How to Transition to Ultralight Backpacking
A Successful Trip Starts with the Right Gear
For my first solo backpacking trip, I chose to conquer the Grand Canyon, thinking the established campsites and well-traveled trails would protect me from any rookie mistakes. Thanks to a false sense of security, I found myself moving at a snail’s pace, due to my large pack stuffed with a tent and heavy sleeping bag (to protect myself from scorpions, which it turns out were inactive at that time of year), not to mention a sprained ankle courtesy of my general clumsiness and decision to only bring hiking sandals.
Had I spent the time to research the weather for the canyon that time of year, taken into consideration my personal weaknesses, and invested in lightweight gear, my experience would have been amazing instead of embarrassing. Thankfully, I owned my mistakes, and as a result, I embraced the idea of ultralight backpacking.
In the world of ultralight backpacking, knowledge is power. Put simply, planning and packing your gear carefully will lead to a more enjoyable experience. Shifting to ultralight backpacking gear is a two-fold process: 1) examine your gear, and 2) change your mindset. But a minimalist approach to backpacking does not equate to minimal spending. High-quality lightweight gear comes with a steep price tag, so do your research and take your time making the transition. Purchase big-ticket items gradually, as your budget allows.
And if you’re wondering whether there’s a true definition of ultralight backpacking in terms of weight, there is no concrete definition. Aim for a base weight—before you add water and food—of 10 pounds or under. Carrying less weight reduces stress on your body and allows you to move further faster. To be ultra specific, buy a scale if you don’t already have one to weigh everything you plan to pack and see where you can cut weight with lighter products.
Here’s your ultralight backpacking gear list to make a successful transition.
Ultralight Backpacking Big Three
Begin your transition to ultralight backpacking by examining the three big items of any backpacking trip: shelter, sleep system, and pack. Your first goal is to decrease your base weight as much as possible, with each of these items weighing three pounds or less, though this will vary depending on the terrain, climate, and weather where you’re backpacking. In other words, backpacking in the Badlands in summertime will require less weight than journeying through Patagonia in winter.
There are plenty of options for shelters and sleeping arrangements, which gives you room to find where you will be most comfortable. Some of these options are smaller in size, which means you can carry a smaller pack. Here’s the rundown on the big three:
When selecting a shelter for ultralight backpacking, consider terrain, climate, and the forecast to select the lightest shelter that will work for a particular adventure. If you’re camping in the desert or there’s no chance of rain, you may not need shelter at all. If you expect rain but no bugs, you may be able to travel with only a rain cover and skip the screen.
If you decide you need a tent to protect yourself from the elements, look for a lightweight tent you can set up using your trekking poles. This will save space and weight in your pack. If you’re hiking with a friend or a group, consider sharing a larger tent to reduce overall weight.
Hammocks work well for ultralight backpacking, but do your research on your route. Make sure your planned stopping points for the night have an abundance of well-spaced, sturdy trees. Hammocks may also require additional equipment—like suspension/straps, a bug net, and a rainfly—so take that into consideration when calculating weigh.
How much comfort do you need to sleep well on trail? If you choose to use a sleeping bag, opt for the highest temperature rating appropriate for your adventure and wear extra clothes, hats, and gloves to make up the difference, if necessary. Sleeping bags are a great place to save weight, because models vary by a matter of pounds, not just ounces.
Down vs. Synthetic Bags
Down is lighter, warmer, and packs down smaller than a synthetic bag. To save weight, you may opt to use a down comforter rather than a bag. Regardless, invest in a product treated with durable water repellent (DWR), especially if you plan to save weight by skipping the tent. DWR makes the product water resistant, not waterproof, and wears off, so you will need to reapply.
Minimize—But Don’t Ditch—the Pad
Sleeping pads provide comfort and insulation while sleeping on the ground. They come in three types: air, self-inflating, and foam. When selecting your pad, look to maximize comfort and packability while minimizing weight. Any of these types of pads will work, but for ultralight backpacking, an ultralight air pad checks all the boxes. In addition to their light weight, when deflated they fold vertically and roll up, which takes up less space.
If you already have a foam pad, you can cut it to fit the length of only your torso to save ounces. Use your backpack as insulation underneath your legs. Another benefit of foam pads is their durability. You can carry them on the outside of your pack, which saves room inside or allows you to use a smaller pack.
Skip the Pillow
Need a pillow to get a good night’s sleep? Save weight and space by stuffing clothes into a stuff sack to create a pillow. Wrap a headband or bandana around it to make a pillowcase.
Select your lightweight backpack after determining your shelter and sleep system, as you will have a better idea how much volume you will need to fit all your stuff. You can save weight by selecting a smaller pack with minimal padding that’s only 45- to 55-liter, compared to the standard 65-liter.
Decide if you need an ultralight backpack with a frame or without. Frames create space between your back and the pack to create airflow, which comes in handy in summer and if you sweat heavily. Research which option fits your body and the climate of your adventure.
Dressing for Ultralight Hiking
Making the switch to ultralight backpacking means carrying less clothing and being purposeful with what you bring. Select synthetic or wool—not cotton—materials. Consider pants that zip away to shorts instead of carrying pants and shorts. And choose one hat that offers both rain and sun protection. Select lightweight wool or synthetic base layers to wear while sleeping.
Shoes are a great place to cut weight when ultralight backpacking. Keep in mind that the weight you carry on your feet requires more energy to move than the same weight on your back. Select lightweight boots and socks, or switch to trail runners. Reducing weight on your feet minimizes stress on your body, lowering your injury risk. It also lowers the number of calories you burn while backpacking, which reduces the amount of food you need to carry to replace those calories.
Cutting Food and Water Weight
The final place you can cut weight in your transition to ultralight backpacking is food and water. Save space and weight by packing calorie-dense foods. Ideally, food should have at least 100 calories per ounce. Nut butters, nuts, cheese, dark chocolate, and even Nutella fit this bill. Olive oil has 240 calories per ounce, so consider adding small amounts to your meals to sneak in extra calories. For pasta, angel hair (100 calories per ounce) cooks the fastest, therefore using less fuel and saving weight.
When making food choices, factor in everything you will need for preparation and consumption—stove, fuel, pot, utensils, plate, etc. Purchase a lightweight stove, fuel, and pot, or consider leaving these at home. Not only will stove-less meals save you weight and space, they will cut down on the amount of water you use—and potentially have to carry—to clean your pot.
Speaking of water, it’s heavy. Examine your hydration system and decide if a lightweight bladder or a bottle will work best for you. Keep in mind, the more water you collect from natural sources, the less you carry, so purchase the lightest filtration or purification system that works for you and where you will backpack.
Get in the Ultralight Mentality
The transition to ultralight hiking gear is as much a change of mindset as it is a change of gear. Diligent planning and extensive research into products, routes, nutrition, terrain, climate, and weather will lead to cutting the most weight. Nothing is worse than finding yourself in a sticky situation on the trail because you didn’t take the time to gather information and think through your adventurous plans.
Choose to leave ordinary camping comforts at home, such as a book, a pack of cards, extra batteries for your cell phone, or your guitar. Ultralight backpacking is about walking the line between comfort and safety. Know that this transition takes time. Learn from your experiences and use that knowledge to make changes for future adventures.
Motherhood keeps Sarah Boles grounded, but the wilderness keeps her sane. She holds degrees in news editorial-photojournalism and Spanish from TCU and served as the sports editor for a weekly newspaper before continuing her education in order to teach and coach middle schoolers. Sarah rediscovered her passions for the outdoors and storytelling after becoming a mom, leading her to the role of editorial manager for the nonprofit, Adventure Mamas Initiative.