What is Ultralight Backpacking?
As the name suggests, ultralight backpacking is about reducing as much weight as possible. However, the goal is not just to minimize unnecessary items, but to carry the lightest possible gear without compromising on safety and comfort. A growing number of backpackers no longer prefer carrying up to 70 pounds of gear, which was common until the 90s.
With the help of modern materials and design, backpacking gear manufacturers have significantly reduced the weight of different items and now we have plenty of options to choose from. This guide covers the most important items to consider when trying to reduce weight and how ‘less is more’ philosophy is gradually taking over.
Since there isn’t an official definition for ‘ultralight’, we’ll refer to it as a ‘getting by with less’ frame of mind. The sweet spot varies from one backpacker to another and in the end, it comes down to the type of terrain you are dealing with, trip duration and your personal preferences.
That’s the reason it might take some practice and ingenuity to determine which gear works best for you and how much weight one should carry. People belonging to the ultralight-weight movement try to find their sweet spot between 12-28 pounds. The range is huge and so are the options, but even the upper limit is a lot better than carrying 50-70 pound backpacks on multi-day trips.
Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking
The benefits of carrying less weight are pretty obvious. You have to worry less about pains and aches related to carrying more weight and can enjoy more without compromising on safety. A fully-loaded and heavy backpack can become an obstacle in truly enjoying nature. What’s the point of a long backpacking trip if all you want is to get back to your car and the comfort of your home?
Less weight means you can go farther and backpack more often. Ultralight backpacking is not about cutting out the essentials and compromising on sleep quality and safety. It’s a mindset that revolves around investing in lightweight, quality equipment, ditching what’s not necessary and finding better alternatives. In addition to being more comfortable during backpacking trips, some other benefits of carrying less weight include:
- Less body wear-and-tear in the long run
- Easier and quicker packing due to use of lighter materials
- A straight back makes breathing easier and enables you to have a better view of the surroundings
- It’s easier to travel challenging parts of the track when you are carrying less weight, allowing you to explore terrains you might not have considered previously
- Allows traveling faster and farther while using less energy
- Greater agility and the ability to cross rivers and tougher parts of the track
- Reduces chances of injuries as you are more likely to stumble with a heavy backpack on your back
- Allows people with physical limitations/challenges to enjoy backpacking as going lighter is the only option in some cases
- Lightweight gear helps you make some space for specialized and luxury gear such as a camp chair and even some games
- Lightweight backpacking also often involves wearing lightweight shoes such as trail runners, which further adds up to the overall comfort and energy saving
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Drawbacks of Ultralight Backpacking
While ultralight weight backpacking gear carries a lot of advantages, it also comes with some disadvantages including:
Cost: Ultralight gear is usually more expensive than standard backpacking gear because of the use of modern materials, design and technology. In general, the lighter the gear, the more it will cost.
Durability: UL gear is made keeping weight in mind with thinner and lighter materials. Although modern gear is still durable enough and can last for quite some time, it might not be as durable as standard/heavy backpacking gear.
The time factor: It takes some time and experience to figure out the gear you need and be confident when using it in different conditions. Backpackers have to make a lot of mistakes to finally figure out what and how much they really need.
Let’s get started with some important terms.
Base pack: Includes the backpack, sleeping system and shelter, which are also the main items to consider when reducing weight.
Base weight: The total weight including gear inside and outside the backpack minus consumables such as fuel, water and food. The base weight remains constant throughout the hike.
Consumables: Many backpackers do not include consumables when trying to reduce weight, as it mainly depends on the trip duration and style. However, there are lighter options available when it comes to food. That’s why some also consider reducing the weight of consumables when backpacking ultralight. The weight of consumables keeps decreasing during the trip and is the highest in the beginning.
Base weight vs. pack weight: Pack weight includes both the base weight and the weight of consumables. The weight of clothing you wear is not included in the pack weight.
Ultralightweight vs lightweight: There is no agreed-upon technical standard for ultralight weight, but a below 15-pound base weight is generally considered as ultralight weight. In most regions outside the US under 15 kg/ 33 lbs. is considered lightweight while under 10kg/22 lbs. is considered ultralight weight.
Foot weight: The total weight on the feet including shoes and socks.
Misc. gear: Refers to items such as stoves, cook pots, shoes, clothing, carrying bags, utensils, chemicals, food protection and headlamps. Most of these items are part of the base weight.
Ultralight Backpacking Tips for Beginners
Weigh the Gear You Already Have
You can use a kitchen scale (preferably digital) to weigh the gear you already have to get an idea of how much base weight and consumables you carry. You can skip weighing consumables if you don’t plan on reducing the weight of water and food items. Pay close attention when replacing your old gear with ultralight gear and try to aim for the 10-pound mark. The weight usually almost doubles if you also take consumables into account.
