Ultralight Backpacking: Gear Advice for Trail-Hardened Backpackers and Newbies Alike
Looking to lighten the load on your backpacking trips?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- Why you should consider transitioning to ultralight gear
- A checklist of all the items you need for a thru-hike or multi-day backpacking trip
- Further tips on how to reduce pack weight
- Our list of ultralight backpacking gear recommendations
We’ve been ultralight backpacking for 1000s of miles. The main gear lesson we’ve learned in that time? Lighter is better!
You don’t have to have the newest, lightest gear to have awesome outdoor adventures, of course. However, putting together an ultralight backpacking gear list that helps you make your load a bit lighter is something we’re sure your back, legs, and most of the rest of you will be grateful for!
Whether you’re gearing up for a 2,000+ mile epic thru-hiking adventure or going out for a simple weekend wander, perfecting your ultralight backpacking gear setup will allow you to go farther and faster. You’ll have fewer injuries and cuss a whole lot less, too.
To help you achieve this blissful state of being, in this ultimate ultralight backpacking gear list we’ll cover everything you need to know to shave pounds off your pack!
At a Glance: Key Takeaways
- Save with the “Big Four” – Biggest weight savings are your tent, backpack, sleeping pad and bag
- Lose weight, not money – You don’t have to spend big to go UL
- Go dense with calories – High-calories foods are the way to go
- Back to basics – Leave the stuff sacks, tent slippers, camp shoes, and teddy bears at home
Ultralight Backpacking Gear: the Essentials
The Big Four: Backpack, Shelter, Sleeping Bag, and Sleeping Pad
As the most substantial items in your backpacking kit, your big four are going to impact your overall base weight the most. This is where you should focus to make your pack as light as possible. The big four are also the most expensive items in a backpacking setup. Do your homework before you make any purchasing decisions.
Even though it’s listed here first, you should wait to buy a backpack until you know exactly what’s going in it. This way you’ll know what volume pack you need.
Most ultralight backpackers will use somewhere between a 30 and 50-liter pack. Ultralight packs in this size range between about 1 to 2 pounds. Most of these still have a hipbelt and minimal internal frame. The lightest of the lightweight packs will only have shoulder straps, and no frame at all.
We’re big fans of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack, a lightweight, durable pack with a frame and hipbelt.
Most packs have a DWR coating. If you’re anticipating gnarly weather, however, carrying a lightweight rain cover is a good idea.
First things first. Before choosing what shelter to get, you’ll have to decide what type of shelter system to go with.
A tarp is the lightest, most packable, and most affordable option. Bear in mind, however, that a tarp won’t provide any bug protection – you’ll at least need a head net.
Our favorite tarp is the Six Moon Designs Deschutes tarp. This shelter has a door, so you’ll get 360-degree storm protection, but no floor.
If you need bug protection and want to be able to pitch your tent on rock, choose a freestanding tent like the Nemo Hornet Elite.
Freestanding tents are the heaviest kind of backpacking tent. However, they’re the easiest to use and most versatile. They’re great if you want to leave your tent set up at base camp while going on day hikes, if you don’t use trekking poles, or if you’re bikepacking.
Trekking pole tents, or non-freestanding tents, are a nice compromise between the ultra-minimalist tarp and heavier freestanding tents.
These tents are usually single-walled, meaning they don’t have a separate rainfly and bug net. They’re held up by the same hiking sticks you use to walk with and tension created by your tent stakes and guylines. They provide good protection from bugs and storms, and they’re generally easier to use than a tarp.
One of our favorites of this kind is the Tarptent Aeon Lithium. It’s pricey, but it only weighs 17 ounces. For a fully-enclosed one-person shelter, that ain’t bad. Plus, the Dyneema Composite Fiber material it’s made of is unparalleled in storm-worthiness and is surprisingly durable.
You’ll also want a groundsheet like a lightweight polycro ground cover, especially if you’re using a tarp.
Your sleeping bag will be what keeps you warm on cold mountain nights. A lot of ultralighters will opt for a quilt over a bag. Quilts can be up to a half pound lighter than an ultralight bag. And more importantly, quilts are generally less expensive than ultralight sleeping bags because they have no zipper, which means they’re easier to sew.
The only downside to quilts is that they have no material on their underside, so you’ll be relying on your sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground.
Whether you choose a sleeping bag or quilt, down will work better than synthetic insulation for most applications. Down compresses more than synthetic insulation. Given that your sleeping bag or quilt is the bulkiest item in your kit, there are serious space savings to be made.
Packability is important here. Using a waterproof stuff sack with a down bag is a great option for wet-weather backpacking.
To round out your sleep system, you’ll need a sleeping pad. This is responsible for keeping you comfortable while you sleep on the hard ground and insulating you from underneath. Our favorite inflatable sleeping pad is the Thermarest NeoAir Xlite. For other options, check out our buyer’s guide for the best sleeping pad for backpacking.
