A Guide to Ultralight Backpacking Gear
Camping & Hiking expert Jessica LaPolla shares all the tips you need if you've been wanting to lighten your pack load and try out ultralight backpacking.
There is something inherently powerful about walking into the backcountry with everything you need to survive on your back, and something magical about the feeling that goes along with that. What’s not magical is how heavy everything on your back can be. We’ve come a long way in recent decades in terms of lightening our heavy loads on the trail, with many hikers and backpackers switching to “ultralight” gear.
One of the most difficult aspects of preparing for a backpacking trip, whether you’re planning an overnight adventure in the state forest near your house or a five-month stint on the Appalachian Trail, is selecting the right gear for you. If you want to try out "ultralight backpacking," odds are you’ll have to replace some or all of your old gear.
Where to Start
So you’re ready to begin replacing your gear. How do you balance weight, cost, durability, and safety? It can be a challenging task and ultimately comes down to relying on your own judgment and understanding your strengths and weaknesses on the trail. It is also important to understand the tradeoffs of choosing ultralight gear compared to more traditional options. Before you get started on choosing your ultralight backpacking kit, there are a few points to consider.
First, you should have a general understanding of your own weight and how much you can/should be carrying. Generally, a loaded pack should not weigh more than about 20% of your body weight. For example, someone who weighs 150lbs should not be carrying more than 30lbs. Now, by choosing the right ultralight gear, this number can be reduced quite a bit.
Another important factor to consider is safety. While cutting down on weight seems straightforward, there are a few places where you don’t want to cut corners, such as food, first aid, and water. Don’t worry, I’ll talk more about how to safely reduce the weight of these components later.
Let’s first focus on lightening your “base weight” as much as possible. Base weight is how much your pack weighs loaded with everything besides “consumables,” which are food, water, and fuel. We can break down base weight even further by starting with the “big four” in backpacking: your backpack, shelter, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. After that, we’ll discuss other essential items in your pack.
When choosing a pack, consider how much gear you’ll need to carry. A pack capacity of 45-55L should offer plenty of room for most trips and also ensures that you won’t have dead space in your pack in which you may be tempted to stuff full with unneeded items. Cut down on weight by choosing a pack that is frameless or has minimal padding. An ultralight pack with an internal frame can offer more support. Either way, make sure your pack is properly fitted and do not compromise on comfort (remember, you’ll be carrying this pack on your multi-day/week/month treks). When trying on a new pack, make sure it is weighted and take it for a spin to ensure you are getting the right fit.
Now, it’s time to select a shelter. If you’re like me and like to backpack with an 80lb dog, or perhaps another human, you might want to splurge on weight with a two-person ultralight tent. If you’re flying solo, there are many tents ranging from 1-2lbs that can easily be set up in a matter of minutes. Hammocks are also a great option if you’d prefer to be off the ground. Bivys and tarps are available as well, some weighing as little as 6oz.
Next, think about what type of climate you’ll be backpacking and hiking in. Choose a sleeping bag or quilt that is only as warm as you need. If you are a cold sleeper, like me, choose a temperature rating a few degrees lower than what you’ll be sleeping in to make sure you stay toasty.
Should you choose down or synthetic? Down is wonderfully warm and light, but if you get it wet, even if it’s been treated, you risk compromising its insulation qualities. If you’re going to be in wet or marshy terrain, consider purchasing a synthetic bag; they dry quickly and are less expensive than down, though they tend to be heavier.
To finish off your sleeping arrangements, look for a light and durable sleeping pad. There are a number of great air pads to choose from if you are looking for maximum ultralight comfort. However, many thru-hikers will opt for a closed-cell foam pad, which is typically lighter and more durable (but less comfortable). Some folks will go as far as cutting it to torso length to save ounces.
In the end, it is up to you, and how important sleep comfort is to you. You may also want to consider what type of camping you’ll be doing. If you’re mostly tent camping, an air pad will offer more comfort, but for hammock camping, a foam pad might be the perfect option.
One last thing to consider about sleeping pads: air pads do not offer as much insulation as a closed-cell foam pad, sacrificing warmth for overall comfort.
After optimizing weight with the big four, make sure you are not overpacking clothes. Start with base layers and underwear. This again typically depends on the climate you’ll be hiking in. Typically, you’ll want to go with a long-sleeve wool shirt and long wool pants. Wool dries quickly and does not hold onto odor, making it much preferred over synthetic materials. Grab a few pairs of wool underwear as well.
