Ultralight Backpacking Basics

Long before I got into my fascination with bicycles, I discovered ultralight backpacking. In my younger days a typical weekend load could hover around 50 pounds and it was just plain miserable. Gear and techniques have changed greatly over the years and I can now head out with a total load of 20 pounds or so. Ultralight folk use the term base weight to describe the weight of all their gear not including consumables, like water, food and cooking fuel. My 3-season base weight varies from 8-12 pounds per the season (read insulated clothing and sleeping gear) and shelter options I choose. As you lighten your load, you will start to feel the snowball effect and find the need for a heavy pack and boots is offset. You can hike farther and faster with less effort, giving you more time to enjoy the views, or take an afternoon nap in a sunny spot.

I read the book Beyond Backpacking by Ray Jardine and that was a real eye opener. I’ve been a regular participant in the forums at Backpackinglight.com and I recommend to to anyone who has an interest in hiking with a lighter load. Mike Clelland’s book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips is another excellent book, illustrated with Mike’s hilarious cartoons. Finally, you can read Ryan Jordan’s Lightweight Backpacking and Camping. Ryan is the publisher of Backpackinglight.com.

The basics are simple in form, but may take a psychological leap to accomplish. If you want to lighten your load, this is the way to get there:

  • We pack too much because of fear. We fear the weather, the unknown, insects, wild animals, running out of food, water, or fuel, or even fearing boredom. By understanding how our bodies work, the physics of layering clothing, planning meals, and a few easy techniques, you can lower you pack weight to the minimum. There are hikers who go into the back country with base weights of FIVE pounds– yes, five pounds including everything except food, water and fuel. That means a very Spartan kit, with down insulation, thin CCF pad, minimalist shelter, and a very short list of items. In truth, these SUL (Super Ultra Light) base weights are summer weather kits.
  • Take only what you what you will use for the trip. Simple, at least in theory. Reduce spare items and “what if” gear to a minimum. Leave the toys at home— gadgets add up. Don’t take a full 3 ounce bottle of sunscreen or insect repellent for a weekend trip; decant those items into smaller containers. Good meal planning and knowing how your stove works (fuel consumption) will let you take what is needed without a lot of extras.
  • Weigh everything in your hiking kit, write it down and add it up. In fact, I’ve said that the first piece of hiking gear you should get is a digital scale. Spreadsheets are the handiest way to do this and the heavy villains will be obvious. You will hear the term “the Big 3” in referring to hiking gear: backpack, shelter and sleeping bag. I like to think of the “Big 4” by adding clothing to the list.
  • Seek out the lightest items you can afford. Some things are so easy and cheap, like using recycled drinking water bottles rather than one liter Nalgene bottles. A one liter soda bottle is 1.4 ounces and a single Nalgene bottle is 6.6 ounces. I typically carry two bottles, so this one technique saves 10.4 ounces and costs virtually nothing. Stainless steel pots and utensils are replaced with titanium versions (or at least aluminum) and the pot size is chosen for the actual amount of water or food to be heated.  High quality lightweight insulation is one of the most expensive items on the list. Sleeping bags and puffy jackets can add weight and volume and good ones will lighten the total on your spreadsheet– and your wallet.
  • Seek out multiple use items. My shelter is also my rain gear, for a total of 11 ounces. The mirror on my sighting compass is also part of my emergency signalling gear.
  • Develop a coordinated clothing layering system. Of all the equipment categories, clothing layering is the least understood and first on the “pack for fear list.” My 3 season (spring/summer/fall) layering system is a wicking polyester base layer, a fleecy mid-layer, a wind shell, a puffy jacket or vest and a rain shell. All of these layers can be used together or in several combinations, with a cap and gloves to round it off.
  • Leave “city” concepts like fashion and hyper-cleanliness at home; they are “heavy” notions. Yon don’t need fresh socks and underwear every day, or separate sleep clothing. You won’t die if you get back to the trailhead a little dirty and smelly. You can go a long ways with a simple sponge bath and you can wear other layers while washing and drying your base layers as needed. I do concede to carrying a spare pair of socks, but that is it. I like ponchos for rain gear and I think a lot of people avoid them because of the look: it’s okay to come down the trail looking more like a tossed salad than a model in an ad for a $400 rain shell!

That is ultralight hiking in a nutshell. Now, we can argue the fine points endlessly, but the basics listed here can lighten most kits by 50% and more. I’ll bet I can reduce most kits by 25-30% by simply leaving out the extras and reducing the quantities of items that can be decanted to smaller containers. Its not hard, but you do need to be honest with yourself about what you actually pack and WHY you pack it.

A word on ultralight techniques and safety: I am very much a proponent of the “Ten Essentials” principle of hiking equipment. That is to go into the back country with the right items for navigating (as in not getting lost), first aid, signaling (getting rescued) staying warm, dry, hydrated, and fed. Essentials are a category that can be reduced to malfunctioning levels by some ultralight practitioners and it is one place that I diverge from ultralight canon law a bit. I do take all the recommended essentials, but that doesn’t open the door to hauling large knives and massive first aid kits. I do recommend taking a first aid kit that is a bit more than a couple band aids and some moleskin. Likewise, some go out with nothing more than a single-edge razor blade for a cutting tool. I moderate that with a 3oz quality folding knife. I carry redundant fire starters too. My pack is light enough to have the Essentials without being a burden.

While I am on the subject of safety, always let a responsible person know where you are going and agree on a deadline for contact when you are done. For example, I let my wife know what trail I will be on and we typically use sunset as a deadline for contact for day hikes. Hiking disaster stories are often a list of compounding errors and the top of the list is that no one knows the hiker is in the woods, nor where. YOU CAN’T GET FOUND IF NO ONE KNOWS YOU ARE MISSING!


One thought on “Ultralight Backpacking Basics

  1. theultralighthiker April 29, 2015 / 12:34 am

    A very interesting read! I am from Australia and also interested in Ultralight Hiking. I will be following along. Perhaps you might like to follow my blog also? http://www.theultralighthiker.com

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