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Ultralight Backpacking

You know that feeling you get when you arrive at camp after a long day of hiking with a heavy pack on—that feeling that gravity has become a less powerful force and you are floating? Yeah, it feels great, but what if you never had to deal with that heavy pack in the first place? No more grunting while trying to heave your pack onto your back. No more last minute gear shuffling at the trailhead trying to figure how to lighten your load.

I’m not suggesting you give up backpacking. I’m suggesting a more scientific approach to packing—go ultralight. Easier said than done, yes. But ultralight backpacking is a philosophy that is catching on and with the help of gear manufacturers; backpackers are able to trim their packs to fewer than 20 pounds (from the average of over 45 pounds!) without sacrificing comfort. The most talented packers have been know to carry 12 to 15 pound packs on a five day trip.

I first learned about ultralight hiking while doing research on hiking the Appalachian Trail. At first, I thought those ultralight hikers were a bit neurotic. I’ve read about Pacific Crest thru hikers doing the entire trail with packs that weighed less than 10 pounds, which seems almost impossible. But, after hiking with a 45-pound load on my back and feeling like I shrunk three inches on my last trip, I think those folks have the right idea.

Ultralight is its own genre of outdoor sport. It is as much a way of thinking as it is a way of packing. The basic philosophy behind ultralight camping means giving more consideration to the weight of every little thing you put in your pack as well as on your body. There truly is a science to packing light without sacrificing comfort and determining what is required and what can be left at home.

Reasons to go lightweight

The concept of ultralight backpacking is appealing, on many different levels. Who wants to lug around a heavy pack if they don’t have to.

The lighter the pack, the faster you can move. While your buddies are still struggling up the pass, you’ll be relaxing at camp with a nice cup of tea.

You’ll enjoy your experience and have more energy. You don’t get to your campsite with that “get this thing off my back” mentality. You’ll have plenty of energy to do some exploring once you get to camp.

A lighter pack is easier on your body. With a lighter load, you are less injury prone. If you are a person with knee, back, or ankle problems you will want to give serious consideration to the ultralight philosophy.

Ultralight backpacking not only saves you weight, it can actually save you money! First of all, when traveling ultralight you bring less gear, which means you've already spent less. Many of the items listed below cost quite a bit less than their heavier counterparts.

Though ultralight backpacking isn’t for everyone or for all conditions. Face it, the more extreme the conditions the heavier the pack. You’re probably missing some key survival items if you head out on a winter trip with a 20-pound pack. And some people would rather carry extra weight than sacrifice the comfort of a camp chair or coffee maker. To each his own.

Start Lightening Your Load

Here are some suggestions for ultralight gear you can add to your pack without breaking your back. Adopting the ultralight philosophy may mean investing in some new gear, but isn’t it time to get rid of that antiquated stove? These few gear suggestions alone will help you shave over 15 pounds off your load! This gear alone will reduce a 40-pound pack to only 25 pounds.

Ultra Light Sleeping Bags

Your sleeping bag is typically one of the heaviest and most bulky items in your pack. The average bag weighs in at 3 ½ pounds. A lighter bag can take at least 1-½ pounds off your back.

The Marmot Hydrogen is the lightest full-size sleeping bag on the market. This 30-degree down bag weighs in at a ridiculous 1.5 pounds, but provides all the comfort of heavier bags. With this bag you won’t feel like you’ve sacrificed weight for comfort. This is a 2-pound weight savings!

For those who have a quiver of sleeping bags for every occasion, the reasonably-priced Kelty Light Year 45 sleeping bag leads the pack in ultralight camping standards. At 1 pound 4 ounces, this bag is so lightweight and compact that it stuffs down smaller than a 2-liter soda bottle.

Ultra Light Sleeping pads

If you really want to cut weight you can cut out the sleeping pad. But even the most hard-core ultralight backpacker usually splurges on a pad. The Therm-A-Rest Ultra Lite 3/4 weighs less than a pound (15 oz.) and will add extra warmth and comfort to your sleep—which doesn’t weigh a thing.

