Ultralight backpacking isn’t a science, it’s a folly of errors. The best way to learn what you need and don’t need is to pack your bags and go. Chances are you will soon realize that 40 pounds and the kitchen sink aren’t all that helpful.
Fortunately, you can skip the shoulder and lower back pain by spending some time doing a little research. Learn from other people’s mistakes rather than your own (something I suck at royally), and you’ll save yourself some choice words and a boatload of headaches.
Whether it’s your first backpacking trip or your tenth, you can always learn some new tricks of the trade that will shave weight off your pack. We’ve put together a solid list of ideas and ways to shave every ounce physically possible from your pack.
Before You Go
You start thinking and planning for an ultralight hike before you leave. Every choice you make beforehand will have an immediate and lasting effect once you hit the trail. The pre-hike stage is the first step into the ultralight world.
This is your new best friend when preparing for your next trek. Weigh everything before you pack it, you’ll be surprised to find out how much you think things way versus their actual weight. You may be able to find lighter alternatives for most of your gear.
2. Trail Runners
Trail running shoes have become the norm for long distance thru-hikers. They weigh substantially less than their leather counterparts and are comfortable out of the box. Hiking boots take some time to break in and we all know it’s not always a painless transition.
3. Synthetic Materials
When you start packing your clothes for a backpacking trip avoid heavy materials such as cotton. Stick with synthetic materials or a 50/50 blend, clothes get heavy and get heavy fast.
4. Ultralight Stove
There are a ton of options when it comes to ultralight stoves. An alcohol stove is going to be the lightest, however, it won’t be the most efficient. A hot meal on the trail is always something to look forward during the midday grind.
5. Carry As Little As Possible
This should go without saying, obviously you want to pare down your pack. A good rule of thumb for the beginner is to pack, then take everything out and cut it in half. We’re shooting for 20-25 pounds, the lighter the better.
6. Never Double Up
You only need to have one of everything, there is no sane reason to be packing two pairs of jeans, or jeans at all for that matter. Socks and underwear are the only exceptions to this rule, they both get nasty fast.
7. Resupply points
On the major three thru-hikes, you are never more than a handful of days from a resupply point. You don’t need to carry food and supplies for weeks on end, no reason to. Keep your consumables to a minimum and coordinate resupplies as you go.
8. Get Off The Grid
You don’t need your I-pad, Kindle, and cell phone. They only add weight and distractions to your journey, go internet dark while your on this journey. You’ll get much more out of the experience.
9. Load Sharing
If you are backpacking with a friend or a group of friends for that matter, share the load. Take turns packing weight and split the consumables evenly among the group. It gives everyone a lighter pack and forms a stronger bond among the group.
Consumables on the Trail
Walking long distances each and every day, having it as your sole purpose in life, you’re going to burn calories and burn ’em fast. Food, water, and fuel are three things that you cannot live without. Minimizing each of the three will shave pounds off your back, not ounces, especially water.
According to Scientific American, depending on the conditions you can live anywhere from a few hours to a week without water. Therefore, clean water is the single most important thing that you need to have access to, not necessarily carry. If you know you’ll be by a water source then sanitizing your water as you go will be the best option.
Backpacking food is a close second to water, for obvious reasons. You need the energy to burn while walking 20-30 miles a day. Backpacking food comes in all shapes and sizes. For the ultralight backpacker, in which weight is king, freeze-dried and caloric dense meals are the go-to.
12. Fuel Source
Pack a fuel source, there’s no need to be too hard-core to cook a hot meal, cold meals get old fast. This is going to depend entirely on the backpacking stove, just be sure to bring enough fuel until the next checkpoint.
The Big Three Backpacking Items
These are going to be the heaviest items in your backpack, the big three are your shelter, backpack, and sleeping bag. All of these items combined shouldn’t weigh more than around 5 pounds to truly be considered ultralight. There are a ton of options out there for all three that are designed specifically for you, the ultralight hiker in mind.
Ask 10 ultralight backpackers what they use for shelter on the trail and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Depending on the season and terrain, you can get away with a simple rain cover (tarp). While in cold and wet conditions an actual tent and rated sleeping bag will be necessary.
