As you begin to put together your ultralight backpacking checklist, there are two categories of gear to consider: essential and nonessential. The former category is often referred to as “The Big Three” or “The Three Heavies”. These are the three largest pieces you will carry with you—one of which, the pack itself, will hold everything else. The rest of your gear will depend on your goals, including your destination, range of climate zones and weather that could be encountered, timeframe, personal comfort and fitness level, and whether or not you are hiking solo or with another person that will share the gear load. Let’s take a look at the Big Three first.
Essential Ultralight Backpacking Gear: The Big Three or the Three Heavies
Your sleep system, comprised of your tent or shelter and your sleeping bag, can make the difference between a restful night of sleep that makes all day hiking the next day both possible and enjoyable, and an uncomfortable night spent fighting the elements. The upside is that these ‘heavies’ come in many incredibly light versions that still do an amazing job of keeping you adequately dry and warm. Some ultralight backpackers will include a sleeping pad in this essential category, which is why sometimes you might hear ‘The Big Four’. Again, this is a matter of preference, and there are many options for different styles and weights to satisfy your needs for a comfortable night’s sleep.
1) Ultralight Tents and Shelter Systems
If you only need room for one, an ultralight tent like the Fly Creek UL1 from Big Agnes is an ideal three-season tent featuring the latest in rugged lightweight materials. Made with rip-stop, silicone-treated nylon, and treated with waterproof coating, this free-standing tent will keep you dry and protected from the elements while adding just 2.2 pounds to your pack (including the footprint).
If you’re backpacking with a partner, the MSR Hubba Hubba tent is an excellent option for a two-person ultralight shelter, particularly because it is configurable into different modes—a full, double-wall tent, or freestanding tarp-shelter. This means that you can use it as a comfortable two-person tent when backpacking alongside someone else, or lighten your load, depending on the season and conditions, when you’re on your own and bring just the fly and footprint. The Hubba weighs in a 4 pounds, 3 ounces, with a roomy footprint and full-coverage rainfly that wont leave you or your gear soggy if the weather turns sour.
For the ultraminimalist, bivouac shelters are simple, lightweight shelter systems that consist of a waterproof tarp or fly rigged up with wires or slings, paired with a footprint to keep your gear dry on the ground. Bivouacs, also known as ‘bivvies’, are a commonly used solution for shelter by many ultralight backpackers who don’t feel the need for tent walls, poles and stakes. They are ideal for backcountry environments in which you aren’t likely to encounter extreme conditions, such as summer when rain is possible but feet of snow are not (however, it’s important to always be prepared for surprise weather in the mountains, which is why your sleeping bag is another essential piece of gear—more on that later).
If you’re likely to end up sleeping near trees, consider a hammock. These are rapidly becoming popular as lightweight sleep systems, and if set up properly, can be more comfortable than a tent and sleeping pad on the ground. Weighing in at 1.4 pounds, the Eagle’s Nest Outfitter (ENO) Double Nest Hammock sways you to sleep and keeps your dry when strung between two trees and ‘cocooned’ beneath a rain fly. The handy tree straps are sold separately, but are worth the buy if you don’t have your own webbing system that’s been tested for your weight and is sure not to slip. Setting up camp takes less than five minutes with this hammock, and provides a comfortable spot to rest while reading, eating, and enjoying your view. ENO hammocks are also available in a single-person version, which will weigh and cost less—however, the space rating is similar to that of tents: i.e. the Double Nest is rated for two people, but ideal for just one. You’ll have more room to stretch your legs and move around, and extra fabric to pull over your body if desired, to cut the chill or keep bugs off of your face. A simple cord/wire and tarp or modified tent rainfly can be hung above the hammock to divert rainfall to the ground, keeping you peacefully dry and free of roots or rocks under your back.
2) Ultralight Sleeping Bags
Sleeping bags are another essential piece of ultralight backpacking equipment. The technology available for sleeping bags these days is pretty amazing – some weigh mere ounces and can keep you warm and dry in the middle of a blizzard. Granted, these are more expensive, but the investment may be worth it and should last you a long time if you are purchasing high-quality gear for specific environments in which this kind of comfort cannot be sacrificed.
One trail-tested and very popular ultralight sleeping bag is the Marmot Hydrogen, which weighs just 1 pound 8 ounces. Its 850+ goose down interior is rated to 30 degrees, making it great for summer and late spring or early fall conditions, depending on how warm you sleep (and you can always throw on an extra layer of woolies). The Hydrogen’s mummy-style shape compacts down quite small inside a compression sack, and the exterior does a good job of resisting dew and moisture.
