How to Cut Weight for Your Ultralight Backpacking Trip
Whether you're new to backpacking or have a few trips under your belt—there's one thing that's almost certainly true—you're packing too much stuff!
Trekking down over 3,000 feet into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison near Montrose, CO, I reflected on my partner's last words as we headed out. "We shouldn't be taking all this stuff" he said (more than once), but the anticipation of camping next to that stunning river below trumped all reasoning. Besides, it was a short 3.5 mile hike in, and nearing the bottom I realized I hadn’t even noticed the weight.
Over the next few days, I slept like a baby in my double sleeping bag, enjoyed fresh caught fish for dinner, and read a few books in my comfy camp chair by the fire. Bliss! I didn't regret bringing one thing…until the hike back up. The weight of that pack was so overwhelming that I had to stop and rest every 15 minutes, each time with a few colorful words directed at my partner. Who's idea was the double sleeping bag, anyway?
Immediately upon our return, I began to research ultralight backpacking. I had heard the term numerous times, but what exactly did it mean? While traditional backpacking ‘rules’ state that a loaded pack's base weight should not be more than about 20% of your body weight, Wikipedia defines ultralight broadly as “a style of backpacking which emphasizes carrying the lightest and least amount of gear”. Seems we missed the mark on that one.
With our packs weighing in at over 35 lbs each on the Black Canyon trip, it was time to reevaluate our gear for trips going forward. Could we take a minimalist approach and simply enjoy nature? After all, we were heading into the wilderness to escape life's attachments. Why were we bringing so many of them with us? In the end we were left with two questions: what items could be left behind, and was it worth it to replace some of the heavier items in our packs with lightweight alternatives? Below are some answers to both questions, along with tips to help lighten the load regardless of your budget!
Before You Start
First, be realistic about your priorities and needs. If you require a solid 8 hours of sleep each night at home, pay special attention to your sleeping bag and pad. Either spend the extra money for ultralight (UL) versions of these items, or be willing to carry a few extra lbs on your back to ensure you are warm, comfortable and rested for the following day's adventures. If your knees need special attention, make sure you have solid hiking shoes and/or trekking poles that will alleviate pain and stress in this area. Taking the time to evaluate what’s important to you will help make the decision process easier when upgrading or making a first-time investment on gear.
Also, will you be taking the same type of backpacking trip yearly, or have an adventure planned somewhere new every few months? Short, infrequent trips in a dry climate will require much different gear than ones in the Pacific Northwest in May or the high desert in October. Thinking through your plans before buying new gear will save a lot of money and potential disappointment if it doesn't end up matching your trip goals long term.
Next, take stock of what you own (if anything). Lay it all out, and add each item to a gear list spreadsheet. Weigh items on a scale one by one to see what is adding the most weight to your pack (if you are just starting out, make a spreadsheet of the things you think will need and build it out with lbs/oz info as you go). Counting pounds and ounces (even grams) may seem extreme but it's the best way to see what needs an upgrade or special attention if you're truly wanting to lighten the load.
Finally, determine your budget. You will undoubtedly find someone online with endless research and advice on new technology, but it's not always necessary to overspend on ultralight gear. Setting a budget up front will prioritize what to purchase and at what price point, ultimately leaving the money you save to spend on more trips!
Whether you're just starting out or looking to upgrade your gear, there are several ways to lighten your load on your next backpacking adventure. Examining The Big Four items (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent/shelter, and backpack) is a great place to start since they are necessary for your trip and the heaviest/bulkiest items on your back.
Big Four Items
1. Sleeping Bag
A popular sentiment among backpackers is: "Be comfortable during the day, or be comfortable at night". As technology advances it is becoming more common to have both—if you are willing to spend the extra money. Personally, comfort wins when I'm sleeping in the backcountry, and I'm always looking for ways to improve in that area.
One option is a featherlight, compressible sleeping bag that is suitable for the climate you'll be in most frequently, or one that accommodates your comfort level. As a cold sleeper, I prefer a 10-20F degree bag because I can always get out and sleep on top in warmer climates, but appreciate the warmth as I'm dozing off. The Marmot Phase 20 Sleeping Bag is a nice upgrade or first UL bag that packs down to 7 x 16 inches, features 850 fill power down, durable recycled nylon Ripstop fabric, has a lifetime warranty, and weighs in at only 1.65 lbs.