14. Ultralight Backpack
For the ultralight backpacker, the rule of thumb is around 10 pounds base weight. Which means everything in your pack weighs under ten pounds, and that does not include fuel, water, and food. Your backpack is going to weigh no more than 2.5 pounds to be considered ultralight.
15. Sleeping Bag
You’re aiming for around a pound and a half here and you want a rated sleeping bag for the expected conditions. This is going to be your bed and where you will be spending a third of your time. Invest in a good sleeping bag and if you feel like splurging, a decent pad.
General Tips and Tricks
These are some tried and true methods from backpackers around the world. Some of these are common sense, others have been discovered through making mistakes and learning from said mistakes. Ultralight hiking is all about saving every single ounce, while some of these may seem silly, they all cut weight.
16. Trash Bag
You don’t need to buy an expensive pack cover for the days when it rains. A popular trick among backpackers is to simply use a trash bag in place of the heavier bag cover. Sure, it looks a little trashy, but every ounce counts.
17. Toothbrush Trim
This is for the most hardcore, removing the bulk of the handle of your toothbrush. You’re only saving a fraction of an ounce and you lose out on leverage for brushing your teeth. Take a knife and whittle down the handle of your toothbrush.
18. No Pillow
Well, technically no pillow. You’re going to use the spare clothes that you bring and put them in the trash bag you call a backpack cover. Sleeping with your head on the ground is not fun at all.
Especially if you choose to use just a tarp with a trekking pole at night for shelter. Having a footprint will protect your sleeping bag from moisture and give you a layer of insulation to keep you warm at night.
A bandanna is as versatile as a roll of duct tape in the backpacking world. You can use it as a rag, to hang things off the ground, and around your head. Yep, they do get nasty quickly so pack two and use them wisely. I know I said only double up on socks and underwear, add bandanna to that list.
Bring a fire starter to get your stove going if it doesn’t have a piezoelectric starter. A small gas station lighter doesn’t weigh much and is reliable unless wet. It’s also a good practice to have a small box of fireproof matches just in case.
22. Rocks rock
There is no reason to carry the extra weight that tent stakes add to your pack. Use rocks in place of your standard tent stakes to hold the edges of your tarp on the ground.
23. Never Pack Wet Clothes
Water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon and that adds up quickly. Make sure that your clothes and other material have a chance to dry out in the morning to save yourself precious ounces.
24. Water Bottle
Forget the heavy duty plastic water bottle that you are used to using. Take either a gas station bottle or a plastic water bottle that rolls into itself when your not using it.
25. Duct Tape
MacGyver was onto something, duct tape is crucial to any and every backpacking trip. Whether it’s holes in the tarp or blisters on your feet, duct tape does it all. You don’t need a full roll, just a fraction of a role for emergency situations and those damn blisters. Check out these 15 ways to use duct tape around the campsite, or while backpacking.
26. Trekking Poles
Trekking poles take a little bit of the beating off of your feet and make it easier to keep up a brisk pace. They will also double as the poles for your tarp shelter. One in the middle for a teepee, or one on each side for a lean-to.
27. Sans Deodorant
Live it and love it. You’re going to smell terrible, and everyone else around you will too. Leave the deodorant at home and go hard with the smells.
Mindset is everything when you’re pushing yourself to the limits and bringing next to nothing. It will be intimidating at first to embark on a long journey in the ultralight fashion. A positive glass half full attitude will get you through the tough days.
29. Be Aware of the Conditions
When you spend months walking you are likely to come across all types of weather. It’s unnecessary to bring ANY gear that you won’t need, so be cognizant of the weather and pack accordingly.
30. Multi-purpose Dental Floss
Well, more like regular dental floss, that you use a couple different ways. You can use it to mend tears in clothes, us it to hang things to dry, and of course, to floss your teeth. Keep those pearly whites well maintained, even on the trail… Brought to you by dentists everywhere.
Being eaten alive at night blows, there’s no way around it. A little bug spray goes a long way, you only need to pack an 1/4 to a 1/2 ounce. Use a small travel bottle and stuff it in your first aid kit.
What Did We Learn?
Ultralight backpacking isn’t for everyone, it involves meticulous planning and dedication. If you are willing to spend the time researching and the effort of planning an ultralight hike, the feeling of reward is immense. You take much of the weight off your shoulders and make minimal supplies go as far as they possibly can.
Keep calm and hike on.