Of similar specs, Montbell’s Super Spiral Hugger #3 rates at 30 degrees and weighs 1 pound 6 ounces. The spiral stitching around the mummy shape allows for extra movement and stretching inside, keeping you snug and warm without feeling constricted.
Finally, Western Mountaineering’s series of HighLite ultralight sleeping bags weigh in at just around 1 pound—ridiculously light for about the same amount of warmth as the Montbell and the Marmot. These bags are perfect for summer or other ultralight seasons when paired with an ultralight sleeping bag liner, bivouac bag, or extra clothing.
3) Ultralight Backpacks
Choosing an ultralight backpack can seem challenging, because you’ll want it to be as light as possible but you also need adequate volume and compartments in which to pack the rest of your gear, as well as a comfortable design that is enjoyable to wear for long days of hiking. Select a pack that fits your body’s own shape and dimensions—having shoulder straps that are the wrong distance apart or a waist belt that hits too high can ruin your hiking experience by making you suffer while on the trail, and leaving you very sore at the end of the day. Test out a potential backpack before purchase by filling it with weight and wearing it around the store, if possible, to get a feel for where it sits on your frame. Look for a pack that has several compartments and loops or tie-off points where you can attach carabiners with pieces of gear, or simply tie down the gear itself to the outside (i.e., a rain jacket).
Osprey’s Exos 46 is a superlight, but strong and well-designed ultralight backpack weighing just 2 pounds 5 ounces, and boasting a capacity of 3,000 cubic inches—plenty of room for the rest of your ultralight kit. It features webbing pockets and loops for easy access to trekking poles, water bottles, clothing, sleeping pads, tools, and more, and a ventilated hipbelt that will help to prevent chafing when you get sweaty. The Gregory Z65 from Gregory Mountain Products is another great backpack for going ultralight and for other travel, with a similar design but a little bit more space at 4,000 cubic inches.
If you want to go even lighter, Asolo offers several super ultralight bags that are still sturdy enough and well-designed to hold all of your gear. The Asolo Equipment UltraLight 40-Liter backpack boasts a super low profile with pole loops, side compression straps and lashing points, a padded back and internal frame support. Don’t be scared off by how light it is—it might be a mere 1.6 pounds, but it’s made of rugged rip-stop material that will hold up well to the grit and roughness of the backcountry.
4) Other Ultralight Backpacking Gear
The other parts of your kit may be called the ‘nonessentials’, but they are still very important. However, these will vary a lot more depending on where you plan to hike, and on your personal preferences regarding safety, comfort, and total weight. In general, the following pieces are standard in most ultralight backpack kits:
Cooking System: this can consist of your stove or heating element, fuel, matches or starter, mess kit (bowl, spoon/fork, mug), and something to cut with, like an ultralight knife (which can be used for many other purposes). The Jetboil Flash is an ultralight stove that consists of an integrated cookpot and burner, the latter of which screws onto a fuel canister of butane. Designed for efficiency, this type of all-in-one cooking system saves weight and consolidates an entire ‘kitchen’ (pot, bowls, insulated mugs and spoon/fork included) into one neat combination. The MSR Pocket Rocket is another extremely lightweight burner, but requires that a cookpot system be purchased separately–thus, it may be a good option if you want the simplicity of the Jetboil for heating, but prefer to improvise your own cooking and serving set up.
To be even lighter, and to reduce your environmental footprint, you can opt for a stove that runs on bio-fuel (i.e., twigs, grass, and other natural materials that burn). The Solo Stove, weighing in at only 9 ounces, is made with stainless steel an designed for efficient, ultra-clean burning using debris you find around your campsite. This can cut down on your load since you wont need to pack fuel—but be sure to test it out multiple times before taking it on the trail. These biofuel stoves can be trickier as far as getting a good flame and achieving a temperature that’s hot enough to boil water.
Water Treatment: Water is one of the most critical items in your pack, but also one of the heaviest—thus, if you can eliminate the need to pack it in, you’ll be able to travel much lighter, faster and more comfortably. Water treatment systems like purifiers, tablets of iodine or chlorine dioxide, and UV light devices, or simply boiling your water with a stove all work to eliminate microtoxins, but the choice depends on your preference and how much weight you wish to carry. Ultralight purifier filtration pumps made by Katadyn are highly rated and popular by ultralight backpackers. Aquamira (chlorine dioxide) and Potable Aqua (iodine) are the top sellers for tablets and droplets, and weigh very little—the downside with these is taste and the time needed for the treatment to work.
