Is Less More? A Beginner’s Guide to Ultralight Backpacking.
Updated: Aug 17
What is Ultralight Backpacking and is it worth it? I’ll be the first to admit that I like to be comfortable in the backcountry. When I backpack, I like a fluffy, comfortable sleeping bag and pad. Sometimes a pillow. I used to think that going ultralight means giving up all of that in exchange for hard ground and an uncomfortable experience. This simply isn’t true. There are many benefits to ultralight backpacking, including lessened wear and tear on your joints. Also, the lighter your pack, the farther you can walk each day!
While embarking on your ultralight journey, the first thing to wrap your head around is base weight vs. pack weight. Base weight is the weight of your full pack without counting things that fluctuate during the hike such as water, food, and sunscreen. Your pack weight is going to be the pack with everything in it, including those fluctuations. The average base weight of an ultralight pack is somewhere under 10 lbs. The base weight of a light pack will be somewhere under 20 lbs. An average backpacker’s pack weight can vary, generally, people start with packs around 35 lbs, and lose weight after the first few trips.
Ultralight backpacking means paying extra attention to detail, paying for higher quality and lighter gear and simply, practice. Even a single ounce can count in how your backpack feels. Here are five tips to get yourself from hauling a massive 65L pack, to prancing up a mountain with barely anything on your back.
1. Eliminate everything that isn’t an absolute necessity.
No one cares if you smell bad, skip the deodorant. You don’t need four shirts either, one of each clothing item (Plus two pairs of socks! Keep those toes warm) is perfect. Another thing to be mindful of is the electronics you are carrying. A heavy camera setup is difficult to lug through the wilderness, even though it might produce some beautiful images. You don’t need a lot to survive well, and ultralight backpacking is a great reminder of that. LighterPack is a great way to track your items.
2. Trail runners instead of boots.
Boots are a lot heavier and bulkier, switching over to trail runners is a great way to lighten the load a little bit. If you like the ankle protection of boots, gaiters are a great lightweight investment. It’s a thin fabric that wraps around your ankles and prevents dirt/rocks from getting into your shoes.
3. Keep the big three as light as possible.
The ‘big three’ is your sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and structure. Your biggest items should be no more than 1-3 lbs each. If you are having trouble finding a tent this light, a lightweight tarp is a great alternative. Combined with a little paracord, and some stakes (or even, just use rocks!) this is a light and versatile alternative to a tent. There are a lot of lightweight inflatable sleeping pads out there, however, the lightest option is a closed-cell foam pad- but be warned, this definitely means sacrificing some comfort. For a sleeping bag, the lightest and most packable options will be the fully down bags. Although more expensive, these bags are warm and tend to pack down smaller.
4. Focus on items with multiple uses.
For example, a titanium pot can also be a bowl. A cotton bandana can be a headscarf, washcloth, or potholder. Snow stakes instead of regular stakes can be used to dig a cat hole. The fewer items you have to bring, the better. So try to kill two birds with one stone.
5. Be patient and don’t be afraid to try out new things!
Getting the perfect ultralight setup takes time and money. It’s okay to trim weight slowly, getting your gear lighter a little at a time. And continue to research along the way! Blogs are a wonderful way to hear other people’s experiences with ultralight backpacking, and what worked/didn’t work for them.
All in all, ultralight backpacking is a financial and time commitment. However, if done well it can completely shift the way you backpack. There are ways to gather this gear more affordably, for example, used gear is a great way to go. The most important thing is that you find the gear and style that makes you happiest outdoors!