The Ultimate Guide to Ultralight Backpacking

Backpackers take on the challenge of long, overnight hiking in the wilderness for many reasons, yet most of these hikers likely share the goal of experiencing the serenity and purity of the backcountry, away from the rat race and the overabundance of stuff. The irony of that reasoning is that many backpackers end up sweating and suffering along the trail, weighed down by heavy, overstuffed packs that contain a lot of stuff they don’t really need to be safe, comfortable and happy in the great outdoors.

Think about the last time you went backpacking—did you hobble into camp at the end of the day, exhausted and aching from the 30 or more pounds on your back, straining your neck and shoulders? Were there ways you could have reduced the amount of gear that you brought? Your first thought might be “but I need all that gear!” That’s a normal reaction, but not necessarily true. Ultralight backpacking, defined as hiking with a pack whose base weight is about 10–12 pounds or less, has drawn more and more hikers to shed their heavy loads for strategically chosen gear combinations that reduce excess of both weight and supplies.

The secret to successfully traveling ultralight boils down to having the right kind of versatile, adaptable gear and, just as critically, to shifting your mindset. The process of achieving both can feel daunting at first, but undergoing the task of researching different products, reviewing others’ tips for light and ultralight backpacking, and weighing (literally and mentally) each one is worth the time and effort because in the end you will know exactly what you need to survive happily and comfortably in the backcountry without a single extra ounce to weigh you down. The less you carry, the better—hiking should be about getting closer to nature and freeing oneself from the vestiges of modern society, rather than about carrying all that baggage along into the wilderness.

Check out our Ultralight Backpacking Essentials Checklist

Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking

Hiking with a light load means that unstable terrain and long distances are much easier, more comfortable and ultimately safer, due to a reduced chance for injury caused by strain or being thrown off balance. The ability to navigate alternate routes, often on unstable terrain, is ultimately more feasible and safer with an ultralight pack than with a traditional heavy backpack, since you wont be as likely to get thrown off balance by the extra weight. Without such a heavy backpack, you can also walk farther for longer, with less of a need to stop for food and rest.

Beyond the physical benefits of ultralight backpacking, the experience of hiking and camping overnight in the wilderness is enhanced by the freedom of simplicity. Traveling with less frees you up to enjoy more of your body’s own movements (especially with less pain) and the environment surrounding you, without having to keep track of so many belongings. When it comes time to set up a cooking system or a place to sleep for the night, the process is streamlined, requiring fewer pieces of gear and less time. Cleaning up and packing up becomes much less burdensome too.

Ultralight backpacking doesn’t just take weight off your shoulders and back muscles—it can shift your thinking, constantly challenge you, and turn you into an expert problem solver. The need for inventive solutions means that you must be flexible, ready to shift with fluctuating conditions, and able to think on your feet. It means having an open mind to imagine new and expanded uses for single items that you might normally carry in the form of multiple pieces.

How to Pack Ultralight

Once you’ve chosen your gear, it’s time to put it all together in your pack. Get out that pencil and paper and see how your systems are separated. Divide the items up and lay them out in groups on the floor or bed so you can see everything before you start the place them in your bag. It might help to take photos of each pile so that the next time you go to pack your backpack, you’ll know what you included this time around and be able to either replicate or reconfigure items, depending on how the last trip went.

Check out our Ultralight Backpacking Essentials Checklist

Once every item has been weighed and recorded, it’s time to decide what can be reduced or eliminated all together. Deal with the heaviest gear first, before bothering to cut out parts and pieces of smaller items. Hold each item individually in your hands and envision yourself using it during your trip. Can it be left out? If you have two options for one piece of gear, let the scale determine their fate—purist ultralight backpackers will usually always choose the lighter one. Every ounce counts. For items that you must have but that contain unecessary pieces of fabric, plastic, or other materials attached to them that don’t serve you, remove them. This can mean cutting, melting, breaking off and sanding, or any other form of modification that lessens the weight of the item without rendering it useless.

Once your gear kit is finalized, you’ll need to configure your pack. This can be tricky and you might have to do it a few times to get the right order and configuration of gear in a manner that sits comfortably your pack, while also giving you easy access to certain pieces you will need at various times of the day. Start by putting the heavier and bulkier items at the bottom—this will include your sleeping system, since you wont need that until the end of the day. Continue by working backwards with weight and timeliness. The items you’ll want quick access to during your hike, like a water bottle and snacks, sunscreen, windbreaker or maps should be near the surface, and some can be placed in outer pockets. Adjust the straps and belt of your pack so that it rests the weight more toward your upper back—the key is to place it so that your center of gravity is still over your hips, and not straining your back and neck muscles to counteract weight.

