6-8oz.) and a down sleeping bag will be 2-3 pounds depending on temperature rating.  Even all your items are from the heavy end of that scale, you will have a base weight for your big four items of about 9 pounds.  This still leaves you with a bunch of room for everything else.

Since this pack is made from ultralight materials, you also cannot throw it around like you can a beefier pack.  If you toss this bag on the ground when you get into camp you are risking tearing the fabric.  Take the bag off, and set it on your ground sheet or somewhere soft until you can get it into the tent.  If you treat your bag well, it will last a very long time and take many trips with you.

Lastly, you will want to seal the seams of the bag with a sealing product you can find in a camping store or online.  Or you can make some homemade sealer that I posted on earlier at a fraction of the cost.  Sealing the seams will make the entire bag waterproof (assuming you used Silnylon, which is itself waterproof) and let you get away without carrying a pack cover for rain.  Get all the outside edges coated and let the bag dry for a few hours before handling it.  This will add a bit if weight, but it will be worth it in a rain storm.

I hope you enjoyed making this bag as much as I did explaining how.  There is nothing more satisfying than making something yourself.  Once you start making your own gear you will not want to stop.  It’s a rewarding experience, and you get to control every aspect of what you are creating.  If anyone who makes this pack would like to share some pictures, please email me at diyfunprojects@gmail.com I would love to see them.  I’ll also post any pictures I get to this blog so other people can share in your success.

I’m going to be working on another tent in the near future and will be posting articles on how to construct it as well.  I’m shooting for a 2 person triangle style tent with a footprint the size of a full bed, and a covered rain beak on the front.  I am working on a way to make the entire structure including stakes, lines, and poles to weigh no more than 2 pounds.  It should be a great tent for 2 people and a very roomy tent for one person.

Ultralight Backpack Assembly

extension collar

Making the extension collar.

The extension collar will wrap around the top of the bag and give you more room as well as a draw string closure.  The piece needs to have a loop sewn into the top of it that goes the entire length of the piece.  Fold over an inch of material and sew it like you see in the picture to the left.  The drawstring will eventually go inside this hole and allow you to pull the top of the bag closed after you load it.

extension collar

Detail of the loop sewn in for the extension collar.

In this picture you can see the detail of the loop that you sew into place for the raw string.  Double stitch along the entire length of the piece as always.  This will be secured to the rim of the pack on the sewing machine next.  You want to line up the edge of the collar on the back panel of the pack when you start sewing, right in the center.  This way the draw string is at the back side when it’s done.  Starting from the middle of the back panel, sew the collar in place, and leave about half an inch extra so you have fabric to sew the ends together once it gets fully wrapped around.

sewing the collar

Sewing the collar to the pack body.

Sew with the pack inside out again so that the seams are concealed when you reverse it, and double stitch.  Once you get to the end, trim any excess fabric from the collar, and sew around the entire rim of the pack again to really secure it.  The two edges that meet at the back of the pack are sewn up last, inside out to conceal the sewing.  If you had to trim the collar, put a few more stitches near the ends of the draw string loops so that the force from pulling on the string does not pull out the stitches.  A little extra stitching here goes a long way because the drawstring area will be under a good amount of stress while you are opening and closing it.  Push a piece of string or 550 cord through the hole using a skewer or un-sharpened pencil to help you get it all the way through.  Once it’s through, thread on the cord lock, knot the end, and trim the excess.

The last thing there is to do is cut out a piece of blue foam that fits inside the back panel for support.  Lay out your foam, and cut it to the same size as the back panel, and try a test fit.  If it’s tight, trim a tiny bit off at a time until if fits snugly but not too tightly.  You want the fit to be snug so the piece doesn’t slide around, but you don’t want it to start working seams loose because it’s too tight.  It should go in nicely and quickly when you have it right.  After that put on your belt buckles and put the strap material through the adjusters on the shoulder straps to connect them.  Try on the pack, and trim the hip belt straps and shoulder straps to the length you need and seal the ends with a lighter.  Turn the backpack inside out and use a flame to seal all the edges of fabric on every seam.  Do this carefully, so you don’t burn your backpack, yourself, or the house to the ground.  You are now the proud owner of a hand made ultralight back that weighs about 11 ounces.

 

Ultralight Backpack Assembly

shoulder strap assembly

Placement of the shoulder straps.

