One of the fun things about hiking and backpacking is exploring new trails, trying new gear, and doing something different every time out. It’s one of the reasons I look forward to every hike – it’s something I’ve never done before.
As many hikers become more experienced, the next step is to change out their gear for something lighter, and change their whole approach to an “ultralight” mindset.
What Is Ultralight Backpacking?
There might not be a universal definition for “ultralight,” but you are generally considered an ultralight backpacker if you have a base weight of less than 10 pounds. “Base weight” is basically the weight of the gear you carry that does not vary or change throughout your trip.
As such, your food, water, and fuel do not make up your base weight, but your backpack, sleep system, shelter, first aid kit, etc. all would be included.
But ultralight backpacking is more than just reducing your base weight – it also really seems to be a mindset. It’s the idea that you can just leave the luxuries of everyday life behind and experience the natural world in a minimalist fashion.
In this article, I’ll be discussing 15 reasons why you should start ultralight backpacking. If you are ready to take a new step in your hiking journey and try something a little bit different, these reasons might help you start cutting some weight and adopting the ultralight lifestyle!
You Are Ready For A New Challenge
You may have been hiking and backpacking for a while now, mostly with overnight or multi-day trips where you perhaps hike 8 to 10 miles per day. You may have been hiking on moderate trails, without a lot of elevation change. You may like to bring a camp chair and a heavier sleeping bag for extra comfort.
But you also may want to push yourself a bit, and try to hike farther each day, or tackle more difficult terrain. If so, you probably aren’t looking forward to carrying your normally heavy pack on more difficult trails.
This would be the perfect time to start becoming more ultralight and finding out how you can start to cut some weight and push yourself to try something new.
Less Physical Strain
The obvious benefit of moving toward an ultralight setup is obviously the fact that you are carrying less weight, which means less strain on your body. Less weight means an easier load for your joints, especially your hips and knees, which take the brunt of weight for hikers.
If you have a lingering injury or preexisting condition that gets in the way of you hiking longer and/or harder, a lighter setup will put less of a strain on your body.
If you are a bit older, or don’t have the time to hike much or stay in great shape, carrying a heavy load will put even greater strain on your body. Going ultralight or getting lighter will help alleviate these problems.
Enjoy The Environment More
A heavy load is mentally taxing on a hiker. As you encounter a steeper climb or hike later in the day, the effort you exert starts to dominate your thoughts. Your head and eyes start to drop, and your focus switches away from the environment around you.
That mental strain is greatly lessened with an ultralight setup. With less strain on your body, there inevitably is less strain on your mind. And when that happens, your head and eyes stay up. You’ll not only see more beauty in the environment around you, but also appreciate it more.
Leave Less Trace
When you move to a more ultralight setup, one of the ways that you will look to cut weight from your setup is to evaluate your cooking gear, your food, and the other accessories that you carry. In fact, you will evaluate all of your gear and inevitably end up carrying less.
This step is important when it comes to leaving less of a trace on the trail and environment. For example, whether you choose to reduce to a small camp stove instead of building a campfire, or even forego a camp stove altogether, you’ll minimize campfire impacts.
By being smarter about the food you bring, you’ll likely bring fewer wrappers and containers, meaning less chance of leaving garbage behind. Finally, as you change your food, it will likely be easier to pack and protect your food from wildlife.
For more on Leave No Trace principles, you can visit their website HERE.
Become More Resourceful
Part of the mindset for moving to an ultralight setup is to become more creative and resourceful with your gear in order to cut weight. You will want to find gear that offers more than one use and learn how to get more utility out of one piece of gear.
For example, you can set up a solid, 5-pound tent almost anywhere. Most tents nowadays are pretty simple to set up. However, if you choose to use a tarp, which usually weights less than pound, you will have to learn new skills about how to set up the tarp in such a way as to provide proper shelter for you.
However, once you learn that skill, you’ll have mastered a piece of gear that can be much more versatile than a tent, and which will save you a lot of weight. As you embrace an ultralight setup, you’ll go through this same exercise with almost all of your gear, and being more resourceful will almost become intuitive.
Travel More Difficult Terrain
As noted above, an ultralight setup puts less physical strain on your body. This not only helps you avoid injury and stay healthy, but it allows you more energy to hike more difficult terrain.
Several years ago, I hiked along the Washington Coast with a very heavy get setup. I probably had 25 to 30 pounds of gear on my back. The terrain was very difficult, as we had to cross large fields of slippery rocks and scramble over boulders. There were also sections where we had to pull ourselves up steep inclines with rope.
