Ultralight Backpacking: When Less Is More

Whether you’re a dedicated gram-counter or looking to shave a few pounds off your load, there are plenty of ways you can streamline your backpacking setup. Discover them all in this definitive guide to ultralight backpacking.

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Gram-Counting 101: A Comprehensive Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Looking For The Best Guide To Ultra-Lightweight Backpacking Gear?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • What is ultralight backpacking?
    • How to ultralight backpack
    • What you need to carry (and what you don’t)
    • Recommendations on ultralight backpacking gear, ultralight hiking gear, and ultralight camping gear
    • Lightweight and ultralight backpacking tips and tricks for trimming gear weight

Tired of staring at your friend’s backpack on the trail, while struggling to keep pace? Ever watch ultralight hikers pass you, wondering how they fit all their gear into such a small pack? Do your shoulders scream for mercy every time you hoist your pack upon them for the next leg of the journey? How about going ultralight!

Here we give you complete insight, including key tools and resources, into becoming an ultralight backpacker yourself. We’ll discuss what defines traveling ‘ultralight’, why you should consider the transition, and how best to lose weight from your four core backpacking gear items.

Additionally, we’ll look at weight-saving ways of carrying food, fuel, and water, as well as how to select clothing, shoes, and essentials with this new, ultralight mindset. These skills will help you travel farther, reduce any fatigue experienced on the trail, and increase your overall enjoyment while backpacking. Begin your ultralight transition today!

Do

  • Develop a ‘less is more’ mentality
  • Start weighing your pack before each trip – you can only monitor progress if you know where you’re starting from
  • Focus on reducing weight with the ‘Big 4’ – sleeping pad, bag, shelter, and backpack
  • Decant as much as possible into smaller containers – food, soaps, toothpaste, contact lens solution, etc.
  • Build your skillset: More skills = less gear!

Don’t

  • Eliminate key essentials
  • Sacrifice your overall enjoyment, or level of comfort, in the pursuit of a lighter load

What Is UL Backpacking?

This, newly evolving, category of backpacking involves carrying as little as possible for an overnight, or longer, wilderness excursion. 

Below we define what it means to go ‘ultralight’ but it’s important to understand that achieving this style is mostly a mindset. While there is a range of generally accepted pack weights, how much weight is ideal will be personal to each individual.

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-ExuperyAntoine de Saint-Exupery
Journalist, Writer, and Poet

If you’re already starting to question what is truly needed for a backpacking trip, you are well on your way to becoming an ultralight hiker. Perhaps French novelist, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, said it best, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” That is minimalist backpacking.

While there are examples of historic adventurers limiting what they carry, modern ultralight hiking began not much more than 25 years ago. For most in the 1900s, the traditional backpacker used an external frame pack, with a base pack weight upwards of 45 lbs, and a profile that would often extend well above the user’s head!

Silhouette of hiker with tall backpack on
The evolution of backpacking gear has made it much easier to shed weight yet retain function

As the new century approached, so did a new mindset. Hikers and backpackers began to realize that with a lighter pack, they could significantly increase comfort, all while covering more of the rugged, beautiful terrain they loved. Gear manufacturers took note, and began developing lightweight gear that was smaller, and could perform a multitude of functions, eliminating the need for many traditional backpacking gear items.

How Light Is Ultralight?

As we alluded to above, going UL is mostly a way of thinking, however, there are a few key pack weight milestones that are accepted by most experienced backpackers. A lightweight pack, generally, refers to a pack base weight that is below 20 lbs. Ultralight kit classification is often reserved for those who manage to get their pack base weight below 10 lbs. 

A backpack’s base weight refers to the total weight of a pack, excluding water, food, and fuel. The weight of a fully loaded backpack, and therefore the amount of those three items, will differ significantly based on the length of a trip. Therefore, these are typically disregarded for the sake of weight comparison.

Why Go Ultralight?

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest benefits to making the switch to UL camping, as well as some of the trade-offs:

Benefits

  • Less fatigue
  • Can cover greater distances, particularly good for thru-hikers
  • Simplifies the experience
  • Greater focus on nature, less on your gear
  • Building your skillset

Trade-offs

  • Comfort
  • Investment (UL backpacking gear is expensive)

How To Make The Switch

Whether it’s your head or your shoulders that have convinced you to lighten things up a bit, you know you’re ready for a change. Now what? 

It’s time to fall in love with the process!

Hiker helping another hiker put on heavy backpack
Is the discomfort of those extra pounds on your shoulders all day really worth it?

Accepting that this will take time, experience and money will help with your enjoyment, and likelihood of success in the long run. Some initial losses in pack poundage will be easy, like getting rid of unnecessary gear like that ridiculous (yes…it is) hatchet, or leaving a bulky pillow at home. 