First Aid Kit: Injuries and emergencies happen, and when you’re far from convenient, quick medical attention, having the basics of first aid are undeniably essential. Even if you just need to treat a blister, not having bandages can mean a lot of pain and suffering for the remainder of your ultralight backpacking trip. Consider a first aid kit, no matter how small, as an essential piece of your ultralight gear kit. Adapting other items into potential wound dressings is okay if you also have the means to clean and sanitize; medications and antibacterial wipes or creams are not easily improvised in the way that dressings and slings are from clothing or straps. To make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected, select a first aid kit in a compactable package that is either already put together, such as the UltraLight and Watertight options from Adventure Medical Kits, or get a small dry sac and make your own kit—it will be up to you to decide what goes in, but at a minimum some type of bandage materials, NSAIDs (i.e. ibuprofen), bug spray, tape and ointments are highly recommended.
Towel: It’s easy to go without a lot of modern comforts out on the trail, but sometimes you just need to get dry. If you’re going ultralight, you probably wont have a lot of extra clothes to spare for this purpose—especially ones that are absorbent. This is where a microfiber towel is completely worth the single extra ounce it will add to your kit. MSR’s Packtowel Personal is perfect, made from super absorbent, antimicrobial polyster/nylon that is soft, durable and extremely lightweight.
Flashlight/head lamp: Having a light for setting up or cooking in the dark, or getting up for those nighttime calls of nature is crucial. Petzl and Black Diamond both make excellent, high-quality headlamps whose bulbs last a long time and take up very little weight or space. The Petzl E93 Tikka 2 headlamp is one of the best on the market (and the author’s personal favorite), providing 40 lumens of light in pitch-black nights, and adjustable to fit comfortably around a bare head or over a hat.
Food: Undeniably one of the most important ‘nonessential’ parts of the weight you’ll be packing for an ultralight trip is food—after all, sometimes after a long day of walking and a night of sleep in the wild, the promise of a warm nourishing meal can be the only motivation to keep going. Not to mention, your body needs to replenish all the calories you burned off during the day. Food is also one of the most debated and varying categories, because so much of the decisions made around what to pack to eat are based on personal caloric needs and the differences in the way we each define the term ‘enough.’
If you’re on the ‘hot meal = must-have comfort’ end of the spectrum, dehydrated food will probably be your best bet. MountainHouse freeze dry foods are a well-designed and delicious option for complete meals that require no preparation aside from boiling water. Packaged in a sealed bag into which you pour heated water to rehydrate the food, you can eliminate the need to carry any dishes aside from a mug for coffee. For snacks, calorie dense and compact foods like dried fruit, trail mix and chocolate are easy to carry and don’t weight very much. Energy bars, jerky, cheese and dense crackers are also good ideas. Some ultralight hikers eliminate their stoves altogether and carry only cold, ready-to-eat meals and snacks. This can definitely lessen your weight, but you should still be sure to choose food that contains enough calories per ounce for the amount
Clothing: The selection of clothing you will need for an ultralight backpacking trip really depends on you and the environment you plan to travel in. Remember, this is just a basic light backpacking guide, and can definitely be expanded upon. However, a standard list to help you think about all the necessities is as follows:
• Rain jacket: Look for Goretex (PacLite technology is ideal), a breathable, waterproof and very lightweight material that stays dry and well-ventilated. • Socks: Wool socks in varying thicknesses are the best way to keep your feet warm and cushioned while preventing blisters—cotton does not breathe well! Wool does. • Silk or wool t-shirt, long sleeve wool shirt, and thermal underwear: again, avoid cotton and go for lightweight fabrics that wisk moisture away from the body to prevent cooling after sweating. Smartwool and Icebreaker and excellent companies, worth the slightly higher cost for higher-quality fabrics. • Pants, breathable and light: zip-offs that can transition from long to short when the weather warms are a popular option. • Shoes: Boots, running shoes or even Chacos—this one is hotly debated among ultralight hikers, and is a matter of personal comfort. Remember that boots can weigh a lot, so you might be adding extra pounds for the illusion of more support, whereas sandals are lightweight and ventilated, but need to be chosen carefully for adequate sole support. • Sunglasses, Hat, Bandana: protect your face and head from the sun, bugs and rain or snow.
Depending on how light and minimal you choose to travel, your gear list may be short or long. It’s really up to you and the kind of experience you’re seeking out in the backcountry. Other camping essentials that may end up on your list could include:
• Sleeping pad • Compass and maps • Sunscreen • Camera • Hiking Poles