What is Ultralight Backpacking?
This, newly evolving, category of backpacking involves carrying as little as possible for an overnight, or longer, wilderness excursion. While we help define what it means to go ‘ultralight’ below, it’s important to first understand that achieving this style is mostly a mindset. While there are generally accepted pack weight ranges, the idea of a lightweight pack is entirely subjective. You’re ultralight might be someone else’s heavy.
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take awayAntoine de Saint-Exupery
Journalist, Writer and Poet
If you are 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 of the 1900’s, backpacking consisted of external frame packs, weighing upwards of 45 lbs, with a profile that would, often, extend well above the user’s head!
As the new century approached, so did a new mindset. Hikers and backpackers began to realize, that with lighter packs, they could increase comfort significantly, all while covering more of the rugged, beautiful terrain that they loved. Gear manufacturers took note, and began developing products that were smaller, lighter, and could perform a multitude of functions, eliminating the need for many gear items traditionally associated with backpacking.
How light is ultralight?
As we alluded to above, going ultralight is mostly a way of thinking, however, there a few key pack weight milestones that are accepted by most experienced backpackers. A lightweight pack, generally, refers to a pack base weight below 20 lbs. The ultralight classification is often reserved for those who manage to get their pack base weights below 10 lbs.
A backpack’s base weight refers to the total weight of a pack, excluding water, food, and fuel. The amount, and therefore weight, of those three items, differs significantly based on the length of a trip, and so are typically disregarded for the sake of level comparison.
Why Go Ultralight?
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest benefits to making the switch to ultralight camping, as well as some of the trade-offs:
- Less fatigue
- Cover greater distances, particularly good for thru-hikers.
- Simplifies the experience
- More focus on nature, less on your gear
- Building your skill set
- Investment (ultralight 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!
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 weight will be easy, like getting rid of that ridiculous (yes…it is) hatchet, or leaving a bulky pillow at home. Others may require considerable gear investments, such as replacing your heavier, synthetic sleeping bag, with a down-filled quilt, 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 you are using, or not, while on the trail or in the backcountry.
If you are committed to simplifying your backpacking experience, you will 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!
Going Ultralight with the Big 4 + 1
The four items listed below, each of which is 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. Learning to correctly choose these 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 in excess of eight to ten pounds. And in a world where ounces are often considered as the measure of lightness, that difference is significant!
Choosing the best lightweight shelter for your three-season backpacking needs (winter tents designed for snow loading &/or high winds will, inevitably, weigh more) will mainly depend on your comfort level with being exposed to the environment. For those looking to go as light as possible, a tarp will often be your best option. While tarps require more time and skill to set up, they can be erected in a variety of ways, often incorporate support from items that you are already carrying, such as trekking poles and typically weigh less than 1 pound!
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, myself included, 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 ultralight travelers.
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, are closed-cell foam pads, like these Ridgerest models seen here. They are significantly more affordable at less than $40, and only weigh a couple 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 clothing. 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 with an air pad.
Looking for a quick way to save several pounds with one new piece of gear? Replacing your synthetic sleeping bag with a down-filled version will, likely, net you over 2lbs 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 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. 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.
You’ll notice that we’ve listed the backpack last on this list. Contrary to being the first item purchased, as is commonly the case with new backpackers, we believe more people would benefit from waiting to purchase their backpack. With most of your other gear at the ready, this strategy will help you choose the smallest pack necessary to carry it.
Often times, 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.
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 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 in the back sleeve.
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, I wouldn’t recommend this strategy.
For maximum weight savings, while still reserving the ability to cook or boil water, consider making your own alcohol, canned, cat food stove. Jokingly referred to as the fancy feast stove (an ode to the brand name of the cat food) by ultralight purists, this stove takes advantage of the small space and weight of an empty can of cat food. Simply punch holes around the rim to allow for air flow, fill 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. Unfortunately, the isobutane canisters, necessary for these stoves to function, are heavy, difficult to dispose of, and virtually impossible to decant only the fuel you need for a trip.
Integrated stove/pot systems are another fuel efficient option, rising in popularity among weight-conscious 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.
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 my favorite features about collapsibles, of which I own several, 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.
Another way to lighten your pack is to brush up on your map reading, and route planning skills. Many new backpackers, who have been stressed the importance of hydration while active, will often carry far more water than is actually needed. 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 will be hiking.
Pro Tip: 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, this will affect 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.
Don’t be a noob! Place your bottle securely in the top of your pack, within a mesh pocket, or via compression straps, that prevent this unnecessary swinging.
Learning to pack food to bring backpacking, while maintaining an ultralight mindset, is one of those skills that just takes experience. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- 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 high-calorically dense foods with healthy fats, such as nuts, bars, cheeses, and yes, 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 backpacking.
- 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.
Ultralight Footwear, Clothing, and Rain Gear
Despite the, rather obvious, beating your feet take throughout multiple days of hiking through rugged terrain, footwear selection for backpacking is often overlooked. A closer look at the footwear worn by today’s lightweight backpackers will reveal one of the biggest shifts in trail ideology over the last 10 years: A shift from the traditional high-top boot, in favor of a lighter minimalist hiking shoe, or trail runner.
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 agiler, 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!
Perhaps the best way to save weight with clothing is to familiarize yourself with the 3 layer system of thermo-regulating. With just three items, you can prepare yourself for drastic changes in temperature, common whilst spending several days in a wild place.
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.
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 items every time. Here are some tips to save weight, while still making sure you’re covered in an emergency.
- Shelter – Adapt your shelter choice to the environment. Warm forecast, with no chance of rain? May not need much more than a bivy, or pad.
- Water – Know your route. Only carry what is needed between water sources. Avoid metal bottles
- Food – Carry only what you’ll eat + 1 contingency meal. Nothing more.
- Medical Kit – Only carry what you know how to use. Learn to utilize resources at hand to save weight (ex. Don’t need a splint if you know how to fashion one from a pad or pole)
- Navigation – Learn to use map & compass. Heavy electronic GPS units are seldom necessary. Also, only carry map sections you are using. No need for 75-page map book on 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 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 in order 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 ultralight community.
Finally, if you are unlucky enough to deal with contacts 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.
The commitment to traveling lighter, while exploring the beautiful world around you, is an exciting transition. Challenging previous notions of what is truly needed to survive, and thrive, can provide powerful reflection. While going lighter will certainly give you new skills, allow you to travel further, and enjoy it more along the way, don’t lose sight of what you value most while on the trail.
Are backcountry, gourmet meals one of your favorite aspects to backpacking? Then, by all means, carry extra cookware, such as a frying pan, that allows you to do this. Is it worth a full night’s sleep, that you get from carrying a dedicated pack pillow, as opposed to just shoving clothes in a bag and waking up with a sore neck every day? Of course!
I bring a folding, camp chair (almost 2 pounds!) on every backpacking trip because the added comfort of being able to relax in camp is worth the extra weight for me.
Ultimately, stay true to what makes the experience enjoyable for you, regardless of the weight. After all, the whole point of heading in to these wild, scenic places is to have fun!