Last Updated: 12/11/16 - Every outdoor adventure starts with packing.
Whether you are trying to conquer an enormous mountain or simply taking a walk in nature, you will require some supplies.
However, the amount of supplies you need will depend on the length of the hike.
When it comes to longer expeditions, experienced hikers know how important it is to travel light.
At the end of the day, excessive pounds are one of the main things that will drag you down during a hike.
Ultralight backpacking is a relatively new concept. It only started taking place within the last 20 years. Before that, people would carry up to 70 pounds of supplies. Hikers realized that having less weight is much more efficient.
Nowadays, most of the hiking trails have camps and stores along the way, allowing campers to resupply as they go. In fact, some of the National Scenic Trails such as the Appalachian Trail are so organized that you can easily get water and shelter no matter where you are.
Ultralight Backpacking Guide (How to Easily Conquer Lightweight Hiking)
Table of Contents
First of all, we need to define weight categories based on the things you are carrying:
- Base pack weight refers to everything in your pack excluding food and the clothes you are wearing
- Total pack weight includes the backpack and food (without the clothes you are wearing)
- Total base weight includes the backpack and clothes you are wearing (without food)
- Skin out weight refers to all supplies and it excludes your own weight
- Total weight refers to all supplies, including your own weight
For inexperienced hikers, this categorization may seem excessive. In the end, why would you count your own weight?
Here’s the thing!
When performing such a grueling physical activity, every pound counts. You are not only carrying your backpack, but also your entire body.
As your total weight increases, hiking becomes harder and harder. In other words, although these categories may seem irrelevant at first glance, they can help you determine whether your thru-hike will be successful or not. This is regardless of your physical shape.
Naturally, physical shape is not the only factor. We also need to consider mental strength. For example, if you have excess body weight but are determined to thru-hike a path, you will find it hard at first, but it will eventually get easier as you start to lose weight.
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Another common categorization is based on your base pack weight:
- Heavy – base pack weight is more than 30 pounds
- Normal – base pack weight is less than 30 pounds
- Lightweight – base pack weight is less than 20 pounds
- Ultralightweight – base pack weight is less than 10 pounds
- Super Ultralightweight – base pack weight is less than 5 pounds
As you can see, it is possible to hike certain trails with minimal supplies. However, there is one thing you should bear in mind. Reduction of weight should only be done if it fits your personal preferences. For example, if you wish to eat nicer food or bring some books with you, it is better to carry them.
Naturally, by decreasing the amount of supplies, hiking becomes easier. Nevertheless, you might still choose to bring some additional things if they make you feel safer or if you prefer having some additional luxuries.
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As said before, hiking (especially longer hikes a.k.a. thru-hikes) is both a mental and physical activity. You shouldn’t do things that will improve your physical state if they will jeopardize your mental shape.
Pros and Cons of Ultralight Backpacking
Before you decide to go ultralight, it is necessary to consider the pros and cons.
A lot of experienced hikers will tell you that ultralight camping is the way to go. But, this might not always be the case.
First, let’s check all of the upsides:
- It is much easier, especially during longer expeditions
- It protects your back from short-term and long-term injuries
- Ultralight backpacking is usually much cheaper
- It gives you more freedom.
Now, let’s make a list of the downsides:
- You require a lot of hiking experience to go ultralight
- Unlike standard gear made from durable materials, ultralight gear is much more susceptible to wear and tear
- It provides less comfort
- You can’t easily adapt to any situation
Basically, ultralight camping is tailor-made for experienced hikers.
If you are going for a shorter expedition/hike, you can allow yourself to go light even if you are inexperienced. In the end, you probably won’t encounter many dangers so there is no reason to worry.
Ultralight backpacking is a great solution for all those who wish to escape their daily routine and reconnect with nature. Due to a small number of supplies and additional items that may provide entertainment, you will be forced to enjoy your surroundings. Ultimately, this is the reason you went hiking in the first place, right?
Potential dangers are another thing that needs to be considered. In this case, there is no clear winner.
Why? Let me explain.
For example, light backpacking will allow you to escape bad weather more quickly as your mobility will be increased. However, on the other hand, if you wear a big backpack full of different things, you will always have enough food and medical supplies. You can also rely on a tent, unlike lightweights who have to run to a shelter each and every night.
Nevertheless, when you go hiking, you are likely to see more people with heavy backpacks. Therefore, you may think that having a big backpack is better. This is simply caused by the market as companies tend to sell bigger and more expensive camping supplies.
Basic Tips for Ultralight Backpacking
Even with all the other benefits, the main purpose of ultralight backpacking is to hike longer distances in a shorter period of time.
Here are 7 basic pointers that will guide you through the packing process:
- Try and reduce each item’s weight – Traditional camping supplies are usually made from sturdy materials which can survive a lot of abuse. It is necessary to swap them with items that are made from lighter fabrics. This is the main reason why minimalist backpacking is so uncomfortable yet, so cost-efficient.
- Weigh items before you start the journey – Occasionally, we may think that something is small and light, when in fact, this item can be replaced with something even lighter.
- Obviously, you should carry as few items as possible - People start adding small items thinking they do not weigh much, but they definitely add up. You should only pack items that are absolutely necessary. Make sure you get as many multipurpose items as possible.
- Resupply as you go and learn more about the trail/mountain – Scenic trails are big attractions. There are a lot of shops along the way. You can get most of the necessities as you go which will help to lighten your load.
