Crash Course on Ultralight Backpacking
By popular demand, here it is! A Crash Course on ultralight backpacking. This turned into something much longer than I anticipated, as well as much more than what I anticipated; if you read it all the way through, you’ll know what I mean. Regardless of whether you read all of this or not, I feel comfortable that I have covered every aspect of what ultralight means; what it is; how to achieve it as best you can; and much, much more. I hope this article is helpful in more ways than just ultralight backpacking…
Ultralight Hiking is the current sensation sweeping the backpacking nation. It’s also become a major point of contention and the subject of many heated debates among members of the backpacking community. People can become very passionate when it comes to the types of gear they carry, as well as the feeling of being judged by others when certain pieces/aspects of gear come into question (on both sides of the gear-weight spectrum). Further still, some people welcome all judgment and suggestions simply to become ultralight at any cost. Truth be told, there are many perks and benefits that come with being ultralight, but before we can examine them, we must first properly define what “being ultralight” actually means…
What does it mean to be “Ultralight?”
The official cut and dry definition of “ultralight” in regards to backpacking is carrying a “base pack weight” (base weight) of 10 pounds or less. To some extremists, if you are one ounce over ten pounds, you are technically NOT ultralight. As a result, many people try to get their base weight well under ten pounds, so as to leave no questions as to their “ultralight-ness.” While on the topic of definitions, let’s go ahead and define what base weight (BW) constitutes. The base weight of your pack includes the weight of everything inside your pack (including your backpack itself), minus consumables. Consumables are defined as: food, water, fuel, toilet paper, toothpaste, and anything else that fluctuates or depreciates in weight over time. After weighing your backpack and the contents within (minus consumables), you will have your base weight. After you weigh your backpack with all consumables (food and water) included, you will be left with an approximate average of what your Total Weight (TW) will be throughout your journey. The very vast majority of people will never have a total pack weight of less than ten pounds, but your total pack weight does not determine whether you are ultralight or not; only your base weight does. On the extreme side, there is also what is called “Super Ultralight (SUL), which calls for a base weight of five pounds or less; but that is for another day.
Popular opinion on being Ultralight
The culture and premise of ultralight backpacking has been around for a while now, but has only recently within the past several years (mainly due to social media) exploded onto the main scene and forefront of almost every backpacking conversation. If I could come up with an analogy for the way most people view/interpret others as “being ultralight” these days; I would liken it to being viewed as one of the “cool kids” (self proclaimed or not) back in high school (just replace the word “trail” with “high school”). As you might expect, there are people who refuse to go ultralight for no other reason than to feel like they aren’t following the popular crowd/opinion; much like you had the kids back in high school who refused to conform to popular trends/fashions, staying true instead to their own ethos and preferences. It’s everyone’s own personal choice what they do or do not do in their life, so this is not a problem. Now having said all that, there is much more to “being ultralight” than simply following a “trend;” much like you might follow the latest fashions. Unlike fashion, there are many aspects to ultralight backpacking that can drastically improve your health, while simultaneously decreasing your chances for injury. We’ll get into these aspects a little further on.
What Ultralight means to me (or you!)
So we’ve defined the textbook meaning of ultralight, as well as looked at the public’s popular view/opinion of what it may symbolize or mean to them. But what does being ultralight mean to me? And what does it mean to you? To answer these questions, we have to examine certain facts, as well as be honest with ourselves.
At first, being ultralight was a status to me; it was a numbers game and a status. Earlier on in my thru hiking career (I still consider it early), all of my long distance backpacking heroes were ultralight, so I strove to be just like them. The game plan became to get my base weight under ten pounds, no matter what. I needed to have the absolute lightest of everything in an effort to be admired and viewed favorably by my heroes, as well as my peers. If I’m totally honest with myself, this was 90% of the reason why I first wanted to be ultralight; to fit in. As a short amount of time went on, I quickly realized it was absolutely the wrong reason. To me, presently, being ultralight has absolutely nothing to do with being “elite,” being “admired,” or being viewed “favorably” amongst your ultralight and non-ultralight backpacking peers.
Firstly (to me and many others), ultralight is a means to hike more comfortably while decreasing our chances of injury. I’ve experienced carrying a 60+ pound pack for 2,000+ miles, and while I did get strong as a bloody ox; I experienced aches and pains like none other. I fractured an ankle which I continued to injure and role almost non-stop. My knees, back, feet, and other joints constantly ached over harsher terrain and longer days; even after my body had initially adapted from hurting all the time in the beginning; and every steep climb and descent was hell on one part of my body or another. The physical discomfort and potential for injury increases exponentially as the weight of your pack does. Becoming ultralight is a strong argument, as well as a boost to your better health and well-being while out on trail.