Another increasingly popular choice for ultralight backpackers is switching from a bag to a quilt, which offers versatility in changing seasons. Most quilts have the option to zip up the footbox and attach to your sleeping pad on nights that require you to bundle up but lay out completely flat (quilt-style!) when the temps climb. Popular with those who like a little more room to move around and like to 'kick off the covers' as they heat up, the quilt also weighs very little and packs down small. The 20-degree Revelation Quilt by Enlightened Equipment, for example, weighs just 1.38 lbs (size Regular) and packs down to 7x13.5 inches.
Spending a little extra money for ultralight can sure add up; fortunately, there are less expensive sleeping bags that will still work for backpacking, like The North Face One Sleeping Bag. It is a three-in-one design that can be modified depending on the temps you are sleeping in, so you can bring all three layers on colder trips (3.12 lbs) or just bring the lightest layer in summer temps (2.3 lbs). The bottom layer can roll into a pillow, too—so you can scratch that extra item (and weight) off your list.
Speaking of pillows, I like to roll up clothes or use my coat as a pillow. I have never found one comfortable enough to justify bringing it, and instead, like to use what I'm already using in another area to save space in my pack. On that note, sleeping in baselayers and socks is another way to stay warm and save weight by using what you already have, without dishing out more money on a 0-degree bag.
2. Sleeping Pad
There are many options when it comes to sleeping pads, but it's important to pay attention to the details. Is it self-inflating? Durable? Noisy? Insulated? And for some people the most important question: is it comfortable? This item in your pack can make or break your night's sleep so let's dig into a few options.
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite sleep pad is incredibly light at 9.5 oz (for the Regular size) and this alone is enough to make it appealing to ultralight backpackers. Add in that it also packs down to 6 x 3.6 inches and you've got a winning combination that many people are willing to spend a little extra on. Users rated its 2.5" thickness as moderately comfortable, and the very light insulation keeps the chill at bay in cool summer temps. As with all inflatable pads, it is not resistant to leaks so take care in setting up and always carry a repair kit.
A closed-cell foam pad like the Peregrine Grid Link Folding Pad is another popular option. It is considerably less expensive, and more durable than an inflatable while still extremely light at just 14.8 ounces. With minimal insulation, it's another mild-weather solution but can be paired with an inflatable for added warmth/protection from the ground. Although it’s a sacrifice on comfort, ultralight hikers frequently strap this pad to the outside of their pack due to its extreme durability and quick setup.
Your shelter can be one of the heavier items in your pack, but there are a few ways to lighten up the tent you already have. If you're hiking with a partner, share the weight! One person can carry poles/stakes while the other takes the tent body/rainfly. Assuming your tent is 6/7 pounds, that makes for a reasonable 3/5 lbs each.
If you're shopping for your first tent or upgrading to a lighter option, the award-winning Nemo Dragonfly is one to consider. It’s very highly rated for its light weight (the one-person configuration is 2.10 lbs), ample headroom, vestibules, and internal gear storage. Available in one-, two- or three-person options, the Dragonfly is on the list of many ultralight backpackers.
Many are also turning to an even lighter form of protection from the elements: a tarp. Made from thin yet durable materials and weighing as low as 4 ounces, you can see why ultralight enthusiasts go this route.
The Rab Siltarp Ultralite Tarp is a minimalist shelter made of Cordura 30D siliconized nylon and even stronger reinforcements that protect from sun and rain for up to three people. Set up above your sleep system near trees or rocks for additional shelter from the elements. Many tarps like the Rab use trekking poles to set up which is handy since you'll likely be hiking with these anyway. This eliminates the added weight of tent-specific aluminum poles. Not hiking with poles? Sturdy branches from nearby trees can work, too.
I've recently come to understand the benefit of choosing a backpack AFTER choosing the items mentioned above. In fact, even after everything else like food and clothing. Take care in choosing items that match the needs of your trip and/or ones that fit within your budget, and then pick a pack that will comfortably fit those items. This eliminates the potential to fill a big pack with unnecessary gear 'just in case'.
Once you've established what size you need, you can choose a lighter pack without a bulky frame to save weight, or one that may be a little heavier but offers the comfort and features that will make your time on the trail more enjoyable.
One of the more affordable lightweight backpacks is the Mountainsmith Scream 50. Its minimal EVA framesheet distributes weight nicely through the shoulders, back, and hips. Also, the hip belt and large external pockets provide room for frequently used items. The weight of this pack is just 2.10 lbs.