Looking back at it, I wonder how much easier that hike would have been had I been carrying 15 pounds, instead of close to 30. I’m sure it would have been a much easier trip. If you are considering a difficult hike, one of your considerations has to be your pack weight. If you have an ultralight setup, your decision will be much easier.
Travel More Miles
Not only can you hike more difficult terrain, you can travel more miles each day. Indeed, many ultralight hikers, or thru hikers, are able to go more than 20 miles each day, in no small part because they are carrying less weight than your average hiker.
Hiking longer trails will open up a much larger list of possible trips that you can undertake. You’ll have the opportunity to challenge yourself with new adventures in different locales, and even go for a long-distance trip of 100 miles or more.
In short, there is so much more you can really accomplish with an ultralight setup – so why not give it a shot?
Good Ultralight Gear Is Very Versatile
One of the great things about ultralight gear is that it can be very versatile, allowing you to do different things and hike in different locales. For example, an ultralight backpacking quilt can be used in winter or summer, without worrying about temperature rating. That’s because a quilt lays over the top of you, rather than around you, meaning you can stick a leg out, or pull the quilt down much more easily to regulate temperature.
Likewise, ultralight backpacks often come with roll-top openings and adjustable straps to adjust the width of your pack. Because it is so light, you can easily take it as a day pack and feel comfortable. However, you should be able to carry a larger set of gear, up to 30+ pounds in many cases, for your longer trips without switching out your pack.
You Get What You Pay For
Let’s get this out of the way – ultralight gear is not cheap, for the most part. You can easily spend over $1000 on just your Big 3 – shelter, sleep system, and backpack – if you choose. While there are some good budget options that do well for ultralight gear, there generally is a reason for paying so much for top of the line ultralight gear.
Usually, the best ultralight gear does everything you would expect your regular, heavier, durable gear to do. Ultralight backpacks can carry almost as much weight as regular packs, and weigh less than two pounds in the process. Ultralight tents can keep you sheltered from rain, wind, and snow just like heavier ones, but weigh 25% of what heavier tents weigh.
Even ultralight clothing can do what heavier clothing can. You can bring a lightweight raincoat and puffy insulated coat, which together can weigh around a pound, and be protected from wind, rain, and cold during most parts of the year.
So, if you are wondering, I think that expensive ultralight gear is worth the cost – you definitely get your money’s worth.
Hike On A Moment’s Notice
One of the easiest parts of going ultralight is the ability to pack up and go on a moment’s notice. Because your gear is lightweight, there is less of it, and because you have probably spent time dialing in exactly what you want to take to each of your hikes, you should have no trouble getting ready for a hiking trip.
While I do not necessarily have a full ultralight gear setup (my base weight is about 12.5 pounds), I try to have an ultralight mindset. I have all my gear and clothing dialed in, and I spend hardly any time thinking about what I should bring with me on a hiking trip. I might change some clothing, or plan on bringing extra water, but otherwise I am ready to go on pretty much any hike I want.
Document Your Travels
Another benefit of cutting down on the weight of your gear and how much gear you bring is so you can… bring more gear! But why would you want to spend time cutting your gear and making sacrifices so you could bring more gear? Well, if you want to document your travels via video or photography, being ultralight allows you to add a little bit of weight back.
Whether you choose to bring a GoPro and small tripod or a more elaborate setup with a DSLR camera, extra lenses, a microphone, and large tripod, you have the choice to do so because you carry less base weight.
With an ultralight setup, you can add the accessories to document your journey for yourself, for family, or for the entire hiking community as a blogger and vlogger. You may be an incredible photographer who has previously struggled with all the gear you require when hiking. Going ultralight allows you much more flexibility to combine your passion for photography with your love of hiking and the outdoors.
Support Cottage Companies
If you want to find some great ultralight gear, you can go to the familiar, well-known stores. You know which ones I am talking about. And there is nothing wrong with that. Those stores offer a wide selection of excellent hiking gear that can meet your needs.
However, if you root for the little guy, or just genuinely appreciate the experience of working with smaller companies, there are a lot of great cottage companies that make outstanding ultralight gear. One great feature of these companies is that they sometimes make custom products to exactly meet your needs. Enlightened Equipment, for example, makes some of the best ultralight quilts to order.
Likewise, Outdoor Vitals is another company that champions an ultralight mindset and offers excellent gear at more affordable prices than others.
(NOTE: I am not sponsored by either of the companies I just mentioned, nor have I received any free gear from them – I simply admire how they do business.)
