Tips for Ultralight backpacking
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
Change is the only constant concept in this life. Not so long ago backpackers maintained on carrying heavy loads with sturdy backpacks that had an external aluminum frame. Today, the backpacking community shouts loudly, “less is more”!
You need to pack only the most crucial items because backpacking should be an enjoyable and comfortable experience. Buying alternatives for those crucial items might lighten your load drastically.
The first time I was planning a 14 day trip I packed my backpack with 50 pounds (23kg) of gear, food and water. As soon as I got of the scale I unloaded my pack and started weighing things individually to spot the heavy items. Eventually it weighed 14.5 pounds (18.4kg) at the start including my 2.5L of water and freeze dried food for 6 days.
A few of the things I replaced before that first trip were:
Backpack reduced with 2.2 pound (1kg)
Tent reduced with 3.3 pound (1.5kg)
Rain jacket reduced with 0.7 pound (300g)
Sleeping bag reduced with 2.4 pounds (1.1kg)
Sleeping pad reduced with 0.88 pounds (400g)
During this article I will highlight gear I invested in myself which I would recommend from my own personal experience.
Ultralight backpacking is easier and better for your back. Backpacking is more than a holiday because you really get to experience the destination while you need to get by with less. Find a way of staying safe, healthy and comfortable on the trail while carrying the lightest load possible.
Use the following criteria to make the load in your backpack ultralight.
Use a scale to weigh your gear
You need to weigh everything you put in your backpack, but keep in mind that you can’t slim down on the basics, being: enough food and water to be safe. Replace old items with new ones making sure that the new hiking gear is lighter. Buying new items should be done in small steps, otherwise you will end up with an ultralight wallet.
For a change, you can even make your own lightweight items for a sense of authenticity. In most cases, the gear will be more expensive the lighter it gets, so a smart approach may be to lessen your load gradually by investing in the heaviest items first.
Understand the trade-offs Will the equipment you invest in be used during other trips as well? Would it make sense to invest in a certain item? It would make sense to invest in an ultralight rain jacket as you would use this during other activities as well. But a new stove might be overkill if you only use it once each year.
You can also consider borrowing, renting or sharing gear investments with your backpacking crew.
How to go ultralight with the four essentials
Most backpackers carry a backpack, a tent, a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. These items are supposed to be ultralight and comfortable to facilitate a smooth journey and an incredible outdoor experience.
Avoid traditional backpacks that are too heavy to carry. Choose a conventional backpack that is less padded, smaller, weighing about two pounds (1,2kg). It should be light but resistant to the wear and tear that comes with a rough trail. Do thorough research on the most lightweight backpacks. Do not forget that you will still need a rain cover for most of your trips, this will add a few more grams to your pack. My current backpack of choice for long trips is the Deuter Aircontact lite.
Tents: If you go out on your own you might want to choose a lightweight, one person tent. You should definitely share a tent when you are with two or more people. Together you will end up carrying less. Make sure to test your new ultralight tent before heading off on the trail. Do you and your gear still fit inside? Is it not too claustrophobic? Did you lose comfort. And more importantly, can you get something out to get it lighter? The lightweight tent I'm using is the MSR Elexir two person tent.
Tarps: Cut even more weight by using a tarp. Use nearby trees, your trekking poles and stakes for support. Don't invest in a tarp if you are not sure you can handle this lowest amount of comfort. The lack of luxury is not for everyone, specially not the ones camping near a lake with a risk of mosquitoes. Your body copes with a lot during hiking, make sure you at least have a good night rest.
The tarp we tested and liked the most was the Black Diamond Beta Light.
Choose a light and waterproof shell. Less comfort, but definitely a good night rest. Some of them have a mosquito net that covers the top above your head.
I used this MSR AC Bivy once under a tarp to keep my down sleeping bag dry during rainy camping nights.
Hammocks are the most recent hiking hype. Some include a bug net or a rainfly and many backpackers are finding them more convenient. Make sure you will find trees along the way to secure your hammock.