Inflatable pads generally have the highest R-value (the value used to measure the pad’s thermal resistance or insulation). The Xlite has an R-value of 4.2. But, you’ll need a patch kit for your inflatable pad, because it isn’t going to insulate much if it’s punctured!
Some UL hikers prefer closed-cell foam pads, like the Nemo Switchback, over inflatables.
Foam sleeping pads can’t be punctured, but most don’t find them as comfortable as inflatable pads. They aren’t as warm, either. Closed-cell foam pads usually have an R-value of about 2, which is unlikely to provide enough insulation in the shoulder season. Foam pads don’t pack down as small, either, so you’ll likely have to strap yours to the top of your pack.
Trail Running Shoes
A lightweight pair of trail running shoes with a wide toe box is a great gear choice for ultralight backpacking. Trail runners are lighter than hiking boots or shoes, and they breathe better. More breathable means less sweaty feet, which means fewer blisters!
When walking all day, especially in hot weather, your feet tend to swell. This is why a wider shoe is best for backpacking. The peeps here at My Open Country are all huge fans of the Hoka Speedgoat. They come in wide sizes, are oh-so-comfortable, and can last well over 500 miles.
Everyone’s feet are different, so be sure to break your trail runners in to make sure they fit comfortably before wearing them on a backpacking trip.
A good pair of thin wool socks will stink the least at the end of a backpacking trip. Most people bring only 2 pairs of socks, one to wear and extra socks to sleep in.
Our favorites? These lightweight merino hiking socks from Darn Tough.
Wear a shirt that you find comfortable. You’ll be wearing this all day and maybe all night as well. Synthetic materials will dry the quickest and wool will keep you warmer as you sweat. Avoid cotton or rayon as these perform poorly when wet. A shirt with a high UV protection factor, like REI Co-op Sahara Long-Sleeve Shirt, is recommended for summertime backpacking.
Running shorts are great because they dry quickly and are comfortable in warm weather. They’re also easy to put layers over. And since they dry so quickly, shorts double as your swimsuit bottoms. Good thing, because ultralight means you aren’t bringing extra clothing, and that lake looks prime for a dip!
A good lightweight backpacking gear list always includes a down jacket or synthetic insulation puffy jacket. This piece of clothing will have the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any in your kit and is great for hanging out on chilly summits or on cold nights.
Down jackets will pack smaller, but you can use a synthetic puffy as an active layer since it will still insulate when it gets wet from your sweat. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a hood if you’re using a quilt.
Our favorite down jacket is the Enlightened Equipment Torrid Jacket, which weighs just 8.4 oz.
Though not essential, a windbreaker is a versatile active layer that you can quickly take on or off. An ultralight wind jacket only weighs a couple of ounces (less weight than some pairs of socks!). Using a windbreaker will also make your rain jacket last longer since you won’t be using the layer you rely on to keep you dry to block the wind.
We like the Patagonia Houdini as an ultralight and packable layer. This jacket’s so small it will even fit in a hip belt pocket.
Rain gear is not one category in which we recommend you go all out to save weight. Even if the forecast calls for nothing but blue skies, you should still bring a waterproof jacket along – storms are unpredictable in wilderness areas far away from weather stations and, as we all know, weather forecasting ain’t an exact (and reliable) science!
Choose a jacket that is as light as possible while still providing good weather protection. Breathability is important, but nothing that will keep you dry in a downpour is going to excel in this metric. For this reason, look for storm worthiness first and foremost.
Waterproof pants are great in cold, wet conditions, but incredibly sticky in warm weather. Look for pants that have ankle zips so you can easily take them off or put them on without removing your shoes or boots. Another warm-weather rain gear option for your legs is a rain skirt. These provide much more breathability than pants, and are incredibly fashionable!
To keep your pack weight down, consider using wind pants instead of waterproof pants. These will work as a warming layer for your legs, but aren’t waterproof.
Long Underwear is nice to keep you warm and cozy while you’re sleeping. Look for long underwear that is as light as possible while still being comfortable. You’ll mainly be sleeping in these so they’ll be on your back all day.
Sleeping in tights also helps to keep your down sleeping bag clean. And a clean bag means a warmer bag. Remember, dirty, oil-covered down won’t insulate as well.
Gloves are nice for chilly mornings and at night. Get gloves that will allow you to use your hands. That is, ones that are dexterous and, ideally, touch screen compatible, too, because you might want to use your phone to check your GPS location or take a picture while wearing them.
A lightweight fleece beanie is great for keeping your noggin warm when the temperature drops. Our favorite is the REI Polartec.