It’s better to make a spreadsheet of the weight readings to keep a record or better yet, use a software tool like the Silverlight app (Download here for iOS and Android) that allows you to create gear lists and add items from our database. This makes it easier to calculate and update weight and add/subtract items., and allows you to analyze everything as a whole as well as on a piece-by-piece basis.
Know What to Bring and What to Leave Behind
Ultralight backpacking is not just about replacing heavy items with UL items. It’s also about knowing which items to carry and the ones to leave behind. Sure, you need enough backpacking gear to feel safe, confident and comfortable, but you should also avoid packing too much because of fear. Fear of the unknown causes many backpackers to bring stuff they might not even use on their trips.
Bringing too much food than what’s actually needed because you are afraid of going hungry, packing too thick of a sleeping bag or carrying a beefy first-aid-kit for short hikes are all examples of how fear can take over rational thinking. The ultralight backpacking checklist can vary from one person to another. The goal should be to only carry the stuff you really need and carefully consider the weight of optional items you can live without.
Understand The Tradeoffs
Ultralight backpacking gear is usually not as durable as conventional gear and might also not be as comfortable. That’s why backpackers have to understand the tradeoffs they are making. Going ultralight might not be the best option in all situations. For example, you cannot compromise on warmth when backpacking in cold weather or taking enough water in hot and dry areas.
Choose the Smallest Possible Gear
If an item smaller in size can meet your needs, it’s better to pick it over another item that’s more powerful but has a larger footprint and more weight. For example, a lightweight multi-tool can replace a heavy pocket knife and also serve other purposes. Things like trimming extra straps, breaking off a toothbrush handle and removing the cover of a novel might not seem like you are shaving off a lot of weight. But these small weight savings add up and can help in cutting the overall base weight.
Avoid Over-Packing Clothing Items
Over-packing unnecessary clothing items is not uncommon and can make the backpacks bulkier and heavier. Try avoiding doubling up on different clothing types. Clothing made with synthetic materials dries quickly and is easier to wash. Most backpacking trips are possible without heavy pants, jeans, leather jackets and belts and so on.
Make Changes Gradually
Ultralight backpacking gear is expensive and it might not be financially feasible for everyone to make all the changes at once. Backpackers can start with the heaviest items like the big four (covered below) to reduce weight and move on to other items over time according to their budget and unique requirements.
Choose Multi-Purpose Items
Replacing items such as tent stakes with snow stakes allows you to use them for multiple purposes like anchoring the shelter and digging cat holes. Depending on their usefulness, try replacing one-use items with something you can also use at home and in other situations. Some examples include bandana that can be used as a sunglasses case, pot holder, washcloth hanky, as well as for shielding your neck from sunlight by putting it under a hat.
The Big Four
The backpack, shelter, sleeping bag and sleeping pad are the heaviest items backpackers have to carry. Replacing all or some of these items can significantly help in reducing the overall weight. If you don’t have time for evaluating all the items and just want to quickly shave off weight, try replacing these items with UL ones. The aim should be to choose each item weighing 1-3 lbs.
Backpack: Traditional 55-65L backpacks weight something between 6 to 7 pounds. Minimally padded, frameless 45-55 liter UL backpacks are considered the sweet spot, but you can even go smaller and lighter @ 1.5-2 pounds. As mentioned earlier, the reduction in weight comes at the cost of sacrificing some durability, but UL backpacks are still durable enough if you take proper care like preventing sharp objects touching the inner layer.
Shelter: Full-mesh tents with a rainfly provide a cozy feel and keep flies and other small insects out. One-person ultralight tents weight as low as one pound while the more common ones weight around 2 pounds (conventional shelters can weight up to 7 pounds).
Double-layered tents are easy to set up and provide adequate protection in most situations, but are heavier and often require stakes and metal poles, which means more weight. You can also consider single-layer tents, which are even lighter, but not so good with internal condensation. Double-layered tents are also better at dealing with internal condensation.
A usable rain shelter can be created out of a lightweight tarp with the help of some guylines, trekking poles or stakes for support and some trees. Ultralight hammocks are also popular and may also come with a rainfly/bug net.
Sleeping Bag: Down-filled sleeping bags are more compressible and lighter than synthetic-filled bags and are usually water-resistant. However, moisture can cause loft loss to down-filled bags, especially when backpacking in very humid regions. It’s also important to pick a sleeping bag that provides just enough warmth you need. Unnecessarily warm sleeping bags add weight and can also make you uncomfortable. Alternatively, depending on the weather and trail, you can also opt for a hoodless mummy bag or a down trekking quilt to shave off weight.
Sleeping Pad: A growing number of backpackers have moved from self-inflating pads to air pads that usually weight just under a pound. You get a full-length pad with ample cushioning, as well as some insulation. However, many thru-hikers still prefer closed-cell foam pads because of better durability and extra warmth.
The main issue with air pads is that they can puncture on rocky or sharp surfaces, so you’ll also have to carry a repair kit. Foam pads are bulkier, but they are more usable like you can sit on it and also use it as a bag frame.
