Ultralight Backpacking: 11 Tips for Shaving Weight

Want to shed weight from your backpacking setup? Get 11 practical ultralight backpacking tips that will help you shave pounds from your load – all without sacrificing comfort.

A woman backpacking near Little Five Lakes in Sequoia National Park

Ultralight backpacking doesn’t have to come at the cost of comfort and ease on the trail. With the advancement of gear technology over the past decade, shaving weight from your pack can be as simple as upgrading to a multi-tool that does it all or doing research on water sources before you head out so you don’t need to carry a ton of extra water (which is heavy!).

I will be the first to admit, though, that cutting weight from my backpacking gear has been a challenge (especially with my camera equipment) and it’s something I’ll forever be trying to conquer. I’ll also preface this by saying that I’m not the type of person to cut the handle off of my toothbrush 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.

The Pros and Cons of Ultralight Backpacking Gear

Before we get into how to shave weight from your pack, let’s talk about the pros and cons of going ultralight so you can decide if saving a few ounces is worth it for you.

Pros of Ultralight Backpacking Gear

  • The obvious reason to go ultralightweight is for comfort and speed on the trail. With less weight in your pack, you’ll be able to move faster and have less weight sitting on your shoulders.
  • Better balance and agility. With an ultralight pack, balance and agility tend to be better when tackling tricky sections on the trail like river crossing and washed-out tracks.
  • Going ultralightweight may help prevent injury as well as wear and tear since your body is less tired and fatigued from carrying a heavy pack.
  • Lightweight gear is typically quicker and easier to pack and unpack at camp. It can also make it easier to stay organized.
  • Depending on the fabrics and materials, ultralightweight gear can be faster to dry after getting wet
  • Choosing ultralightweight backpacking gear can allow room for special or ‘luxury’ items that would otherwise be too heavy or not fit in your pack.

Cons of Ultralight Backpacking Gear

  • Ultralight gear is expensive, especially if buying new. Try to buy used gear or discounted gear to save money, and also learn how to properly maintain and repair your outdoor gear so you can use it for many years to come.
  • While fabrics and technology have improved, the durability of ultralight gear can be an issue (ex. carbon fiber is not as strong as aluminum, but it’s less likely to snap or break).
  • Ultralight gear may not be as warm as their heavier counterparts.
A woman stands on a hiking trail next to a small stream in Sequoia National Park
Lightweight backpacking gear helps navigate uneven terrain

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Tips for Going Ultralight When Backpacking

1. Focus on Items with Multiple Uses

Take a look at every item in your backpack and make sure you know how to maximize their uses. Many items you carry on backpacking trips can have more than one function.

  • A cooking pot can be used as a bowl
  • A sleeping bag stuff sack can double as a pillow once you stuff your puffy 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
  • Hiking pants that roll up or zipper-off into shorts are great for versatility and sudden weather changes.
  • Good multi-tools (like the Leatherman Wave Plus) include almost every tool you might need on the trail.

When prepping for a trip, try to switch out super specific items with multi-purpose items wherever possible.

2. Cut the Non-Essentials

Do you really need a coffee mug AND a separate cup for beverages? Lay out all of your gear before packing it up and check to see if you can eliminate at least 1-2 items that are duplicates or unnecessary.

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 like a GPS satellite communicator are essential and an exception to this ‘cut it’ rule. You can, however, make sure that your first aid kit is not overkill. Learn more about building your backpacking first aid kit in this post.

Backpacking gear laid out on the ground
Laying out your gear ahead of time will quickly show you where you might be able to shed weight

3. Limit the ‘Spares’

It’s always good to be prepared, but really think about what spares you actually need. When packing your clothes for the backcountry, try to be minimal. Do you need a new outfit each day? Probably not. Also, keep in mind that sweaty clothes can be even heavier to carry than clean clothes.

For most backpacking trips, you only need one base layer, one mid-layer, one insulating layer, and perhaps a rain jacket depending on where you’re heading. Duplicates aren’t necessary unless you are hiking somewhere with extreme weather where you need a backup.