Cooking System & Kit
A hot meal is nice at the end of the day and on chilly mornings. Get a backpacking stove that either burns isobutane or alcohol as fuel, as these are the most weight-efficient.
Round out your cook kit with an ultralight pot between 500-1000 ml and a lightweight eating utensil, like a spork. Make sure your pot has a lid–that will help you conserve fuel. We think the Toaks Titanium 750 mL pot is a great choice.
Isobutane stoves, also known as canister stoves, are light, efficient, and easy to use. However, the canisters can be hard to come by in some areas and they’re very loud. We’ve used the same MSR Pocket Rocket 2 for hundreds of nights on the trail and it’s never done us wrong, unless you consider the fact that it sounds like a rocket ship.
Alcohol stoves are cheap, you can make them yourself, and they’re very quiet. With an alcohol stove, you can find fuel anywhere that sells denatured alcohol or yellow Heet. That means you can find fuel just about anywhere there’s a gas station.
However, alcohol stoves don’t boil water as fast as canister stoves and they’re not allowed in areas with an active fire ban. If you’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or somewhere equally as dry, therefore, you shouldn’t plan on using an alcohol stove.
Food and water are going to be the heaviest things you carry with an ultralight setup. For food, try to only pack food that is at least 100 calories per ounce to keep your total weight down.
You’ll need about 3000 calories of food per day. The more dense bars, nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate you can pack (and eat!), the less your food will weigh. If you’re good about carrying high-calorie foods, you can likely get away with slightly under 2 pounds of food per day.
As far as food storage goes, you’ll want a lightweight and strong food bag that fits up to 5 days’ worth of food. We think the Granite Gear Air Zippsack is great because it’s cube-shaped and zips open from the top. This allows you to see all your food when you open up the bag.
A lot of people also like DCF food bags because they’re lighter, but you’ll have to dig around in that vertically oriented bag to find those peanut M&Ms.
When storing your food at night, use an Ursack if camping in bear country. They’re the lightest and most packable bear-resistant food storage option available. Do note, however, that Ursacks aren’t allowed in places that require a hard-side bear canister.
You can also do a bear hang with your food, but a good bear hang can be difficult to do properly in places without the right kinds of trees.
Water Storage and Filtration/Purification
Using a lightweight water bottle with standard 28 mm threads and a Sawyer Squeeze water filter is the easiest way to store and filter water. This kind of water filter threads on the top of the water bottle, so you can just scoop water into the bottle and filter as you go.
Using clear plastic water bottles stored in your pack’s side pockets makes the water easy to access and allows you to quickly see how much you have. Some people like the convenience of drinking from a hydration bladder, but it isn’t as convenient when you have to pull it out of your pack to refill it.
Tech and Gadgets
Even though you’ll be in the wilderness, technology can enhance the experience. Load GPS maps onto your phone to navigate, but be sure to bring paper maps and a compass for backup. Bring an SOS beacon or a Garmin Inreach Mini, which allows you to send and receive messages from anywhere and call for help if sh*t goes south.
Some optional technology that’s really nice to have are headphones and a camera (though you can opt to just use your phone for pictures and listen to birdsong!).
To keep everything charged, pack a portable battery pack. Something with 10,000 milliamps will give you 2-3 charges on a standard phone. This should last you at least 5 days if you’re using your phone in airplane mode and not taking a lot of videos. The Nitecore 10000 MaH power bank is less than 6 ounces and has quick charge capabilities.
First Aid Kit
This one’s important, but don’t go crazy with the first aid supplies either. You can buy a first aid kit, or assemble one yourself. You should definitely have clean gauze squares, some tape (leukotape is a magical multi-use medical tape), antibiotic ointment, and antibacterial wipes at a bare minimum.
To stay fresh out there, bring a toothbrush, toothpaste or tooth powder, dental floss, and hand sanitizer. Cut down a bamboo toothbrush for maximum weight savings. Don’t bring soap, even biodegradable soap – it’s extra weight and is bad for wild waterways.
Every ultralight backpacking gear list should include trekking poles. They can save you from taking a spill during water crossings, keep your joints happier, and even double as tent poles.
Carbon fiber trekking poles are the lightest and strongest option available. Be sure to get adjustable trekking poles so you can fit them exactly to your height. Folding trekking poles like these are easier to pack away when you don’t need them, but generally don’t have as wide of a range of adjustability.