Tips for Reducing Weight of Consumables
Consumables that include water and food are usually the heaviest items in most backpacking trips. Reducing weight of consumables can be difficult because you’d want all the essentials to survive out in the wild. But there are still ways to reduce the weight of consumables while being thoughtful about these essential items.
You do not have to carry a lot of water if you can make it to a water source that’s reliable and easily accessible. Starting the trip fully hydrated can save you some weight but many backpackers still prefer carrying a small amount of extra water to be on the safe side. On average, a backpacker needs 2 liters of water per day in moderate climate/moderate activity. When traveling through areas that have many streams or springs, you can carry as little as 350ml or even no water at all.
1-2L soft collapsible water bottles weigh up to 80% less and save space due to less volume. On one hand, water and other liquids add significant weight, while on the other hand, there is the issue of not knowing how much water you’ll need until you reach the next source. That’s the balance you have to strike yourself based on different factors, including dynamics of the terrain and your hiking style.
Backpackers have different options when it comes to minimizing the weight of the food items. Nutritious, dense, easy to prepare food items with long shelf life are a great alternative to ‘regular’ fresh food items that decay fast and might not provide a similar level of energy. Freeze-dried meals, nuts, packaged snacks and bars are some alternatives to fresh food items.
The food choices depend on individual taste, caloric density and nutritional values. Reducing the weight of food items takes some experience and time to master, especially if you have to prepare your food yourself. Some tips for reducing weight of consumables include:
- Use ziplock bags to repackage/seal food and avoid spillage/wastage
- Keep small packets of salt, fast food condiment and spices including pepper and hot sauce to ensure you are not eating the same thing over and over again
- Fresh fruits might not provide a lot of calories, but they are refreshing and hydrating
- It’s better to avoid canned food and not only it’s heavy, you also have to pack out bulky trash without getting a lot of nutritional value in return
- You need some experience to prepare DIY dehydrated meals, but a food dehydrator makes the job easier and allows you to zap the moisture out quickly from veggies, meat and fruits
- Multi-purpose utensils like a titanium mug which you can also use as a pot and spork that can replace a fork and spoon
- It’s better to just add dehydrated food in boiled water instead of cooking the whole meal from scratch. This saves fuel, weight and precious time
- A cold, quick breakfast with coffee and a calorie-dense bar provides a quick boost of energy in the breakfast, while almond butter is a great munching option when you are on the trail
- A cold lunch can save time, fuel and effort required for cooking. Bagel or tortilla sandwiches with cheese and meat can last for a few days if the weather is not too hot. You can have some snacks if you still feel hungry after the sandwiches
- Frozen dried-meal pouches (often advertised as ‘just-add water’) are tasty and lightweight, but more expensive than DIY meals. These might be a good option for short hikes, but can be quite expensive on long trips. Some other options for dinner include instant mashed potatoes, ramen, pasta and rice sides, chicken/tuna packets and dehydrated vegetables
- Snacks provide quick energy after every one or two hours and some options include bars, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, crackers and candy
For some more ideas on backpacking food check out our article and story.
You cannot ignore footwear when trying to reduce weight. We have already covered in detail why you should ditch hiking boots for lightweight shoes such as trail runners, so the same rules also apply here. The weight on your feet can feel up to 5 times more than what you carry on your back and consumes a proportionate amount of energy.
Backpackers are embracing lightweight and comfortable trail runners and even barefoot shoes over heavy hiking boots for good reasons. Trail runners are durable, lightweight and provide comfort hikers need for a variety of terrains.
Lightweight shoes can also be durable while offering many other benefits including:
- Improve sensory feedback
- Improve balance and feet strength
- Highly breathable
- Just the right amount of cushioning
- Odor-preventing, removable insoles for an even closer bare feet experience
- Zero heel-to-toe drop minimizes joint stress
If you want to shave off even more small chunks of weight, you can consider odorless socks (guide to choosing the perfect hiking socks) such as our Silverlight socks that offer many benefits over conventional hiking socks including:
- Made using temperature-regulating merino wool extracted from Australian merino sheep
- Dual-layer construction making it 2-in-1 socks i.e. great moisture-wicking and compression
- Thin enough while being comfortable for long-term use
- Can be worn much longer than standard socks
- Seamless stitching
- Silver infused threads that prevent growth of bacteria
- Grippy outer layer
- Blister prevention
- Provides support to all the right places including the heel, toe and mid-foot
Ultralight backpacking is a mindset that enables backpackers to enjoy more and spend less time worrying about weight, fatigue and stress. It’s hard to fully immerse in nature when all your body wants is some rest and the comforts of your home.
In the absence of technical standards for ultralight backpacking, it mainly comes down to what you consider necessary and whether you are willing to leave behind what isn’t necessary. The revered skill of packing light develops with experience, time and a lot of mistakes, so it’s better to start slow and pay attention to little details instead of spending tons of money at once.