The shoulder straps now need to be sewn to the main body of the pack.  Place them like you see in the picture with the ends pointing out and the straight part of the arms following the seam between the side and back panels of the pack. Sew them right to the top of the pack panel with a few lines of stitching.  Leave an inch gap between the foam inside the pads and the seam so you can get it all into the sewing machine.  The foam is too big for my machine, and you don’t want to sew through the foam anyway.

shoulder strap sewing

Webbing in place for shoulder straps.

Now, take a piece of half inch webbing and sew it directly over the shoulder straps, lining it up with the top edge of the pack panel.  Sew this in with a few lines of stitching to anchor it well.  The webbing will help distribute the force from pulling on the shoulder straps, and help keep them from breaking.  If you want to sew on a haul loop, now is the  time as well.  I elected not to have a haul loop on this pack.

strap assembly

The last piece of fabric now goes in place.

The last part to attach is the final grey piece that will make the back panel as tall as the main and side panels.  It’s already sewn in and folded open in this picture.  If you have your fabric set like the picture, just fold it over to the right and sew it into place.  When you open it again, it will conceal the seam and look like the picture.  Now all the panels should be the same height all the way around the backpack.  If they are not, trim them with scissors to the same height.  Sew the last couple seams attaching the sides to the new piece you just sewed in, making sure to do this with the pack inside out again to conceal everything.  Leave half an inch of material above the sewing line at the top of the bag so you have room to sew in the extension collar.

The next part will be to attach the neck extension collar that will give you more space in the bag as well as give you room for a draw string closure to seal everything up once the bag is packed.

Ultralight Backpack Assembly

bag assembly

Sewing the first two pieces together.

Now we can begin sewing the individual pieces together to form the backpack.  Everything must be sewn together inside out so that when it is reversed it will conceal all the seams.  Start with the back panel (the one with the straps and hip belt) and a side panel.  Sew along the left hand edge starting from the bottom and working your way to the top.  Sew inside the stitches you already see by as small a margin as you can.  You need to do this so all the stitches are hidden when you reverse the bag.  If you aim just slightly to the right of the stitches you see on the top piece, you will get a nice looking seam from the outside.

pack assembly

Sewing the second panel in place.

Sew the second side panel in place the same way you did the first.  Make sure on both panels you leave about half an inch on the bottom un-sewn so you have some seam allowance for sewing in the bottom piece later on.  Start at the bottom and sew to the top.  This will keep everything even on the finished pack.  Sew inside your original set of stitches and double stitch everything on both sides.

bag assembly

The main panel sewn in and the bag turned right side out.

Sew the main panel on last, again sewing with the bag itself inside out, and double stitching.  The extra  seam allowance you left at the bottom will give you just enough room to sew the bottom panel in place after the four main pack walls have been stitched.  The picture on the left shows the bag turned right side out after the bottom panel was sewn in.  Everything is nice and even on all sides.

bag assembly

No visible stitches when the bag is right side out.

Once everything is together, look for stitches along the seams.  If you can see the stitching from when you sewed the mesh onto the panels then reverse the bag again and sew a little deeper past the stitching to close it up.  When you reverse the bag again the stitches should be gone.  Since these are the main load bearing seams on the pack, I went around it again twice more, very close to my last set of stitches to lock everything in really well.  Another few feet of thread won’t matter for weight, and the extra strength might come in handy when you take this bag out on the trail.  Inspect everything at this stage and make sure it all looks nice before proceeding to the next step, which will be attaching the shoulder straps to the bag body.

Ultralight Backpack Assembly

assembling the pack

The order in which the straps are sewn in.

Working with the back panel, the hip belt, and the shoulder strap attachment points, we are going to start sewing our individual pieces together.  Like you see in the picture, sew the hip belt to the edge of the back panel, then sew the shoulder strap anchor in top of it.  Sew one piece at a time, double stitching each one.  Once you have them attached, repeat on the other side.

pack assembly

How it looks once it’s all done.

You can see in the second picture how it will all look once everything has been sewn.  The hip belt goes in first, above the bottom seam, and the strap anchor goes on over it.  Make sure you keep both sides even so that the hip belt and anchors are the same distance from the bottom of the panel on each side when you are done.  Double stitch as always.

pack assembly

Both hip belts and anchors sewn into place.

This final picture shows how everything should look once it’s sewn into place.  The hip belts are under the strap anchors so that they do not interfere with the fit once you are wearing the pack.

