ULTRALIGHT BACKPACKING: 10 TIPS FOR SHAVING WEIGHT WITHOUT SACRIFICING COMFORT
While spending 10 days backpacking in Alaska’s wilderness last summer, I was reminded of the tremendous need for having an ultralight backpacking setup. Shaving weight from my backpacking gear has been a challenge (especially with my camera equipment) that I think I’ll forever be trying to conquer. While it’s been a long learning process, I can confidently say that I’m improving, particularly since my 2014 John Muir Trail hike.
Kim, Bearfoot Theory’s former Community Manager has also been working on shedding weight from her pack. On the day she started her 5-month thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, her pack was so full she couldn’t even fit her sleeping bag in it. By the time Kim finished in Canada, she had reduced her pack weight by half! In this new blog post, sponsored by REI, we offer 10 of our favorite tricks, tips, and lessons we’ve learned over the years for ultralight backpacking.
I’ll preface this with saying, Kim and I aren’t the types of people to cut the handle off of our toothbrushes or forgo the stove and eat trail mix for dinner…although those things can save you weight too 🙂
These ultralight backpacking tips focus on easy, practical changes you can make to shed weight while still being comfortable and having durable gear on the trail.
Focus on Items with Multiple Uses
Take a look at every item in your backpack and make sure you know how to maximize its use. Many items you carry on backpacking trips can have more than one use.
- A cooking pot can be used as a bowl
- A stuff sack can double as a pillow once you stuff your down jacket into it
- A bandana can cool you down on hot days, provide shade, or serve as a coffee filter. In an emergency, it can also be used as a makeshift tourniquet
- Pants that roll up or zipper off into shorts are great for versatility and sudden weather changes. When prepping for a trip, try to switch out super specific items with multi-purpose items wherever possible.
Cut the Non-Essentials
Did you really need a coffee mug AND a stainless steel cup for wine? Set out your gear before heading out and check to see if you can eliminate at least 1-2 items. Then, after each backpacking trip, create a list of everything in your pack that you didn’t use. If an item keeps reappearing on this list, CUT IT.
With that being said, first aid and emergency equipment is essential and is an exception to this rule. You can, however, make sure that your first aid kit isn’t overkill; this Ultralight Adventure Medical Kit weighs only 3.7 ounces and has the essentials for dealing with minor injuries.
When packing your clothes for the backcountry, be minimal but prepared. Do you need a new outfit each day? Probably not, and keep in mind sweaty clothes can be even heavier to carry than clean clothes. You can generally only wear one base layer, one mid layer and one insulating layer at a time, so duplicates aren’t necessary unless you are hiking somewhere with extreme weather where you need a backup. Packing lightweight rain protection can help ensure you stay dry as well. Only pack spares of socks and underwear.
Read more on what to wear hiking.
Shed Weight on the “Big Three”
Going lightweight can be EXPENSIVE, but you don’t need to completely makeover your entire gear closet. If you want to make small changes that will have big impacts on your pack weight, start with the big three:
your tent, sleeping bag, & pack
While high quality, lightweight versions of these items can be an investment, once you have them you should be set for years. If you’re in the market for new ultralight backpacking gear, you should also keep an eye out for sales that happen at REI throughout the year. REI’s Anniversary Sale in May, right after the annual dividends are distributed, is a great time to purchase big-ticket items since you can save sometimes 30% or more.
On average, 2-person backpacking tents today weigh about 2-3 pounds, and every year they seem to get lighter as technology improves. First, consider how many people you’ll be camping with. If you sleep solo when you backpack, then opt for a 1-man tent. If you already have a two-man tent, then share your space with a friend or your partner, and then have the benefit of being able to split up the weight.
Next, ask what kind of weather you’ll be backpacking in most frequently. If you tend to hike in warm, sunny environments, you might consider an ultralight backpacking tarp shelter like the Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp Shelter that utilizes your trekking poles as tent poles. Just make sure you practice setting up your tent before you leave your house since it takes a little skill.
If it rains a lot where you backpack, then you’ll want something a little burlier that can handle wind and inclement weather. Luckily there are still a lot of good ultralight backpacking tent options that are still really durable, like the NEMO Hornet 2p Tent.
For more information on how to choose a tent for backpacking, check out this blog post.
High-quality, lightweight sleeping bags will often positively impact you in more ways than shedding pack weight; they also pack down to a minimal size. For your sleeping bag, aim to stay below 3 pounds so that with a 1 pound sleeping pad, you’ll be right at 4 pounds for both. Quilts are also a great lightweight option if it’s not too cold where you backpack.
Generally warmer sleeping bags weigh more (and cost more) because they need more fill to insulate you from the cold. This means you should think about the temperatures you’ll be camping at before investing in a bag. There’s no need to carry a zero degree bag if you are backpacking in warmer summer temps. My favorite ultralight backpacking sleeping bag that is an excellent compromise between warmth, weight AND price is the REI Joule sleeping bag (for women) & the REI Igneo (for men). I took the REI Joule on the John Muir Trail and loved it. For extra space savings in your backpack, stuff your sleeping bag in an ultralight compression sack.