My next take on ultralight is a little more personal, and goes against the cut and dry definition. As a former strength and conditioning specialist, I know better than to assign universal numbers to things regardless of people’s weight, size, strength, and strength to weight ratio. While being ultralight constitutes having a base weight less than ten pounds; what about the female hiker who is 5’5 tall – 115 pounds, and the male hiker who is 6’2 – 230 pounds? Both could carry the exact same gear sized appropriately to their body, and the man’s gear will weigh considerably more by default of being quite a bit larger; despite having the exact same gear. Let’s say that female’s base weight ends up being 9.5 pounds, while the man’s ends up being 11 pounds. They have the same gear, but she is ultralight by definition, and he is not. He would have to make a sacrifice somewhere in order to be considered ultralight; whether it be discarding an item altogether, or giving up some of the warmth of his sleeping bag/other garments.
In another regard, the 230 pound man’s 11 pound base weight may actually feel far lighter and easier for him to carry on his back than the 9.5 pounds the female is carrying. What I’m trying to draw attention to is “scaling.” The current standards for ultralight do not allow any room for scaling the weight of what people carry based on what their size or strength may be. Keep in mind, perhaps the 115 pound woman is in fantastic shape and the 230 pound man is in poor shape. Perhaps the woman could carry the 11 pounds even more easily and comfortably than the man could. This is exactly the discrepancy I have with ultralight, and why I no longer subscribe or hold myself to the text book standards/definition of what it is. I am a 6’2 male who comfortably walks around at 230 pounds when healthy and active. I could realistically put on a pack with a 15 pound base weight and carry it with the same ease and comfort of a smaller, less-strong individual who was hiking with say, an 8 pound base weight. This is where “ultralight” becomes fuzzy to me, and why I no longer beat myself up over the weight of my pack, or debate others on the weight of their pack or my own.
Having said all of that, it does not mean that I cram my pack with everything but the kitchen sink while screaming “PACK WEIGHT BE DAMNED!” defiantly in the face of ultralight snobs (believe me, they exist). I simply choose my gear very carefully based on my comfort levels, and don’t sweat over the final number when I have everything I need. In another breath, I am constantly adapting and finding new gear, as well as new limits I can tolerate/push my body to. As a result, I’m always perfecting and honing my gear/techniques to get lighter and lighter as time goes on (especially with technological advances). Depending on when and where I am (as well as whether my dog is with me), my base weight hovers between 9 and 12 pounds. Whether it weighs 9 or 12 pounds at any given time, my pack still feels like a feather on my back regardless; 3 pounds is not a big difference to a healthy mesomorph who normally walks around at 230 pounds. On the flip side; 3 pounds may fell like a huge difference to a 120 pound individual who is out of shape or unaccustomed to moving any kind of extra weight around (i.e. does not work out in any capacity).
I have been one of those people who chase a “number” at any cost to be ultralight; and I’ve hiked around countless others who have too. I’ve frozen my ass off at night or been caught wholly unprepared in situations I wasn’t ready to tolerate; all because I hiked with gear chosen for the fact that it was the lightest I could find, not because it was perfectly suited to what I personally needed. Suffering was the slap in the face I needed to be honest with myself and change my tactics, as well as my personal beliefs. Conversely, I know more people than I can count who dread setting up camp on a cold night, because they know they are going to freeze due to the inadequacy of the gear they chose for themselves. They don’t adapt however, because the status of being as “ultralight” as possible is more important to them than a rough night’s sleep, or a hard day’s hike in cold or inclement conditions.
So that is my personal take on what it means to be “ultralight.” When you rid yourself of other’s expectations and definitions (in all things), you will notice a certain “freeing” feeling that comes with it; don’t be alarmed, this is just one of many forms happiness takes. Ultimately, it is up to you to find your own “ultralight” in regards to your current size, physical abilities, and comfort levels; as well as your own personal definition of what “being ultralight” means to you. Is it a status? A number? A state of mind? A decreased probability of injury? All of the above? What is it to you?!?
Becoming more Ultralight: The BIG Three
Now that we’ve examined and defined ultralight in a myriad of ways, we can now begin to figure out how to become more ultralight (whether by textbook definition or our own) in respect to our own lives/backpacking needs. Regardless of how much your pack weight ends up being, it never hurts for it to weigh less; and the benefits of a lighter pack are proven and sound.
