The Ultralight Makeover series looked in detail at ways to transform your backpacking experience. Now we put it all together and find out how someone wanting to move towards ultralight backpacking can take their fist steps along the trail to a lighter load. We'll also take a look at Backpacking North's typical kit list for a comparison.
Transitioning to ultralight
You've read through Ultralight Makeover. You've seen how you can shave off the pounds/grams and ultimately reduce a "traditional" pack weight by many kilograms. But where, oh where, to start?
In this post script to the series, I'll try to provide some tips on how someone new to the concept might start making the transition to ultralight.
The recommendations made in this article have been selected for their suitability for people specifically wanting to move move from their existing more traditionally-weighted kit to an ultralight approach to backpacking. These are not the only options available, nor are they necessarily the lightest. They are intended as a good basic starting points, and come highly recommended by other bloggers and writers whose opinions I value and trust. Taken individually, any of the following recommendations would provide significant weight-savings on their equivalent "normal" backpacking kit. Put them together and you'll be well on your way to ultralight nirvana.
One step at a time
I've reiterated often in this guide moving to ultralight backpacking doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. Instead of diving in at the deep end, seriously consider taking a step-by-step approach. Focus on one aspect of your gear at a time. This way you will be able to safely transition to lighter techniques, without going out with a full kit of untested gear.
You could pick any item in your pack as a starting point – stoves, clothes, hydration, first aid – but a more effective place to start is by addressing one of the "big three" items.
In part one, we looked at the three for three concept: getting your three core items – your backpack, your sleep system, and your shelter – all under 3kg in total. Start by changing to a lighter weight version of any one of these three items and you'll immediately be losing a considerable amount of weight.
However, rather than just randomly picking one as a starting point, let's give some thought to the implications and roll-on effects of choosing each one.
Where to begin?
Ultralight backpacks, as well as being lighter, are typically smaller. If you are transitioning from heavy to light gear, then you'll need to make sure all your old kit fits inside; if you have a lot of larger, heavier hear, it can take up a lot of space and put a strain on a lighter pack.
Probably the most attractive route is to swap your old, heavy tent for an ultralight shelter. This is, after all, where you will most likely see the greatest weight reduction. But if you're planning on switching from a hardcore, two-wall behemoth to a flighty little single-wall tarp, you need to be sure that the rest of your existing gear is up to the challenge of coping with the different conditions you'll experience, i.e. more exposure and condensation.
Perhaps the easiest and safest starting point is your sleep system, and making the move to a lighter sleeping bag, or even quilt. Sure, it's less exciting than all those sexy shelters, but it's a low risk place to start reducing weight. You can use a new quilt can in your existing tent, with no negative impact. Its smaller size and lower weight will make a noticeable difference compared to what you might normally use. And if you plump (ah, the puns keep coming) for a good quality fluffy down quilt, it will last for many years to come.
After you've got a new lightweight bag, you can more easily move on to the shelter. With that pair sorted, and perhaps with a smaller stove and pot, you'll easily be able to fit your new kit into one of those lovely ultralight backpacks.
When you're shopping around for a new ultralight sleeping bag or quilt, you want to plan ahead for using it in a single-wall shelter. While condensation in tarps and 'mids isn't the thing of nightmares traditional marketing would have you believe, you'll want to keep your sleeping bag dry, especially if its filled with down.
There are two ways to do this: buy a bag that uses at least water-resistant outer materials, and ideally waterproof-breathable materials in critical areas (feet/shoulder), or buy a waterproof/breathable bivy bag to put the sleeping bag inside. This will prevent the bag from getting very wet shoudl it brush against the sides of your shelter.
As for down vs. synthetic, the gap between these two is drawing closer every day. Modern synthetic materials are lite and warm. The upsides of down are greater compressibility and longer life. The upsides of synthetic are its continued warmth-giving when wet, and price.
As Tucas Sestrals Quilt - Smart design from an EU UL cottage
€170 - 475 g / 16.7 oz - should be good down to 0ºC
GoLite Unisex Z30 - a classic introductory down quilt - but it sells out fast
$300 - 615g /1lb 6oz - good to 0ºC (but that's probably generous)
Sleeping bags (if you don't like quilts):
Western Mountaineering HighLite - it's a classic for a reason
$330 - 455 g / 16 oz - good to 2ºC / 35 º F
Remember to also get a decent sleeping pad, and if needed, a bivy bag. For a more detailed look at bags and pads and bivy bags, see part 4.
