A Beginner’s Guide to Ultralight Backpacking
If you love backpacking, but don’t like the way your whole body aches after lugging around a heavy pack on the trail, then you may consider ultralight backpacking. Ultralight backpacking means that your pack should have a base weight (everything in your pack that is not consumable or the clothing and footwear you’re wearing; i.e food, water and fuel) of around 4-5 kilos. Packing light for the trail is a skill that many people have developed with time, experience and lots of back pain. Most ultralight backpackers have learned through years of trial and error on how to only bring the essentials, and get rid of the non-essential weight on the trail.
Today, we’re looking at some of the best ultralight hiking tips to get you on the right track and perfect the art of lightening your load and becoming an expert ultralight backpacker. In fact, all it takes is to have a different mindset, and a little research and planning before you trip, and you’ll be well on your way to ultralight hiking.
First, you should know how to determine your pack weight. Most traditional backpackers like to just count everything into their total pack weight, but as an ultralight backpacker, using base weight is a better way of comparing your pack weight for different trips. This can be due to the fact that one may need more food and fuel for longer trips, while the base weight stays the same.
There are a few different ways of defining and splitting up your pack weight. These include:
i. Base weight
As we have mentioned above, your base weight is basically everything in your pack that is not consumable such as food, water and fuel, or the clothing and footwear you’re wearing. This includes everything from your tent to your sleeping packs.
ii. Worn weight
This includes anything you’ll be wearing at all times during your hike, including shirt, pants, socks, underwear, boots and hats or sunglasses. Ultralight hikers don’t usually bring any additional change of clothes along with them, so calculating the worn weight is more feasible for them.
iii. Consumable weight
This includes your food, water and fuel that will be consumed during your trip. Ultralight hikers usually try to reduce their consumable weight by bringing dehydrated food or more lightweight food source to minimize the weight. This also helps to compare and know your pack’s base weight when you’re going out on trips of varying days.
Part 1: The Preparation
Before you start packing up all your gear for your ultralight hiking trip, it’s good to step back and do a little preparation to get yourself ready for the trip. These are a few steps you can follow as a checklist to make sure that you’re ready for ultralight hiking, especially if you’re new at it.
i. Weigh all your gear
This is most probably the task that will take up most of your time, but it will be well worth it at the end. By weighing your gear, you will realize that there are items and gear that you never even gave a second thought about being way over your intended weight. By assigning a weight to each item, it forces you to see how each piece of gear contributes to your pack weight. This lets you prioritize the items that you really need, as you will need to justify its place in your pack.
ii. Organize your data
In tandem with the first step, you should organize all the data you collected so that you can come to a conclusion. You can use a spreadsheet like Excel to group items into different categories like tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear and clothes to help you get around to decreasing the weight. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the first thing you may need to do is look at the “Big Four” items, which we will explain in more detail below.
iii. Research, research, research
The Internet is a great source of information, and you can easily access websites like ours (Hello!) who provide you with tons of information on ultralight backpacking. If you’re a newcomer, these sources of information can go a long way to help you organize and start planning your ultralight trip with tons of tips and tricks you can utilize.
iv. Choose an easy location
For newcomers to ultralight backpacking, we don’t recommend difficult hikes that may lead to a miserable experience. When choosing a location to backpack, try to pick a place close to where you are. That way, you won’t have to spend all day driving to the location and lose valuable daylight. Try to also go for a trail that is well-travelled. The last thing you need is to go into some deep unknown forest and lose track of where you’re going. It’s good to be able to interact with other hikers on the trail as well.
Part 2: The Essentials
Now that you’ve prepared yourself, it’s time to go into the proper packing. The fastest way to save weight is to go ultralight with your essentials. These include the most important things you must have for every hiking trip, which are your backpack, tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag. These are essentials that you must have with you, and can add on a lot of weight if you don’t take care when making your choice.
Sure, you can shave off a few kilos by removing relatively small items, but those are considered marginal. Instead, you should always consider the four major items you must bring on every hiking trip; the ‘Big Four’, your hiking backpack, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.
Ultralight backpacks are quite similar to traditional backpacks, with the biggest difference in the materials of the backpack, its simplicity and the carry load. The traditional backpack has a thick frame to give a lot of support while carrying heavier loads, which is not required if you’re planning for an ultralight hike, so getting rid of the frame is a great way to save weight.
