Jun 14, 2018650 views

Ultralight Basics

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.
First Aid
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!
aliza.wheeler, namhod, and 7 others

Killer post!!! Thanks for the knowledge bomb of an article!
Glad you liked it! 🙂
There is a separate post about the big 4, but I figure it'd be applicable here as well. Below are my recommendations currently for ultralight gear if packing the standard big 4. I try to have options across price points, but hopefully this helps people is starting their search for more efficient gear! - Tent - -Gossamer Gear The One/The Two - Very similar to the Zpacks, but half the price. weighs a bit more, but saving 300$, so pick your poison I suppose. It has a huge vestibule which I really like and is a good option if you want a non-free standing tent to save weight on poles. --Zpacks duplex - most expensive and not free standing, but far and away the lightest and most people I've heard of swear by it especially if you use tracking poles for hiking anyways. --Nemo Blaze 2p - It's what I use and it's working great for me. It's a tight fit for two, but having the added stability of using poles makes it pretty worth it for me. -Previous entries - Nemo Dagger - After talking with someone who's used it, it doesn't really stand out to me anymore. Go with a hornet elite or blaze if you're really interested in nemo as a brand. Big Agnes Copper Spur - If we're talking ultralight, then this really isn't a good fit. Is it light for a free standing tent? Absolutely. Would it work great for for most? certainly. It's just not really in an ultralight category for weight. would 200% still recommend for backpacking in general. **get titanium shepherds hooks as well. They're not super expensive and they are worth the weight saving IMO since they're not super expensive. -Pack- -Osprey Exos 48 - Really great quality and big enough for pretty much anything if you're packing ultralight short of camping for more than a week. Often on sale too. This is one of my packs -Gossamer Gear Mariposa - My other pack that is personally my favorite when it's loaded. More expensive, but super comfy. and under 2 lbs for 60l...just a great combination. On their website, they have old models you can get for cheap; some really great deals. with a back pad you can take out as a sitting pad and a fram you can remove if you want to shed more weight, it's flexible as well. This would be my highest recommended out of any piece of gear. -Granite Gear Virga 2- a lighter version of the crown. It is frame-less, so having heavy loads wouldn't be comfortable, but for ultralight it's great. Akwward if not fully loaded since the balance would be off without a frame, but if you're fully packed, and light, it's nice. -Z-Packs arc blast - If you want something that's also pretty waterproof, this is the one for you. Just like with other Z-Packs gear, you're going to be paying a premium. You just have to balance based on your budget. - Previous entries - - Granite Gear Crown2 - I've read good things. I haven't tried it, so I'd just look at reviews. I chose the mariposa over this one, but I was close to ordering this. -Pad - -Big Agnes AXL insulated- I use it. I love it. I haven't taken it to anything super cold, but it's great for a side sleeper. A bit on the expensive side, but I think it's worth it because there is nothing worse than having a crap night's sleep and hiking in the morning. -therm-a-rest - tried and true. I have an x-therm, and it's just fine. Not my favorite because of the edges and rolling off, but it's pretty comfy. -Outdoorsman lab - there are a couple models, but they're all pretty inexpensive. I haven't tried it, but they get amazing reviews. -Previous entries- -closed foam - I can't say I really endorse closed foam any more with how light sleeping pads are. Better to have the bit of added comfort in my opinion. Since you can get short pads to even cut weight on a inflatable pad, I don't see closed foam as being worth it for the bulk. Yes, ounce counter can save weight here, but I also like to account for volume as well as weight. -Bag- -Enlightened equipment enigma - What I use when it's cold. It's my 20 degree bag. I can't camp below that, so I don't care about anything warmer than 20 personally. -AEIGISMAX - I have a 30 degree version and use it like a quilt. For the price....amazing! You really can't get a better deal on a down bag IMO and it's super light. Care for it well and it will last. -Previous entries- -REI Magma - I've had more experience with my AEIGISMAX now, and at this point I can say this bag probably isn't worth the price. Go with the aeigismax on amazon if you want a cheaper bag.
I love the specific gear recommendations! Thank you for sharing!
I like to re-purpose as much as possible. I have a Poncho, with tieouts so it can be a tarp or a footprint. Hiking pole tents are another great multipurpose tool. Sleeping pad as chair. I'd like to have a poncho/hammock/tarp combo, but I think I'll have to invent that.
Absolutely. I try as much as possible to have items serve multiple purposes. 🙂 If you do invent that poncho/hammock/tarp combo, I'd be interested!
Wilderness Innovation makes what you want.