If you’re here, you’re either looking for ways to lighten your load or decide if ultralight backpacking is right for you. Either way, you’re in the right place! If you’re willing to sacrifice some creature comforts along the way, ultralight will offer you a more liberating way to adventure. Without further ado, let’s dive into the basics of ultralight backpacking.
A Brief History Of Ultralight Backpacking
Ultralight backpacking may seem like a new concept, but the ultralight philosophy has existed for decades. Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was an early pioneer of ultralight hiking. The 67-year-old farm wife and mother of eleven children thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1955 with nothing more than a denim bag, a small notebook, a shower curtain that she used for a rain poncho, extra clothes, and food.
Fast forward to the 1990s, Ray Jardine published a handbook for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In it, Jardine preached the benefits of carrying less and moving faster, laying the groundwork for modern-day ultralight thru-hiking.
The ultralight movement gained momentum as the years passed. With people’s lives thrown off balance by the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor recreation numbers soared, bringing massive growth to the ultralight community.
What Is Ultralight Backpacking?
Considering how long the concept of ultralight has been around, it’s a surprise that no official definition exists. But ultralight is more a frame of mind than a set base weight.
It’s about deciding you can get by with less. The less gear you rely on, the more trust you can place in yourself to stay safe, comfortable, and confident on the trail.
But if you’re like most ultralight backpackers or you’re a numbers nerd and want to aim for a specific base weight (i.e., your total pack weight minus your food, water, fuel, and other consumables) the generally accepted base weight in the ultralight community sits at or below 10 lbs.
Those with 20 or 30 lbs. packs might have just experienced a surge of anxiety. After all, how can you shed that much pack weight while remaining comfortable on the trail?
The truth is, many ultralight hikers tolerate some level of discomfort on the trail by choosing to forego items like a spacious tent, stove, or camp shoes. The good news is there are plenty of ways to flirt with ultralight using proven methods to lower your pack weight that doesn’t involve eating cold ramen noodles for dinner.
What Are the Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking?
The idea of ultralight backpacking might seem all utilitarian and no fun. So what’s the point? What’s the benefit of bringing only the essentials and enduring higher levels of discomfort on a backpacking trip you’re supposed to enjoy? There are several undeniable benefits of going ultralight.
You Can Hike Faster and Further
When you’re hauling 50 lbs. of gear on your back, you’ll cover less ground, take more breaks, and generally hike slower. With an ultralight pack, you’re less likely to fatigue as easily and as frequently, meaning more miles in less time! It’s easy to see why ultralight is big with thru-hikers working around a tight schedule or who have a narrow weather window to complete their hike.
You Reduce Your Risk of Injury
A heavier pack means more strain on your joints. And more stress on your body leads to more fatigue at the end of the day. A lightweight pack will help you cover more miles without putting your body at risk of injury or, worse, having to cancel future hiking trips or other life plans just to recover.
You’re Forced to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
By bringing less gear, you’ll be able to connect with nature instead of retreating to your creature comforts. Instead of reading your Kindle, you can soak in the soothing soundscapes of nature. Instead of retiring to your tent, you can cowboy camp under the stars. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but backpacking by itself is a physically and mentally demanding activity. You can think of going ultralight as the next step in your evolution as an elite adventurer. Ultimately, ultralight is about leaning into the desire to remove the unnecessary barriers that separate you from the natural world.
Ultralight Backpacking Basics
Start With Your Big Four
Let’s start with the essentials, shall we? The quickest way to shave the most weight from your backpacking kit is to pare down your “Big 4” (i.e., backpack, tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag/quilt).
Multiple factors distinguish ultralight backpacks from traditional backpacking packs. Among the key differences are a simplified design, frameless architecture, and the materials used in the construction of the pack.
Ultralight packs are usually made of a Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) or Robic Nylon, whereas conventional backpacks use a heavier nylon and polyester blend. Most traditional backpacks clock in between 6-7 pounds, while ultralight packs typically weigh only 1-2 pounds. If you’re in the market for your first ultralight hiking pack, aim for something between 40 and 60 liters in capacity.
Normal Weight: 6-7 pounds
Ultralight Weight: 1-2 pounds
When it comes to ultralight shelters, you don’t have to settle for a tarp straight out the gate. A comfortable choice could be a lightweight, semi-freestanding double-walled tent. Double-walled tents offer great protection against weather, bugs, and are easy to set up. The downside is the extra weight and additional bulk when storing poles in your pack.
Single-walled tents are becoming increasingly popular among ultralight hikers because hiking poles take the place of tent poles, cutting down the weight of most single-walled tents to around 1 lb. However, these tents need to be staked down and breathe less than double-walled tents, leading to condensation issues.
An ultralight tarp is also an option if you’re serious about the ultralight life and just want something to keep you dry without adding extra weight to your backpack. Additionally, ultralight hammocks that include a bug net or rain fly are well suited for heavily wooded trails.
Normal Weight: 2-5 pounds
Ultralight Weight: Less than 2 pounds
A lightweight sleeping pad should provide a combination of comfort, a high enough R-value to keep you warm at night and insulated from the cold ground. Air pads offer a higher warmth-to-weight ratio, more comfort for side sleepers, and are easier to pack than foam pads, but they are prone to puncture, so you’ll want a repair kit on hand. Check out our top picks for ultralight inflatable sleeping pads here!
