Backpacking Styles 101: From Traditional to Ultralight

Yosemite National Park Backpacking Adventure: Ultralight Backpackers Enjoying Scenic Ravine View

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Backpacking is an exciting way to connect with nature and explore the outdoors, but there’s no one-size-fits-all style approach.

Nevertheless, three main camps emerge: traditional, lightweight, and ultralight. Are you ready to learn more? Let’s go.

Backpacking Styles Explained

Backpacking includes three styles, primarily differing based on the weight of your pack and the level of luxury comforts during your adventure.

1. Traditional Backpacking

This involves carrying heavier packs. Traditional backpackers bring extra gear and comfort items such as camp chairs, books, larger tents, and bulkier sleeping bags, allowing for added camp luxury.

2. Lightweight Backpacking

Lightweight backpacking involves trimming your pack weight down by bringing less gear and using more lightweight options. The focus is on reducing weight while maintaining reasonable comfort.

3. Ultralight Backpacking

Ultralight backpackers aim to cut their base weight down as much as possible. This requires minimalist gear, often homemade, and leaving many traditional comfort items behind. The emphasis is on traveling fast and light.

How Can a Lighter Backpack Benefit You

The heavier your pack, the more challenging hiking will be on your body. While you may enjoy you camping comfort items, a lighter backpack is appreciated by everyone. Less weight makes it easier to cover more mileage and elevation each day.

A 5-10 pound (2.3-4.5 kg) reduction in weight can lead to a 20-30% decrease in strain on your back, knees, and ankles over the course of an extended (multi-day) trip.

Thus, it is important to understand the concept of base weight so you can determine if your pack is too heavy for your liking.

Calculating Base Weight

Your total pack weight includes consumables like food, fuel, and water. Base weight refers to just your backpack, shelter, sleep system, clothing, and other gear. It enables a fair comparison between backpackers.

There are general base weight ranges that define the different backpacking styles:

  • Traditional: Over 30 pounds (>12.5 kilograms)
  • Lightweight: 10-20 pounds (4.5-9 kilograms)
  • Ultralight: Under 10 pounds (<4.5 kilograms)

Knowing your starting point is crucial. Use LighterPack to keep track of your gear and its weight. 

Gear Considerations for a Lighter Backpack

To cut pack weight, focus on the ‘Big Three‘ – your pack, shelter, and sleep system. Here are some example options to see where you can make the biggest difference:

1. Shelter Options

Tents1 – 5 lbs (450-2200g)Opt for lightweight solo tents
Hammocks1 – 2 lbs (450-900g)Require additional accessories
Tarps1 – 2 lbs (450-900g)Versatile and ultralight, not for beginners
Bivys12 oz – 2 lbs (340-900g)For extreme minimalists, not for beginners
Check out our TOP 5 guides for the lightest shelters.

2. Sleep Systems

Bags1 – 3 lbs (450-1250g)Higher fill power for lighter warmth
Quilts1 – 2 lbs (450-900g)Often lighter then sleeping bags
Pads9 oz – 2 lbs (260-900g)Ample lightweight options due to new tech
Check out our TOP 5 guides for the lightest sleep systems.

3. Backpack Types

Framed2 – 5 lbs (900-2200g)50 – 80LStructured; good for heavy loads
Frameless1 – 2.5 lbs (450-1000g)30 – 60LLess structure; for lighter loads
Daypacks8 – 28 oz (225 – 800g)15 – 35LMinimal; for short trips
Check out our TOP 5 guides for the lightest backpacks.

How to Find the Right Balance

Golden Hour Backpacking Adventure: Two Hikers and Ultralight Tent in Scenic Mountain Landscape

Selecting your ideal style always requires balancing comfort, cost, and durability. In our opinion, it’s perfectly fine to alter your style to different trail conditions:

  • Comfort vs Weight: The more comfort items you bring, the heavier your pack. Decide which luxuries are worth the extra ounces. Or get creative with multipurpose gear. For example, instead of an electronic air pump, you can use a trusty pump sack and even store some gear in it while on the move.
  • Cost vs Durability: Ultralight gear is expensive but often delicate, while cheaper traditional gear is heavier but more durable. The price difference is usually 2-3 times higher, but, in our opinion, it’s well worth it for the ‘Big Three.’
  • Personal Preferences: Your ideal pack weight is a personal choice based on your hiking style, skills, and fitness level. Set weight goals that enhance your enjoyment on the trail. For example, if you enjoy outdoor activities during harsh winter conditions and lack advanced skills, you might want to bring extra gear for peace of mind.


Your backpacking style is entirely up to you. We believe it’s perfectly okay to adjust it according to the different trail conditions. For example, we like to go ultralight during the summer but choose a lightweight setup during the winter.

Regardless of your choice, having a lighter backpack is always a good idea because it reduces the strain on your body. No matter your style, you can make your load lighter by focusing on three essential items: your backpack, shelter, and sleep gear.

So give it a try, even if you take small steps towards it.


What is the point of ultralight backpacking?

Ultralight backpacking, with a base weight of under 10 pounds (<4.5 kilograms), focuses on maximizing your outdoor experience by minimizing what you carry. This approach significantly reduces the strain on your body, with a 5-10 pound weight reduction translating to a 20-30% decrease in back, knee, and ankle stress during extended trips. It’s all about efficiency, self-sufficiency, and a deeper connection with nature.

What is the difference between traditional and lightweight backpacking?

The difference between traditional and lightweight backpacking lies in the approach to gear weight. Traditional backpacking often involves carrying heavier (>30 pounds; 12.5 kilograms) and more extensive equipment, while lightweight backpacking emphasizes reducing gear weight (10-20 pounds; 4.5-9 kilograms) to enhance mobility and comfort during outdoor adventures.

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