Ultralight Backpacking Gear List: Checklist of Essential Items
- Ultralight backpack
- Waterproof pack liner or cover
- Shelter system (tent, tarp, or bivy)
- Groundsheet (Tyvek or Polycro)
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag or quilt
- Pillow (optional)
- Cook pot
- Eating utensil
- Food and meals
- Food storage system
- Water bottles
- Water filter
- Puffy jacket
- Baselayer tights
- Fleece midlayer (cold weather only)
- Rain jacket
- Rain pants or wind pants
- SPF lip balm
- Sleep socks
- Trekking poles
- Phone with GPS maps
- Map and compass
- Battery pack
- Small pocket knife or scissors
- Tent/sleep system repair kit
- Wireless charging bank
- First aid kit
- Matches or emergency fire starter
- Lightweight trowel
- Toilet paper or baby wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Pee funnel with pee cloth (optional for women)
Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking
- Travel faster and further
- Makes going uphill much easier
- Fewer injuries
- Save your shoulders and legs (and be the envy of fellow trailgoers with huge packs)
- More room for eats and water
- A small, ultralight pack can be brought as your “personal item” on those cheap airlines that charge for carry-on luggage
Ultralight Backpacking FAQs
What is Ultralight Backpacking?
Clean socks and shirt every day? No way! Camp chair? Forget about it!
Ultralight backpacking is backpacking with only the bare essentials. Ultralight backpackers wear clothing more akin to trail running than traditional backpacking garb because ultralight backpacking puts more focus on distance and speed.
But distance and speed aren’t the only benefits of going ultralight. If you have a lightweight pack and are wearing lightweight clothes, you’ll likely be more comfortable. And being more comfortable means you’ll have more fun!
Ultralighters often end up hiking for a longer portion of the day than traditional backpackers. If you didn’t pack a book or games for camp, you’ll probably end up waiting to set up camp until later, so put in more miles on the trail. You’ll also, of course, have more gas in the tank so putting in those miles won’t be such an issue.
Since ultralight backpacking usually means hiking farther every day, it’s very popular with thru-hikers. If you’re considering a journey on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or some other epic long trail, you should seriously consider going ultralight to avoid setting yourself up for a sufferfest as opposed to something enjoyable.
What is Base Weight?
Your base weight is the weight of your pack and all the gear inside it, not including food, water, and other consumable items such as stove fuel. Use a nifty tool like Lighterpack to calculate your base weight and see how and where you can shave off your base weight.
Tarp or Tent?
A quality ultralight tent, however, will provide more coverage than a tarp, both from storms and bugs.
Both tarps and tents have advantages and drawbacks.
Tarps are the most economical option for a lightweight backpacking shelter. Tarps pack down much smaller than a tent and weigh less, but they won’t protect you from bugs or other critters. Tarps won’t provide quite as robust storm protection, either. Tents are generally more expensive than tarps, weigh more, and don’t pack down as small.
A well-pitched tarp will keep you dry in heavy rains. There are bug net options for tarp campers as well, but adding a bug net to a tarp setup often means it begins to approach the weight of a quality lightweight tent. A big part of ultralight backpacking is getting used to being out in the elements, and sleeping under a tarp embraces this modus operandi fully.
Another important distinction to make here is between freestanding and non-freestanding tents.
A freestanding tent doesn’t require stakes to set up and uses tent poles specific to that tent. These tents are usually dome-shaped and are double-walled, meaning they have separate rainfly and bug net/canopy layers. A freestanding tent can be pitched in places where you couldn’t pitch a non-freestanding tent or tarp, too.
Non-freestanding tents are basically tarps with a door, a floor, and some bug netting added. Generally, they use hiking poles as tent poles and require stakes to pitch. These tents are generally much lighter than freestanding tents, but they’re also much more prone to condensation than their double-walled counterparts.
Choosing whether to use a tarp or tent comes down to personal preference. There are lots of different models out there, too, so you might want to try both options to see which one you like more.
What Size Backpack Do I Need?
You need a backpack that fits your torso length, first and foremost.
As far as capacity goes, you need a backpack that will fit all your gear with 10-15 liters more room for food and other extras. This means you should buy your backpack after you’ve bought all the rest of your gear to avoid buying one that’s too small.
Higher volume packs usually have higher weight capacities, too. That means if you’re going on longer trips you should get a bigger backpack to fit and carry all the food and gear you’ll need. Remember, five, six, or seven days’ worth of food weighs a lot!
Ultralight Backpacking Tips
- Lighter gear isn’t always the answer, sometimes you just have to bring less stuff
- Dental floss can double as thread if you need to do any field repairs. Pack a single needle somewhere safe to use with floss
- Save weight by bringing fewer stuff sacks – your backpack is one big stuff sack already
- Use a website like Lighterpack to digitally organize all your gear
- Ultralight gear can be expensive and it’s hard to know what works for you without trying it out, so buy used. There is an ultralight community on Reddit for buying and selling used ultralight backpacking gear.
We hope this gear list for ultralight backpacking helps you reduce your pack weight. Most importantly, we hope it helps you get out there and have some fun UL outdoor adventure!
Did we miss any of your favorite pieces of gear? Have a question? Leave it in the comments box below. As always, if you liked this article, feel free to share it with a friend!