Pad and Bivy Recommendations:
Katabatic Gear Bristlecone Bivy - The ultimate UL bivy bag
$150 - 215g / 7.6oz
Alpkit Hunka - the budget UL bivy bag
£45 - 500g / 17.6 oz
Pack it in
For a starter UL backpack, I would recommend not getting the lightest you can possibly buy. Instead, look for one with enough volume to carry the rest of your existing gear, and try to find one with some kind of minimal internal frame (or stay) to add stability under heavier loads. Check out some of the options highlighted in part 2.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa - Voluminous enough for plenty of gear, sturdy enough to carry a decent load, and it won't break the bank.
$235 - 800g / 28 oz
If you're ready to take the leap into an ultralight shelter, you need to think about where you'll be hiking, and what you are ready to cope with. I would recommend starting with a shelter that offers at least some protection from rain and wind in all directions; i.e., not a simple rectangular tarp. If you want to ease yourself into ultralight, allow yourself the safety and comfort of a shelter that will do exactly that: shelter you. There are numerous examples in part 3, but below you'll find my recommendations for newbies.
GoLite SL3 - the best option for shared shelter, with an inner included.
$299 - 1967g / 69 oz (including inner, so share the weight and it's under 1kg/person). Now available again in EU, and in another form from Nigor.
Luxe SilHexpeak - a new Mid-plus-inner for the budget conscious ultralighter
€190 - 1255g / 44oz (including inner). Skip the inner and you get a cross between an SL3 and a TrailStar under 700g.
Easton 8" (Blue) Stakes - Much stronger than your average stake, and advisable for the extra tension needed in a Mid.
$11 for four - 12 g / 0.43 oz each - you can get away with the 4" stakes for the mid panels, and reduce weight more.
The next heaviest non-consumable item in your pack tends to be your stove. There are so many stoves available on the market now, from simple wood-burning masterpieces to esbit or alcohol burners to complex gas-powered systems. Which one, then, to replace that heavy Triangia set?
For the full rundown, check out part 5 but for someone starting off, I'd recommend keeping it simple and sticking with gas. It's familiar, easy to use, and fast. You don't have to worry about damp wood, faffing around with white spirits, or creating a complex wind shield. Most burn powerfully enough in all but the windiest conditions, and with extreme care can be used inside your shelter providing you allow excellent ventilation and don't light it right next to the wall or anything else flammable (disclaimer: you do this at your own risk, so don't blame me if you do something stupid). A small gas canister (100g to 250g) will last plenty long enough for a short trip – there is no need to take the largest (450g) size unless you're on an expedition or feeding the 5000.
For food, if you stick to the techniques outlined in part 6 (food) and part 7 (water) you can't really go wrong. By switching to simple dehydrated or cook-in-the bag meals, simple lunches, and trails snacks you'll easily be able to get your food rations under 1kg per day. This is an easy reduction for anyone to make – the hardest part is the willpower to say no to temptations.
Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator - You'll need a pot, but you'll save a ton of weight with a canister-mounted stove like the Soto.
$70 - 73g / 2.6oz
Clothing was discussed at length in part 8. It isn't particularly complicated: layers, layers, layers. A decent base layer (whether you choose merino or synthetic is up to you), a mid-layer if your hiking conditions necessitate it, insulation (down or synthetic, but down is lighter and more compressible), and waterproofs. Throw in a hat, some gloves, a pair of spare undies, some fluffy night socks, and you're off. Again, resisting the temptation to throw in this or that extra garment in case you need it is the hardest part. I still make this mistake; almost every time I take something I wish I hadn't.
There are caveats, of course: know your clothes. Test them. Wear them around your home on local walks. Get to know what you will need to stay warm. If you are hiking in consistently wet climates, you'll probably want to take a spare, and have a plan for drying wet clothes.
If you're starting out, try merino baselayers, a lightweight down puffy, and decent rain jacket and pants. Your requirements for a mid layer depend a lot on where you are. They tend to be bulkier and often fleece/polyester based. You might find that your existing one fits the bill. I personally think what you put next to your skin, and on the outside are the most important. And it is the stuff that you put on the outside that you will have to carry on your back when it's not needed – hence a down/synthetic top and good-but-light jacket.
