What is Ultralight Backpacking?

What is Ultralight Backpacking? Enthusiast Hiking on Trail with Minimalist Gear

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Wondering what is ultralight backpacking? If so, stick around.

In the last decade, curiosity about ultralight backpacking with frameless backpacks and tarp tents has surged for good reason—simplifying outdoor adventures and keeping them clutter-free.

In this post we will cover everything you need to know about ultralight backpacking. Ready to learn more? Let’s delve in.

What is Ultralight Backpacking?

Ultralight backpacking focuses on reducing the weight of your gear to the minimum while keeping safety in mind. Ultralight backpackers typically aim to carry no more than 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of base weight, and we’ll explain this in more detail shortly.

This idea comes from the “less is more” approach, where you carry only what you really need. You might think this is a new concept, but it was actually discussed in a well-known book called “Woodcraft,” published by George Sears in 1888.

However, in the 21st century, ultralight backpacking has evolved and become more accessible to a wider audience.

Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking

Going ultralight offers many advantages over traditional heavy backpacking. Here are some of the major benefits:

  1. Faster Hiking: With under 30 pounds, you can swiftly cover trails, making ultralight gear the choice for backpackers seeking rapid long-distance treks.
  2. Less Fatigue: Heavy packs wear down your body quickly. Ultralight packs with base weights under 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) significantly reduce fatigue:
    • Shoulders, back and knees feel great even after >15 miles (>24 km).
    • Less recovery time needed at camp.
  3. Lower Injury Risk: Research shows that carrying over 50 pounds (22.7 kilogram) long-term substantially increases injury risk. Ultralight backpacking helps by:
    • Reducing stress on joints and muscles.
    • Allowing the use of running shoes (trail runners) instead of heavy boots.
    • Requiring less fitness and conditioning to start.
  4. More Enjoyment: At the end of the day, ultralight backpacking equals more fun:
    • Focus on hiking instead of camp comforts.
    • Travel deeper into the wilderness.
    • Feel connected to nature.

Principles of Ultralight Backpacking

Scenic Ultralight Backpacking Campsite with Tent, Sleeping Bag, and Mountain View

Ultralight backpacking requires adopting a specific mindset and philosophy. Here are the core principles:

  1. Don’t Increase Risk: Safety always comes first. Only reduce gear if it doesn’t compromise your wellbeing in the wilderness. Bring all necessary essentials like first aid supplies, navigation tools, insulation layers, etc. 
  2. Eliminate Non-Essentials: Ask yourself if each piece of gear is absolutely vital to your health and safety. Books, camp chairs, electronics and other “luxury” items should be left at home. 
  3. Downsize Essentials: Replace gear with lightweight options. For example:
    • Shelter: Use a tarp instead of a full tent (if the weather allows).
    • Sleep system: Quilt instead of a mummy bag.
    • Backpack: Frameless instead of a framed pack.
  4. Use Multi-Purpose Gear: When possible, choose gear that serves multiple functions to reduce redundancy and weight:
    • Bandana (pot holder, wash cloth, towel).
    • Trekking poles (tent support).
    • Pot (bowl, mug).
  5. Simplicity: Resist the urge to overcomplicate your kit. Follow the minimalist ethos of indigenous peoples who thrived with only the most essential items. Only take exactly what you need for the conditions. Never back your fears. If it doesn’t serve a critical purpose, leave it behind.

How Are Backpack Weights Categorized?

When discussing ultralight backpacking, certain terms are used to break down pack weights. Understanding these concepts is key:

A. Base Weight

Your base weight includes all gear except consumables. It’s the best metric for comparing ultralight loadouts:

  • Shelter, sleep system, backpack.
  • Clothing, rain gear, shoes.
  • Cookware, water purification.
  • Toiletries, first aid, tools.
CategorySample Weights
Ultralight base weight<10 lbs (<4.5 kgs)
Lightweight base weight<20 lbs (<9 kgs)
Traditional base weight>25 lbs (>11 kgs)

B. Worn Weight

Worn weight is clothing and items worn while hiking. Some ultralight hikers minimize worn weight, but most just focus on base weight:

  • Shoes, socks, underwear .
  • Trekking poles, hat, sunglasses.

C. Consumables

Consumables are food, water, and fuel. They depend on trip length so aren’t included in base weight.

D. Total Pack Weight

Your total pack weight is your base weight and consumables combined. While important, it’s less useful for comparisons.

How to Get Started with Ultralight Backpacking?

Ultralight Backpacking Adventure: Summer Campsite with Ultralight Tent and Mountain Scenic View

Transitioning to ultralight backpacking takes some adjustment. Here are tips for new ultralight hikers.

