Going ultralight is a venerated skill – one that is honed by time, patience, experience, and lots of trial and error. With that, it’s no surprise why many people consider ultralight backpacking as a holy grail. After all, identifying and shedding considerable weight from your pack can be overwhelming, especially if you’re constantly succumbing to the temptation of bringing all the items you think you need to survive.
Fortunately, ultralight backpacking never has to be daunting. Ample research and proper preparation can do wonders for you and help you take the right step in becoming an expert ultralight backpacker. To make things even easier, we’ve listed all the information you need when picking your ultralight backpacking gear. Pay attention to all the details, and you’ll soon master the art of lightening your load.
Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking Gear
Before getting to the tips, let’s first delve deeper into the perks of ultralight backpacking and why cutting a few ounces from your pack can be worth it for you.
1. One of the most apparent reasons to go ultralight is the comfort and speed it can give on your trip. The less weight you carry in your backpack, the easier, better, and faster you’ll move, as there are fewer things to slow and weigh you down.
2. What’s great about backpacking is the chance to experience all types of terrains, from cobblestone streets, river crossings, dirt roads, washed-out tracks, steep ascents, and a whole lot more. By going ultralight, you’ll have better balance and agility regardless of how easy or difficult the way is.
3. Less weight also means fewer risks for injury and wear and tear of the body. As you’re carrying a lighter pack, your body will feel less strained and tired.
4. Ultralight backpacking is also convenient. It’s easier and quicker to pack and unpack your things. And with fewer, lighter items, it’s also far easier to keep your items organized inside your pack.
5. Lastly, ultralight backpacking can be faster to dry depending on the materials and fabric of the gear you choose. That way, you’ll never find yourself lugging heavy, wet clothes on the trail.
Tips for Picking Ultralight Backpacking Gear
Now that you’re aware of the benefits of opting for ultralight backpacking gear, it’s time to learn tips on how to pick the right ones for your adventure.
1. Start with the “Big Three.”
When it comes to going ultralight, there are three items in your gear that you need to focus on: your shelter, sleeping system, and backpack. These three are essentially the heaviest items you’d be carrying, so targeting these items will greatly help in reducing base weight.
A. Ultralight Shelter
If you’re going on a solo backpacking trip, you’d want a shelter that won’t exceed two pounds. If you’re backpacking with a partner or a friend, aim for one that won’t be over three pounds. Note that there are different types of shelters available, and the decision depends on your personal preferences or budget.
For instance, do you want to sleep in a tent? How many individuals will be sharing the shelter? Would you prefer to have an enclosed setup? Are you okay with sleeping on a tarp, hammock, or bivy instead? Do you need bug protection? Where can you sleep better: on the ground or off the ground?
Answering those questions can help you assess which type of shelter to bring. If you’re still uncertain, read on below as we’ll give you some insights.
- Ultralight Tents
Freestanding ultralight tents are traditional, enclosed shelters that provide the best protection from rain, snow, winds, bugs, and other elements. They’re most widely used by backpackers and are easy to set up. If you’re buying a one-person ultralight tent, expect that it’s one of the most expensive gear you’d be getting. If you’re sharing a tent instead, it cuts down on cost and shaves weight as you can split all the parts – poles, fly, and the tent itself.
Meanwhile, you can also choose between single-walled and double-walled tents. The former is obviously lighter and quicker to pitch due to the single layer of fabric. The catch is that they tend to be more costly and condensation is often an issue.
On the other hand, the latter has an inner tent body and an outer rainfly. They prevent condensation and have better ventilation. However, you may need to compromise with some features like multiple doors, storage space, and vestibules to save a few ounces.
- Tarp Shelters
Tarps are lightweight, versatile, durable, and cheap shelter options. Just note that while they can shield you from rain, wind, and other elements, they don’t come with floor and bug netting (which you can simply add by customizing them).
Most popular tarp shelters are built like a pyramid, supported by a central pole. Be wary while tarps are a minimalist method of shelter construction, they require ample time or practice for you to set them up properly. Once you learn how to do so, you’ll be surprised by how many ways you can configure tarps to suit a particular spot and weather condition.
Hammocks are another versatile, lightweight type of shelter as they don’t require staking, and you don’t need to find flat ground to set them up. Simply look for a pair of trees, and you’re good to set one up. Yet, be mindful that hanging a hammock may take time to get right. Not to mention that sleeping in a hammock without falling is another challenge, so it isn’t actually everyone. Once you learn the ropes, you can add mosquito netting, an underquilt, and a rainfly. Just remember all that adds to the weight and cost.
- Bivy Sack
Bivouac sacks, popularly known as bivy sacks, are waterproof, breathable enclosures that look like a cross between a one-person tent and a sleeping bag. They can shelter you from outside elements like how a tent does, but are more compact and lightweight, and cover the least amount of ground space. However, unlike tents, there’s no space for gear storage. Plus, there’s nothing much you can do inside them aside from lying down. So, having them in the middle of the storm may not be fun.
