We’ve all been there before, that moment when you are 6 miles in on the trail and realize you have too much junk in the trunk. You’ve packed the Bertha of packs and your back is paying for it. The camp slippers, card games, roll of duct tape and Costco-sized sunblock are adding up. Taking Grandpa’s external frame backpack that weighs 7 lbs. alone may hold nostalgic and sentimental value, but is one of those items that should stay home if you want to segue into the lightweight backpacking world. It is important to consider being up to times in gear, but also to be familiarized and comfortable with it as well. Here are some tips and tricks to keep that backpacking trip on the fun list as you aim for ultralight packing.
As with most things, practice makes perfect. The more experience you gain in packing for hiking trips, the more accurate and fluid it becomes. Ultralight gear is an investment and there’s a method to the madness. There are definitely a few cons with the prices and overall durability. Luckily, there are several outdoor companies with exceptional lifetime warranties. Some ultralight hikers will take minimalism the extra mile and even sew their own gear or cut off extra straps, tags, fasteners, etc. to trim weight. As this certainly holds pros and cons, consider comfort, durability, and personal sewing skills when going into these routes. An ultralight backpack weight should be in the range of 5-20 lbs., although sometimes this is impossible to achieve when you are needing to consider cold temperatures and carrying water weight.
- Prepare and plan ahead. Allow yourself plenty of time to pack, organize, and plan out your menu.
- Weigh your gear before you go. Ditch some gear you don’t need and then weigh your gear again. Repeat as necessary.
- Take ONLY what you need and a very few lightweight creature comforts that will help make your trip more enjoyable.
- Take into consideration the season and elements you will encounter along the journey to be equipped properly.
- Make a packing list, but prioritize must-haves vs. non-essentials.
- Investigate your weight and height ratio to the maximum weight you are safely supposed to carry for your body type. A backpack should not exceed 20% of your total body weight.
- The duration of the trip plays a big role in the pack weight. Going for 6 nights? Consider instant food that is lighter with higher calorie and protein contents. Going for 2 nights? You can probably ditch the stove, fuel, pot set, and more.
- Hiking with others? Divvying up supplies and sharing gear really helps eliminate weight! Contemplate sharing the stove, meals, tent, fuel, water treatment, first aid, sunscreen, etc.
- If you are tired enough from a long day of hiking, you will probably be more comfortable and sleep better anywhere without the need of all of the creature comforts.
- John Muir would go off into the woods for two days with just some bread crusts. We can probably all skip the 3 course meal.
- Don’t duplicate. There is no need to pack redundancy on anything. Except for maybe socks and underwear. Use items that are multi-purpose or multi-functioning.
If you are going to be backpacking in 70 degree weather with a low of 50s at night, you probably don’t need a zero degree sleeping bag. Do remember that the temperature rating of your sleeping bag is the survival rating. Consider investing in a down sleeping bag, as these are typically lighter, warmer, and can compress into smaller sizes. The “down side” of these would be the inability to get wet (this would make them heavy and unusable), although some companies have begun to make Dri-Down bags that would be water resistant. Ultralight down blankets, down quilts, or ½ sleeping bags are a great option for warmer weather. A sleeping bag liner may be helpful to add more warmth to your sleeping kit.
Sleeping pads come in all shapes, sizes, weights, and comforts. Sleeping pads have what is called R-Value ratings. This relates to the overall warmth and insulation of the sleeping pad. A 5 R-Value rating is the highest and would be the warmest sleeping pad, therefore most suitable for winter backpacking. For 3-season backpacking, consider obtaining a 2—4 R-Value rating. A winter sleeping pad will most likely weigh more due to having heavier insulation. I personally prefer inflatable sleeping pads to help reduce weight and bulk. Foam sleeping pads are cheaper, more durable and won’t be able to spring a leak on you, but they are bulky and heavier. Half foam and half inflatable can be a nice middle ground, although bulk and weight can be an issue with these as well. Are you certain you'll find some soft grass, moss, or dirt to sleep on and be comfortable enough? Perhaps the sleeping pad isn’t needed if the weather is fine.
If this is a must for you, inflatable pillows are a luxury item to bring along. Otherwise, using extra clothing, stuff sacks, and a jacket for an improvised pillow works great.
Depending on the time of year, climate, weather, amount of bugs, and terrain- there are many options to work with.
-Tent: A tent is the best shelter away from the elements, along with having the most space, but will ultimately weigh the most and has the most bulk. Ruminate over the type of tent you’d like to invest in. Ideally you will want to use a tent under 5 lbs. Inspect the overall weight, bulk, height, length, tent windows, number of doors, stow pockets, ventilation, foot print, packability, tent poles, vestibule type, the rainfly space, and check to see if it is free-standing or needs anchors/tent stakes.
