During your last weekend trek, did your backpack feel unnecessarily heavy? The amount of gear that you brought along to make the trip more enjoyable ended up making the hiking excruciating. Even though it was only for a couple days, there was no way that you could have carried on any longer. To make matters worse, when you got to camp, there was a guy who hiked double the miles as you and he didn’t even look tired. Running into an ultralight backpacker will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the outdoors and consider ultralight backpacking.
Bring Less to do More
Going into the outdoors, it is easy to fall into the temptation to pack more gear than necessary. After all, you are isolated from society, and everything has to be packed in. A larger pack means you can carry more food and comfort gear. On paper, this looks like a great idea. Who doesn’t want a chair, a bottle of wine, a hammock, and even a blow-up raft with them on a backpacking trip? But after only a mile, it becomes apparent, all that extra weight is making the actual hiking part impossible. Every step taken with an overstuffed pack makes you want to quit and turn around.
Think about why you are entering the wilderness in the first place. Is it to live a lifestyle similar to the one you have back in the city? Or are you going hiking to live a different lifestyle, to experience existence in a unique way? If full immersion is what you want, packing less will make the whole trip more palpable. Less weight translates into more miles hiked and less energy expended.
Think About What You Actually Need When Backpacking
With all this talk about reducing weight, you may be thinking about the gear you think you need. Before you begin to overthink your packing, let’s break down what is required for a backpacking trip.
- You will need some type of shelter to sleep in at night. This could be a tent, a hammock, or a simple tarp. As long as it keeps the elements off you and the bugs away, then you are good.
- Sleeping System. This refers to a sleeping bag and pad. The bag insulates and keeps the air around your body warm enough to encourage blood flow while sleeping. Do not forego a sleeping pad, even the most minimalistic hikers understand the necessity of having one. The ground will absorb all of your body heat. You need some sort of pad to create an air pocket to insulate against the transfer of body heat to the much colder surface beneath you.
- Bring something to wear that allows for strenuous activity and shelters your skin from the sun and bugs. But don’t think you need more than one outfit, extra clothes are extra weight. You will be smelly, no matter what you do, embrace the simplistic clothing options available in the woods. Think you need pajamas? Try sleeping without any.
- Cooking Supplies. I recommend bringing a stove and a pot to cook in. Some ultra lighters forego a stove altogether, using a campfire or eating cold meals instead. As I have said before, I like some comfort in the woods, and carrying a small butane stove is well worth the weight. There is nothing like a hot meal after hiking all day. For your cooking pot, look for aluminum or even titanium models, these will weigh much less than stainless steel.
- Maybe the heaviest and bulkiest item of your pack, calories are still a requirement. Packing dehydrated meals and compressed items will help cut down on weight. Planning out your calorie requirement by the day can also save you from carrying extra weight.
- Ultralight water purification system. There are a variety of options on the market for ultralight water filtration systems. There are tablets, iodine, and gravity filters. Find the right product for your needs but keep it lightweight.
- Outer layer. Notice how I didn’t call it rain gear or a winter coat. This is because finding the right outer layer for your trip can be customized for the location. I use my rain jacket as a winter coat as well. Waterproof material insulates extremely well. I even sleep in mine when the temperatures dip below my sleeping bag’s temperature limit. Try to eliminate all extraneous gear and use your outer layer for multiple uses.
This is where the list ends. Having a shelter, sleeping system, clothes, cooking supplies, food, water, and an outer layer is all you need. Think about all the stuff you bring camping, anything besides these items is unnecessary. If you want to stay lightweight, reduce what you think you need and only bring what you actually need.
Reducing Redundancies on Your Backpacking Trip
Andrew Skurka is perhaps the most accomplished backpacker on the planet. He has a great slogan that perfectly sums up how best to pack, “reduce redundancies.” I love this phrase and what it entails. Everything in your pack should have multiple uses, this both cuts down on weight and increases utility in the backcountry.
Check out these tried and true tips and tricks for ultralight backpacking:
- Sleep in layers. Instead of carrying a bulky sleeping bag, wear layers to bed, even a rain jacket. This will reduce the size of bag you need to carry, freeing up weight and space.
- Backpack as a sleeping pad. There is no way around it, you are going to need a backpack, but wouldn’t it be great if it had more than one purpose? Using it as a sleeping pad or even as a pillow can reduce the need to carry additional weight. I like to use my pack on under my head and shoulders, this allows me to carry a smaller sleeping pad.
- Cook in cold water. Instead of waiting for the water to boil before putting in your dehydrated food, let it soak water while it warms up. This simple trick will save you time and fuel. Another good option is to let your dehydrated food soak inside a Ziploc bag while you’re hiking. Many foods will be completely edible at the end of the day and you won’t even have to cook if you’re not bothered by cold food.
- Cut off extra material. Take a look at your backpack straps, they look a little long, don’t they? Cutting off the ends reduces your pack weight by grams, and grams do add up. Is your tent packed in a stuff sack? Leave the sack at home. Toothbrush? Break it in half. Labels on the peanut butter? Take those off. Look at every item in your pack and find ways to reduce its weight.