Others may require considerable gear investments, such as replacing a heavier, synthetic sleeping bag with a down-filled quilt, your boots with hiking shoes, or perhaps a new, lightweight tent to replace your 6-pound luxury castle.

Finally, some weight-conscious decisions will only take place after many trips, as you develop a clearer sense of what outdoor gear you are using, or not, while on the trail or in the backcountry.

If you are committed to simplifying your backpacking experience you’ll find that, over time, you will need less and less for an enjoyable journey. There’s also fun to be had in discovering those items that you simply cannot do without. It’s all part of a rewarding process that should, ultimately, lead to one thing: more time spent in the great outdoors!

Backpacker wearing backpack looking out at forest filled mountains
Having less gear can free you up to experience more of the great outdoors

Going Ultralight With The Big 4 + 1

The four items (plus 1) listed below, each essential to your safety and comfort, comprise the biggest sources of weight within your pack (outside of food & water). As a result, they also provide the greatest opportunity for weight savings when looking for ways to shed ounces with UL camp gear. 

Learning to correctly choose the four backpacking gear staples is essential to traveling light. The difference in overall weight to be lost with just these four items can easily be more than eight to ten pounds. And in a world where ounces are often considered as the measure of lightness, that difference is significant!

Shelters

Choosing the best lightweight shelter for your three-season backpacking needs (winter tents designed for snow loading and/or high winds will, inevitably, weigh more) will mainly depend on your comfort level with being exposed to the surrounding environment. 

For those looking to go as light as possible, a tarp will often be your best option for lightweight camping gear. While tarps require more time and skill to set up, they can be erected in a variety of ways to create a solid rain shelter. Often incorporating support from items that you are already carrying, such as using trekking poles as tent poles, and typically weigh less than 1 pound!

A well pitched tarp in a rocky field
Doubling up items such as trekking poles as supports for your tarp is UL backpacking in a nutshell

These weight savings do come at a cost, as you will be more exposed to the environment around you, especially when compared to a traditional, double-walled tent. Wind, rain, or buggy conditions can present challenges for tarp users.

For those that prefer the comfort of being inside a ‘room’ at the end of the day, tarp tents are a great balance of both comfort and weight. They are constructed with a lightweight tarp-style fly, but also provide bug netting, bathtub floors, and mesh inners more similar to a tent. Check out some of our favorites from Tarptent

Hammocks and bivy sacks are two other shelter options popular with UL travelers.

Sleeping Pad

High-quality, lightweight air pads come at a cost ($125 – $200), but they are superb for traveling light and sleeping comfortably. A great budget option, at almost the same weight, is a closed-cell foam pad, like these Ridgecrest models. They are significantly more affordable at less than $40, and only weigh a couple of ounces more than the best air pads.

Many purists will further these weight savings by cutting off the section of the pad where their legs would lay, choosing instead to insulate with a pack or extra camp clothes. 

The foam pads are virtually indestructible and can be used for other purposes, such as a sitting pad in camp. They do tend, however, to be less comfortable than sleeping on 2 inches of air, as you would get with an air pad.

Sleeping Bags

Looking for a quick way to save several pounds with one new piece of gear in your sleep system?

Replacing synthetic sleeping bags with a down-filled sleeping bag will, likely, net you about two pounds or more of weight savings. Natural goose/duck down fibers offer a much better warmth-to-weight ratio than their synthetic counterparts. Down is also more compressible than synthetic which means that not only will it weigh less, it will take up less space within your pack.

If you’re looking for even more sleeping bag weight savings, consider a sleeping quilt. Quilts eliminate the insulation from the backside of a traditional sleeping bag, which when matted down from the weight of your body, doesn’t provide much air-trapping warmth capability anyway.

Camping down quilt lying on a rock
A quilt may save on weight in the right climate but may not be worth the warmth losses in others

If opting for a backpacking quilt, make sure you have a sleeping pad with a decent r-value, since it will be your main source of underside insulation.

Backpack

You’ll notice that we’ve listed the backpack last on this list. Contrary to being the first item purchased, as new backpackers will commonly do, we believe more people would benefit from waiting to purchase their backpack last. With most of your other gear at the ready, this strategy will help you choose the smallest light pack necessary to carry it.

Oftentimes, new backpackers will purchase a 60-75 liter capacity pack upfront, what many feel is necessary for this form of travel, and then subconsciously find ways to fill it. In reality, most ultralight backpackers prefer a pack with 30 – 55 liter capacity unless thru-hiking an epic long-distance route like the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail.

Backpacking gear laid out over a table
It is prudent to know how much gear you have to carry before investing in the backpack to carry it all

The interior frame, suspension, or lack thereof, will be the deciding factors on the weight of your pack. 

Pack’s with more bells and whistles (straps, compartments, zippers, inner frames providing rigidity) will, inevitably, weigh more. Many ultralighters prefer a streamlined ultralight pack, which can save up to 3 pounds. A great trick for creating some rigidity in a light, frameless pack is to slide a sleeping pad up in the back sleeve.

