Spend any time looking at backpacking gear, forums, or social media accounts, and you’re bound to run into that term at least a few times. But, what is ultralight backpacking, and is it worth achieving? That’s what this article aims to figure out.
What is Ultralight Backpacking?
Ultralight backpacking has a very simple definition: it’s the same as backpacking, but with the goal of having the lightest base weight possible. This has various benefits, but they can all be summed up by saying that ultralight backpacking is supposed to make backpacking more fun and minimalistic, as well as foster a more intimate connection with nature.
How Do you “Go Ultralight”?
If you think the ultralight backpacking philosophy might be for you, it’s as simple as buying some new gear, and making decisions about which gear you own belongs, which doesn’t, and which gear can be stripped down to its bare essentials to save weight. The basic skills of backpacking apply to ultralight uniformly; you don’t really have to learn anything new outside of paying attention to weight.
In the real world, going ultralight often looks like a series of decisions, such as:
- Buying a new tent that is a full pound lighter than your current tent
- Cutting off the bottom half of your sleeping pad so you’re only carrying half the weight and since you only really need the insulation and cushion on your upper body when you sleep.
- Using a tarp tent, pitched with a trekking pole, to make your gear work twice as hard
- Only carrying a tiny ultralight backpacking stove instead of a complete cooking system
- Making choices based on weight, not comfort
- Getting obsessed with lowering weight to the point that you shave down your toothbrush just to save a few grams.
What base weight is considered ultralight?
If the whole goal of ultralight backpacking is to lower your base weight as much as possible, is there some sort of weight “bar” that you need to get under in order to be considered ultralight?
Kinda – there is no set number of pounds or kilograms that instantly turns you from an ordinary, boring backpacker into an ultralight one. That said, most people would agree that somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds is the point where you have officially gone ultralight.
Of course, the ultralight barrier for you might be lower than 15 if you’re smaller and lighter as a person, and it might be above 20 pounds if you’re exceptionally tall or heavy. Generally speaking, though, 15 pounds is what I hear most often.
Many ultralight backpacking adherents think that even 15 pounds is too heavy, pushing their base weight measurement lower and lower, with target weights at 10 pounds or even lower. If you want to be impressed by how low people can go, check out the ultralight backpacking subreddit. It’s full of people sharing their gear setups, offering advice, and arguing over who’s being the most ridiculously committed to the philosophy and who’s a poser. If you really want to learn about going ultralight on a deep level, that’s the best place to do it.
What are the benefits of going ultralight?
Why is ultralight backpacking so popular? Is it just really fun for these people to lose their minds over a 50 gram reduction, or is there a purpose that makes going ultralight backpacking worth it?
Let’s take a look at the benefits of becoming an ultralight backpacking gear junkie:
When you’re carrying less weight, you can move a lot faster. Backpacking isn’t always a grueling physical challenge, but that’s something most of us love about it and we often seek out difficult, rewarding trails.
On a 60-mile trip, spread out over 4 days, with 12,500 feet of elevation gain, would you rather have a base weight of 28 pounds or 18 pounds? The choice is clear: when you’re covering that kind of distance, you don’t want anything slowing you down. And, there’s another pre-trip benefit: the lower your base weight, the easier training for a backpacking trip becomes, too!
You can go faster without being weighed down by unnecessary items, and you can hike further, too. Stringing together multiple 12+ mile days is a lot easier when you’re burning less energy. And, it’s a lot easier to enjoy the sights on your backpacking trip when you’re not wheezing or gasping for breath at the end of the day. Sunsets are incredible; they’re even more incredible when you’re not exhausted!
Eat more (or less)
For me, the biggest benefit of dropping a pound from my base weight is that it means I can bring an extra pound of food. Sometimes, it’s not about having the lowest weight possible – it’s about having the best weight possible. The less weight you’re carrying in the form of gear, the more you can carry in the form of food, water, even luxury items.
The flip side of that coin is that you can also lower your need for food and water by carrying less weight. Sure, dropping 2 pounds is not going to make that big a difference on your daily calorie burn, but it will mean that your fuel and hydration needs are going to decrease. The less you carry, the less you burn, the less you sweat, and the easier it is to replenish yourself.
Protect your joints
If you don’t have bad knees, you’re probably in the minority of Americans; the prevalence of knee pain in US adults has increased 65% in the last 20 years, and it’s only getting worse. We got bad joints, man! Why wouldn’t we want to do everything we can to make it easier on our knees, hips, and ankles?
Raw connections with nature
The less you have with you, the less you have holding you back from nature – or so the philosophy goes. Ultralight backpackers feel that there’s something a little off about lugging a cast iron cookset, portable dehumidifier, iPad with hours of downloaded movies, a mobile hotspot, 5 different jackets for every possible temperature combination, a heated blanket, and a 4-person tent into the deep wilderness.
Just feels a little funky, doesn’t it? Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but that’s a big part of what the ultralight backpacking ethos is against. Ultralight backpackers might get all high and mighty about how cool their gear is, but the underlying desire is to strip away everything you don’t need, so you can connect with nature. It’s a little more raw, a little more uncomfortable, and a little bit more real.
This is a benefit that not everyone agrees with or wants, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t feel good, at least inside your head, to think you’re a little bit superior to someone else. We all do it – that’s precisely why “name brand” is a thing – and there’s nothing wrong with it if you keep it in check and keep your mouth shut about it. Sometimes, it just feels nice to know you bought the right stuff, for the right reason, and “at least I’m not that guy!”