Socks and underwear are the exceptions. It’s good to have 2-3 spares of each.

4. Shed Weight on the “Big Three”

Switching to ultralight backpacking 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:

  1. Tent
  2. Sleeping bag
  3. Backpack

Pro Tip: Try to keep your big three under 10 pounds.

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.

Ultralight Tents

On average, 2-person ultralight backpacking tents today weigh about 2-3 pounds, and every year they seem to get lighter as technology improves. When shopping for a tent, first consider how many people you’ll be camping with. If you sleep solo when you backpack, then opt for a 1-person tent. If you’ll be backpacking with a partner or a friend, a two-person tent can help save weight by divvying up the gear.

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 which 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 you need a little more protection from the elements, I love the Zpacks Triplex (3P) when I’m backpacking with my partner, but their Duplex (2P) and Plex (1P) are also great choices for ultralight tents (you can read our full Zpacks review here).

Get recommendations for the best backpacking tents and learn what key features to consider when choosing a new lightweight tent for the backcountry.
I used the ultralight Z-Packs Triplex Tent in the Minnesota Boundary Waters

Ultralight Sleeping Bags

High-quality, lightweight sleeping bags not only shed pack weight, but they also pack down to a minimal size allowing you to pack more efficiently. For your sleeping bag, aim to stay below 3 pounds if possible. 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 Magma sleeping bag (men’s version here). I took an older model on the John Muir Trail and loved it. For extra space savings in your backpack, stuff your sleeping bag in a compression sack. If you’re looking for an ultralight quilt, my favorite is the Enlightened Equipment Revelation.

Ultralight Backpacking Packs

People often forget that their physical pack, even when empty, weighs something. I’ve been backpacking with the Deuter Aircontact Lite Pack, which is very comfortable and weighs 3 lbs 12 oz, which isn’t super lightweight, but lighter than some other packs out there.

Some ultralight backpacking packs built for thru-hikers barely weigh 2 pounds. These ultralight packs tend to 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.

Former BFT team member Kim used a ULA backpacking pack on her PCT hike and loved it. Another option is the Hyperlite 4400 Southwest pack, which weighs just 2 lbs 7 oz. You won’t find as many pockets and special features on these packs because they’re designed to be simple and light.

Two backpackers wearing large packs hiking on trail in Sequoia National Park
Wearing the Deuter Aircontact Lite Pack

5. Think in Terms of Ounces

A classic backpacker saying is “Pay attention to the ounces, and the pounds take care of themselves.” — it’s all about ounces when talking about lightweight backpacking. Don’t use averages or estimates – know the exact 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 is it 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! 

6. Choose Smart Materials

When choosing lightweight backpacking gear, take into consideration what material the gear is made from. For example, titanium is expensive, but it’s also lightweight and durable. Carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum, but it’s not as durable. Always think about the terrain and conditions you’ll be backpacking in to decide what kind of materials are best.

Another example is synthetic layers vs. cotton clothing. Synthetic is better for hiking because it dries quickly and helps 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. Synthetics are also lighter than cotton, especially when wet.

Research the gear you are buying so you know if it’s both lightweight AND a material that will last.

7. Get Organized

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.

Three backpackers wearing loaded packs and carrying trekking poles facing away from camera
A lightweight pack is an organized pack

8. Don’t Carry More Water than You Need

Water is likely to be one of the heaviest things you’ll be carrying. To minimize how much water you need to carry, do your research before setting out to know where on the trail you can expect to find water and pack a lightweight water filter. Then, calculate how much water you need to carry to get you to the next water source.

Pro tip: 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.

Another good strategy for minimizing water weight is to carry multiple smaller bottles instead of one giant bottle so you can distribute the weight on either side of your pack. We like collapsible water bottles that get smaller as you drink.

Backpacking water filter in use on rocks at edge of river
Do research before your trip to determine where your water sources are and how much you need to carry between them

9. 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.