The first way in which to drastically improve your pack weight towards ultralight is your “BIG Three.” The big three is made up of your backpack, your shelter, and your sleeping bag. These are three absolutely essential items that by design are going to be the three heaviest things you take with you. Each one by itself can weigh anywhere from less than a pound, to three or more pounds. If each Big Three item was to weight three pounds, then you will have already eaten up almost your entire base weight with just those three. When I hiked the AT, my pack weighed 5 pounds, my sleeping bag weighed 3 pounds, and my shelter weighed 3.5 pounds. My big three weighed more than 11 pounds on their own, immediately disqualifying me from ultralight, and propelling me into the weight class of Ultra Heavy (UH); especially after you added up the weight of all my other ridiculously heavy gear.
So what are appropriate weight ranges for the Big Three when trying to cut back towards ultralight? When it comes to the cut and dry definition, you’re ideally looking at a pack that weighs 2 pounds (32 ounces) or less, a sleeping bag that weighs 1.5 pounds (24 ounces) or less, and a shelter that weighs 1.5 pounds (24 ounces) or less. The top of that average total will put you at 5 pounds (80 ounces) for your big three. Depending on how large/tall you are, it could easily be much less than 5 pounds. These numbers mostly apply to a person my size (6’2 – 230 lbs) who needs a longer pack, as well as a longer and wider sleeping bag. Realistically, it is not at all hard to find any of those pieces of gear for under those weight values and still have all the comforts you desire in a pack, sleeping bag, and shelter; even if you’re my size (it’s just going to cost a bit more). For example: my shelter weighs 8 ounces (it’s a tarp). That still leaves me with 72 ounces to play with for the average on my other two items. I’m tall and broad, so I require a larger sleeping bag; my 20 degree sleeping bag from the manufacturer I chose weighs 32 ounces. This is a little higher than the ideal weight for an ultralight sleeping bag, but I like the company and I like the style of bag, so I chose that one (even though I could find the same warmth and size for 22 ounces with a different company). So with my shelter and my sleeping bag, I still have 40 ounces (2.5 pounds) to play around with. My larger pack (for my larger frame) weighs exactly 2 pounds (32 ounces), leaving me with half a pound under the (heavier end) 5 pound average for my Big Three. To be clear, if I was chasing numbers at any cost, I could get that 4.5 pounds down much further with an even smaller and lighter pack, as well as the much lighter sleeping bag, probably in a 30 degree model. I’ve done it, and it wasn’t perfect for my needs, so I adapted accordingly. If you don’t mind suffering a bit, or your comfort standards are just low… then you can get by with much cheaper and lighter options than the state of the art gear that’s currently available (See Poor Man’s Gear List for ideas).
So, with our (relatively high) hypothetical “Big Three” weight of 5 pounds; that leaves us with 5 more pounds to play around with for the rest of our gear, minus consumables. If we are practical and clever, as well as savvy; all other pieces of gear will be measured in mere ounces and grams, not pounds. As a result, we should easily be able to amass the rest of our gear while avoiding going too far over the other 5 pounds we have to work with. Without going into crazy amounts of detail, let’s examine the other more nuanced areas of becoming more ultralight…
The Nuances of Ultralight
Aside from the big three, there are a lot of other areas within your pack where you can save the proverbial “ton” of weight. The first major area is in your clothing; people tend to go way overboard with their clothing options. They carry an extra pair (or even more) of every article of hiking clothing (shorts, shirt, underwear, etc.), as well as overkill versions of their cooler weather clothing (baselayer, insulating layer, shell layer). Then you have socks, beanies, gloves, hats, and whatever other items you can think of in their various makes, sizes, and weights. This can add up to POUNDS of clothing. Consider for a moment that you only need one set of your daily hiking clothes (one shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of underwear, etc.); then you would always be wearing them, instead of carrying one or two extra sets in your pack (adding to your base weight). Some people rationalize that they need these extra sets of hiking clothes, but by and large you really don’t. It’s a matter of getting used to your garments stinking, or putting on a wet set of clothes from the day before instead of changing into a fresh new set. It’s not necessarily preferable or comfortable when you first do it, but it is more practical than carrying unnecessary extra articles of clothing that are only going to satisfy your need for cleanliness and comfort for a few minutes before becoming stinky and wet like the extra set you are now carrying in your pack for the exact same reason. So tip # 1: Only carry one set of daily hiking clothes (the ones you plan to always be wearing!)
Tip #2: You can save more clothing weight by being as efficient as possible with your cold weather garments. Utilize the “layering method” for maximum efficiency instead of carrying bulky items that may be too much or inefficient in a standalone application. Check out my article “How to layer clothing for maximum efficiency” for more information regarding cold weather garments. Apply the same principles to items like beanies, gloves, sleeping socks, etc; don’t always go with the heaviest, bulkiest options. Shop around and look at other online gear lists to see what other hikers are using. Based on your comfort levels, decide if they might work for you. Here is a template of My Gear List for more ideas (if you need them).