It’s a little conceited, a little arrogant, all that – but as long as you keep your mouth shut, and don’t actually believe you’re superior in a legitimate way, it’s also harmless. So go ahead, take a tiny bit of pride in your super fancy ultralight gear setup, just don’t look down on anybody else.
Is ultralight backpacking expensive?
Oh yeah. If you want to get all the way into the ultralight lifestyle, it’s gonna cost you. Ultralight tents can cost upwards of $600, and ultralight backpacking packs often cost $50-100 more than their “standard” counterparts. The same goes for ultralight sleep systems, cookware and utensils, and clothing.
In the world of backpacking gear, there is a strong correlation between weight and money. Less grams equals more dollars, pretty much every time.
Of course, spending money isn’t the only way to achieve a lower base weight. But, unfortunately, it’s usually the most effective in terms of actual weight savings. So, if you really want to go ultralight, we’re not saying you have to break the bank, but we are saying you should prepare to spend more than you would otherwise.
Is it actually worth it to go ultralight?
This is the real question for most people: is all this effort and expense really worth it? The people who are already ultralight backpackers will usually say “yes”, but what about the rest of us?
Personally, I say no, ultralight backpacking really isn’t worth it – not if it becomes a distraction or a financial burden. It’s worth it to drop a couple of pounds to improve your experience while backpacking, but only if it’s actually going to improve your experience.
The thousands of ultralight backpackers out there, I hope, would attest that going ultralight does improve their experience. But, there is a danger to any sort of dogmatic approach to something, even something as harmless as backpacking. The more you care about the rules, the less you’re able to see the forest for the trees.
What I’m saying is this: ultralight backpacking is great, but only if you don’t get lost in it. I’m sure most people don’t get lost in it, but I feel bad for the people that do.
And, beyond that, the real reason I’m not an ultralight backpacker? I can’t afford it! If you’re like me, and your budget/time constraints just don’t allow that kind of dedication, don’t sweat it. There’s nothing wrong with bringing more than you technically “have to” – nothing wrong at all. Everybody’s just trying to enjoy nature in their way. If that’s ultralight, that’s great for you (and I’m a bit jealous); if it’s the complete opposite, that’s great too!
4 ways to dramatically lower your pack weight
Make your own first aid kit
First aid kits are an essential part of your gear checklist, but they aren’t usually optimized for lightness. You can save, in some cases, up to half a pound by building out your own first aid kit. REI has a great guide on the subject, and it goes into a lot of detail on what you should consider adding to your homemade first aid kit.
Get a lighter sleeping bag
The sleeping bag you choose is a huge determiner of your overall enjoyment of a backpacking trip, not just your ability to call yourself “ultralight”. It’s an important choice to make, and if saving weight matters to you, be careful with your choice of sleeping bag.
Sometimes, a distinction as simple as choosing between real goose down or a synthetic down approximation can save you over half a pound. Half a pound might not seem like a lot, but it is a big deal when you’re trying to go from 16 pounds to under 12!
Go for broke with your tent
If there’s one area to spend a lot of money and energy on when it comes to ultralight backpacking, it’s your tent. Tents are the heaviest part of your Big 3 backpacking items, and they cost a pretty penny if you want them to be light. Tents from ultralight companies like Hyperlite Mountain Gear cost more than $800 and don’t even come with a footprint (that’s an extra $200, by the way)!
Does that sound ridiculous to you? It does to me, but Hyperlite is a phenomenal company nonetheless; they just don’t make gear with me in mind. That $800 tent only weighs 1.17 pounds, an astonishingly low number for a tent, especially one that’s as roomy and sturdy as that one. (For reference, my backpacking tent weighs over 6 pounds!)
The point is: if you really want to cut large amounts from your base weight, buy an expensive ultralight tent.
Upgrade your backpacking wardrobe
The clothes on your body are considered “worn weight”, but the clothes in your pack are going to count. That means jackets, extra clothes, sleeping clothes, gloves, and more. Anything you aren’t constantly wearing during the day is part of your base weight, and clothing can be heavy.
One way to mitigate this is to simply bring less clothing; you don’t truly need more than one jacket, and that hoodie you love might just have to stay at home. Every article of clothing you don’t bring is weight that you aren’t carrying up and down mountains, and the trade-off is often worth it.
If you really want to cut down on weight, though, buying better and lighter clothing will help a lot. There’s a big difference, for example, between merino wool base layers and cotton ones. A down puffer jacket, too, is going to weigh a lot less than a hoodie, and it’ll provide a lot more warmth.
In most cases, 15 pounds is the number to look to as the border between standard base weight and an ultralight base weight. Some people should set a lower target, others should set a higher target, depending on the type of body they have.
Most, but not all, ultralight backpacks give the same amount of effort and concern to comfort as “normal” packs. You should be perfectly comfortable with a pack that fits you, ultralight or not.
Your “Big 3” items – backpack, shelter, and sleep system should be light, and not combine to weigh more than 20 pounds. Most backpackers should should for their big 3 items to weigh between 3 and 6 pounds each; within that range, there’s a lot of room for different body sizes and backpacking preferences.
Any tent that weighs less than 3 pounds is considered to be ultralight. The best ultralight tents weigh less than 1.5 pounds, but they’re prohibitively expensive. So, less than 3 pounds is a good number to look for in an ultralight backpacking tent.