Ultra Light Tents

I always dread stuffing a tent in my pack because I know it is going to add substantial weight and bulk. The average two-person, three-season tent weighs an average of 6 pounds! When it comes to ultralight backpacking, you must seriously consider what kind of shelter you will need this plays a huge factor in determining the weight of your pack. Will you be camping in rain or snow? Do you want something big enough to “hang out” in? Or are you just planning on crawling in your shelter and going to sleep?

If you are a minimalist when it comes to shelter, the Black Diamond Winter Bivy is the next best thing to carrying a tarp and it packs up smaller. At 9 ounces, it packs down small enough to fit in the pocket of your jacket. This innovative bivy sack is made of a breathable silicone encapsulated polyester ripstop fabric that will keep your bag dry in wet conditions. You’ll save yourself over 5 pounds with this option.

For those who need a bit more space, the Black Diamond Mega Mid Floorless Tent is a light, yet spacious option. Without a floor, the Megamid weighs only 3 ½ pounds for an 81 square foot tent. You can buy a floor separately if you prefer a more traditional shelter or plan on camping on soggy ground or sandy beaches. The floor adds an extra 1-½ pounds, but you are still left with a very roomy shelter that weights substantially less than a traditional tent.

Ultra Light Packs

Ultralight backpacking allows for a smaller, therefore lighter pack. The Kelty Satori Backpack (4500 cu. in.) is extremely lightweight for a pack of this size, (5 pounds 2 ounces). For ultralight camping you can remove the side pockets, front pouch, and the suspension system components to reduce the weight of the Satori to just 2 pounds 2 ounces. This is a substantial weight savings considering the average pack weighs upwards of 5 ½ pounds.

Stoves and Cookware

If you really want to go lightweight, you can carry cold food. But energy bars, GORP, and jerky are not very appetizing after a long day of hiking. And the idea is to pack light without sacrificing comfort. Compared to the old reliable standard MSR Whisperlight, which weights 14 ounces, the MSR Pocket Rocket is substantially lighter and less expensive—3 ounces, $39 what a deal!

If you are going to carry a stove you are also going to have to carry something to cook in. One of the lightest and most efficient options available is the Snow Peak Mini Solo Titanium Cook Set. It is really all you need for simple meals—pot capacity 3 ½ cups. At 5 ounces, you aren’t adding a lot of bulk or weight.

Water Filter

Someone was really thinking when they came up with the idea to combine a water filter with a water bottle. The SafeWater G2 Water Bottle Filter System is a two-for one deal. At approximately 3 ounces, it weighs a lot less than most water filters, and it will also serve as your water bottle. The simplicity of it serves as a prime example of the benefits of ultralight camping gear.

Ultra Light Shoes

Most ultralight backpackers prefer hiking in a trail or running shoe as opposed to a heavy hiking boot. A lighter pack puts less stress on the feet and ankles so you can use a lighter shoe. This is a great option if you have strong ankles. Besides, your feet are doing most of the work and unburdening them will unburden your whole body. There are lots of great lightweight options available. Just be sure to find one that fits.


It's the little things that really add up. The odds and ends tend to be so small that we don’t consider their weight or bulk. Your headlamp, for example. The Petzl Tikka makes other headlamps seem archaic. It weighs less than 3 ounces including batteries. This is tiny thing is a powerful little sucker. Just try not to blind your tent mate.

This list is by no means inclusive of all the items available for ultralight hikers, and you need to consider things like food, clothing, and water, which will add weight and bulk to your pack. However, even with those items you should be able to trim the weight of your load down to 20 pounds. The key is choosing your gear appropriately. With the ultralight philosophy in mind, you’ll shop for gear with an entirely different mindset. For more ultralight backpacking options, visit Backcountr.com.