Shoes (part 12) can make a world of difference to your day, but they are not the most fundamental item to change if you're starting out. You might not want to try the "wet-foot" technique straight away until you've, ahem, dipped your toes in the water, as it were. That's OK. Maybe trail runners are also not yet for you. That's fine. You can hike in your old boots if you want. I think it's more important to go, than to worry about what shoes to wear. When you do decide to lighten up on the footwear though, your feet will thank you. Probably your whole body will at the end of the day. What you don't need though is a pair of giant leather mountain boots to go backpacking. Try a pair of lightweight mids if you're not ready to try trail runners.
Clothing choices are so personal, and so multitudinous, it's impossible to make a set of simple, definitive recommendations. (It doesn't help that manufacturers modify and discontinue trusted items on an annual basis either.) Here are a few items I've found I turn to again and again, but I direct you towards the clothing and footwear articles of Ultralight Makeover for a more detailed discussion.
MontBell ExLight Down Jacket - The lightest way to stay warm on a chilly evening
$199 - 147g / 5.2 oz
Rab Waterproof Jackets - I like to think a UK-based company knows something about waterproof gear. With the trusty Rab Demand now discontinued, try the Myriad (425g / 15oz) or Newton ( 368 g / 13 oz) for size.
Montane Precip Rain Pants - because sometimes you just need total protection from the elements.
$80 - 255g / 9 oz
Inov8 Roclite 295s - These are my go-to hiking shoe - a non-waterproof trail runner with fantastic grip.
$120 - 283g / 10 oz per shoe.
If you do switch to an ultralight shelter, you'll need to take along some walking poles to erect it. Poles, I find, can be of enormous benefit to a backpacker. As well as providing general support, they help when fording rivers, can be used to prop up a pack for a seat rest, make a good old racket to scare away bears and enervate rattlesnakes, and can even be used to make up tenkara fishing rods or packraft paddles. I like mine to be as light as possible so I don't need to use straps. While they're not absolutely essential ( you would use a stick or some cord to hang a shelter), I find now that I feel incomplete when hiking without them.
The rest of your kit all adds to your pack weight, and some items (maps, tools, first aid kit) are more essential than others (gadgets, tupperware, kitchen sinks). Ultralight, for me, is partially about adopting a simpler way of life. If you don't need it, don't take it. Learn to relish leaving stuff behind.
Gossamer Gear LT4 Trekking Poles - Super light, and long enough to erect a DuoMid (with extender).
$175/pair - 119g / 4.1 oz per pole. I never hike without them.
Adding it all up
So what does that look like when you put it all together? Here are the combined weights for the most essential items recommended above:
200 g (generous estimate, including extra cord)
2837 g ( 6lb 4 oz)
Now, I know that is nowhere near a comprehensive kit list, but I hope it gives a fairly clear idea of how much weight can be saved through careful gear choices.
If you recall, the 343 concept suggests getting your big three items (sleep, shelter, pack) under 3kg. This list meets that requirement, and then some, throwing in a stove and integrated pot, and still coming in under the 3kg limit.
Even with all your clothes, food, and other gear you are going to come in way under 10 kg / 22 lbs - probably more around 8 kg / 17 lbs.
Don't believe me? Take a look at this:
Backpacking North's Typical Packlist
I often get asked what gear I take on a typical trip, and am often met with some incredulity when I tell people my entire pack weighs around 9kg. "How is that even possible?" people ask. Actually, it's not that difficult (and compared to some it's not even that light).
So, as an example, here is a fairly typical packlist for a three day wilderness trip, based on the kit I took to Muotkatunturi last year.
Naturally, you should adapt what you need for the climate at your destination, but this serves as a good example of a fairly average gear list.
The total weight is 8.576 kg / 19 lbs – and this is pack weight only; I've not included worn items. The 343 weight comes in at 2928g, just under the 3 kg limit, mainly because I'm taking along an OookWorks inner to protect me from bugs.
Certainly, there are a few things I could leave behind or swap for something lighter and shave a few grams from the total, but they would be piecemeal reductions, and frankly, I'm happy enough with 8.5 kg. There is everything there to give me an acceptable level of comfort and safety for a short, multi-day trip. I don't need to go lower, and it's light enough that if I need to add anything extra for poor conditions, it won't feel like it's tipping the balance towards something uncomfortably heavy.
This, for me, is a good balance: it's light enough, I'll keep warm and dry, and there is space for additional gear if needed.
All I need to do now is find a trail head and start walking.