Cooking System

While not considered part of the big four, choosing how you plan to prepare your meals can also have a considerable effect on the overall weight of your pack. 

On shorter trips, it is feasible to plan all cold meals, foregoing the need for a stove, pots, pans, and fuel altogether. Unless cold meal bars are what you dream about when tired and hungry, however, we wouldn’t recommend this strategy.

Propane gas fueling a camp stove in the snow
If backpacking in the snow you’ll likely be willing to carry the weight of a stove to have a hot meal!

If you need to take a stove, options exist that allow you to cut down on weight.

For maximum weight savings, while still preserving the ability to cook or boil water, consider making your own canned-cat-food stove. Jokingly referred to as the fancy feast stove (an ode to the brand name of the cat food) by UL purists, this stove takes advantage of the small space and weight of an empty can of cat food and uses alcohol as fuel. 

To make it simply punch holes around the rim of the can to allow for airflow, fill it with denatured alcohol, and light it with a match. 

Canister stoves, like those made by Snow Peak or MSR, are also incredibly small and lightweight. Unlike alcohol stoves, which have no way to alter the heat output, these models allow you to simmer for additional cooking options. We love the MSR PocketRocket 2 for keeping our backpacking load to a minimum.

Unfortunately, the isobutane canisters necessary for these stoves to function are heavy, difficult to dispose of, and virtually impossible to decant so that you can carry only the fuel you need for a trip.

Integrated stove/pot systems are another fuel-efficient option and are rising in popularity among gram-counting backpackers. Regardless of which stove system and accompanying pots/pans you choose to include, be sure to look for nestable systems, which can store fuel, stove, plates, and bowls all within a small space.

Food & Water: The Ultralight Way

They’re not included as part of a pack’s base weight, so why should you give much thought to carrying water and food? They are heavy, and they come with you on every trip. That’s why.

Water

If you think any old container will work for carrying your water while backpacking, think again. Hard-sided, insulated metal bottles add unnecessary weight to your pack, and unless you are hiking in below freezing temperatures, they are complete overkill.

Instead, look for a plastic Nalgene, or even better, a collapsible water bottle, like these Platypus ones, which weigh only 1 oz! One of our favorite features about collapsibles is the fact that they shrink as you consume water. Dead space, like the empty portion of a water bottle, can be a killer to having a streamlined pack.

Many new backpackers, having been brow-beaten with the importance of hydration while active, will often carry far more water than is needed. To avoid this another way to lighten your pack is to brush up on your map reading and route-planning skills. 

If there are streams, or natural springs, along your intended route of travel, you can carry just enough water to get you to the next refill option. Make sure to do some area research with this approach so that you can be confident waterways will be flowing during the time of year you’ll be hiking.

Water Receptacles

One of the quickest ways for an experienced backpacker to spot a ‘noob’ on the trail, is to walk past someone who has a Nalgene, or other bottle, clipped with a carabiner onto the outside of their pack.

Dangling and swinging wildly with every step affects your pack’s, ever-important, center of gravity. It will also add to the perceived weight on your shoulders as momentum carries it from side to side.

Pro-Tip: Don’t be a noob! Place your bottle securely in the top of your pack, within a mesh pocket, or via compression straps to prevent unnecessary swinging.

Food

Learning to pack food to bring backpacking, while maintaining an UL mindset, is one of those skills that just takes experience. Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing your backpacking food:

  • Prepackaged, freeze-dried meals can be convenient, but they are expensive, and often contain excess material packaging. More experienced backpackers usually opt to not use them, or if they do, repackage them into lighter, sealable bags.
  • Search for calorie-dense foods with healthy fats, such as nuts, bars, cheeses, and yes, luxury items like CHOCOLATE!
  • Avoid any jars or large items that don’t offer much nutritionally. Apples, for example, are heavy, large, contain mostly moisture, and offer very few calories, which are needed on the trail. Great for a snack at home, but rather useless for lightweight hikers.
  • Decant as many things as possible into smaller containers. Don’t bring a full bottle of syrup, or honey, when you will only be using 2 ounces.
  • Calculate a food-per-day allowance and try to stick to it on your trip.

Ultralight Footwear, Clothing, And Rain Gear

Footwear

Despite the, rather obvious, beating your feet take over multiple days of hiking rugged terrain, footwear selection for backcountry adventures is often overlooked. 

A closer look at the footwear worn by today’s lightweight backpackers and thru-hikers will reveal one of the biggest shifts in trail ideology over the last 10 years: A shift from the traditional high-top boot toward a lightweight hiking shoe or trail runner.

