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The Basics of Ultralight Backpacking

The Basics of Ultralight Backpacking

Since the 1960s, when adventure sports really started gaining traction, mountaineers, backpackers, and hiking enthusiasts routinely carried more than 50 pounds of gear on their backs. More than three decades later, people began to realize how troubling it was to carry that much weight with them every time. Something had to be done, right?

Well, three-decades passed and technology progressed. By then, outdoor equipment manufacturers had designed gear and accessories that were lightweight and more eco-friendly. This ‘less is more’ idea caught on with outdoor enthusiasts, quickly. Carrying so much weight on your back is not only an arduous task, it can be extremely hazardous too.

If you’re interested in cutting some weight from your pack and making for more enjoyable backpacking outings, you’ve come to the right place.

What is ultralight backpacking?

There is no official definition of the term ‘ultralight’. Ultralight backpacking really seems to have it’s own meaning to the individual person. It really boils down to recognizing that there are lighter and more compact equipment options that exist and choosing to pack less. How light is ultralight? The typical setup ranges somewhere between 12 and 28 lbs, with much of the variation coming from personal preference in gear and length of trip.

Backpacking light basics

  • Out with the Old and Heavy; in with the New and Light: When replacing your old gear with newer lighter gear, make sure to consider the new item’s weight. When accounting for your pack’s overall weight don’t forget to account for the weight of food (1.5-2lbs per day on average).
  • Weigh Your Gear–  This is to make sure that your new gear and accessories are lighter than the old ones. Get a kitchen scale and weigh in all your items. A digital kitchen scale is great for weighing individual gear pieces and a digital luggage scale for weighing your entire loaded pack are great. Make sure that the total weight is still below the acceptable estimate. When weighing, do not include food, water, and fuel as these are consumables.
  • Do-It-Yourself Options: Many people are able to make some of their own gear which can really help with lightening your pack weight. Here are 10 DIY Backpacking Projects.
  • Replace Your Gear Over Time: Lightweight gears costs more than traditional gear. You may want to gradually replace your gear so that your backpack will become less heavy in time, without breaking the bank.

Four ultralight backpacking essentials

Not only are these 4 pieces of gear critically important to the success of your trip and your personal well-being, they are also areas where you can save a ton of excess weight.

Backpack

Of course! What would any type of backpacking adventure be without a backpack? There are many options out there, but here are some things to consider when picking your next pack.

  • Frame: Because of the weight savings, you’ll want to choose a frameless pack.
  • Weight: Most lighter backpacks will weigh between 1.5 lbs and 3 lbs.
  • Size: Backpack size is commonly displayed in liters. Don’t get distracted by the model name a backpack might be given, but rather the volume size of the pack. Here is a breakdown of the common sizes you’ll find.
    • Daypacks > Up to 40 liters
    • Overnight > 30-50 liters
    • Weekend > 40-70 liters
    • Extended Trips > 70 liters and up

Top 10 Ultralight Backpacks

Shelter

Climate conditions and terrain of the area you’ll be travelling through dictate much of the decision around choosing the best shelter. Here are a 3 shelter styles you may want to consider.

  • Tents: Likely one of the heavier options listed, a tent with all mesh sides can help reduce weight significantly. Tents generally provide more stability and protection.  
  • Tarps: Providing decent protection (mainly from rain), a tarp shelter consists of a tarp, guylines, a tree or two, and possibly a trekking pole (depending on your use of trees).
  • Hammocks: Possibly the most versatile option, hammocks are great (when trees are plentiful) because of their ease of setup and take-down and packability.

Top Ten Ultralight Tents

Top Ten Ultralight Tarp Shelters

Top Ten Ultralight Hammocks

Sleeping Bag

Many of today’s sleeping bags are made with synthetic filling. However, you will get the most warmth per ounce of fill by choosing a sleeping bag that uses down. Down is known to be extremely warm yet lightweight and compressible -- perfect for ultralight backpacking. You should expect a good down sleeping bag to weigh between 1 lb and 2lbs.

Top Ten Ultralight Sleeping Bags

Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads provide a layer of comfort and help insulate your body from the ground temperature. You’ll find 3 main type of sleeping pads, outlined for you below.

  1. Air Sleeping Pads: Air pads come in many different sizes and shapes but are usually thicker. Since they use air alone to provide comfort, they are a great lightweight option and popular for backpackers and campers.
  2. Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads: Filled with foam, these pads expand on their own when the air valve is opened. They make for quick setup but are typically heavier and bulkier than air pads.
  3. Foam Pads: While these pads are bulky, they are the lightest option and provide the best insulation from the ground. Since they are solid foam, you don’t have to worry about tears or punctures. They also make a great seat cushion while you’re relaxing at camp.

Top Ten Air Sleeping Pads

Top Ten Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads

Top Ten Foam Backpacking Pads

Food and water planning for backpacking

Next to the 4 backpacking essentials (Backpack, Shelter, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad) food and water account for the bulk of your pack weight.  This is also one aspect that may be intimidating for some, but is easily handled with proper planning.

Food

Since your body will be burning calories at a higher rate on the trails, plan for 3,000-4,000 calories per day. In weight, this usually works out to be about 2 lbs per day.

When planning food options, you want items that are easy to prepare, use little or no dishes, are calorie-rich, and don’t need refrigeration. Here are some ultralight backpacking food ideas.

  • Breakfast: Instant oatmeal, grits, breakfast cereals, granola bars, pop tarts, dried berries, nuts, pancake mix, powder meals/shakes
  • Lunch: Crackers, hard cheeses, summer sausage, tuna and chicken in foil pouches, pita bread, bagels, peanut butter, beef jerky, tortillas
  • Dinner: Pastas (ramen noodles), tuna or chicken in foil pouches, dehydrated soup, instant potatoes, couscous, dried vegetables, dehydrated meals

Water

While you’ll always want to have water on you, you won’t be able to carry your entire water supply with you. This means you’ll have to know where water sources like streams and lakes are located along your route.

  • When you stop at a water source, be sure to drink lots of water while you’re there. When you head out on the trail in the morning, do the same.
  • Carry 1 liter of water with you in a soft/collapsible bottle. Collapsible bottles are space-saving and weigh much less than a traditional hard plastic bottle.
  • Bring water purification tablets and a small water purification filter.   

What are some of your favorite ultralight backpacking tips? Share them in the comments below!


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