Ultralight Backpacking Basics

When it comes to light backpacking, whether you fall under the light, ultralight or minimalist category, the overarching goals for both packing and the actual hiking and camping experience boil down to being Safe, Warm, Well-Fed and Comfortable. Leave No Trace (LNT) principles should play a large role in any hiker and camper’s preparation and behavior on the trail, and will factor into your ultralight backpacking strategies as well.

The process of choosing ultralight camping equipment is a meditative one—you need to weigh and consider everything, probably multiple times, until you figure out the right combination for your needs. Before you get started, there are a few common terms that you’ll encounter throughout the ultralight subculture and industry which are important to understand:

• Base weight: this is the total weight of the pack with all items loaded, but not including consumables or the clothing you are wearing as you hike. The base weight does not change throughout your trip. • Pack weight: this is the total base weight plus consumables starting on the first day of your trip. • Skin-out weight: this is the total weight of everything, including your base weight, pack weight, gear worn and consumables, etc. • PPPPD: Pounds per person per day, referring to rationing for food and fuel. • ‘The Big Three’ (or sometimes ‘the Big Four’) refers to the heaviest pieces in your kit that you’ll carry: the backpack, tent and sleeping bag (and pad, if you choose to include one).

The basic calculations for ultralight campers are carried out with the first three units: base weight + consumables = pack weight + worn items = skin-out weight.

Another key to ultralight backpacking is identifying the pieces of gear in your kit that can serve multiple purposes and those eliminate the need to bring several others—this means thinking of gear in terms of systems, and viewing each piece as ideally multi-use and able to overlap between systems.

By thinking of your gear categories in terms of systems instead of singular units, you ensure that everything has a valid function and discover areas in which a piece can serve several different functions. Thinking ahead and using your creativity while traveling ultralight can mean the difference between getting caught off guard by unexpected weather or obstacles, and being able to safely get through your journey without injury, discomfort or poor spirits.

When you’re ready to get started, get out a pencil and paper. The best way to figure out your weight and how to change it is by literally weighing everything and writing down the calculations until you subtract everything you don’t need— item by item, ounce by ounce.

Saving Money on Ultralight Backpacking

While a lot of specialty gear involved, ultralight backpacking can get expensive quickly, but it doesn’t have to. If you select the right gear and learn to do your own repairs, you can get life-long use out of much of your kit. Reusing and salvaging items from charity stores and the trash can also save you money and allow for experimentation in the backcountry. Search Craigslist and second-hand gear shops for quality items that may not have fit someone else’s preference but are still in excellent shape.

Reducing Weight When Going Ultralight

By sharing your load with a buddy, you can split up items that don’t deplete (at all or at least very much) with use and reduce your overall pack weight. Gear such as first aid kits and repair kits, cooking systems, shelter materials, certain tools like sharps and stakes, navigation materials such as maps and compasses, toiletries like sunscreen, toothpaste, bug spray and ointments, or water treatment components can all be shared. If you’re on your own, the process of paring down ounces will likely continue and fluctuate with each trip. The more you go, the better you’ll know your gear and your own style. Talk to others in the community and learn ultralight backpacking tips from their mistakes and triumphs.

Final Words on Ultralight Backpacking

Having a successful ultralight experience isn’t just about the preparation—once you’re actually on the trail, a lot of factors can impact your safety, comfort and enjoyment. In order to reap the benefits, be open to reading and learning from others’ tips for light backpacking—you can always adapt their suggestions and preferences to your own.

1. Take care: Now that you have narrowed down you gear to only the bare essentials, which you DO need, keep track of your kit so that you don’t lose anything! If every piece that you ultimately choose is deemed essential, than take care when putting your bag down, bedding down for the night, unsorting gear, etc, so that your delicate and crucial pieces aren’t damaged or misplaced.

2. Keep warm: If you’re carrying less clothing, you could consider timing your hikes so that you wont spend too long sitting around before going to sleep. Or plan an evening stroll or crunches before getting into your sleeping bag. Trying to warm up cooled muscles in a cold bag is rough.

3. Don’t undervalue safety Numerous books and websites are available as ultralight backpacking guides, filled with varying opinions that have been drawn over many years of experience, but your ultimate decisions should also rely strongly on where you’re going, the experience level of you and other party members, and your familiarity (or not) with the chosen trail. Take wilderness safety courses, plan bailout points, and carry gear for unexpected scenarios in routes where you’re less experienced.

One of the most important things to remember about tips for ultralight backpacking is that the solutions are endless, but the solution has to work for you—you will need to weigh, test, reflect, and adjust, and continue to do this until you find the right style and weight for your body type and goals. These will likely change over the course of your life, and that process of adaptation and reflection is all part of the fun.

Proceed to our Ultralight Backpacking Essentials Checklist


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