B. Ultralight Sleeping Bags
You should find the lightest sleeping bag that suits your personal comfort level, conditions, and budget. You might be surprised, but even the die-hard ultralight backpackers allow some leeway by adding a few ounces, as, after all, a good night’s sleep is essential to them.
Still, your sleeping bag should go beyond three pounds if possible. Aim for ones made of down material as they are lighter, more packable, and warmer compared to their synthetic counterparts. Though they can get wet, which can render them useless, having a dry pack liner prevents that from happening.
Warmer sleeping bags weigh more and are more expensive as they need more material for material insulation. That’s why it’s also important to check the temperatures in your intended destination before purchasing a bag. It doesn’t make sense to spend money on a costlier, heavier sleeping bag if you’re backpacking in warmer temperatures.
Alternatively, you can get a sleeping quilt instead. It’s an excellent lightweight, cheaper option if it’s not too cold where you’re planning to backpack. They’re designed to be used on top of a sleeping pad or mat and weigh less because they eliminate some of the features available in sleeping bags, like the hood, bottom insulation, and zippers. Some people love sleeping quilts as they offer more room to turn and sleep on your side, unlike sleeping bags, which can be confining.
C. Ultralight Backpacks
You must find a backpack that fits perfectly and is comfortable. You can find a wide array of products made by different brands as ultralight continues to become more popular. It’s better to try them out personally, load them up, and walk around to see if they’re comfy and fit well.
Just note that ultralight backpacks also usually have simple, minimal frames to no frames at all to cut on weight. Plus, there are also minimal shoulder and hip straps. While it’s nothing for people who don’t have problems with sore spots, you should think twice if you prefer better support and comfort.
Meanwhile, a lot of people often forget that a backpack has its own weight when empty. For ultralight backpacking, you must aim for a pack that weighs less than two pounds. These packs have smaller capacities and are designed for smaller loads with typical ranges between 30 to 60 liters. If you choose an ultralight backpack, see to it that you can commit to bringing lighter, more compact items, especially since these packs are usually made of thinner, lighter materials that may not be as hardwearing as traditional backpacks.
Expect that there are also fewer features. You’ll lose some pockets, padding thickness, and other luxuries, which can make ultralight backpacks quite difficult to use for beginners. If you’re hesitant, go back to the benefits and decide if they can outweigh all the cons.
2. Choose and pack clothes appropriately.
After optimizing the “Big Three,” ensure that you’re not overpacking on clothing. For instance, though you need to be ready to encounter bad weather amidst your trips, there’s no point in bringing clothing gear for Arctic conditions if you’re backpacking in the Peruvian summer. Don’t miss out on researching the common weather in the area you’re visiting so you can pack your clothes appropriately.
For warm days of backpacking, you can bring running shorts with built-in underwear and pair them with lightweight synthetic shirts. You can add a fleece zip-up as a mid-layer in case the weather gets chilly and a rain jacket to help you stay dry should there be an unexpected downpour.
If you’re expecting colder evenings, veer away from taking a bulky fleecy coat, and go for a layering system instead to stay warm. Apart from being easier to carry, they offer more options for different weather conditions.
Steer away from denim and cotton, as they are slow to dry and retain bad odor. Again, opt for synthetic fabrics. They are best suited for backpacking as they dry quickly and wick sweat off your body. That means that you can simply hang your clothes for about an hour, and they will be ready for use the next day.
Lastly, refrain from making the common mistakes other backpackers make – packing more than what’s needed. Always try to be minimal and limit the spares. Do you actually need to wear a new outfit each day? Most likely not. For most trips, duplicates aren’t actually necessary. You may simply blend your clothing if you really want to achieve a “new look.” Underwear and socks are the only exceptions. It’s good to bring 2-3 spares of each.
3. Skip the heavy boots.
First-time backpackers tend to buy large, heavy boots deeming that it’s what everyone is wearing. Truth to be told, you can skip the heavy boots unless you’re hiking and climbing a difficult trail. For most backpacking trips, a pair of lightweight trail runners or walking shoes will suffice. You’ll love how switching to them can take away considerable weight from your back.
If you really need support, you can opt for lightweight hiking boots. Also, add a pair of lightweight, durable sandals to wear while drying out your sweaty feet. Some diehard ultralight backpackers are even said to create extra holes in their sandals to save weight.
4. Pick a lightweight cooking system.
There are some ultralight backpackers who will do away with food that requires cooking. Instead, they resort to cold soaking, where all you’ll need is to drench dehydrated food and allow it to rehydrate over time. Some foods that you can cold soak include oatmeal, beans, lentils, and even ramen noodles.
If you cannot stand cold soaking and wish to enjoy a warm meal or coffee during your trip, don’t fret, as there are a lot of lightweight backpacking stove options.
For instance, you can bring a folding canister stove, which most backpackers opt to do. These stoves weigh only around two to three ounces, but they are very easy to use, convenient, and boil water quite faster than other stove options. Just note that you need to fasten them onto isobutane canisters, which can be quite heavy even when empty.