  1. Weigh Your Current Gear: Buy a digital scale and weigh every item in your pack. This lets you:
    • Establish your current base weight.
    • Identify heavy items to replace.
    • Set a target weight goal.
  2. Make Gradual Changes: Don’t rush to replace all your current gear. Ultralight gear is expensive and needs added care. You need time to learn if you are a side sleeper, do you like to carry trekking poles, etc.
    • As current gear wears out, buy lightweight replacements.
    • Allow time to learn what you really need.
  3. Plan Ahead: Study the expected conditions and terrain for each trip. This allows properly tailoring your gear list without overpacking.
    • Check weather reports frequently.
    • Read recent trail reports before leaving.
    • Ask locals about nature’s rhythms.
    • Watch YouTube videos to learn about the past experience of other hikers.
  4. Focus On Food: Choose calorie-dense foods with minimal packaging.
    • Dehydrate meals at home or buy them pre-made.
    • Repackage food in ziplocs.
    • Rely on bars and gels for lunch.
    • Carry just enough food between resupplies.

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

Gear Considerations for a Lighter Backpack

Carefully chosen ultralight or lightweight gear is at the core of ultralight backpacking. Here’s an overview of key items:

The “Big Three”

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

TypeWeightNotes
Tents1 – 5 lbs (450-2200g)Opt for lightweight solo tents. Learn more here
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

TypeWeightNotes
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

TypeWeightVolumeNotes
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.

Cooking and Hydration

Next to the ‘Big Three‘, food plays a major role in the overall weight of your backpack.

A minimalist cookset plus water gear is standard:

  • Stove: Canister or alcohol stove.
  • Pot: Titanium or aluminum.
  • Water purification: Chemical or filter.
  • Water container: Collapsible bottle/bladder.

Clothing and Rain Gear

Layering with versatile pieces reduces clothing weight. Just bring essential insulation, wind protection and rain defense:

  • Synthetic T-shirt and a light down puffy.
  • Versatile softshell instead of rain jacket and an insulation layer.
  • Running shorts with liner to skip underwear.

How to Determine If Going Ultralight Is for You?

Golden Hour Ultralight Backpacking: Ultralight Tarp Shelter on Mountain Slope

Going ultralight isn’t for everyone. Consider these key factors when deciding:

  • Motivations: If you enjoy shorter hikes and leisurely camping, going ultralight may not be ideal. But if quick setups, longer trails, and greater speed matter to you – go ultralight.
  • Risk Tolerance: Are you comfortable removing safety margins and backup items from your kit? You’ll need to become highly skilled at analyzing risk and predicting conditions.
  • Cost: Quality ultralight gear costs significantly more than conventional equipment. Top-tier DCF tents, premium down bags, and carbon fiber poles will lighten your wallet.
  • Care and Maintenance: Ultralight equipment can be less durable and requires meticulous care. Are you willing to baby your kit to prevent rips, tears and insulation loss? 
  • Comfort Preferences: If camp chairs are a must for you, ultralight might not be the right fit. Assess your needs and values to determine if hardcore ultralight backpacking aligns with your goals.

Conclusion

In closing, ultralight backpacking represents a dramatic shift towards minimalist gear and ethics in order to achieve vanishingly small base weights.

While not for everyone, adopting an ultralight approach can profoundly enhance the wilderness experience for avid hikers willing to embrace a spartan, minimalist ethos. 

The key is making gradual changes, always maintaining safety, and downsizing the “Big Three” first. With meticulous gear selection and planning, base weights under 10 pounds (4.5 kg) enable unburdened freedom on the trail.

Transitioning to ultralight requires sacrifices, but pays dividends in terms of faster hiking, lower fatigue, and a deeper connection with nature.

FAQ

What is ultralight backpacking?

Ultralight backpacking is a strategy for hiking and camping that emphasizes keeping your gear as lightweight as possible, typically around 10 pounds or less. This approach involves selecting lightweight, versatile equipment and packing only the most essential items. For instance, some ultralight backpackers might opt for a tarp instead of a traditional tent, which reduces weight while still providing adequate shelter from the elements. This focus on minimalism enables hikers to cover more ground with less effort, experience less fatigue, and enjoy the outdoors more fully.

How many liters is good for ultralight backpacking?

When it comes to selecting a backpack for ultralight backpacking, the ideal capacity typically falls within the 35-45 liter range. This size is well-suited for a 3-4 day hike with resupply options, providing enough room for essential gear while remaining lightweight. However, for longer hikes or trails with no resupply options, we recommend opting for a backpack with a capacity exceeding 45 liters.

Can you recommend any resources or guides for learning more about ultralight backpacking?

Certainly! When it comes to learning more about ultralight backpacking, there are excellent resources and guides available. One highly recommended resource is the “Ultralight Backpacking Bible” by renowned outdoor adventurer, John Everest. This comprehensive guide covers everything from selecting the lightest gear to efficient packing techniques and trail etiquette.

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