If you choose to become more ultralight in your approach, you likely will start spending more and more time on the trail. This will put you in contact more with the greater hiking community, either as you meet them on the trail itself, or as you research trail reports online or search YouTube for tips, gear recommendations, and trail reports.
This gives you a great chance to meet new people who share your love for hiking the back country and exploring new places. As you get to know more people in the hiking community, you could even find new hiking buddies or people who can help you with the logistics of a long hiking trip.
I also believe that hiking is a great way to build relationships with your hiking companions. The more time you spend on the trail with them, the more time you will have to talk and have meaningful discussions. I credit hiking for helping me build strong relationships with my brothers – something I am very grateful for.
Learn To Test Yourself
Part of becoming an ultralight backpacker is to adopt an ultralight mindset. This means learning how to possible forego some of the comfort that you are used to on a hiking trip, and learning to sacrifice some things in order to gain in other areas.
You’ll learn how to give up an extra pair of clothes, and perhaps smell a bit worse, in order to save weight. You might give up rain pants and learn to live with wet legs. You might choose to cold soak all of your food – forgoing a camp stove and warm food – in order to be more minimalist. And while a tarp does weigh quite a bit less than a tent, you’ll have to muster the courage to sleep more exposed in the outdoors.
Ultralight backpacking requires doing something different and new, which is not always easy. But if you are ready for the challenge, ultralight backpacking could completely change your hiking adventures for the better.
Tips For Packing Light
- Review your gear and see what items do almost the same job. For example, during the summer months, you probably don’t need a lightweight jacket and a rain jacket. Just bring the rain jacket. Also, you probably don’t need a GPS, map, or camera if you just bring your cell phone.
- Cut used straps and excess length on straps from your backpack. Once you know exactly how your pack will fit with all your gear, you can lose weight by losing straps and strap length you don’t need.
- Don’t bring duplicates of any piece of clothing or gear, other than an extra pair of socks. Yes, you will smell pretty bad by the end of your trip, but you will get used it.
- Instead of using rain pants, go without or find a lightweight sheet that can double as a ground covering or small shelter. It may look funny around your waist, but it will save you space and weight.
- Look into more calorie-dense foods such as energy bars, nuts, and instant meals. They weigh less and provide more energy than traditional meals.
- No cotton clothing is allowed. Cotton is generally heavier than wool and other synthetic materials and becomes even heavier when wet – COTTON IS ROTTEN!
- Bring a lightweight base layer pair of tights and shirt for your camp clothing. They’ll keep you warm and comfortable.
- Instead of a large gravity system or a bulky and heavy pump, use a lightweight filter like the Sawyer Squeeze or Katadyn Be Free.
- An alcohol stove, or cold soaking your food, will save you several ounces over traditional camp stoves.
- Ditch your water bladder, Nalgene water bottles, or Hydro Flask for two simple 1L SmartWater bottles. Combined with your Sawyer Squeeze water filter, this is all you need for all your clean water.
- Can you make any of your gear smaller? Consider cutting and shaving your toothbrush. Rather than take an entire roll of duct tape or Leukotape, roll some around a ballpoint pen and take only what you need.
- Bring a Buff or bandanna – they can serve multiple uses. They can be used as a scarf, something to keep your head warm, a towel to wipe off sweat or to clean your pot.
- Consider a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. Because quilts are not fully enclosed, they weigh less than sleeping bags while providing almost the same level of warmth.
A Word Of Caution
Considering an ultralight setup is an exciting prospect. There is so much new gear, clothing and ideas that comes with this decision. It’s exciting! But you should also be careful and not get carried away in your ambition to get as light as possible.
There are some items that you should always have in your pack, no matter what. They include:
- Shelter – Tent, Hammock, Tarp, or Bivy
- Sleep System – Quilt or Sleeping Bag; Sleeping Pad (Tent) or Underquilt (Hammock)
- A good backpack
- First Aid
- A way to start a fire
- A knife
- A reliable headlamp
You can certainly find ultralight options for all of these essentials, and that’s part of the fun of going ultralight. But don’t think that you can, or should, neglect any of these items just to get your base weight under 10 pounds. Your safety and well-being should always come first.
Choosing to be an ultralight hiker and get your base weight lighter is a natural next step for a lot of people. As you become more attached to hiking and backpacking, you will want to find new ways of enjoying your passion, and making your trips as comfortable as possible.
You’ll also enjoy the mental challenge of putting together a gear setup that is your own – one that fits your and your hiking style and desires. Hopefully this article has helped to convince you that not only is ultralight backpacking a good idea – but that you can do it too!