Spinach salads with tomatoes and goat cheese
Making healthy choices before backpacking trips will make your trip easier

10. Plan Your Food Strategically

Food weighs A LOT. 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, lay out your meals and snacks for each day of your trip. Make one pile for each day that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. 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 from your packing list.

Want to shed weight from your backpacking setup? In this blog post, we share 10 practical ultralight backpacking tips and the best lightweight backpacking gear that will help you shave pounds from your load - all without sacrificing comfort.
Plan out all of your meals and snacks to avoid carrying excess food

Also, take some time to 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 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.

If you’re super 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.

11. Keep Learning

Hikers and outdoor brands are always coming up with new ways to cut weight when backpacking, so set a goal to learn something new with every hike you take. Look for additional resources and articles and talk to others on the trail to learn their tips and tricks for keeping weight low. 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 weights 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 being 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.

Kristen looking out over scenic vista point wearing loaded backpacking pack
Backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park

What are your favorite ultralight backpacking tips? Do you have any tricks or hacks to share with us? Leave a comment below!

Learn how to shed weight from your backpacking gear setup with these 11 practical and easy ultralight backpacking tips.

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  1. Hi Kristen , I love your site and appreciate all your info . I’m planning a backpacking trip with some family to Escalante in late April . We will be spending 5 days in Coyote Gulch . I notice from videos there is a lot of hiking through the river . Do you recommend having an extra pair of shoes for water along with shoes for hiking in the sand and dry areas ? Thanks , any advice you have is very appreciated .

    1. Hi there! So great to hear you are taking a family trip to Coyote Gulch. It really is personal preference when it comes to shoes and dealing with the water crossings. If you all are packing extra shoes that is one option but if some people in the group hike in Keen water sandals or Chacos then you are all going to want to take that route. Personally I like hiking in trail runners and I take the time to review my shoes when doing a river crossing and I wear sturdy water hiking shoes.

  2. Invest in a food dehydrator and prepare your own lightweight meals. Saves a ton of weight (and cash!)

  3. I would also add investing on a light-feather bag that is half as heavy as the normal travel backpacks that are out in the store. You should get it on Amazon because I;m not sure about retail stores. Before owning that, I used to useless carry over 1 kg which I could use for other essentials. I am a voracious trekker and it requires me to balance my stuff as acutely as possible. Gotta use the last two tips.

  4. Great website. Any experience hiking in Idaho? I will spending some time there this summer in the Salmon River area, more on the Middle and North Fork than the western side. Thanks.

  5. Love the site, girls. I’ve been stalking you on and off all summer while hubbs and I got back into backpacking.

    Just wanted to put it out there for anyone looking to split the difference between an ultra supportive pack, a UL pack, and a super expensive pack 😉

    Osprey came out with the Eja/Exos packs and I got my first really nice backpack from them (prior packs had issues for various reasons). The Eja 48 (women’s pack) weighs about 2.5lb, is insanely supportive and breathable, carries up to 40lb for longer treks, and plenty of space. It’s also only around $200 😉 which is pretty good if you poke around and look at similar packs.

    Anyway I have yet to take it out overnight but have been day hiking with my base gear in it and it’s crazy comfortable. With about 20lb (when I put my camera, lenses, and gear in, along with tripod and whatever else) it feels like I’m wearing just the pack.

    I thought it was a bargain and for any newcomers who might be looking on Amazon for backpacks, consider this one 🙂

  6. I discovered powdered coconut milk right before my Tahoe Rim Trail hike. It has 175 cal per ounce, only the faintest coconut taste, and the ability to make everything creamier and thicker. I added it to Mac and cheese, all of my soups, Nido ( for coffee creamer), hot chocolate and chai powders, rice pudding, rice and beans, grits, granola and hot cereals. My food averaged 1.25 lbs on pure trail days.

    The only store I’ve found it in is Food 4 Less, though I suspect Indian food markets may carry it. Otherwise, it’s available online from numerous sources.