The Eno Sublink hammock sleeping system is truly unique, lightweight and packs easily in your backpack. Stay off the ground and rock yourself to sleep while listening to the sounds of the forest.
Go for down, it's lighter than synthetic sleeping bags and it packs smaller when compressed. This will definitely help to lower your bag weight. Pack early to determine how much space your sleeping bag occupies and adjust it accordingly.
Choose a bag with the right amount of warmth for the environment you will be exploring. Wear a warm knit hat on cold nights too keep you extra toasty. You can as also drop the sleeping bag by considering a down trekking quilt. Keep your warm clothes on during the night if you must. Extra baggage simply means extra weight which you're trying to avoid, right? Figure out how to just pack the right type of a sleeping bag in your backpack so that you can keep it to a minimum weight but maintain your good night rest.
Side note: If you go for down, try to find a sleeping bag filled with ethical feathers that are free of animal cruelty. Some cheaper brands use the feathers that got plucked from living birds.
I use my RAB Neutrino 600 the whole year round.
Use air pads instead of self-inflating pads. Air pads are the lightest and most comfortable pads for backpacking. They give better cushioning and insulation and they pack really small. Consider a closed-cell foam pad for their greater durability and a warmer night. Test these up front to make sure you are comfortable. Note: The thin foam yoga pads are the lightest way to go. But it is extremely bulky so you need to hang these outside your pack.
I can't go without my Thermarest NEO Air Xlight. It's the best ultralight backpacking sleeping pad I have ever slept on. Plus it comes with lifetime warranty, what's not to like.
Water, Fuel and Food
These are the basics, the must haves. But by being smart you might be able to cut away a few grams.
You can for example filter the water from the water sources near the trail and refill your water bottle along the way (please make sure that the waterways along the way also exist, some maps can be misleading. Believe, I have been there...). You can use filter pens or a UV filter to reduce the weight. Other pump style filters might be too heavy.
My UV filter for clear mountain streams, lakes and foreign tap water is the Steripen Adventurer. Use it only in clear water.
For direct sips from rivers, pools and muddy streams I recommend the Lifestraw which is not only ultralight, it's also super cheap and filters around 1000 Liters during its lifetime.
Fuel, Stove and Cookware
Concerning the cooking equipment, make it dual-purpose. For instance, a titanium mug can also be used as a pot. Specially if you only need to warm water for your freeze dried food dinner.
Tablet fuel stoves can be bought or made from aluminum cans. Make sure to carry enough tablets to get to the end of the trip. We did not like this type of stove in windy conditions. Make sure you use the heat of these tablets as efficient as possible.
The alcohol stove is also light but the fuel might weigh more then you expect. Bring the necessary amount of alcohol and keep it safe in a bottle that won't leak or break.
A gas canister stove can be folded and it occupies only a small space. Gas canisters might be the most efficient fuel in the long run, but they take up a decent amount of space. On some trails you can buy them along the way, so you don't need to bring a lot of them at the start of a longer thru hike.
Food is a basic need. Bring enough food to provide you with enough calories on the trail. The amount of food depends not only on how many miles you cover and how fast or strenuous the trail is, it will really depend from person to person.
Dehydrated food is the lightest you can go. But keep in mind that you need a decent amount of water to make it edible. Have it prepacked in a bag you can eat from and you can also skip the plate or bowl you were going to bring. Or dry your own trail spaghetti at home and cook it up with a bit of water. You will need a lot of extra calories, so make sure you bring enough food on your backpacking trip.
Keep food away from animals by hanging it up a tree nearby with a thin, light piece of rope. If you are in bear country then you might want to opt for a bear canister. It is definitely heavy, but being safe is more important than your comfort. This bear canister is the lightest you can go.
Some ultralight food tips:
Choose instant meals such as coffee and oatmeal to cut on the need of fuel.
Be calorie conscious: Bring fat- and calorie-rich snacks for lunch: protein bars, nuts, seeds, chocolate, dried fruit, powder supplements. These calorie full foodstuffs will definitely keep a backpacker on the trail for a full day. Try this dehydrated backpackers lasagna, it's really good.
