The Journey to Ultralight Backpacking

Ultralight backpacking, where base pack weights are reduced as much as possible, is appealing for a number of reasons. Less weight is always more comfortable and you may be able to cover more distance in a day because it’s less tiring to carry a lighter load. In addition there is less wear and tear on shoulders, back and load-bearing joints with a smaller pack.

Two things propelled me into learning about the arcane world of ultralight backpacking: middle age and the desire to hike longer trails. Knowing that I want to keep backpacking for many more years and to be able to carry more food for longer distances meant that I had to find ways to reduce the overall weight so I could keep going longer, in more ways than one.

I call this my journey to ultralight because it’s not a simple thing to transition from traditional backpacking to ultralight. You quickly realize that it’s a state of mind and that many people have been obsessing about every little aspect for years. There are books on the subject, complex spreadsheets, detailed comparisons and furious debate. There are controversies too, like how to know when you’ve gone too far. In my mind if you end up having to rely on others to get out of a scrape or aren’t adequately prepared for the elements you may have gone too far.

I’ve been following a couple of backpacker forums for two years and have had the opportunity to implement many things I’ve learned from others and through my own experience. My base pack weight (which I define as my fully packed backpack without food or water) is now , which means that I have a little way to go before I can get below the definition of light (less than ) or ultralight (less than 10-), though definitions vary. I’m on my way though, and was able to backpack for nine days with a total weight of around , including water for myself and food for two people. My husband carries the tent and cooking equipment and I carry the food, so luckily for me, my pack gets lighter as the trip goes on.

Here are six ways I have found to reduce pack weight, starting with the heaviest items:

Back view of unrecognizable hikers with trekking poles traveling in green hilly valley

  1. Backpack-I was able to shave over 3 lbs off my base weight just by getting a lighter pack, the REI Flash, which weighs 2 lbs 12 oz. Gossamer Gear is also producing lightweight tents under two lbs. Look for lightweight materials and fewer bells and whistles such as extra straps, loops, zippers and pockets that all add weight.
  2. Tent-We have the lightest two-person tent we can find, a 3 lb 12 oz Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight, though other kinds of shelters, including tarp tents and bivvy sacks are lighter. We prefer a real tent that is moisture and bug-proof but others are comfortable sleeping under the stars and can get away with less weight. Be very careful to add weights of all components, including ground cover, tent poles and fly when comparing tents.
  3. Sleeping bag-This is probably an area I can work on, but am reluctant to get a bag rated for warmer temperatures, which is lighter, because I’m cutting back a lot on clothes and feel that this is my one and only backup in case of freezing temperatures. Down is lighter and compresses better than synthetic, but loses insulating power when wet. My down Marmot Angel Fire weighs 2 lbs 15 oz.
  4. Pad-There are newer lightweight products, such as the Thermarest NeoAir Trekker that weighs only 26 oz and still provides insulation from the ground and a comfortable night’s sleep.
  5. Stove-We ditched our stove, which was tiny, but required heavy, bulky fuel canisters, in favor of a wood burning stove. Several products are available including the Bush Buddy and Solo stove. It’s a remarkable system-you just start a flame with paper or dryer lint and push small twigs into the stove-then watch it boil water in eight minutes. We carry Esbit solid fuel tablets for backup.
  6. Clothes-This was hard for me but I was ruthless on my last trip, with only one change of clothes. I can’t stand to be dirty and sweaty in my sleeping bag and hygiene is important to me. One thing that makes this system work is a simple laundry set up. A gallon zip-top bag, a tiny dropper bottle of bleach and a bit of bio-degradable soap was all I needed to have fresh clothes every day. I’d fill the bag with water, my hiking shirt, underwear and socks, put 3 drops of bleach and a dot of soap, squish it all together, and let it sit for 15 minutes. I’d dump the dirty water well away from the stream, then rinse and hang it out to dry on a short length of plastic string. It would almost always be dry by morning, or I’d affix any damp items to the back of my pack to dry during the day.

Focusing on these six areas will offer the most impact in reducing weight, but there are many other ways to cut down. It mostly get down to sorting through gear and separating items into those necessary for survival and those that are luxuries, though your definition may change over time.

The journey to ultralight backpacking is a process and with some thought pounds and ounces can be shed

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