Closed-cell foam pads are more versatile; they can be used as a seat at camp or as a frame for your pack. The drawbacks are that they are bulkier and less insulating than an air pad. Most hikers strap their foam pads to the outside of their pack. For even more weight-savings, cut down a closed-cell foam pad to torso length and place your pack under your feet as insulation.
Normal Weight: 1-2 pounds
Ultralight Weight: About 1 pound
Be sure to choose a sleeping bag that is made for the type of climate that you’ll be hiking in. A down sleeping bag will save weight compared to a synthetic bag with the same temperature rating. But a synthetic bag will be easier on your wallet.
In the past decade, quilts have taken off in the ultralight market. And for good reason. A backpacking quilt relies on the heat provided by a well-insulated sleeping pad to keep your back warm, then traps your body heat to keep you toasty all night. If you’re considering a backpacking quilt, make sure you have a warm sleeping pad to go underneath!
Normal Weight: 3-4 pounds
Ultralight Weight: Less than 2.5 pounds
Next, Move To Your Consumables
Consumables are the heaviest, yet most essential items in your pack. Learning to carry only what you need for food and water on trail takes practice, but here are some tips to keep it simple.
Hikers need roughly 2,500 to 4,500 calories of food per day to replenish their calorie consumption and maintain energy levels. However, this is only an estimate. Factors like elevation gain, hiking speed, distance covered, and individual factors like age, metabolism, and weight will influence the amount and frequency of food you consume on trail.
Going ultralight doesn’t mean adhering to a strict diet of Goo packets and Clif Bars. Backpackers usually use dehydrated or freeze-dried meals combined with packaged snacks, bars, and nuts in lieu of fresh foods. The key here is to pack as many calories into as few ounces as possible. These high-calorie, low-weight foods include chips, candy, and healthier backpacking food alternatives like olive oil, nuts, and dried fruit.
It’s also good practice to repackage foods in Ziploc bags to help reduce weight. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can skip the hot meals entirely by only bringing foods you don’t need to cook (i.e., energy bars, summer sausage, jerky, hard cheeses, tortillas, nut butter, etc.) or cold-soak your food.
Cold-soaking involves rehydrating dry ingredients by simply adding water and letting them sit. Foods like ramen noodles, beans and rice, and couscous lend themselves well to cold-soaking.
Drinking plenty of water on the trail will help you regulate your body temperature and prevent injury, but it will also weigh you down. When you arrive at a water source along the trail, it’s a good idea to “camel up” or drink a lot of water at the source.
Most ultralight hikers carry a few 1L plastic water bottles with a screw-on water filter like a Sawyer Squeeze, plus a 2 to 3L reservoir if they have a long way to hike between water sources.
Finally, Pare Down Your Smaller Items
These smaller items backpacking are important, yet often overlooked as potential weight-saving sources.
Streamlining your clothing system to make it simple, comfortable, and lightweight will help you eliminate unnecessary weight and make your backpacking experience all the more enjoyable.
Some ultralight clothing essentials include a lightweight down or synthetic puffy jacket, a lightweight rain jacket, hiking pants/running shorts, a sun hoodie, a hat, and merino wool base layers. Some hikers forego base layers altogether and just sleep in their hiking clothes.
Bring two pairs of wool or synthetic underwear (one to wear, one to wash) and two to three pairs of wool or synthetic socks, one to wear, a backup pair, and one for sleep.
Certain things have become synonymous with the ultralight life, like cutting your toothbrush in half, cold soaking, and, of course, trail runners. While hiking boots can last longer and prevent dirt and debris from getting into a hiker’s shoe, they’re also heavier and don’t dry as quickly as trail runners. An ideal trail runner will combine a lightweight design, durability, and fast-drying mesh material.
First Aid Kit
Conventional first aid kits contain items most ultralight hikers don’t need. Instead, thin down your first aid kit to the essentials.
It’s common to find the following items in an ultralight first-aid kit: sewing needle to drain blisters, tweezers, gauze pads, bandaids, antibiotic ointment in tiny packets, KT or Luekotape, Ibuprofen, and Benadryl.
Your first aid kit can always be adjusted as needed based on your hike. Wrap a few inches of duct tape around your hiking pole or lighter, and carry a piece of tenacious tape to patch up any holes in your pack, tent, sleeping bag, or air pad.
Trail hygiene may sound like an oxymoron, but there’s a difference between embracing the stink and throwing caution to the wind in the name of a carefree wilderness experience. Here’s what an ultralight hygiene kit may look like for you.
- Small bottle of hand sanitizer
- Toothbrush cut in half or travel-sized toothbrush
- Travel-size toothpaste or toothpaste tablets
- Small bottle of biodegradable soap
- Baby wipes or a bandana for cleaning your face, pits, and bits
- Odor-proof waste bag to pack out your TP and wet wipes
- Pee rag if you squat while you pee
- Choice of period product for those who menstruate
- Aluminum trowel or simply use a large stick, sharp rocks, or your tent stakes to dig a cathole
- Bidet to reduce waste TP waste
Is Ultralight Right for Me?
Only you can answer that question. There is no right way to enjoy the outdoors. A lighter pack may make your outdoor experience more enjoyable, but sacrificing the comforts that make it even better might not be worth it. And you know what? That’s okay. Ultralight or not, backpacking is a special collective experience that we share together.
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).