Navigation system It is OK to get lost but getting a map, a compass, and a GPS device are essential as they offer guidance and accurate location.
Some are heavy but they help in communicating with the family to assure them all is well. Pro-tip: Remember to leave a trip plan with a friend or a family member.
Safety whistle A lightweight loud whistle should be worn on your pack or around your neck so it’s ready to use in case of an emergency. If you have a whistle use three blasts which is the international distress signal call for help.
A few ounces of sunscreen in a small bottle rated UPF 50 is necessary. Choose the sunscreen that has a high UPF to avoid carrying large quantities. A cap or hat should be your first line of defense against harmful sunlight rays. Consider hiking in sun gloves particularly in the desert and a long-sleeve shirt. Sunglasses are also valuable for good eye health. You really do not want to get sunburn on the trail.
A small headlamp with LED lights is often all you need. Specially if you are not going to hike in the dark. You don't need that overpriced heavy model that will give you a spotlight far away. You need a headlamp that goes a long way with its batteries that gives diffuse light so you can easily see your direct surroundings.
Chose one with a red light option to do even longer with your batteries when you like to read a book before your head off to bed.
Insulation and clothing Bring as little as possible. Go for zip-off pants to switch from hot days to cold nights. Use your rain jacket and rain pants to break wind and keep you warm at night. Bring thermal underwear to sleep in. A warm hat and gloves will give you that extra sleep comfort if you chose to take the lighter, less insulated sleeping bag.
Rain/storm gear Pack a rain jacket and pants, warm hat and gloves, and pack cover that are waterproof. They should be light and packed strategically at the top of your pack for quick access in case you need them quickly.
Footwear As a hiker you need quality footwear but it should be light. For socks just go for this strategy; wash one and wear one. Take merino wool socks for less smell and more comfort.
First-aid kit and repair kit
Bring the vital first aid and repair kits. These items include blister pads, gauze pads, bandages, pain-relief pills, tweazers. A bit of duct tape wrapped around a lighter is also really handy and weighs virtually nothing. A piece of gear-repair tape or duct tape is also good to repair a hole in your pack, air pad or the sleeping bag.
Cleaning and hygiene You need to stay healthy on the trail. Bring the following items to maintain that hygiene that you so much desire.
Have a small bottle of hand sanitizer to use after going to the bathroom and when preparing meals.
The toothpaste and the toothbrush need to be small in size.
Have a small piece of biodegradable soap which can be used to wash your hair, body and do the dishes. .
Take enough pieces of toilet paper per day. There might be no need to carry the whole roll. Bury your number two and the papers in the ground by making a hole with a lightweight trowel.
For the ladies; just handle menstruation as you would do at home and bring a plastic sealable bag so you don't need to throw anything away in nature.
Trekking poles Choose lightweight trekking poles but make sure that they are strong enough in a downhill situation to carry you + your pack when you need to lean on it with your full weight. Carbon trekking poles are sturdy and light. Poles are important for maintaining balance on rocky terrain, and reducing knee strain on hilly terrain. Trekking poles can also be used to support your tarp.
Luxury items Excite yourself with ultralight binoculars if you like to spot birds and/or a small journal to take notes in, for long lasting records, a digital camera or a laptop and a cellphone. Have a treat for the trail. Take those awesome photos and record those super moments. Use your judgement to select the most effective luxury items that are ultralight.
Note that while packing you need to start with the essentials. These include the navigation, sun protection, headlamp, sleeping bag (insulation), first aid kit, fire tools, food, shelter and water. All these backpacking items should be lightweight.
Make it a flashpack by packing only exactly what you need without extras. Plan and research on the language, culture, food, maps, key locations and maps of the trail region.
Analyze your trail and adjust your backpack with respect to that area. If it is a desert, prioritize on more water bottles. Research on the wildlife, terrain and permits to keep it safe and comfortable and to know what exactly to pack to avoid extra weight. Keep your backpack ultralight by packing just right.
Do you want to know what we pack for the trail? Read our detailed gear list for different backpacking situations in this blog post. The article has a FREE gear list download which is going to be super handy when you plan your next trip.