An Intro to Ultralight Backpacking

An Intro to Ultralight Backpacking

As you've probably noticed by now, “ultralight” hiking gear has become a major trend in the backpacking community. So, what's all the hubbub about? First of all, let's talk about what ultralight (UL) backpacking is and what constitutes UL gear.

What is Ultralight Backpacking?

While there is no official definition for ultralight backpacking, Wikipedia sums it up rather concisely: “Ultralight backpacking is a style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip.” This applies to a pack's "base weight", which includes everything that goes in your pack (shelter, sleep system, cooking supplies, clothing, etc.) but does not include consumables such as food and water.

So, what qualifies as being “ultralight”? Well, that depends on who you ask as there are no hard-set standards and individual preferences vary. In general, though, backpackers shoot for a base weight under 15 lbs., with many going much lower than that, targeting sub-10 lb. base weights. Keep in mind this is for 3-season gear.

Philosophy and Perks

UL backpacking is more of a mindset, for most, than a hardcore trend to be followed arbitrarily. Ultralight backpacking makes you evaluate what you really NEED. For example, you may love that cast iron skillet that was your grandmother's, but do you really want to be lugging something that heavy around the wilderness? That may not be the best example because I'm not sure who would want to carry something that heavy in the first place, but consider your sleeping bag and/or tent. They may seem relatively light by themselves, but are they? Considering they are your two biggest items, their weight can add up quickly.

Think about all of your backpacking trips over the past year or two. How many of the items in your bag did you actually use? Do you have items in your pack that are always there, but have yet to actually be used out on the trail? That is the heart of ultralight hiking: Evaluating these things and finding substitutions or completely getting rid of them.

With that being said, let's take a look at some of the most commonly reported benefits of this style of backpacking.

  • More comfort - This one is pretty obvious, but less weight means more overall comfort on your outdoor adventures. Plus, less weight means less stress on your body in the long run, allowing you to enjoy backpacking for years to come!
  • Travel farther - A lighter pack will also allow you to hike for longer distances since you can generally go faster with a lighter pack.
  • Enjoy your surroundings more - Many hikers say they were able to enjoy the actual nature aspect of their treks more once making the switch to UL. This likely goes back to the comfort aspect and not focusing on aches and pains or fiddling with poor or unnecessary gear.
  • Find items more easily - Obviously, if you have a smaller pack and fewer items in it, it's a lot easier to find the items you do need! No more wasting time trying to find some small item that has shifted and gotten buried in your pack somewhere.
  • Easier to find a campsite - Many ultralight backpackers opt for not only lighter, but more compact shelters. (i.e. a bivy and tarp or hammock) This makes finding a suitable campsite even easier.
  • Traverse tricky areas - With a lighter pack, your center of gravity won't be thrown off as much. This means you won't have to worry about losing your balance as much in difficult terrain, arguably making crossing slippery streams, hiking up loose rock, and scrambling over boulders a bit easier.

Getting Started

As you can imagine, there are a number of suggestions out there on getting started in UL backpacking. Below you'll find some simple, easy ways to cut back on weight as well as some more in-depth ones.

  • Naturally, it is recommended to start by replacing your heaviest items with lighter weight versions; backpack, shelter, and sleep system. As mentioned earlier, a bivy and tarp or even hammock are good options. Even a lightweight tent can save you several pounds compared to “normal” ones. Plenty of UL sleeping pads can be found on the market now. Down quilts and bags tend to be lighter and more packable than those that use synthetic materials.
  • Multi-purpose items are your friends. For example, trekking poles can be used as support poles for some tents and tarps. A poncho can be used as a makeshift rain shelter. Possibilities are endless! Speaking of multi-purpose, most UL backpackers aim to use 3-season gear to further eliminate extra items and costs.
  • If you have the time and desire, you can even replace some items with skills. For example, if you know how to (and are allowed to where you are camping) make a fire, you don't necessarily need a backpacking stove, which will also save you on carrying the fuel for it. If you are knowledgeable about finding water sources, you won't need to carry as much with you “just to be safe”. 
  • If you'll be backpacking with others, share items. Back to the subject of stoves, even if you're camping in a group, does each person in the group really need their own stove? Does someone have a 2-person tent they are willing to share, eliminating the need for two people to each carry one?

 

A down quilt and short torso sleeping pad embody the ultralight philosophy of bringing only what you need.

In addition to actual hard goods, you can save some weight on your consumable items as well.

  • Food, fuel, and water can take up a lot of room and weight as well. Take only what you'll absolutely need. 
  • Carry less water, if you are able, opting to filter more often, provided there are plenty of reliable water sources in the area. You can also switch to a more compact filtering system, such as a water bottle that has the filter built-in, iodine tablets, or just boil it if that will leave your water safe enough to drink. 
  • Believe it or not, even food can be cut down. Here are some suggestions to consider as far as how much food you need each day: 2.5 pounds per day for thru-hiking and 1.25 pounds per day for a 3-season, 3-day backpack. It should go without saying, but be sure to pack plenty of high-protein snacks, such as nuts, peanut butter, and energy bars. Foods that can be rehydrated via boiling them (Ramen and other pasta) or by using the cold soak method (oatmeal) are good options for meals.

Conclusion

Though many backpackers have been converts of the ultralight movement, debate remains whether it is really worth making the switch or not. As with most things in life, it is purely a personal choice.

Will making a few small sacrifices to lighten your load make your trip more enjoyable? Will you be able to walk further and/or without as much, or any, discomfort if you opt into ultralight gear?

On the flip-side, maybe you like having some of the creature comforts on the trail and are alright with carrying the extra load on your back.

Again, that is only for you to decide. Stick with what feels comfortable to you and don't be swayed by the current trend if it doesn't align with your own preferences.

Have you made the switch to ultralight hiking gear? Why or why not? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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