When I first learned about ultralight backpacking, I envisioned toothbrushes shaved down to a sliver, constant hunger on the trail, and shivering under a thin tarp. It sounded miserable and I was quite content to lug my heavy pack full of everything I deemed “essential”. With time (and age), I find myself taking the ultralight approach more seriously. Gear has become increasingly technical and lightweight, making the ultralight system doable even for the beginner backpacker. With proper consideration, you can dramatically reduce your pack weight. Your knees will thank you! There are four primary areas that need to be considered: food, shelter, first aid, and water. Before you set off on a spending spree however, weigh the gear you already have. It may be useful to create a spreadsheet of the various items and their weights, down to the ounce. It will give you a better idea what works, and what still needs refinement. It can serve as a useful reference when packing as well. With that said, let’s dive in.
The devil is in the details when it comes to dialing in your calories on the trail. Caloric need will vary depending on the individual and the terrain covered. 3k-4k calories is a good starting figure however. Easy to prep meals light on packaging can go a long way towards lightening your load. Remove any excess wrapping before you pack it up. Be sure to measure out servings on things like trail mix ahead of time in order to prevent taking too much. For dinners, consider using ziploc freezer bags for your dehydrated meals. Less bulky and less weighty, they can withstand near-boiling temperatures if you are careful. It would be wise to do a test run at home for practice finding the right water temperature. Your cooking/eating system can also be downsized. Alcohol or fuel tab stoves made with aluminum cans are solid DIY solutions. Lightweight plastic mugs may double as dinner bowls, and one spoon is usually adequate.
How far are you willing to minimize when it comes to sleeping arrangements? Depending on how much plushy comfort you need to sleep at night, there are a multitude of options available to you. Season and weather conditions will dictate your needs as well. A simple ground cloth, with tarp is a tidy minimalist solution. Low-budget hikers can even fashion a tarp out of Tyvek house wrap for an ultralight cover! Bivy sacks, and one-man tents are a solid choice, with a variety of extremely light options now on the market. A typical inflating sleeping pad is a luxury that you might consider ditching. Cheaper closed-cell foam pads offer the better weight-to-warmth ratio, and better durability as well. Dedicated ultralight hikers can use that savings to splurge on the fluffiest down sleeping bag with the latest tech fabrics and less weight than most synthetic fiber bags.
Just because you’re going ultralight, doesn’t mean you should compromise on safety. First aid kits are highly subjective, and what one person considers essential, another may not. At the very least consider including a few blister pads, antibiotic ointment packets, pain relief tabs, and some gauze. If you are on prescription medications, bring them with you. Bandages, sunscreen, and bug repellent are also highly recommended. A foot or two of duct tape can also be a useful addition.
No matter how lightweight you go, you still need clean water to drink. Mini filters make a great choice and weight only 2-3 oz nowadays. Purifying tablets are also an option, but they often leave a rather funky taste in the water which may or may not be tolerable to all hikers. In order to reduce how much water you carry, limit yourself to one or two liters at a time. Hotter conditions may require more water, and it’s best not to skimp on this item if the temps are high. Dehydration is a very real and dangerous condition. Drink plenty of water before setting out in the morning as a way to get a jumpstart on your consumption. Refill your bottle at water sources as you come to them, rather than carrying multiple bottles. As tempting as an insulated water bottle can be, when going ultralight a plastic bottle of water from the gas station works just as well and is incredibly light. These bottles can be saved and reused on multiple trips, making them ridiculously thrifty.
Know Your Abilities
Every trip has its own particular requirements, and obviously you’ll need to make adjustments to your gear to accommodate. Extreme weather may require more gear. It is better to return home safely than to cut too much from your kit, leaving yourself vulnerable. Make your reductions thoughtfully. There is no one “right way” to travel as an ultralight backpacker. When possible, avoid getting caught up in comparing your setup to others. One person’s “need” is another’s “want”. And that’s okay! As always, remember to practice Leave No Trace principles while adventuring outdoors.
Do you have any ultralight backpacking tricks up your sleeve? What are your must-haves in an otherwise lightweight pack? What do you leave behind? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!