Next we will start sewing together the major components.

Ultralight Backpack Attaching Pockets

main pocket

Lining up the main pocket for sewing.

Now we go to the mesh pockets, and sewing them to their pack pieces.  Take any pocket (I’m using the main pocket in this post) and find the corresponding piece of pack material to sew it to.  Line it up like you see in the picture and starting from the top of the pocket, sew it to the other piece along the edge.  The reason you start from the top and work down is that the mesh will stretch, and you want to make sure the pockets are even when you are done.  Measure 18″ from the bottom of the pack material and make a mark on each side.  Sew the one edge first, and remove it from the machine.

pocket mesh

Sewing the second edge of the mesh to the body panel.

Now line up the second edge like you see in the picture and starting from the top, sew it into place.  If you have extra mesh hanging over the bottom when you are done because it stretched, just trim it with a scissors to the same length as the main panel.  Pleat the pocket like you see it in the picture here so you have a nice flat area to sew  along the bottom to close it all in.

mesh pocket

Pleating detail of pocket before sewing.

With the pocket pleated like you see it in this picture, you can sew along the bottom and not have everything bunch up while you are doing it.  Plus, when you put things into the pockets while hiking, the pocket will have room to expand and hold more things.  Double stitch along the bottom like you did along the sides and remove the piece from the machine when you are done.

pocket mesh

Completed main pocket.

Once you have completed the main pocket, move on to the side pockets and repeat the same procedure.  Measure 18″ from the bottom of the pocket, sew from the top to the bottom, trim the excess, pleat the pocket bottom, and then sew it into place.  Now you have all three finished pockets, and we are ready to start putting everything together into something that actually resembles a backpack.

Ultralight Backpack Back Panel

back panel

Sewing in the pockets on the back panel.

The back panel is pretty straight forward.  Grab the three pieces of fabric you will need, the back panel piece, and the two smaller pieces that will be the pockets for the back pad.  Lay them out like you see here in the picture, and sew them in along the outside edges, leaving the middle flap open.  Double stitch everything as always, and remove it from the machine.  Using a lighter, lightly flame the pocket edges that were not sewn to fuse the fibers together and prevent them from coming loose while the pack is used.  You could fold over the insides of the pockets half an inch and sew them if you like before attaching them to the main piece, but if you seal the edges with a lighter they will not come lose.  This is the completed back piece, and now we are ready to start sewing the pockets onto their pack panels.

Ultralight Backpack Pockets

pocket sewing

How to line up the material for the pockets.

The pockets are the next item we will be working on, since they all need to be sewn into place before the body of the pack can be sewn together.  The tops of the pockets have a piece of nylon sewn to them so they don’t fray, and also so a piece of elastic can be sewn into them as well.  You will need your mesh, side panels, the front panel, and some 1/2″ elastic.

Start with either the side pocket mesh or the main pocket mesh, it does not matter.  The only thing to get right is where to sew the nylon.  Since all the pockets are 18″ tall, make sure you are sewing the nylon to a side of the mesh that does not measure 18″, meaning you are sewing it to the top of your pocket.  Start with the material like you see it in the first picture, and sew the pieces together leaving a half inch seam on the right side.

pocket sewing

Sewing the nylon pocket trimming in place.

After you make the first pass with the sewing machine, lay the piece out like you see in the second picture.  If you lay it down once it’s sewn together like in the first picture, then just pull the grey fabric out to the right, you will have it laid out correctly.  Now you will fold the grey material in half, and tuck it under the seam that you just made on the sewing machine.  Fold the extra fabric from the seam allowance to the right to cover the flap, and sew through all the layers to lock it in place.

sewing the pockets

Sewing detail for the pocket lining.

The third picture shows what it looks like once you have it in the right position.  Sew the entire length twice to make sure all the loose fibers of the mesh are locked to the nylon, and that the pocket will hold up to use.  Doing it this way will make sure you have a nice looking edge to your pockets, and will keep the mesh in place.  Next, you sew in the elastic so the pockets will close by themselves.

pocket sewing

Measuring the elastic for your pockets.