Another option is the Osprey Lumina (women's) or Levity (men's) which, at just under two pounds, are remarkably light. A highly-rated ventilated suspension system, multiple attachment points, and durable outer fabric are among the benefits on these models.
We've covered the larger items in your pack, but the small ones add up and should be taken into consideration when lightening your load too. Thinking of fresh caught fish and well-seasoned rice and beans for dinner? Pots/pans, utensils, spices, and condiments weigh more than you think when combined. If you are set on eating well in the backcountry, you'll want to start with a lightweight stove like the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe, which is largely considered one of the best options. Compact, reliable, and works well in the wind, the Pocket Rocket Deluxe features a push-start ignition and has excellent simmer control. This stove weighs just 2.9 ounces (fuel canister not included).
Pair this stove with the Evernew Titanium NS Frypan, which delivers non-stick frying at a mere 4.9 ounces. With heat-resistant handles that either fold or attach easily to a carabiner on the outside of your pack, this pan is an excellent option for cooking in the wilderness.
Featuring a watertight screw top lid, a foldable handle that converts it into a mug, and measuring lines for precision, the 4.8-ounce Vargo Titanium Pot 700 is another great addition or option on its own.
You're not limited to finger food, either! The Snowpeak Titanium Fork and Spoon Set tuck into a little carrying case and weigh just 1.1 ounces!
Of course, packing the food required to cook fresh meals will add considerable weight on the trail. If you want to keep it super light, consider the Jetboil Stash backpacking stove, and dehydrated meals. Weighing in at just 7.1 ounces, its nesting design takes up very little room in your pack and the 2.5-minute boil time means ultra-quick coffee and meals at camp. And if you’re REALLY serious about shaving weight, a member of my Ultralight Backpacking group on Facebook recently shared a photo of their dehydrated meals with all of the package tops cut off!
My biggest hack on saving weight naturally is to drastically reduce the amount of clothes I take to begin with. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t need more than two days’ worth of clothing, especially if there is a water source nearby that I can use to rinse things as needed. I have taken just one pair of pants on a four-day trek, with a light tank top, or t-shirt, a Smartwool base layer, a down jacket or rain jacket tied around my waist or to the pack, and two pairs of socks/underwear. This means I literally had no clothes inside of my pack except for the extra pair of socks/underwear.
Obviously, use common sense and dress for the climate you’ll be in, but accept that you don’t need to feel as clean as you would at home—you’re out in nature after all!
More Ultralight Backpacking Tips
Some things are so light and versatile that it just makes sense to bring them even if you can’t think of a use. A bandana, for example, can be used as a headband or sun protection on the trail, a cloth for cleaning/drying, a tourniquet for first aid, or to keep flies off your food while you’re prepping at camp. Tie one to your pack and count the many ways you put it to use!
If you’re literally counting grams, consider cutting some of the handle off your toothbrush, omitting your stove and cooking over the fire, wearing comfortable, lightweight trail shoes instead of hiking boots, and bringing a single-blade razor instead of a knife.
One thing you don’t want to sacrifice on is a first aid kit, because nothing stops a trip in its tracks faster than an injury. There are lightweight kits on the market but you can piece together your own with some tried and true tips from the ultralight community. For instance, duct tape is considered an excellent solution that can stop bleeding and close wounds or protect them from debris or dirty water. Cut 2-3 inch strips and wrap around your trekking poles for easy access and to reduce bulk in your pack. Duct tape does contain latex, so look for an alternative if you’re allergic.
You can also bring bandaids or moleskin for smaller cuts and blisters, a mini-tube of antibiotic treatment, travel packs of ibuprofen, tweezers, gauze pads, and first aid treatment cards in a small Ziploc bag, tucked in the side of your bag. Becoming well-versed in the potential hazards of your trip can help alleviate fears that lead to bringing far more than you need for a simple injury.
Well, you may be wondering just where we landed with pack weight after that Colorado trip. Here’s a hint, our gear pic wasn’t even close to the one at the top of this article. We shaved 17 lbs off our standard heavy load, and although I occasionally miss the choice of having two books and a pack full of snacks, it certainly feels more aligned with our goals to enjoy the minimalist experience. What tips have you used to lighten your load in the backcountry? Get in touch with a Curated Camping & Hiking Expert and let us know! We’d love to share adventure stories with you!