For warm days of hiking, try a pair of running shorts with built-in underwear and a light wool or synthetic short-sleeve shirt. Two pairs of lightweight wool socks are recommended, as well. Bring a fleece zip-up as a mid-layer and a down or synthetic puffy jacket for chilly weather. Bring a hard shell or rain jacket to top off your backpacking closet.
You may not necessarily be carrying your boots on your back, but they still contribute to your overall weight when hiking. Most backpackers (including myself) have made the switch to trail runners for most trips. However, if you need more support, try a lightweight hiking boot. While drying out your sweaty feet at camp, you’ll want a pair of sandals to wear. Go with something lightweight and durable like Crocs. Diehard ultralight backpackers have even been known to punch out extra holes in their sandals.
First Aid Kit and Repair Kit
Bring along a modified first aid “kit” with essentials like bandages, ibuprofen, antibiotic ointment, some gear repair tape, and a small knife or razor blade.
There is really only one thing to say here: travel size! Bring a small tube of toothpaste and a travel-size fold-up toothbrush. Or, cut your regular toothbrush in half. Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a small bottle of biodegradable soap. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen and sun protection! It may not seem important, but trust me on this, you’ll need it. Measure out toilet paper or paper towels and place them in a plastic bag. Bring a separate zip-top plastic bag to carry out what you use. For women, cut a strip off of a bandana and use it as a pee rag. You can tie it to the outside of your pack to dry during the day.
Water Filtration & Water
Squeeze filters are perhaps the most popular filtration option among backpackers today, with a mini squeeze filter weighing only a couple of ounces. If you’re ok with a few extra ounces, I would recommend going with a full-size filter to reduce the time and exertion it will take to filter your water. Bring a collapsible water bottle or a Smartwater plastic bottle (1L). Always bring a backup purification method in case your filter breaks, such as iodine or purification tablets. Make sure you drink plenty of water before your hike and if you are in an area with plenty of water available, only carry about a liter at a time. If you are in an area with a limited or unknown water supply, play it safe and carry all of the water you’ll need.
Depending on your size and the exertion requirements of your trip, you’ll need to consume 2,500-4,500cal a day or 1.5-2.5lbs of food per day. Dehydrated meals are a great lightweight option but can be expensive, so learn to dehydrate your own foods at home. Make sure you bring plenty of high-calorie, high-fat foods to munch on during the day and repackage everything into lighter zip-top plastic bags. Also, hiker hunger is REAL. Make sure to bring yourself treats to enjoy at camp, like hot cocoa packets, and single pre-packaged cookies or brownies.
Fuel & Stove
Most backpackers opt to use a folding canister stove, weighing only a few ounces, with a small canister of fuel. Fuel can be heavy, so do a couple of test runs and calculate how much you’ll actually need. If your stove is automatic, bring a lighter in case the igniter fails. Some folks prefer to use an alcohol stove, which is another lightweight option, or a tablet stove, which you can make out of an aluminum can. Bring the number of fuel tablets you’ll need for your trip.
When looking for cookware, try to get items that are multifunctional. For instance, you could use a titanium mug or pot to boil water for food and to eat/drink out of. If you want a separate cup for your morning coffee, try a collapsible measuring cup. Lastly, bring a lightweight spork to use for all of your meals.
Make sure you have some sort of navigation system, such as a map for the area you’ll be in, a compass, and/or a GPS device. Bring a headlamp for walking around camp at night and for evenings on the trail. Some folks like to hike with trekking poles. They can offer a ton of relief for your knees, especially if you’re ascending and descending all day. Carbon fiber poles are the lightest. Get a pair that folds up easily for storage. Does the area you're hiking in have bears? Make sure you bring a bear canister, or better yet, a dry sack to hang your food. And finally, feel free to bring a “luxury” item with you. This could be a book, a camera, or a journal—whatever will bring you joy and solace on the trail.
Weigh your pack and make adjustments as needed. Ultralight gear can be ultra-expensive, so buy one or two items at a time and slowly build your dream backpacking kit. If you have any questions on which gear would be best for you and your needs, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations. Most importantly, stay safe and enjoy your ultralight backpacking adventures!