Depending on what pocket you are sewing, find the piece of material that it will be sewn to and lay it out on the table.  If you are sewing the mesh for the main pocket, grab the front piece of nylon, if you are sewing the mesh on a side pocket, grab a side piece for measuring.  The elastic needs to be a little shorter than the width of the pocket if it is going to snap closed when the pack is loaded.  Measure and cut a piece of elastic that is 3″ shorter than the width of the piece you are measuring with, in this case I am cutting a piece of elastic for a side pocket, and you can see from the picture that it’s shorter than the side panel.

Sewing the elastic in place is tricky, but it’s not impossible.  You will need to hold it stretched out while you sew it into place, so that when you let it go it scrunches up the pocket and closes it.  Stretch the nylon the full length of the pocket plus about half an inch past the mesh on each edge.  You want a little left over so when you sew this into the pack itself the elastic is sewn in as well.  With the elastic stretched, start sewing it to the under side of the pocket, along the grey fabric.  Keep it stretched tightly until you are completely through sewing, and then turn it around, stretch it again, and sew it in a second time.  When you remove the piece from the machine it should scrunch together tightly, which means your pockets will close themselves when you are using the pack.

pocket sewing

The elastic sewn into the pocket lining.

If you look at the last picture you can see how the elastic is sewn into place and that it crunches up the pocket.  Once the bag is full the pockets will look nice and flat mostly, and there will be a few inches of stretch where you can put items into the pockets.

I made the mistake of sewing in the elastic after I sewed the mesh to the side material.  It was much harder to do it that way than to just put it in where I am showing you now.  Sew all three pockets like this, and you are ready to move on to the next step.

Ultralight Backpack Hip Belt

Cut diagram for hip belt and strap attachments.

Cut diagram for hip belt and strap attachments.

In this part of the construction process we are going to be making the hip belt and the shoulder strap attachment points.  Following the cutting diagram, cut out the four pieces you will need, as well as two pieces of hip belt strap that are 15″ long each, and 2 pieces of shoulder strap webbing that are 20″ long each.  The extra length on the belts is so that after you are done you can fit the pack, and trim the excess.  It’s better to have too much than too little, and the webbing is cheap.

Once you cut the hip belt pieces, fold them in half like the diagram and sew along the diagonal edge and long edge leaving a half inch seam.  This will leave you with a sewn up triangle with the smaller end open.  Reverse the pieces inside out when you are done.  Fold the edges of the smaller end inside the piece half an inch, and insert the belt webbing a few inches.  Folding the edges inside hides the bare edges of the fabric, and gives you an extra layer to sew through.

hip belts

Sewing the hip belts.

Sew the strap material for the hip belt in place the way you see it in the picture to the left.  Make sure you really stitch it into place well, because this piece will be under a good amount of tension when the pack is being used.  You may also decide to sew an additional quarter inch seam all around the exterior of the fabric portion of the belt to give it additional strength.  I did not for this pack, but I have before.

shoulder strap anchor points

Shoulder strap anchor points.

Now you can get the two squares that you cut out and fold them in half as well.  Insert the shoulder strap material a couple inches inside the fold and sew into place as you see in the picture.  Again, sew a little extra on the strap material so it is anchored well.  These will attach later to the body of the pack along with the hip belts, so don’t worry too much about visible stitches.

In the next post we will start our work on the main body of the pack, and I will give step by step instruction on how everything goes together.

Ultralight Backpack Shoulder Straps

foam shoulder strap

Cutting the blue foam shoulder strap.

In this post I am going to cover how to make the shoulder straps for the ultralight backpack.  Since you already cut out the material you will need in the last post, all there is yet to cut is the foam.  If you haven’t already, buy a blue foam bed roll and lay it out flat on the table.  Mark out the shoulder strap size, and cut it out of the foam.  The strap will be 15″ long to the turn, then come out another 7 inches.  The strap has the same shape as in the fabric diagram, but it starts at 3″ wide down to the curve, then tapers down to 2″ wide.  Essentially you want to cut a shoulder strap that fits inside the shape of fabric you cut out, because you will be sewing the fabric together to make a pocket that the padding fits into.  Cut out two of the above shapes, one for each shoulder strap, and set them aside.

sewing shoulder straps

Laying out the shoulder straps for sewing.

Next, lay out your shoulder strap material for sewing with the netting on top of the nylon.  It’s easier to sew with the netting on the top, and you can see each piece.  Sew up the long edges leaving the small ends open, and leave about half an inch of seam on each side.  This way the tube will accept the foam inside it with almost no room to spare.  Again, sew only the long sides, leaving the top and bottom ends open.  The foam will be pushed in through the opening later on in construction.

homemade shoulder straps

Foam inserted into the fabric.

