What is Ultralight?
Ultralight is more of a mindset than a specific weight goal. It’s simplifying our way of living in the backcountry. It’s taking just enough to stay safe yet still be comfortable. It’s eliminating redundant items and finding more than one use for an item. It’s using the natural resources around us yet leaving no trace. It’s learning new skills so we can rely on ourselves and don’t feel dependent on gear.
Try not to get caught up in the definitions that often say to be ultralight you have to have a base weight less than 10 lb (4.5 kg). That's total pack weight less consumables – food, water & fuel. It’s really much more than just counting ounces or grams; it's a more simple way of living in the backcountry.
The main benefit of an ultralight mindset is you will experience and enjoy more wilderness. Without the burden of taking gear that weighs a ton and carrying things you never use, you’ll have more energy, increased speed, and can hike further into the wilderness. Crossing streams is easier and safer because you’ll have better balance. You won’t be thinking about how your feet and back hurt and can truly enjoy the journey. When you’re full of energy you can help others who may be tired or injured. You’ll separate yourself further from man-made environments and connect deeper with nature. As you get more advanced, cross country travel becomes more doable with less impact. And you’ll smile more.
How to Lighten Up
The first step is to commit yourself to try to embrace a shift in the way you think about backpacking. You have to stop and think with every choice you make. Here are some ways to help optimize your pack for more enjoyable backcountry adventures.
Make a Gear List
List all the gear you would plan to take on a backpacking trip. This can be done on a piece of paper or preferably in a spreadsheet. Every item should be listed. Buy a postal scale and weigh each of those items in ounces or grams. It sounds silly to weigh every little item but it all adds up and you need to know where you stand if you are going to make any improvements. There are plenty of scales listed on eBay, make sure it can read down to 0.1 oz/g. Take note of the heaviest items, called The Big Three – pack, sleeping bag, and shelter. Count on 2 lb (32 oz, 900 g) of food per day per person. Water weighs 2.2 lb (35 oz, 1000 g) per liter. That’s a lot.
You may want to organize your gear list into categories to make it easier to find things. I like to use packing, shelter/sleep system, cooking & hydration, other essentials, extra clothing, worn or carried, and food/water/fuel. Research other hiker’s gear lists online and find a format that works best for you.
A spreadsheet will allow you to add up the weight column. First, add everything in your pack except the consumables (food, water & fuel). This is your base weight. Second, add to the base weight the food, water & fuel. This is your total pack weight. Last, add to the pack weight clothing worn or items carried in your hands or pockets. This is your skin out weight.
Once completed, you now have a baseline understanding of the gear you would take on a backpacking trip and can begin work to find ways to lighten up. The gear list will become a tool you use for planning every trip and making good seasonal gear choices.
When making gear choices for a trip you need to scrutinize everything. Think about every item and whether it should come along with you on the trip. Can you live without it? Is there a lighter option? Does it serve more than one purpose? Is there anything else I can use and get similar results? If you can leave it behind, it's weight is now reduced to zero.
Be careful of thinking it’s just a few ounces. That’s not the ultralight mindset. It all adds up and every ounce has to be carried.
Nothing should be put in your pack “just in case” or for “what if”. Research the weather and terrain ahead of time and take only what’s needed to stay safe and comfortable for the conditions.
Learn the difference between your needs and your wants. Sometimes it can be hard to leave behind something that you want but don’t really need. Resist the temptation to throw it in your pack. You can do this.
Be careful of extremes. You don’t want to go “stupid light”, taking too little to stay safe, warm, fed, and hydrated.
After your trip when you’re unpacking at home, take note of what you used and what you didn’t and next time, consider leaving the things you didn’t use at home.
Take Lighter Gear
It’s easy to just buy new, lighter gear to lighten your pack, but it may not always be necessary. Some gear, like an alcohol stove, is simple and cheap to make using things you may already have. Keep your eyes open and you’ll find lots of things at the grocery or dollar store that can be used for backpacking.
However, if you are planning to spend some money to lighten up, the biggest bang for your buck will come from the heaviest items, The Big Three. That’s the place to focus first. There’s no sense in saving a few grams modifying a piece of gear before you’ve evaluated your sleeping bag, shelter, and pack.
Consider taking a tarp or single-wall tent instead of a tent with a fly. Maybe you could use a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. A smaller, lighter pack should be the last thing you look at after you’ve lightened everything else. Only then will you know what pack volume you really need.
Because you will be carrying a lighter load, you can wear trail running shoes instead of heavy hiking boots. This is significant since you lift your foot with every step. You won’t have to carry as much food or water because you can hike further, taking less time to complete a trip.
Use Multipurpose Gear
Think through your gear list. Are there any items that could serve more than one purpose? Your trekking poles could also be poles for your tarp. Your puffy jacket could supplement a lighter sleeping bag. A tent stake could also be a trowel. Your bandana can be a head band, pot holder, water pre-filter, and towel. By using one piece of gear to serve two or three functions you will eliminate more things from your pack.
You only need to bring as much as you will use on a trip, any more has to be carried the entire time. Some items can be repackaged to reduce the quantity while others to reduce the weight of the package. Small plastic bottles and containers can be recycled for use on backpacking trips. Put sunscreen in an old hotel shampoo bottle. A first aid kit doesn’t need a fancy zippered nylon bag when a Ziploc freezer bag will do; plus you’ll have the added bonus that you can see what’s in it from the outside.
Excess trash has to be carried out. Use small Ziploc baggies to portion things out. When traveling with a group, pour all the oatmeal in one bag and mark the individual portion and instructions on the bag with a sharpie. That’s a lot of individual oatmeal packets that won’t have to be carried out. Remove the box from food that has an inner wrapper. Trim the top off dehydrated food packages being careful not to cut below the seal. Look over your gear and food, I’m sure you’ll find more that can be repackaged or reduced.
Cut It Off
If it doesn’t serve a purpose, feel free to cut it off. A pack strap that’s too long. A hydration sleeve that you never use. A sleeping pad that’s too long. A toothbrush handle. A label – OK, now that’s maybe going a little too far. Although the weight savings will be insignificant overall, your dedication to the ultralight mindset will carry over to the areas that have more meaning. My only word of caution is that significantly modifying your gear may affect its resale value.
Learn New Skills
By teaching yourself new skills you will reduce your insecurities about being in the wilderness and find you really don’t need as much gear as you previously thought. You will be able to make things from natural resources. You will be able to find your way with just a map and compass, leaving the GPS behind. You will be able to set up a flat tarp six different ways. You can even cowboy camp if you learn how to read the weather.
Ladgin, Don. Lighten Up!. Falcon Guides, 2005, 112 pages. Great introduction for a backpacker just beginning to learn about ultralight.
Clelland, Mike. Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips. Falcon Guides, 2011, 144 pages. 153 tips for ultralight backpacking. Best after reading Lighten Up!
Skurka, Andrew. The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. National Geographic, 2017, 240 pages. More in-depth guide covering gear and techniques.
Lichter, Justin, Trail Tested. Falcon Guides, 2020, 288 pages. Comprehensive guide covering gear, backcountry skills, and advanced techniques.