Traditional backpacks tend to weigh around 3 kilos, which comes out to around the same as your base weight. But you can easily find an ultralight pack, like the 45L Lightweight Hiking Backpack which only weighs around 1.7 kilos, saving you a lot of weight. When looking for an ultralight backpack, you should also be looking at a carry load range of about 40-55 litres. While they may not be as durable as a traditional backpack, with proper care and handling, an ultralight backpack is still hardy and will last you for many hikes down the road.
Ultralight tents are a great way for you to save a lot of weight. Traditional tents can weigh from around 3 kilos or more, but one-person ultra lightweight tents like the Illumina X Ultralight Hiking Tent usually come in at around 1.35 kilos or less.
A comfortable choice could be an ultralight 3-season double-walled tent for two-persons like the Mongar Ultralight Hiking Tent Integrated Edition. It gives good protection against weather and it is easy to set up. You can also consider a one-person ultralight single layer tent, like the Tagar 1 Ultralight Hiking Tent which can save a lot of weight compared to a double-walled one, but you may experience some condensation and ventilation issues on the inside of the tent.
Generally, the more comfort you are willing to sacrifice, the lighter your shelter will be.
iii. Sleeping Bags
Always choose a sleeping bag that is made for the type of climate you will be hiking in. For instance, if you’re hiking in summer, bringing a sleeping bag that is too warm will not only add more weight, but it will also be unpleasant to sleep in. Choose a sleeping bag that is the right length for you to fit in. Having a bag that is too big will not provide you with much warmth, while having a sleeping bag that is too small is obviously not going to be comfortable for you.
If you have a choice between down or synthetic sleeping bags, try to go for down bags, like the ULG Mummy Goose Sleeping Bag as it is the more lightweight sleeping bag option with a similar temperature rating as compared to the synthetic bags.
iv. Sleeping Mats
For most hikers, the sleeping mat is a must-have item, because sleeping mats will give you comfort at night and insulation from the cold ground. The thicker the mat, the more comfortable and insulated you will be, at the cost of a higher weight to carry.
There are two kinds of sleeping mats available; namely the air pads and the foam pads. Air pads are easier to pack and tend to weigh a little bit less than a foam pad. Foam pads have more functionality, but are much bulkier to pack compared to the air pad. It really comes down to your personal preference when it comes to comfort, but if you’re going for the most lightweight option, choose the air pad.
Part 3: The Provisions
Food and water are important for any hiking trip. But the fact is that, depending on the number of days your trip will be, food and water can get very heavy, especially for a ultralight hiker. Yes, while food and water aren’t usually counted ater and food are heavy, and do not count as your base weight. After packing your food and water, the weight of your pack will usually be much heavier than you anticipated. After all, the average person eats around 1kg of food and drinks around 8 litres of water daily while hiking.
When it comes to ultralight hiking, food is more about powering your body on the hike rather than having a delicious meal. That means that you should consider factors like ease of preparation, total calories and the weight rather than the nutrients and taste of your meals.
To do this, you can always consider the calories to weight ratio. Food like nuts, dried fruits, chocolate and peanut butter have great calorie to weight ratio, while you should avoid canned food, as these are often low in calories, and heavy.
You should opt for sandwiches packed with fibres (peanut butter is a great choice for increased calories), or have some smoked tuna with salad for added nutrition. You can also prepare snacks on the go, such as dried foods like your own high calorie fibre mix of nuts and grains. With the camping cookware, you can also bring along food like dried potatoes, dried soups and pasta for a more complete meal with better calories. You can always add energy bars or something similar after your meal if you need more calories.
It is most important to always keep hydrated on the hike, so water is one of the most important things to carry. But water can be heavy to lug around, which is why you should first scout out and know exactly where your water sources will be throughout your hike. You should always bring a little bit more water than you need because staying hydrated during your hike will make it much more pleasant and safer. For lightweight hikes, one good tip is to drink a lot of water at the water source. You can also use a foldable washbasin to collect water when you set up camp.
Part 4: The Cooking
A nice warm meal at the end of a grueling hike may be one of the best highlights in the entire trip. But of course, ultralight hikers have different requirements on the camping cookware that they bring along with them.
Often, if you’re going for an ultra lightweight trip, all your cookware should be kept at a minimum weight. All you will need are these few items, which are lightweight enough to carry around, but essential if you’re planning to fire up some meals. Since you more or less just rehydrate food, cookware should be kept to a minimum for weight saving. A lightweight stove, a foldable gas burner, camping pot and some camping cutlery all you need really.