After you have sewn the two pieces together insert the foam through the large opening and make sure it fits properly.  If there are areas that are too tight you can remove stitches and sew again.  If areas are too loose just add more stitching closer together until it slides in nicely and does not move around much.  This part is not super critical, however you need to make sure you have a nice fitting between the pieces.

sewing backpack straps

Sewing the webbing in place.

Trim the excess fabric from the seam allowance down to 1/4″ along both of the sewn sides.  Take some 1/2″ webbing, fold it over the ends of the fabric on the top and bottom, and sew it along both ends.  This will completely cover the seams as well as reinforce the strength of the straps.  Double stitch the webbing in place with the sewing machine, and these straps will be very strong.  The best way to do this is to remove the foam before you attach the webbing, so everything fits into the sewing machine easily.  After it’s sewn onto the straps you can push the foam back inside.

sewing guide

How to sew the webbing.

adding the buckle

Strap with end folded over and sewn into place, and hardware ready for sewing.

Once the webbing is sewn into place, fold over the remaining few inches of extra fabric and sew it along the webbing to lock it and create kind of a pocket around the tip of the foam.  Attach a piece of 1″ strap material to your strap adjuster with the sewing machine, and leave a 3″ tail.  This piece is sewn onto the end of the strap, going through the foam as well as the fabric.  I was unable to sew this with my machine because the foam was very thick.  If sewing by hand, just take the time and make sure you really secure it tightly, because this piece will be under some stress from the pack weight.

Strap adjusters

Placement of the strap adjusters.

Place the strap adjuster like you see it here (except not crooked) and sew it through the foam.  The strap adjuster itself needs to be resting on top the end of the strap like you see it here, do not hang it over the edge.  Spend some time sewing this if you are doing it by hand, and you will never have to worry about it coming loose.  Make both shoulder straps at the same time, and once they are both complete you are ready to move on to the next phase, which is making the hip belt and strap attachments.

Homemade Backpack Cut list

backpack materials layout

Cut list for ultralight backpack.

Here is the cut list for the homemade backpack that I showed in the previous post.  You will need  rip stop nylon fabric, mesh for the pockets, and the two color format I have here is optional.  I did mine with two different colors of nylon because I thought it would look nicer when finished.  I used regular rip stop from a fabric store, which is about 2.2oz per square yard and is only water repellent, not water proof.  I normally carry a garbage bag in my survival kit anyway, so I figured I could get double the mileage if I used it as a pack liner as well.  If you use the 1.3oz silicone coated rip stop nylon called Silnylon, you will reduce the final weight by about an ounce of two, and the bag will be waterproof all by itself.  I went with a slightly stronger nylon because the extra ounce or two is worth it for me to make a stronger bag.

Follow the cut list and get all your material cut out to the correct size.  It’s very important that you cut out everything first, so that you are not trying to get something cut on the fly and mess up the dimensions.  When you have it all cut out, you can lay everything out like you are going to make the bag and it will be easy to identify if you cut something wrong because it will stick out as you look at it.  If you cut on the fly, and sew something together wrong, now you have to tear it apart, and you will possibly have to remake both pieces depending on how easily the stitches came out.  This is a very frustrating process…ask me how I know.

Once you have it all cut out and laid out to check for errors, you are ready to move on to the next phase, which is sewing it all together.  I will have several posts coming where I will detail how to make the straps and hip belt, sew the pockets on with elastic closures, sewing the entire bag together, and finally fitting the hardware.

Homemade Backpack

homemade ultralight backpack

My 11oz. homemade backpack.

Here is my completed homemade backpack that weighs in at 11oz. including the back pad.  I made a few alterations on the fly including adding a 6″ extension collar which pushes my volume calculation to about 4000 cubic inches or about 360 cubic inches per ounce.  It feels very comfortable to wear, sits on my back nicely, and the back pad will make sure I don’t feel the bumps from my gear poking me in the back while I hike.  The total cost of the build was about $30, with $15 coming from fabric and thread, $8 for the blue foam bed roll, and $7 for buckles, strap adjusters, and cord locks.  All the seams are double stitched and in some places triple stitched for strength.  This bag should comfortably hold 20lbs, and based on the fact that my store bought bag was around 3.5 pounds, I just shaved about 2.75lbs off of my load.  Plus, with the extra room in the extension collar I can get bulkier items into the bag without needing to lash anything to the outside.  The pockets are very large so they can hold many of my smaller items, and anything else that I need quick access to.  Lastly, the hip belt is sized so that I can slip my SLR camera case onto it and have immediate access to my camera without having to take off my bag.  This means I will actually take more pictures because all I have to do is open the case, and it wont interrupt the hike.