Use trekking poles to hike with? Perhaps a trekking pole tent style (floorless tent) will be best for you. Bringing a friend, a dog, the family, or need a bit of extra space? An ultralight two or three person tent may be ideal. Anything above a 3-person tent begins to get bulky and heavier, so it is ideal to divide and conquer the group into 2 or 3 people per tent. Prefer to tent solo? Single tents are great for cutting the weight, but also may minimal space and room for any gear inside the shelter. I personally love having a two person ultralight tent so I can backpack with others, or have room for all of my gear. A 4-season tent should really only be needed in high alpine environments or winter camping. These tents tend to be quite heavy and bulky in comparison to 3-season. You can upgrade the tent stakes to cut off some extra ounces or use rocks at camp to anchor the rainfly instead of bringing extra stakes along.
-Tarp or Tyvek: Using a tarp or Tyvek is an excellent option in specific regions and climates. It is cheap, extremely ultralight, multi-functioning, and the most simple to set up. It makes a wonderful emergency shelter burrito to wrap up in or sleep on top of. It can also be used as a tie down shelter in the trees. I would personally not want to be under a tarp in a Pacific Northwest storm, but using a tarp in an area such as the Grand Canyon can work out well. Keep in mind critters that may be curious, however. An emergency blanket can also be utilized like a tarp.
-Bivvy: A bivvy is a great middle ground between a tarp and a tent. It provides shelter and prevents exposure from the elements. It is ultralight and very compact. It can build up moisture on the inside, especially if the area is of high humidity. It can also feel quite claustrophobic and has no space for any gear storage, but is very simple, breathable, and a great option to have if you are concerned about bugs and exposure to elements.
-Hammock: A hammock can be great, but it can also be very uncomfortable if it is set up incorrectly. Test this out first before taking it on a backpacking trip. The area where you will be backpacking must also have a plethora of trees that are allowed to host hammocks. Hammocks are a lot cooler due to having an ample amount of air flow and space in between you and the ground. Prepare accordingly with this in mind. Bug nets and rain covers can be purchased additionally for hammocks. Hammocks are only recommended for solo sleeping. Ultralight, compact, and fun.
-Nothing: Good weather in the forecast? Not buggy? Don’t mind possibly getting your sleeping bag dirty? Go for it.
An extremely important piece of gear that will quickly become a best friend or worst enemy. The piece of equipment that stores all of the junk in your trunk. There are a lot of great ultralight brands out there that make good quality packs. I suggest first deciding on whether or not you would like a backpack with a frame or without. Frameless backpacks are more lightweight, but they may not be as comfortable as a pack with a solid frame. I personally like the 25-60 L range packs for multi-day backpacking. Choose a backpack that fits your body type. Rain in the forecast? Investigate the weight of the raincover vs. the weight of lining your pack with a trash bag.
Carbon fiber poles tend to be the lightest on the market. Some hikers prefer to use ski poles as they are lighter on the wallet and on the pole. Trekking poles help with stability, weight distribution, balance, probing (in water and mud areas), and can be used for trekking pole tent styles.
Water and shelter is most important. Food is on the back burner. Consider quick cooking, light foods, and only pack what you need. Know the exact amount of food you will need for the amount of energy you plan to spend. High protein and shelf stable snacks are ideal. Peanut butter, dehydrated foods. tuna packets, couscous, and freeze dried meal rations are common staples. It won’t be a Michelin star meal out there, but it will do the trick. There are a lot of great resources online to prepare and plan your lightweight meal packing. Going simple with the food is best for ultralight. You can have lasagna and creme brulee when you return from the backcountry and it will be very rewarding.
Petzl E+Lite, Petzl Zipka, Firefly Ultralight, Nitecore NU25, or Biolite 200 rechargeable headlamps are lighter options.
Only carry the water weight that you absolutely need to carry. Drink more water in the morning before the start of the hike and after filling up and filtering the water at stops. This will allow you to carry less water weight along the journey, but be able to remain hydrated. In most areas with streams, creeks, rivers, lakes, ponds, etc. you can get away with carrying 1-2 liters of water. Do your research though and make sure there is an ample water source throughout.
Hydrapaks, Smartwater bottles, and water bladders are lighter than Nalgenes or stainless steel water bottles.
A mini filter, purification tablets, Aquamira, or a SteriPEN are the best ultralight ways to treat water. Boiling water can also be utilized if you plan to bring a stove. If there happens to be a lot of sediment in the water, you can let it settle overnight and then filter or treat it in the morning. Terrible tasting water? After treating it, you can add some water flavor or electrolyte packets to enhance the taste.
To stove or not to stove?
