Ultralight backpacking is all about travelling faster and lighter, which you can do if you carry less gear. If you have only a weekend to get away, this strategy can increase the range of trails you can cover. The secret is to give up a few creature comforts to reduce the weight of your pack, without sacrificing anything you need or compromising your safety.
Do you really need four pairs of socks for a three day hike? No. One pair on your feet, a spare pair in case they get wet (and your spare socks can double as gloves on frosty mornings). Fleece, sweater, long-sleeved shirt? Suck it up. Take just one. With determination you’ll drop 2 to 3kg before you know it.
This is one area where you can really minimize weight. Ultralight shelters weigh in under 2kg and some less than 1kg. Often, they don’t use tent poles, you set them up with your trekking poles and with cords or guylines. Your own tent might be an ultralight option if you use just the fly and a ground sheet. Another sub-1kg option is a hammock or tarp, but keep in mind these super-light shelters offer protection from wind, rain and dew, but without mesh screens they are not ideal for settings where the bugs are intense.
A small closed-cell foam pad is the generally the lightest (and cheapest) alternative. Ultralight inflatable pads exist, but you do need to protect them from rough ground, sticks and thorns. True “go-light” freaks will use their sleeping pad instead of a backrest or frame-stays inside their pack. This may be a bit extreme for most people. Consider switching from a full-length pad to a ¾-length pad to save a few hundred grams. If your feet get cold, you can put a jacket or your pack underneath them while you sleep.
The truly dedicated will bring only a heat-reflective blanket or a simple hostel sheet. For the less committed, a lightweight down sleeping bag is ideal. The catch is that down loses most of its insulating capacity if it gets wet or damp from condensation, so you have to be careful to keep it dry. A combination bag, with a thicker side and a thinner side, is an option that will span a range of temperatures yet is still relatively light. A quilt is also something to consider, as much of the loft and insulating value of a sleeping bag’s fill is reduced when it’s compressed underneath you.
If you’re considering changing your sleeping system, you might want to do a practice night where the consequences aren’t too dire. Try your system on your patio or in your own backyard, so you can come inside if the system turns out to be too cold for a good night’s sleep.
If you have been successful in lightening your load you can explore the joys of carrying a smaller pack. Choosing a daypack or small weekend pack will force careful packing. As a general rule, the bigger the pack, the more gear you’ll find to put in it. Full-featured expedition packs have about 60-80L of storage space and weigh 2.5-3.5kg. A mid-sized weekend pack weighs 1-2kg less.
The world of outdoor gear is a feature loving industry. If you already have a pack and don’t want another, you may able to lighten your load by removing extra pockets, straps, and buckles. True zealots may even start cutting excess features off the pack. However, this will void the warranty and once you cut something off, it’s gone for good.
Stoves and cookware
For short trips an LPG canister stove is an efficient, light option. They burn hot, so are good for cooking and boiling water, but are best suited to 3-season conditions. An alcohol stove is worth considering for longer trips or for solo travellers who don’t need to melt snow, boil lots of water or cook large amounts of food.
In areas where wood is plentiful, a wood stove will eliminate the weight of fuel altogether, but it’s not a good option if you’re in a fragile environment where combustible material is scarce, or if you’re likely to encounter a fire ban.
Carry a small efficient pot or pot set that’s just big enough to boil water and to re-hydrate meals. A double boiler is also practical for heating food in the top while you boil water in the bottom. For compact storage and carrying, it’s great if your stove and canister fit neatly inside your cooking pot.
If you don't want to carry the weight of a stove, pot and fuel, many dehydrated meals can be "cold soaked" for a few hours before eating them. You'll just need a lightweight plastic container with a lid (a plastic peanut butter jar is perfect) and some patience to enjoy meals on the trail. Instant meals, ramen and oatmeal respond well to cold soaking. Rice and pasta usually need to be boiled to make them edible.
More ultralight backpacking tips
Weight reduction is incremental. Pare back, bring multi-use gear to save a grams here and there, next thing you know you’ll have dropped a kilo or two.
- Replace spoons and forks, with a spork or whittle your own chopsticks
- Forget plates and bowls and just eat out of the pot
- If you need caffeine, use a French press/mug combo, or get by with instant (and weightless!) coffee for a few days
- Use trekking poles as tent poles
- You can also use your trekking poles to stake down your tent, or use sticks or rocks or stuff sacks filled with rocks
- Use your compass mirror when shaving (or just shave when you get home)
- Use stuff sacks as camp booties
- Cut the tags off all your gear
- Snap the handle off your toothbrush
- Pack similar freeze-dried meals into one bag to leave extra packaging behind, and while you’re doing this, remove any dessicant packs you find
The goal of packing light is to make your trip enjoyable with a light load and a light heart. However, never leave anything at home that you feel you truly need. And never compromise safety in exchange for a lighter pack. Use our backpacking checklist to make sure you don’t forget a crucial piece of gear.