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Ultralight-curious? Want to make the leap without making sacrifices? Meet your gateway drug. The Deuter Aircontact Ultra ($240) impressed us with a smart balance of weight, features, and durability. Plenty of sub-three-pound packs skimp on capacity and comfort. The Aircontact Ultra doesn’t. We stuffed the main pack bag with 45 pounds, including several bottles of champagne for a surprise marriage proposal in the Alaskan backcountry. Credit the load carry to a unique frame shape: a spring steel wire runs down the center and around the perimeter of the back panel. Because this geometry traces both the vertical curvature of the spine and the lateral curve of the hips, it transfers 70 percent of the load to the hipbelt while still permitting enough torsional flexibility for the pack to move with you. The rest of the weight is distributed across the padded shoulder straps, which are suspended by carabiners to absorb jostling. Because the frame’s unique 3D contouring adds stability, Deuter was able to slim it down to ultralight two-millimeter steel without sacrificing strength.
As for features, two half-liter hipbelt pockets each hold sunscreen, lip balm, and a couple granola bars. A voluminous top lid and easy-to-reach side pockets grant midstride gear access, and modular compression straps can secure a sleeping pad to the bottom. There’s also a mesh shove-it sleeve, which meant less time packing and more time on our feet—something neither we nor the Ultra ever tired of: the pack’s 200-denier polyamide ripstop material has survived over 240 miles of testing, including ten days of Alaskan bushwhacking and five days of Panamanian jungle thrashing, without any holes. Note: the Aircontact Ultra comes in a 55-liter unisex version and a 50-liter SL version for women and men with small torsos. 2.7 lbs (unisex)/ 2.6 lbs (women’s)