Is Ultralight Backpacking For Me? Here’s How To Find Out

I have made hiking an important part of my life – it is a great activity that helps my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. And I have spent enough time on the trails that I am ready to try something new to take my hiking experience to the level. So I am considering the question many hikers have – Should I give ultralight backpacking a try?

After doing some of my own research, I have found that ultralight backpacking demands that you have the right frame of mind. Ultralight backpacking and hiking is a mindset that requires you to do without comforts you might be accustomed to, to make good decisions about gear and clothing, and perhaps spend a bit more to get the right gear.

Ultralight backpacking is a really intriguing way to mix up your normal hiking trips and push yourself in ways you haven’t really experienced. If you are up for the challenge, you might have just found a new passion.

What Is Ultralight Backpacking?

Ultralight backpacking is a method of hiking that emphasizes carrying a bare minimum weight for any given trip. In order to accomplish this, ultralight hikers focus on carrying the lightest, simplest gear possible.

Ultralight backpackers look to reduce the base weight of their gear as much as possible. Base weight is the total weight of all your gear, excluding variables such as food and clothing, whose amount will vary based on the time and place of the hike.

In other words, your base weight is your backpack, your sleeping gear, your shelter, first aid kit, and any other items that you will always have, regardless of where you travel. Although there is not specified weight that defines ultralight backpacking, most ultralight hikers shoot for a base weight of 10 pounds or less.

Be Willing To Sacrifice Comfort For Weight

Ultimately, ultralight hikers must be willing to give up some of the comforts that they love about the hike in order to get to a base weight of around 10 pounds. This is a change in mindset, in a lot of ways.

How Much Gear Do You Really Need?

Time For A New Tent?

For example, many backpackers are willing to carry some extra weight in order to have a good tent that offers the best protection against the elements. While there are many tents that meet these demands and weigh relatively little, every ounce counts for ultralight backpacking. You will have to sacrifice some durability and protection from weather with an ultralight tent.

Alternatives to a regular tent also include a tarp shelter, bivy sack, or an ultralight hammock system. Each of these options are lighter than a normal tent, but might require a sacrifice of some familiar comforts.

No More Heavy Sleeping Bags

Likewise, you may have a nice, heavy sleeping bag that gives you all the warmth and comfort you need. Chances are, this sleeping bag is heavier than you will need and want for a true ultralight setup. You’ll need to learn to sacrifice this comfort for a lighter, different bag.

Weight Before Comfort

You may be used to a big, sturdy backpack that carries anything you need for a hiking trip. You may insist on a pillow for when you sleep. If you want to take on ultralight hiking, you have to cut the cord, so to speak, with your favorite gear and be willing to be a bit uncomfortable, or at least try out different comforts.

Make Good Decisions About What You Take With You

A true ultralight setup is about more than reducing your base weight. Armed with your new mindset and willingness to try something different, you will need to make decisions about food, water, clothing, and other essentials.

Change Your Menu

A great way to cut weight from your overall is to evaluate your menu. Many hikers like to bring an extra day’s worth of food. Cutting this extra food from your pack can possibly save you up to 2 pounds. Likewise, focusing on calorie-dense foods (a good rule of thumb is 100 calories per ounce) will allow you to save weight and keep your energy levels high. Great food for ultralight backpacking includes:

  • Protein and Energy Bars (115 to 130 calories/oz.)
  • Nut Butters (150 to 180 calories/oz.)
  • Trail Mix (130 to 170 calories/oz.)
  • Granola Cereal (120 calories/oz.)
  • Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals (110 to 135 calories/oz.)

Carry Less Water

While water is a non-negotiable item for any hiking trip, you can still save weight by finding alternative means of obtaining and carrying water. Instead of carrying 2 to 5 liters with you at all times, you can bring a lightweight filter and obtain drinkable water along the trail.

Also, an ultralight backpacking setup will not include a normal water bottle. I would recommend bringing two or three 1L SmartWater bottles – you can usually screw a water filter to the top and drink filtered water directly from the bottle. A water system such as this could weigh as little as several ounces.

Ditch Extra Clothing

Finally – you should consider the clothing that you bring on your trip. Most of us like to bring several days’ worth of clothing – pants, shirts, perhaps a sweater, extra socks, etc. If you want to cut weight from your load, consider bringing the bare essentials for clothing. Bringing one set of clothing, with perhaps a baselayer, an extra pair of socks, and a lightweight jacket may save a pound or more of weight.

A great way to decide what gear you truly need, and what you can do without, is to monitor what you use on your next hike. Those items that you didn’t use, or really could do without, are good candidates to leave at home for an ultralight hike.

Be Willing To Spend More For The Right Setup

The best ultralight gear will cost more than your normal backpacking setup. The lightest gear that does not compromise durability and quality is expensive, and this is a consideration you should take if you want to start ultralight backpacking.

For the sake of comparison, I’ve compiled some prices for the average cost of essential hiking gear by searching Amazon and outdoor gear suppliers:

Ultralight Version CostStandard Version Cost
Sleeping Bag$200 – $300$55 – $100
Tent$300 – $500$100 – $160
Backpack$200-$250$75 – $120

As you can see, it is generally more expensive to use ultralight gear. But in most cases, it is worth the extra cost to still have the right gear to make the most of your trip.

You Can Be An Ultralight Backpacker

Is ultralight backpacking for you? There are no physical requirements that you need to meet – indeed, one of the reasons why I am so intrigued by ultralight hiking is because I want to see how easy it can be to hike with less weight.

Ultimately, if you are willing to calculate the costs and benefits of ultralight backpacking, and you decide you can handle fewer comforts to lighten your load and be more minimalist, you can be an ultralight backpacker. Here’s some more quick tips:

  • Pay Attention To The Details: Do you know how many ounces your camping stove weighs? If not, you should find out, and see if there are lighter alternatives. Do this with all your gear.
  • Plan Your Meals: If you have a good idea of how much you need to eat to have the energy for a hike, you can really sit down and plan exactly how much food you will need – and then find the lightest options available to meet your needs.
  • Find Gear That Has Multiple Uses: If you decide to cook your food – just bring a single cooking pot – it can double as a bowl or mug. Also – why bring pants and shorts if you have convertible pants? And a good scarf or bandana can protect you from the sun, clean your pot, or serve as a first aid item.
  • Keep Researching: With technology advancing every day, there is constantly newer, lighter gear available for hikers. Keep researching these new products, or keep looking for great ideas to cut weight, and you’ll get better and better at ultralight backpacking.

Happy Trails!

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