So where else can we practically cut more weight? We can cut a lot more weight in the “cooking” category of gear by forgoing cooking altogether and instead “Cold Soaking” in a desirable cold soaking container like this one. If you don’t want to give up cooking altogether, then you might consider switching to ultralight titanium cookware like the Toaks Mug Pot; utensils like the Perfect Spoon; smaller stoves like the Pocket Rocket; or super light alcohol stoves like the Trangia Spirit Burner.
After cookware, other weight saving areas would be your sleeping pad, as well as miscellaneous gear, medical supplies, and electronics. For example: instead of getting any old sleeping pad, you could get the Thermarest Neoair X-lite, or cut the Thermarest Z-Lite to torso length instead of keeping it full length (that’s what I do). There’s plenty of other pads like the Z-Lite out there that you could cut down to your desired size and length; just like there are more size and weight options for air mattresses like the X-Lite; these are simply two extremely light examples.
In regards to medical supplies, you might carry some athletic tape, Neosporin, or super glue instead of a full blown First Aid Kit. Most injuries on trail can be remedied with tape; anything more major will most likely require things that aren’t in a first aid kit anyways.
The categories of “miscellaneous gear” and “Electronics” are other areas where people can go way overboard. It’s easier to describe common ways in which people over do it, rather than give you a list of what to take. The items that fall within these categories are by and large – mostly personal preference items, and aren’t considered “essential” to the gear list. Perhaps don’t carry a giant hunting knife; opt for something more practical instead. Don’t bring a camp chair to sit on; sit on rocks and logs you find in nature. Forget bringing a bunch of climbing rope; stick to 20 feet of 550 Paracord. Instead of a full blown, state of the art headlamp that lights up the entire wilderness; stick to a Photon Light or simply a Smaller Headlamp. Take photos with your high-tech cell phone instead of a camera (unless photography is your passion). Carry a smaller battery pack, instead of a larger battery pack that may be overkill (unless you plan to be charging multiple devices you’ve deemed essential to your gear list)
Other extreme ways in which people cut weight are: torso length sleeping bags; insulating vests (instead of insulating jackets/pull overs); using rocks and logs you find in nature in place of carrying stakes; no base layer clothing options (or just one); no rain gear (this doesn’t mean no wind shell!); cutting straps off your pack you don’t use; etc. The bottom line is, you can cut weight from anywhere if you think hard enough and shop around enough. It all boils down to… are you buying certain things and cutting out others because you’re chasing an ultralight number; or are you genuinely working within the parameters of your own comfort levels while simultaneously being as creative and savvy as possible? Being ultralight by its own cut and dry definition is easy if you’re only chasing a number. Being ultralight, as well as comfortable and happy on trail is a completely different story. You get the gist of what I’m saying, so all you have to do is apply it.
Ultralight State of Mind
Perhaps the greatest nuance of being ultralight is having an ultralight state of mind. There is a somewhat obscure saying within the long distance backpacking community; “We carry our fears in our packs.” This simply means that we pack for what we fear the most; and believe me, we all have fears. If you are afraid of the cold or freezing to death, you might pack more clothing than you actually need. If you are afraid of being murdered or attacked by animals, you might carry an extra large knife or even a firearm. If you fear running out of food, you may carry much more than what you need to get you to the next resupply. Depending on whatever other fears you may have, you end up packing for them; consciously or sub-consciously. The more time you spend hiking outdoors, the more comfortable you become with nature, as well as your roles and tolerances within it. As a further result, your fears lessen with the more you learn about yourself in regards to dealing with the moods and swings of Mother Nature. It’s when you reach this balance between the fears inside your head, and the gear inside your pack… that true harmony between the two can be reached. Until then, you simply have to continue to grow through experience, as well as a thirst for more knowledge.
In conclusion, there is a greater lesson to be gleaned from becoming a more ultralight backpacker. In line with the philosophy of carrying our fears in our packs; fear, as well as a lack of knowledge and experience is the root of what holds us back from becoming more ultralight in the first place. The biggest fear most of us suffer from in every aspect of our lives (not just backpacking), is the fear of not having enough. Not having enough money, clothing, friends, jewelry, cars, fishing gear, hiking gear, recognition, respect, or love. When we finally make this connection, we realize that our proclivity to over stuff our backpacks stems from an all encompassing fear that holds sway over a much larger spectrum of our lives. Let it go. Release yourself from it, as well as all expectations associated with it. If you can apply this principle to your backpack, then you can apply it to all other aspects of your life; it may even happen automatically. Reach the same conclusion that I and many others have also reached in areas of our lives that span far beyond ultralight hiking gear… less is more.
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