    1. Hey there! I use powdered coconut milk as well when hiking! I love it in my morning coffee on the trial. Almost all health food stores carry it as well.

  7. Hello Kristen.
    This is the perfect blog post for backpacking for outdoor activities. I highly appreciate you hard work. your blog discusses the traveling assistant tools. As a travel lover people, it gives me enough knowledge for traveling country to country. please keep it up,

  8. Yeah! But forget the Nemo tent. It’s light, but it looks like you can’t pitch the fly until after you’ve pitched the floor, right? These fair-weather tents might be ok for occasional showers on short trips, but have no place on trips where you might encounter persistent rain. Options are limited at REI, but check out European designs (e.g. Hilleberg) and various cottage manufacturers in the USA (Tarptent, Mountain Laurel Designs, Zpacks, Gossamer Gear, and that crowd).

  9. Superb tips. This post is very informative and I got to know various insights. I would like to consider these tips during packing for my upcoming trip. Keep posting such interesting articles.

  10. “A bandana can cool you down on hot days, provide shade, serve as a makeshift coffee filter. In an emergency, it can also be a tourniquet.”

    A bandana will NEVER be sufficient for stopping major bleeding. As major bleeding is rare in the backcountry, a CAT tourniquet is light, cheap and will save your life in that rare case. Check out North American Rescue (NAR) for quality CAT tourniquets. (centsX2)

    1. Agreed, a bandana is not a replacement for a proper tourniquet, but it can help temporarily in a pinch. Thanks for the tourniquet recommendation!

  11. Hi Kristin, thanks for the tips. I’ve been traveling for the last 6 months and learned a lot form BearFootTheory. Thanks for that. I like the tip in which you said not to pack a lot of food for the whole trip. I did the same on one of my trips and was badly tired because of my heavy bag. All of the tips are awesome. Keep going!

  12. In the quest to reduce weight, I’m trying to figure out the volume side of the equation. Ultralight packs are lighter in part because they are smaller. Even with a down bag, roll-up air mattress, and single-wall tent (which does not keep one dry), I’m having trouble squeezing in enough food for a week, plus the clothing needed for the cold and the wet, plus water shoes and fishing gear. Going from a 70-liter to a 50-liter pack is a huge loss of volume.

    1. We know what you mean. If we’re packing for a week long backpacking trip, we’ll usually go with a 70L pack, whereas for shorter trips we can get away with a 55L pack. Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes a good ultralight 70L pack that sounds like it might be a good fit for you. Also, the smaller and more packable your gear is (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, down jacket, rain layers, etc), the less space they’ll take up – I know that sounds obvious but something to keep in mind as you search for new gear. Best of luck!

  13. please be aware of bear canister requirements in many parks. no they are not light, make sure your pack is big enough to accommodate one and be prepared.

  14. I found the tip “focus on items with multiple uses” as really clever and interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  15. I have been looking for information on this topic. I found your post well-written and informative. Thank you!

  16. In the summer, and here in eastern Oregon where it’s dry, I ditch the tent and just bring a bivy sack. It’s been a game changer in regards to weight!

  17. Very good article. I’m looking for a soft water bottle that can take hot water to double up as a hot water bottle in my sleeping bag. Have you any ideas?

    1. Hi Inge, Hydrapak makes soft water bottles that can be filled with water up to 140F.. so not too hot, but still should do the job of keeping you warm — here’s their 1L bottle: https://bit.ly/3LdseEa

      One of our team members just took the 4L version on a backpacking trip and it held up really well. She was only using it as extra water storage, not for hot water, though.

    2. Thank you for this idea of waterbottle doubling as hotwater bottle! I live in a cold climate and even in summer some chilly nights can surprise you.

      Generally i would comment that thinking in grams might help in shaving some weight off.

  18. I love using papertowel sheets, sprinkled with shampoo for baby wipes. Keep them dry until needed. Dry them out after use and before placing in the trash. Win-win!!