- Drink one liter of water when you refill. Carrying water is the heaviest item on your back. A good trick is to drink a full liter when you reach a watering hole. This quenches your thirst and allows for a full refill. I like to take it one step further and drink one liter, dump one over my head and body to cool off, then refill both.
- Record all the gear you use. On your next camping trip, take note of all the supplies you actually use. Writing down what actually gets used will make you realize how very little is needed. Once you have your gear documented, on your next trip, simply don’t pack anything you didn’t use. Continue this trend on every trip until your pack is as minimalist as possible.
I will be laying out descriptions of actual brands to use in a later blog but I think it is important to mention the options you have. As backpacking slowly begins to eat up your life, investing in lighter gear will pay off as a great way to reduce weight. Here are some items that might be worth breaking the bank for.
- Ultralight backpack. Not all backpacks are made equally. The more budget friendly models are inherently heavier and bulkier. Most will weigh a kilo or more, and there is not much weight reduction possible with a heavy pack. Buying a lightweight backpack, built with space age materials, can cut the weight in half. If you are embarking on a long distance hike, this can prove to be a worthy investment.
- Ultralight tent. There are plenty of other shelter designs, but having a top of the line tent will be even lighter than a hammock. I use a tent myself and when they are made with the right materials, offer all the protection you could want in a tiny package. Don’t feel left out if you are a tarp or hammock user. There are plenty of available options for lightweight shelters. Once you go down the rabbit hole of ultra light design, there is no limit to how low you can go.
- Down sleeping bag. I love my down sleeping bag. It packs down smaller than a football and weighs almost nothing. And because it is made of down, it offers the warmest insulation on the market. Extremely expensive, it can be a great investment if you need it.
- Ultralight stove. There are plenty of ultralight butane stoves on the market. But as weight decreases, price increases. Many hikers even use alcohol stoves, cutting down on the weight required by foregoing a butane cannister. If where you’re hiking allows for campfires, you could leave the stove at home. Not bringing an item is the best way to reduce weight.
Once you have the essentials down and your pack is as lightweight as possible, your pack will become noticeably easier to carry. And because of the lighter pack, your mileage will increase greatly. Instead of barely achieving 15 miles in a day, you will easily hit 30 miles or more before sundown. For long distance hiking, ultralight backpacking is the only way to travel. But if weekend hikes are your thing, imagine how much happier you will be with a lighter pack. Remember, simply leaving something at home will cut more weight than buying a similar product that weighs less.
Ultra Light Footwear
When you go hiking, how do you protect your feet? On the surface, large, ankle covering hiking boots seem like the safest choice. Twisting an ankle in the backcountry can be a life threatening situation. There is also a school of thought that makes the claim carrying a heavy pack mandates the use of strong hiking boots. It is time to dispel these myths once and for all.
A US Army study concluded that weight on the feet equates to 5-7 times more energy expended. To put this in perspective, every 1 pound on the feet is equal to 5lbs on the back. Wearing heavy and clunky hiking boots will only slow you down and make hiking harder. The more tired you become, the less sure your footing will be. And it is in these exhaustive situations that accidents like a sprained ankle are more likely to occur.
The lighter your footwear, the less strain your body will feel. Lighter shoes will make your hiking experience more pleasant and reduce injuries. If you are not hiking tired, there is less a chance of spraining your ankle. On top of that, your ankles will become stronger with low cut shoes on. Remember, humans evolved to walk long distances, your body can handle hiking. Trail running has exploded in popularity, as has the shoes required for the sport. I highly recommend using trail runners as your go-to hiking shoe. They feature a thick sole, which is perfect for rocky surfaces but are also incredibly lightweight.
Are Waterproof Shoes Worth the Investment?
Hell. Fucking. No.
Let me break it down as to why there is no such thing as waterproof shoes.
- Waterproof membranes break down. The average pair of hiking shoes has about 500 miles of life in them. The waterproof membrane surrounding your foot is the most delicate material in your shoe and has maybe 100 miles of life. It is lightweight and thin, making it susceptible to tears and holes. The constant bending of your shoe, grinding against rocks, and slipping your foot in and out will quickly wear through any waterproof membrane.
- Your shoes will never dry. Waterproof sounds like a great idea, until your foot, actually gets wet. This could happen because of simple foot sweat or stepping into a puddle. Anything “waterproof” is inherently not breathable. The waterproof membrane surrounding your foot might not do a good job at keeping water out but it will work wonders at locking in moisture.
- Waterproof shoes are heavy. Even if you don’t believe my warnings against the actual reliability of waterproofing, believe that they are heavier. Waterproof shoes are made from heavier materials and in most cases, feature ankle support. Lighter shoes make better footwear and the waterproof layer is not worth the extra weight. Your feet will dry quicker in regular, aerated trail runners.
Cutting Weight is the Most Important Aspect of Ultralight Backpacking
I cannot overstate this enough. Cutting weight will only make your backpacking trip more enjoyable. Plan out every day on the trail, write down every piece of gear that is going to be used and every calorie that will be consumed. Strategically planning your hike will make ultralight backpacking that much easier. It will allow you to hike longer hiking trails such as the Appalachian Trail.
Cut out unnecessary gear and upgrade wherever possible. The less you have, the more you can experience. I hope to see you out there!