The Ultimate Guide to Ultralight Hiking
Packing light for any hiking trip is a skill that develops with time and experience. But what exactly constitutes ultralight hiking? Well, in short, it’s going hiking with ultralight gear, and bringing only what’s really necessary for your current conditions. While there is no official weight that is considered ultralight, we usually recommend around 5-7 kgs as a usual base weight goal.
For many backpackers, going ultralight gives them the feeling of freedom into hiking since they are free from any heavy loads. Today, we’re going to show you some tips and tricks to help put you on track with ultralight hiking. With our experience, we hope that these tips will help you identify items and gear that may be considered unnecessary weight, and the gear you simply cannot do without.
1. Know your trip
No two hiking trips are the same, and in order to go ultralight, you have to go back to the beginning. You should never assume that every hiking trip requires the same clothing and gear. Instead, the best way to start is to begin with nothing and gradually add in items that are necessary and essential for your trip. This will help you easily lighten your pack. It’s important to know that an ultralight approach may not always be the right fit for your trip. Instead of going as light as you possibly can for every trip, you should pack appropriately for the conditions you expect.
Always pack with your safety in mind first and with convenience second. A good ultralight hiker knows how to strike the perfect balance between comfort and convenience for both day and night.
Use our ultimate camping checklist to help you out!
2. Consider your ‘Big Four’
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 3kgs, but you can easily find an ultralight pack, like the 45L Lightweight Hiking Backpack which only weighs around 1.7kgs. 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 3kg or more, but one-person ultra lightweight tents like the Illumina X Ultralight Hiking Tent usually come in at around 1.35kg 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.
Other options for lightweight shelter include the tarp and bivy combo, which can save you a lot of weight, but at the cost of your comfort. Tarps can easily be set up using hiking poles and stakes, but with reduced protection against the rain and elements, while the bivy bag gives you additional weather protection for your sleeping bag.
Generally, the more comfort you are willing to sacrifice, the lighter your shelter will be.
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.
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.
3. Plan out your water and food carefully
Water 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.
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.
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’s good to ask yourself these two questions when planning how much food and water to bring:
i. How long do I need before I reach the next water source?
ii. What are the real chances of running out of food before I finish the hike?
4. Cooking on the trail
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 a 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:
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.
5. Bring light gear and clothes appropriate for your hike
Be sure to properly plan your clothes to avoid overpacking. You should be aware of which conditions you are hiking and pack with that in mind.
- Bringing the right gear can save a lot of weight and add comfort on your trip. Look for clothing that is lightweight and quick-drying, especially if you will be facing wet conditions.
- Layering your clothes is a good strategy to help you save on space. That way, you can remove layers depending on the weather. Never pack two items that have the same purpose.
- The weight on your feet takes up to 5 times more energy compared to the weight you carry on your back, so going for a pair of lightweight and durable trail running shoes, with thick soles and good traction will help you immensely.
6. Pack only the essentials
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Safety whistle. Having the ability to alert people around you should you get into any accidents is important for your own safety.
- Sunscreen. 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.
- Lamps. 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.
- Hygiene necessities. 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.
- 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.
7. Safety first
As we have mentioned before earlier in this article, your safety is always paramount. Going ultralight doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your safety gear and essentials. In fact, you should think that going lighter will help you improve your balance and reduce fatigue on the hike.
Safety must always be your number one priority and needs to take precedence over everything else. For every ultralight hike, you need to be able to read your environment, evaluate your gear and make the appropriate decisions, which sometimes include taking more suitable, albeit heavier, gear. You need to be ready to adjust your plans and your goals for the trip accordingly. Let the conditions help you make your decisions. So while you’re planning to pack light, you should also pack safe.
Read more about choosing the right tents according to their seasonal suitability.
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!
If you haven’t already, check out our list of essential camping gear for 2020 for your next trip!
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1. What clothing should I bring on my hike?
These are some of the clothes that you should definitely bring on your hiking trip. That being said, we would recommend layering your outfits, so that you can bring only the clothes you need. Remember, don’t pack two clothing items with the same function!
i. Rain jacket
A lightweight rain jacket should always be with you on the trail, to keep you dry.
A thin, waterproof and breathable shell jacket is vital in protecting you against the wind, and for keeping warm on the colder nights. We recommend you bringing a good down jacket for the best warmth retention.
iii. Hiking pants
Your hiking pants should ideally be breathable, lightweight and quick-drying. You can consider having zip pants with removable legs so that you can quickly convert into shorts in warmer weather.
iv. Hats and gloves
For hikes in sunny weather, you may want to bring along a cap or hat to protect yourself against the sun’s harsh rays. If you’re hiking in cooler weather, you should consider bringing a pair of warm gloves for those cold nights.
v. Hiking shirt
A synthetic hiking shirt is very much recommended, whether you choose the short sleeves or long sleeves option. Short sleeves have the obvious advantage of being cooler, whilst the long sleeves will protect better against the sun.
vi. Underwear and socks
Remember to bring synthetic underwear and socks as these will dry easier after you wash them. You should bring around 3 pairs of each to be safe, even if you’re going on a longer hike.
2. How should I pack for a worst-case scenario?
While it may seem difficult when you’re trying to pack light, you should not give in to the mindset of a worst case scenario. This is a very common trap for most inexperienced hikers, and they actually end up bringing a lot more gear that they actually didn’t need in the first place. Instead, you should do research on the weather conditions on your trip and what you can expect on the hike, and pack accordingly.
At the end of the day, while safety must always be your number one priority, you shouldn’t immediately jump into thinking about the worst case scenarios, lest you be bogged down unnecessarily. For every ultralight hike, you need to be able to read your environment, evaluate your gear and make the appropriate decisions. Remember, the easiest way to get the weight down is to leave stuff behind.
3. How should I select my campsite?
Firstly, you should check ahead of time if your campsite is set on private property or not. If you’re camping in public parks, forests and reserves, you should look for the relevant authorities and have them issue permits for camping.
Look for areas that are protected against the wind. Setting up camp amongst trees is a good choice, because you are protected against the wind, and trees make great anchors for your shelter. You’ll also want to find a campsite with a good supply of water nearby for drinking, cooking or cleaning.
You should find a site away from low-lying places that could fill with water during a flash flood. Stay away from valleys, canyons and banks of small, shallow rivers. Remember to avoid camping near lone trees, high ridges and other likely lightning targets.
4. How should I pack light based on weather conditions?
A great way to start is by looking back at previous years’ average temperature and weather to give you a good idea on what you can expect. When your trip is closer, you can look at the weather forecast and finetune your packing to suit the weather.
Next, you should select clothing, shelter, and sleeping bag that are appropriate for the season and weather. For instance, if you’re traveling to cold weather, try packing clothes that can be layered. Layering is more effective than carrying a heavy winter jacket. Plus, layers can be mixed and matched, so you can have multiple styles with the same few articles of clothing.
Finally, make sure your shelter is suitable for the season and weather. For example, if you’re hiking in winter, the best 4-season lightweight tent you can choose is the Illumina X Ultralight Hiking Tent, which is a viable option for both affordability and quality.
Read more about choosing the right tents according to their seasonal suitability.