I will be posting detailed pictures and descriptions on how to make this pack so you can follow along and make one yourself.  I will also provide some cutting diagrams and sizes so you know exactly what to cut out and how to put it together.  If you have basic sewing skills on a sewing machine you can easily put this bag together.  The hardest part is knowing how to assemble it all so when you reverse it the correct sides are facing out, but even if you mess that up, the bag will still hold together and work just fine.  I’m hoping to get this bag out on the trail in the next month or so because it will be cooling down where I live, making hiking much more enjoyable.  I should start posting my instructions in the next few days, so keep a look out.

Ultralight Backpack Design

ultralight backpack

One of my ultralight silnylon backpacks.

When designing your own ultralight equipment for hiking there are several considerations that you must work through prior to actually doing any sewing.  The whole point of making your own gear is to end up with exactly what you want, so before you start working on the pack you must know what that is.  If you are like me, you want a very light pack that still has some of the benefits of a heavier pack, like a roomy interior and durability.  However, you also need to look at things like placement of pockets, lashing points if any, and how you will use your pack.  I like having quickly accessible items on the outside of the pack like maps, GPS, and snacks.  This means in my case that I have to put pockets on the pack, which need to be worked into the design.  I also like to have a haul loop so I can hang my pack rather than lay it on the ground, which is very hard on ultralight fabrics.  You need to consider all of these things before working on the pack itself, so that way when you are done you really have exactly what you want.

backpack materials

1.3oz. silicone coated nylon fabric. (Silnylon)

The main fabric that you will be working with for ultralight pack making is Silnylon.  This is a silicone coated rip-stop nylon that is sold by the yard online.  There is no wrong or right side to the fabric because the silicone is pushed through the fabric to make it water proof.  This is some of the lightest stuff out there right now for making gear, and it weighs 1.3oz per square yard.  There are other grades of silnylon out there too that have different weights, the 2.2oz coated variety being popular as well, though it’s a bit heavier.  Either one will make a great pack as long as you treat it with care.  Ultralight gear by definition is not as rugged as full weight gear, so you will need to be a little nicer to this stuff on the trail.

blue foam

A blue foam bed roll being used for padding.

Another piece of material you can use to make ultralight gear is the standard blue foam bed roll that you can get from any store that sells camping stuff.  The whole thing only weighs about 6oz, but you will only be using a few small pieces cut from it.  It costs about $10 depending on where you go, and is a light and cost effective way to pad shoulder straps and hip belts.  It cuts easily with a scissors, and you can sew through it by hand without much trouble either.  I use this stuff for very light padding in my shoulder straps and for a back pad in the main body of the pack.

To come up with a design it’s best to look to other ultralight packs being made and check out their dimensions.  If you are going ultralight you will not be carrying more than 20 pounds of gear and food, so your pack only has to be able to hold so much.  Plus, as you eat your food you will be constantly shaving weight off the load, possibly ending up with half the weight you started with.  Some ultralight packers do not even put a hip belt on the pack at all because with the lower weight they say it’s not necessary.  I like having a hip belt on there just because it distributes the weight nicer and it takes weight off your shoulders.  Plus, it only adds a few ounces to the total weight of the pack.

The next thing to consider is what you will be carrying and how much room it will take up once it’s packed.  The best way to do this is to gather up everything you would take on a trip plus a couple extra items just to make sure you always have enough room.  Pack these into a store bought backpack or other container of a known volume and see if they fit.  Doing this will help you visualize how much space your items take up.  Once you figure out how much room you need, you can make calculations to determine the size of bag you need to make.  Most packers carry their sleeping bag on the bottom of the bag, so I make my width and depth dimensions just big enough to get my down sleeping bag in it’s compression sack snugly into the bottom.  This way the only dimension I have to worry about is the height of the bag.  If you do some ground work like this, you will ensure that once you are done with a whole day of sewing that the thing you create will be the right size for the job.

backpack hardware

Assorted backpack hardware, strap material and elastic cord.