Alternatively, you can opt for integrated canister stoves. Though they’re heavier and bulkier than folding canister stoves, they boil water very quickly, allowing you to bring less fuel and save weight on your cooking system.
Meanwhile, alcohol stoves are a favorite of many backpackers. They are cheap, easy to make, and extremely lightweight. Their downside is that they have a slower boil time than canister stoves and produce less heat, which means you need to devote extra patience.
Another alternative fuel option is tablet stoves. Tablet stoves are light and won’t leak, unlike alcohol. Flames are also easier to put out, and you can also reuse the fuel on your next meal. But they can be quite difficult to light and don’t heat up much, so it will also take quite some time to cook your food.
Regardless of which cooking system you choose, make sure to check first the area’s regulations to know if cooking is allowed. Some locations are very strict, but others are less restrictive. Research thoroughly to stay out of trouble.
5. Opt for multipurpose gear.
Once you’ve gathered all the things you intend to carry, check them first and ensure that no same items do the same job. Don’t be redundant, and instead, maximize each item’s uses. You’d be surprised how many items you bring on your backpacking can serve more than one purpose. To give you an insight, here are some examples of multipurpose backpacking gear:
- A cooking pot can be utilized as a bowl — no need to pack a separate bowl when you can already eat right out of the cooking pot.
- A sleeping bag’s stuff sack can be converted into a pillow. Simply stuff it with your clothes and jacket. Some stuff sacks even have fleece due to this reason.
- Multitools include nearly all the tools you need for backpacking.
- A bandana can provide shade, cool you down on hot summer days, be used as a hair tie or makeshift tourniquet, be hung up as a signal flag, or even function as a water or coffee filter.
- Trekking poles can double up as tent poles. You can leave the dedicated tent poles and use the trekking poles to keep your shelter supported.
- Pants that zipper off or roll up into shorts are versatile and ideal for changes in the weather.
6. Ditch the non-essentials.
While checking your backpacking items for redundancy, assess whether you actually need all the items in front of you. Do you really need it? What may happen if you leave it? Are there any duplicates? Answering those questions can help you eliminate things that are unnecessary.
For example, do you really need to bring a separate camera? Or will your smartphone camera already suffice? Do you still need to bring your handheld GPS? Probably not if you’re traveling a short, well-marked trail. Should you still bring lots of primary toiletries? Or will you survive with sampler or travel sizes and just replenish where you go?
Remember not to go crazy for the sake of getting rid of things. Some items are worth the weight. While you can use leaves for wiping, you should never swap your toilet paper for them unless you can tolerate a butt with rashes throughout your trip.
7. Keep your water weight low.
Water is vital for backpackers. You must stay hydrated before, during, and after your trip, especially if you’re bound to a longer adventure. However, water is heavy, weighing around 1 kilogram per liter. Adding water to your pack will greatly increase your overall pack weight. Luckily, there are simple steps to keep your water weight at a minimum.
- Use a normal disposable water bottle. You may see other backpackers carrying robust bottles on trails. That’s okay if you’re taking a longer trip. But if you’re only backpacking for an hour or two, a normal disposable water bottle will usually be enough. It’s about a tenth of the cost and a tenth of the weight. Just be responsible and leave no trace. Reuse it as much as possible and recycle it after.
- Don’t carry more water than you need. Bring only enough and use lightweight water filter options to get access to clean drinking water when necessary on the trail.
- Drink like a camel. If you get to a water source, drink as much as you can before setting off again. That will replenish your body with enough fluids and prevent dehydration. Plus, it means that you don’t have to carry as much water in your backpack.
- Determine where the next water source is. If you know that the next water source is halfway through the 10-kilometer trail, then you can safely carry a single liter of water in your backpack. If you learned from the updated trail information provided by the local ranger station that the creek is completely dried up, you know you need to bring lots of water. Doing research and being well-informed doesn’t only help to carry less but also keep you safe on your trip.
8. Be strict with weight.
While there’s no official standard, you can be generally considered an ultralight backpacker if you keep your base weight below 10 pounds. Base weight is computed by subtracting the weight of the consumables (food, water, and fuel) from the total weight of your backpack.
Limiting the total weight of your gear to only 10 pounds can be quite a difficult task. With that, you must be strict and count every ounce, especially when you’re purchasing a new game. For example, your shelter must weigh below 2 pounds. You saw a bag which is around 2 pounds. Is it really 2 pounds? Or 2 pounds and 7 ounces?
Though they may seem small, allowing all those few ounces can sum up quickly and will eventually result in something substantial. So, have more discipline and be nitty-gritty with the weight of every item in your backpack.
Picking ultralight backpacking gear is a tricky feat, as there are always upsides, repercussions, and factors to consider. Some people even resort to going ultralight, only to find out that it isn’t for them. But if you’re serious about going light and fast, and enjoying all the benefits of ultralight backpacking offers, make sure to follow these tips when choosing your gear. As you go on more trips, your expertise will grow, and you’ll find the sweet spot in backpacking with an ultralight load. Stay safe, and have fun in all your adventures!