A warm meal or beverage is definitely comforting on a backpacking trip, but not necessary. It adds a lot of extra weight. A homemade alcohol stove, jet boil,or pocket rocket are light stove options. Remember matches and/or a lighter. Bring enough fuel for the duration of the journey.
Titanium is ultralight, more durable than plastic and won’t melt with heat. You really only need something to eat out of and to eat with. If you bring a stove, use the cooking pot as your bowl. A drinking cup is optional, as you could use a bowl or a bottle for this. You can also cut a plastic spoon in half to reduce weight.
First Aid Kit
Pack only a very small amount of essential items that you think or know you will need. A couple of different sized bandaids, ibuprofen, vaseline, foot care, triple antibiotic ointment, alcohol wipes, and common remedies. Investigate different ultralight first aid kit lists online. A pre-made Ultralight Adventure Medical Kit can be a good option for group travel. Don't forget pertinent medication specific to you or your group. Also consider taking electrolytes.
Keep this very basic. Put toiletries in much smaller containers than what they come in. There is no need to impress someone outdoors with your perfume or good smelling armpits and nature doesn’t care what you smell like or look like. Pack the exact amount of toothpaste you need for the duration of the trip, use a travel toothbrush, a kid’s toothbrush, or consider cutting off the handle on a standard brush. Pull the exact amount of floss you would need from your dental floss box (this can also be used for sewing or tying things). If you must bring a hairbrush or comb, make sure it is minimal. Bring the exact amount of sunblock and bug spray you will need for the trip. Toilet paper is optional, but don’t take the entire roll. Pack a travel size hand sanitizer if you forgo the biodegradable soap. Plan on being out for longer than 2 nights? Baby Wipes can be dried, cut into squares, and rehydrated when you want to use them. Keep skin care, eye care, and feminine products simple. A small pack towel or face cloth is optional.
A small multi-tool or pocket knife. I like to have a multi-tool that has small scissors on it. Roll up a small amount of duct tape around your trekking pole, water bottle, or around a small piece of paper. For longer journeys, I carry super glue, a couple of zip ties, a little bit of paracord, gorilla or gear repair tape, patches, and a mini sewing kit.
This is where I see most people going overboard when packing. If you are headed out on a 4 day trip, you DO NOT need 5 t-shirts. One will do.
-Shorts or pants: Your choice. You probably only need one pair.
-Shirt: Depending on the region, a merino wool, breathable, cotton, quick dry, spandex, or polypropylene works.
-Jacket: A down or insulated jacket for warmth.
-Bandana: It can work as a sun protector on the neck, a pot holder, a headband, a coffee filter, or a tourniquet.
-Raingear: A rain shell. If there is heavy rain, over time even the most expensive rain jacket will not hold out the moisture. For warmer areas, shorts with gaiters work well instead of rain pants. Poncho, Frogg Toggs,or Umbrella can be alternatives.
-Socks: 1 or two pairs at most. Merino wool is great.
-Underwear: Quick-dry, breathable, and lightweight.
-Sunglasses or sunhat: Essential in the sun!
-Eyewear case: Optional
-GPS watch: Optional
-Camp shoes: Optional
-Gloves, warm hat, insulated pants, down booties, and base layers: Dependent on the time of year and environment.
Less is more. Unless there's weather or bad ankles that need to be considered, trail runners or hiking shoes will usually be sufficient enough for most multi day trips. Check out the Oboz Women’s or Men’s Arete Lows, built to go light and fast.
Are you in grizzly country or an area where critters are abundant? An Ursack is a light alternative to a bear canister and is also critter proof. An Armored Ratsack is good for areas where ravens, rats, and other rodents are present, but this adds bulky weight to your pack. Check to see if the area where you are hiking allows hanging your food items. Bear spray, a head net, foot traction, and an ice-axe may be other needed items depending on the environment.
-Podcasts, music, reading materials, star chart, camera, audio books, note taking, GPS, etc. Your phone can do these, but do you really need your phone? Don’t bring a 6 foot long usb cable, they have 6 inch cables instead.
-Headphones: Optional, but are a luxury item.
-Ear plugs: Optional.
-Topographic maps: Recommended. Know your skills and capability.
-Battery pack or solar charger: For longer trips.
-Extra batteries: Optional.
-Ziplocs: are your friend. Although not as durable as stuff sacks, these work to keep your food, gear, and items separate, clean, and dry. A Ziploc makes a great waterproof wallet to store your ID and debit/ credit cards if needed.
-Garmin In-Reach Mini or SOS device: Optional.
-Cotton balls with vaseline: For fire starting, optional.
Note, never pack everything on this list. Feel free to add items you feel are necessary, but only take what you really need.
Remember, LESS IS MORE. Happy Trails.