There are only a few hardware items on an ultralight bag, and these can be bought at most camping stores as well.  You will need a buckle for the hip belt, strap adjusters for your shoulder straps, and a cord lock for the bag opening.  If you want to do a roll top dry bag style closure on the top instead of a drawstring then buy the hardware for that.  Get the smallest items you can that will still do the job for you, but don’t worry about the extra few grams if you need a larger buckle for your hip belt.  It’s better to carry a little more than to break a flimsy buckle and then you can’t use the hip belt at all.  Make sure the buckles and strap adjusters you buy match the width of the strap material too.  You can buy these in sets in most places, so get a one inch set of buckles, strap adjusters, and strap material so they can all work together.  If you are planning on doing pockets on the outside pick up some thin elastic cord that you can sew into the tops of the pockets, which will help keep them closed and keep your gear where it belongs.

Last but not least is picking out a sewing machine.  If you already have one you are ahead of the game, and it will same you some money.  However, even if you have to buy a new machine the cost savings will be recuperated with the very first item you make.  An average sewing machine will cost $75-$125, but if you look at the cost of the average nice backpack you will pay twice that much.  All the machine really needs to have is an adjustment for thread tension, and stitch spacing.  Almost any machine will have these adjustments, which are necessary to ensure good stitching that will not fall out.  After that it’s all just extra stuff that you will most likely never use.  Buy a name brand machine, and if you are on the fence between a $75 and $90 machine, just get the nicer one, it’s worth it.

In the next couple posts I will go into actual construction with dimensions and pictures to help you along the away.  I’m going to be making another pack in the next couple days and will post a complete set of instructions to follow along with.  You will need to understand some things like basic sewing yourself, but if you have used a sewing machine before or just understand the concepts, you will be fine.

First Ultralight Backpack

ultralight backpack

Homemade ultralight backpack.

I have been able to make several pieces of hiking gear over the years, and among those pieces there have been a few backpacks.  Making your own gear gives you the opportunity to make exactly what you want in a piece of equipment, and it also allows you to control the weight.  The pack is one of the big three items that you must carry with you on a backpacking trip, and it’s a good place to start cutting weight.  Some large name brand packs weigh 4-6lbs empty, and other “light” packs can weigh 1-3lbs.  Even shaving a few pounds off this load will put a good dent in how much weight you have to carry around.  If you think about it, the pack itself is completely useless other than a container for your stuff.  Reducing the weight of the container to something more appropriate for its usefulness is a worthwhile goal.

ul pack contents

Items I put into this homemade pack.

My original pack was a Kelty that weighed 6lbs, and then I switched to an REI at just over 3lbs, which is considered light for a several day bag with a full suspension.  I wanted to see just how low I could get the pack weight, so I sewed a large stuff sack with shoulder straps and a hip belt from silnylon.  The straps are not filled with any foam, and neither is the hip belt, but with a load of around 15lbs inside the bag you wont need that much support anyway.  If you want some additional cushioning you can fill the shoulder straps with pieces of a blue foam bed roll cut to shape, and they will add only a couple ounces tops.  There is a draw string closure at the top, and my bag the way you see it is about 3 ounces.

ultralight backpack

Homemade ultralight backpack filled.

Literally everything you see in the second picture (with the exception of the pack itself on the left) fits into this bag.  I use the foam bed roll to form a cylinder shape around the outside of the bag, and then everything else goes inside it.  The foam cushions your back, and it’s actually very comfortable to carry around.

To make this bag all you do is sew together a stuff sack out of Silnylon that is about the size of your normal hiking backpack, then attach shoulder straps and a hip belt to the body of the bag.  Measure your existing pack for shoulder strap and hip belt size and placement, and sew in a draw cord for the top closure.  Reinforce the shoulder strap and hip belt attachment areas with extra silnylon and stitching, and put some webbing on any structural seams inside the bag.  Attach your hip belt buckle, a couple locks on the shoulder straps, and a stopper for the draw cord and you’re done.

I’ll be posting an actual set of plans for this bag very soon, but I promise that if you have made a couple things on the sewing machine before you’ll be fine if you give it a try.  Remember to double stitch and reinforce the hip belt and shoulder strap anchor points too, that way you don’t risk a tear while out on the trail.