Man walking in trail runners
The advancement of hiking footwear now often sees UL backpackers opting for trail runners over hiking boots

Like many others, my first hiking shoe was a waterproof, leather, mid-style (coverage above the ankle) hiking boot. Upon reading Andrew Skurka’s, National Geographic’s 2007 Adventurer of the Year, book ‘The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide’, I soon made the switch to trail runners and have never looked back. 

Lightweight shoes leave you feeling more agile, reduce the strain on your knees, and dry quicker than a traditional, leather boot. Experienced backpackers will gladly confirm that 1 extra lb. on your feet can be the equivalent of 5 lbs. on your back!

Clothing

Perhaps the best way to save poundage with clothing is to familiarize yourself with the 3-layer system of thermo-regulating. With just three items (base layer, mid-layer, and shell), you can prepare yourself for drastic changes in temperature, which are common whilst spending several days in wild places.

Pro-Tip: Packing Clothes

Test the compression capability of your layers, before packing them, by bunching them into a ball. Some rain jackets and insulation layers are far more compressible than others, making them ideal for those times when they are in your pack and not on your body.

The Essentials Of The UL Backpacking Gear List

In the search for creative ways to reduce pack weight, don’t be tempted to leave the important stuff at home. Smart backpackers will make sure to carry these gear items every time. Here are some tips to save poundage, all while still making sure you’re covered in an emergency.

Backpacking Gear List

  • Shelter – Adapt your shelter of choice to the environment. Warm forecast, with no chance of rain? You may not need much more than a bivy or pad.
  • Water – Know your route. Only carry as much as you need to between water sources. Avoid metal bottles.
  • Food – Carry only what you’ll eat per day plus one contingency meal. Nothing more.
  • First Aid Kit – Only carry what you know how to use. Learn to utilize resources at hand to save weight (e.g. Don’t take a splint if you know how to fashion one from a pad or pole)
  • Navigation – Learn to use a map & compass. Heavy electronic GPS units are seldom necessary. Also, only carry map sections you are using. There’s no need for a 75-page map book on the entire A.T. if you are only doing a 45-mile section hike.
  • Illumination – Headlamps are ideal. Lanterns are heavy, and often challenging to manage with one hand.
  • Fire – Luckily, matches/lighters are already lightweight.
  • Insulation – Versatility is key. Proper layering results in minimal clothing needed for a wide range of temperatures. Also, invest in a nice pair of antimicrobial, quick-dry underwear, and stop bringing a new pair for every day!
  • Sunscreen & Bug spray – Remember how we talked about decanting your food into smaller containers? Apply that same principle here. Carry only what you will use.
  • Tools – A small, folding camping knife, or multi-tool, is plenty sufficient. Save axes, hatchets, guns, and larger knives for car camping… or zombie apocalypses.

Cleaning & Hygiene

Keeping clean while backpacking can do wonders for your psyche after a long, hard day. That doesn’t mean you need to pack the bathroom sink to make it happen. Small bottles of biodegradable soap provide a multitude of uses, from washing dishes, your hands, or your hair.

Instead of bringing a standard tube of toothpaste, purchase a small travel version next time you’re at the grocery store. Snapping your toothbrush handle in half is another surefire way to earn respect amongst the UL community.

Finally, if you are unlucky enough to deal with contact lenses in the backcountry (trust me, I know), make sure to decant your large bottle of lens solution into a small dropper bottle for additional weight savings. 

Final Thoughts

The commitment to traveling lighter while exploring the beautiful world around you is an exciting transition. Challenging previously held notions of what is truly needed to survive, and thrive, can provide some powerful reflection. While going lighter will certainly give you new skills, let you travel further, and enjoy your trips more, don’t lose sight of what you value most while out on the trail. 

Are backcountry, gourmet meals one of your favorite aspects of backpacking? Then, by all means, carry extra cookware, such as a frying pan, that allows you to do this. If you are a light sleeper and rely on the extra comfort of an air pad should you bring a foam pad to save a few ounces? Hell no!

Ultimately, stay true to what makes the experience enjoyable for you, regardless of the pack weight. After all, the whole point of heading into these wild, scenic places is to have fun!

How did you like our guide to ultralight backpacking? Do you know of any ultralight gear we missed out? If so, or if you have any other questions or comments, please drop them in the comments box below! And if you’d like to share this post with your friends, share away!

Last update on 2022-10-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico.

His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!

1 thought on “Ultralight Backpacking: When Less Is More”

  1. I have attempted to use trail runners as my go-to shoe through two pair (972mi). They were okay-to-good, but the onset fatigue that accumulated through day after day micro injuries led me to using boots again.

    If I am fatigued, the higher angle will support me if I’m rolling my ankle. The cushion with my Hokas lead to less muscle AND bone injuries. When you’re doing more than seven days in a row, these things add up!

    This and inflatable sleeping pillows are the things that keep me from remaining in misery when doing extended trips!

    Reply

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