People often forget that their physical pack, even when empty, weighs something. I’ve been backpacking with the Deuter Aircontact Pack, and while I find it very comfortable, the pack weighs a whopping 6 pounds! Alternatively, ultralight backpacking packs built for thru-hikers barely weigh 2 pounds. These ultralight packs have a smaller capacity and are made for smaller loads. Choosing one of these packs forces you to commit to ultralight backpacking since they become uncomfortable if you try to carry loads more than 35-40 pounds. Kim used a ULA backpacking pack on her PCT hike, and loved it. One ultralight backpacking brand I’ve had my eye on that is very popular with thru-hikers is Granite Gear. The Granite Gear 60 liter Womens Crown2 pack and the mens version weigh just over 2 pounds, are rated for 35 pounds and have fully adjustable hip belts, lids, and a number of other features. They also cost about $200 which is less expensive than a lot of heavier backpacks.
Pro Tip: Try to keep your big three to under 10 pounds.
Think in Terms of Ounces
It’s all about ounces when talking about lightweight backpacking. Don’t use averages or estimates – know the weight in ounces of every item in your pack, especially when you are purchasing new gear. “About” 2 pounds doesn’t cut it; is it really 2 pounds OR 2 pounds AND 5 ounces. If you want to get serious about ultralight backpacking, a bathroom or luggage scale will help you with weighing gear. Weigh everything in your pack and get down to the nitty gritty because all those extra ounces add up quickly.
Choose Smart Materials
Titanium is expensive, but it’s lightweight and durable. Synthetic layers are lighter than cotton and are better for hiking because they dry quickly and wick the sweat off your body. This means that rather than bringing a bunch of extra clothing, you can hang out your shirt for an hour and it will be dry and ready for the next day (unless you’re hiking somewhere extra cold in the winter, then I wouldn’t recommend this strategy). Just make sure to bring a set of warm, dry clothes to change into in the evening. Research the gear you are buying so you know if it’s both lightweight AND a material that will last.
Keep a list of everything in your pack and its weight. We know this sounds a little intense but when you physically see how fast all your gear weight adds up it helps. Lay everything out before it goes into your pack so you can see what you’ll be carrying. If you have a pack with numerous pockets, have an organization system for what goes where. Being organized will help prevent you from bringing things you don’t need and throwing in extra items on your way out the door just because you have the room in your pack.
A lightweight pack is an organized pack.
Don’t Carry More Water than you Need
Water is likely one of the heaviest things you’ll be carrying. Find out where on the trail you can expect to find water and then plan to carry the appropriate amount of water based on that. It’s always a good idea to get updated trail information from the local ranger station or a recent trail report before heading out because you don’t want to find out that the creek you expected to be there is completely dried up. Carry multiple bottles instead of one giant bottle so you can distribute the weight on either side of your pack. We like the tall, slender 1 liter SmartWater bottles since they can fit in the slimmest of side pockets or collapsible water bottles that get smaller as you drink. You can also save on weight by choosing purification drops and a bandana to filter sediment vs a water filter.
Make Healthy Choices
People sometimes focus relentlessly on cutting ounce after ounce off of their packs, yet they don’t consider the weight they are already carrying on their own two feet. Being fit and healthy before heading out on the trail will make your overall experience more enjoyable. A backpacking trip is a great motivation for squeezing in some training hikes and eating healthy to ensure you’re fit for the trail.
Read our guide to training for a thru-hike.
Plan Your Food Strategically
Food weighs ALOT. Plus it’s one of the easiest things to overpack. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone backpacking with wayyyyy too much food. Before you head out on your trip, try to lay out your food meal by meal for each day of your trip. This will help you visualize whether you are bringing too much or not enough. If you start with too much, you can then take away the heaviest of your food off your packing list.
Research lightweight backpacking food options that are still high in calories and protein. While fresh fruit sounds great on the trail, you can pack twice as much dried fruit in the same space, for less weight, and then you don’t have to pack out food waste (such as orange peels and apple cores). While eating fresh is always preferred, when I’m on the trail, I opt for dehydrated backpacker meals. They take up so little room in your pack, weigh less than anything you might cook from scratch, and the convenience makes them all the more satisfying.
Dehydrated backpacker meals can be expensive, but when you compare to all of the ingredients you have to buy if you want to cook from scratch, plus the hassle of doing dishes, it makes it worth it to me. Another tip, if you purchase your backpacker food at REI, you save 10% when you purchase 8 or more meals at a time. Even if you don’t need 8 for your upcoming trip, these backpacker meals last for a long time, so it pays to buy in bulk. Then you’ll have them on hand when you want to plan a spontaneous backpacking trip.
If you’re serious about going ultralight and are only going out for a night or two, you can also consider ditching the stove and fuel and eating snacks for all of your meals, which will save you a pound or two.
Check out our favorite lightweight backpacking meal and snack ideas.
Set a goal to learn something new with every hike you take. Look for more helpful articles, and talk to others on the trail to learn their tips and tricks for keeping weight low. You can even take a class. Your expertise will continue to grow and your pack weight will reduce with each backpacking trip you take!
And remember….it’s not a competition. When I was on the John Muir Trail, I heard people constantly comparing their pack weight which drove me nuts. It’s not about who has the lightest pack. It’s about finding the sweet spot between being comfortable while you’re hiking and comfortable at camp. Everyone has a different threshold, and the more you backpack, the more you’ll learn about what YOU do and don’t need to have an enjoyable hike.