The best thing about camping cookware is that there aren’t too many details that you’ll have to sweat over.
Check out some of our favorite great and easy camping recipes.
Part 5: The Clothing
For every ultralight trip, the hiking gear that you wear can contribute to a sizable weight for your pack. Most ultralight hikers usually just have the one set of clothes and gear that they will wear for the entirety of the trip, and this is reflected in the worn weight. However, as a beginner, you may not feel comfortable having to wear the same set of clothes for a multiday hike. A properly planned set of clothes will be able to work very well for most conditions. Just remember to be aware of the surrounding conditions so that you won’t over or underpack.
So, let’s look at what kind of gear you should ideally bring for the best comfort without leaving you overweight.
i. Base layer
A base layer is good for regulating your body warmth, and can work well as sleeping clothes to keep warm at night. However, if you’re hiking during the summer period, you may want to consider not bringing the base layer should you not need it.
A jacket is great for layering purposes, and can be multifunctional in many cases. Make sure that your jacket is made from a thin waterproof material that is also able to protect you from the wind.
You can choose between a short sleeved or long sleeved option, but make sure that it is made from a synthetic material for better absorption of sweat and movement. Plus, long sleeves can protect your skin against bugs and the sun.
You should bring a pair of lightweight hiking pants that don’t restrict your movement and are comfortable for long hours of wearing. You can also consider bringing a pair of lightweight training shorts for warmer weather.
Ideally, you should bring abou 3 pairs of underwear along on every trip. Make sure that your underwear are made from synthetic materials rather than cotton, because you can always opt to wash it in a nearby stream, and synthetic underwear dries much faster than cotton.
vi. Hiking shoes
A pair of lightweight and durable trail shoes are sufficient for most hikes. Make sure to go for shoes that have a thick sole and good traction for better safety.
Part 6: The Other Essential Items
While it may seem like there are a lot of items you do not have to bring on an ultralight hike, there are some essential items that we definitely recommend you pack, regardless of the additional weight.
i. First aid kits
You should always have one packed in case of any emergencies. Having a first aid kit is vital for your own safety during the hike.
ii. Navigation system
You may know the trail well, but it’s always good to have a proper navigation system; consisting of a map, a small folding directional compass and a GPS device, which may help you in case you wander off track.
iii. Safety whistle
Having the ability to alert people around you should you get into any accidents is important for your own safety.
The sunlight in Australia can get harsh at times, and often during a hike, you will spend many hours in direct sunlight. Pack a small bottle of sunscreen to prevent getting burnt.
A lightweight headlamp can get you out of a dark pinch. Remember to change your batteries before the trip so that you won’t have to bring too many extra batteries.
Traveling light doesn’t mean you should forget about your hygiene, especially out on the trail. You should remember to bring small travel sized items like hand sanitizer, soap for washing, some toilet paper, a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste.
vii. Trekking poles
While these are not considered essential, trekking poles are very useful in helping you keep your balance on hikes and to navigate steep terrain. You can also use them to build your shelter if you’re using a tarp. You should consider lightweight aluminium trekking poles, which weigh considerably less.
By following these tips, you should now have the wind in your sails and the weight out of your pack. Prepare adequately for dangers ahead and you will be fine. In other words, with proper preparation, ultralight hiking is a breeze. It’s time to take things into your own hands to start your ultralight hiking trip today!
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. How is ultralight backpacking different from the normal kind of backpacking?
Ultralight backpacking differs from regular backpacking mostly in terms of pack weight. However, ultralight backpacking is not just about the amount of weight in one’s pack – it’s a mentality. Most ultralight backpackers take the saying “less is more” to heart, and they will try their best to see how little they can carry while on a hike. While this may sometimes mean that you’re giving up certain aspects of comfort on a trip, ultralight backpackers believe that this gets them more in tune with nature.
2. What are the benefits of going ultralight?
Ultralight backpacking has tons of benefits, well aside from a very much lightened load that doesn’t make your back hurt too much. These include:
- Enjoying nature even more
- Hiking faster and further due to lightened load
- Less tiring than carrying a normal backpack load
- Reduced risk of injury
3. What are some things about ultralight backpacking I should remember?
There are 5 main principles of ultralight backpacking to keep yourself safe and enjoy yourself while on the hike. These are:
- Don’t increase your risk with a lessened load
- Get rid of your non-essentials
- Downsize your pack
- Use multipurpose tools
- KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)