- If you are going in a group, make sure to split the load between yourselves.
- Do not carry duplicate items (except for socks) – You can always dry your wet clothes, and you can also get clothes made from impregnable materials. During a longer hike-thru, hikers change several pairs of boots. Again, this doesn’t mean you should carry spare ones.
- Avoid carrying tech items, books and other forms of entertainment – No matter how fun they seem on paper, they will only increase the overall weight.
Most lightweight veterans sew their own clothes and backpacks. This is another way that you can make a reduction. You can modify almost anything or find its lighter counterpart. Ultralight backpacking is mostly about improvisation, unlike traditional camping and hiking where you buy most of the supplies in advance.
Main Hiking Gear (Backpack, Shelter, and Sleeping Bag)
During any expedition or hike, you should always focus on three big groups of items: backpacks, sleeping systems, and shelter.
This ultralight camping gear represents the heaviest things you need to carry, and at the same time, things where you can save the most:
- Backpack – According to the overall philosophy of ultralight backpackers, your backpack needs to shrink. Given that you will carry fewer items, you will need a smaller container for it all. You can easily find backpacks that weigh around 1 pound. If you cannot put all of your supplies in it, you probably failed during preparation.
- Shelter – You can choose between several products when it comes to shelter. Your optimal choice will vary based on weather and insects. First of all, we need to mention tents. They are probably not the best option, but they are definitely the most comfortable and can protect you from insects. On the other hand, tarps are much lighter. You may also want to consider Bivy sacks as they are extremely light.
- Sleeping bag and sleeping pad (sleeping system) – Similarly to shelter, functionality is the first thing that needs to be taken into account. It is necessary to sleep in a warm bag as energy is crucial during hiking. On the other hand, you shouldn’t get a bag that is much warmer than necessary. This will only mean more weight to carry. It is always better to pick products that are made of synthetic materials as they are much lighter and provide some degree of protection.
The weight of these items is directly affected by their comfort and warmth. Generally speaking, resistance to water is not part of the equation as there are materials which can protect you from rain without weighing much. This is the basis of minimalist camping.
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Managing Your Food, Water, and Fuel
Consumables are a huge factor during hiking and this is where most people go wrong.
It is a cold hard fact that you cannot hike without energy. But, that doesn’t mean you should overburden yourself. Most hiking trails and mountain destinations are well organized and you can easily resupply as you go. There are usually water sources on the trails and places to get some food.
Here are some tips which will help you manage the consumables:
- Water – Water is the first and most important thing on our list. You should never carry more than one liter (unless you are in a hot climate). Make sure to drink a lot when you are at springs. You need to treat it like food, drinking plenty at once and small sips throughout the rest of the day.
- Food – Some people love to cook big meals when they go hiking. However, lightweight backpackers prefer efficiency. This means that meals should primarily serve a purpose and not a desire. Always eat energy rich food as when you are on a trail, you will constantly be energy deprived. You can even eat more than you need, but just make sure you to eat food that can be easily prepared. Furthermore, you can save some additional space in your backpack by dehydrating and packing the food yourself. Industrial packaging can be too large.
- Fuel – You will primarily use fuel for cooking. In that regard, it all depends on how much you plan to cook. Perhaps the best solution is to find other hikers and prepare a meal with them. This way, you can use the same fuel for cooking without unnecessary waste.
There are many other ways to be efficient with your consumables. For example, some hikers make a thorough plan and place food caches along the way. Either way, you will have to prepare properly and get all the necessary information regarding natural springs and shops.
- Do not carry stakes for your shelter. You can always use nearby rocks.
- Make sure everything in your backpack is dry. Morning dew can easily increase the weight of your clothes and other items.
- Avoid natural fabrics such as cotton and wool. Synthetic materials are much lighter and they serve the same purpose.
- Your socks should be the only clothing item made from natural materials (wool to be precise). It is important to have dry and warm feet at all times.
- You should use clothes or other fabric as a pillow.
- Unless you are going for a longer hike, there is no need to carry boots. Instead, you can opt for lighter sneakers. Having ultralight hiking gear is a must.
- Swiss army knife – the only tool you’ll ever need.
- Bring a lightweight pair of hiking sunglasses!
- Flush your water filter. Water that remains inside can add some extra weight.
- Use the same pot for everything. There is no need to carry excess cookware.
- Trekking poles are amazing. Not only do they provide extra support during hiking, they can also be used as a tool.
- Avoid any and all cosmetic products.
- Break and modify the items when possible. A good example is your toothbrush. By breaking off the handle, you can get some additional space in your backpack.
- Medicine is important. During longer trips, you will likely need gauze and bandages. However, that doesn’t mean you should carry the entire pack.
- There is no need to carry extra batteries. If you have several devices, you can swap batteries between them if a battery dies out.
- Organize your food properly. By dehydrating food and grouping it in one big bunch, you can easily save space. There is no need to carry various types of food.
Ultralight backpacking requires some experience. If it’s your first hike, you probably won’t know what you’re doing. As you learn new things, you will be able to adapt and change your habits accordingly.
Nevertheless, even if you are new to the camping game, that doesn’t mean you can’t lose some weight. Newbies are usually fearful when climbing a mountain or hiking a trail, so they often tend to over pack. That is exactly why these tips are here to help you.
A lack of physical preparation is common among new hikers, which is precisely why you will appreciate ultralight camping and hiking.
Have you tried going ultralight? What is your experience? Share it in the comments section below!