Preface to the 2019 update
The first version of this Ultralight Makeover series was written between 2011–2013. Naturally, the backpacking market is constantly changing and new techniques and technologies are adopted. Much has changed in recent years; and yet at the same time much remains the same. Today (2019) many of the big manufacturers of backpacking gear make enticing ultralight versions of their designs, and even the larger retailers such as REI have their own lines of quite respectable lightweight gear. At the same time, I still see many of the items recommended in this guide still in use by notable outdoorsfolk (or, at least, the outdoosrfolk that continue to write their blogs - much has changed in that area too, but that’s another story).
Every few years I go through this guide, one article at a time, adding updated information about new equipment and reflecting on recent developments in UL skills and knowledge. The latest updates are currently being written over the summer of 2019. (The original blog posts are still available if you're curious).
If the idea of “ultralight backpacking” is completely new to you, well, you’ve landed in the right place. In these articles you’ll find a host of information covering every aspect of reducing your backpacking weight. Many people have written to me expressing their gratitude for helping them on their journey, and I consider it a great honour to have played a small part in making the great outdoors more accessible to more people. I hope you find the information here useful!
In 2011, popular US backpacking magazine Backpacker published a 12-step guide to ultralight backpacking. At the time, this was quite astonishing for a magazine that, until this point, had taken a very traditional approach to backpacking. Being an avid ultralighter, I was excited to see the concept being acknowlegded by the mainstream, and looked forward to reading their recommendations.
I was naturally interested in what Backpacker's idea of ultralight was. It often seemed that the magazine was crippled by corporate sponsorship as their gear recommendation nearly always came from the big names: Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, REI, the North Face, Arcteryx. Not that there's anything wrong with that: those companies make some great gear (albeit at the cost of brand-inflated prices – I'm looking at you, Arcteryx!). How, I wondered, would they fare at making an ultralight packing list while receiving obvious sponsorship from such brands, when the majority of ultralight equipment was emerging from the cottage industries? Could they possibly ignore the small independent manufacturers that had at that point pretty much defined and established the niche ultralight market?
Sadly, they had indeed stuck with the big guns for most of their recommendations. Furthermore, their recommendations seemed to be quite wide off the ultralight mark, and occasionally come from so-called "experts", none of whom carried any weight at any of the ultralight parties I usually hang out at.
I decided, then and there, that this imbalance needed to be addressed, and set off to write a series of posts that examined their recommendations, found some real ultralight alternatives, and drew on the wisdom of the truly experienced: writers and bloggers who live and breathe ultralight on a daily basis.
The series helps people reduce their pack weights down to what can be considered an ultralight level (more on that below), and is intended for a typical, three-season trip over, for example, a long weekend. Rather than fixate on the latest gear, the series recommends gear which has seen fairly wide adoption among ultralight hikers, writers, and bloggers: gear that has been proven capable of being up to the job by people who actually use it, and ideallly continues to be used by them many years later.
So without further ado, let's take a look at what ultralight backpacking is all about.
In its original 2011 article, Backpacker stated:
Load up your pack for a summer weekend trip. If it weighs more than 15lbs (7kg), you have a problem.
It's perhaps a little harsh to say "you have a problem". Of course, people have been backpacking with heavy loads for decades. What an ultralight backpacker might consider heavy, most people consider normal. Nonetheless, it is good to remember that it is the thought of carrying a heavy pack that puts many people off backpacking. This is what ultralight backpacking fundamentally addresses. If you can go ultralight, you can go anywhere.
I think it's fair to say that for most people, "traditional" backpacking involves carrying a pack in excess of 14kg/30lb (including food & water). For many people, the weight will be a lot more. While hiking in Finland I often meet people carrying over 20kg, even for relatively short trips over, say, a long weekend. And I've run into (or usually, past) people carrying 30kg/66lb, which is frankly astonishing. When I tell them my pack, for a similar period, weighs around 9kg, I typically have to help them pick their jaw up off the ground. (It's much easier if I help them as my pack weighs less. I'm considerate like that.)
There is a set of broad categories that define the types of backpacking according to weight carried. Note that these weights do not include food and water - they are the base weight only:
> 20lb / 10kg = Heavyweight
12-20lb / 5-10kg = Lightweight
6-11lb / 3-5kg = Ultralight (UL)
< 6lb / 3kg = Super Ultralight (SUL)
But beyond the figures, what does this all mean? In my opinion, not much. It doesn't really matter which category you fall into. In the past decade, there has been a small backlash against the title “ultralight backpacking”, mostly from people who have already transitioned to ultralight themselves and seemingly forgotten what it is like to carry a truly heavy load.
I say keep it simple. Lightweight, ultralight, or SUL... they're just definitions. Go as far or as light as you want or feel comfortable with. The point is to make long distance hiking more accessible and enjoyable, and to maintain levels of safety and comfort. If you feel durability of light weight materials is an issue, by all means use something more durable and a little heavier. Nobody should judge anyone in their attempts to enjoy the outdoors more.
So why go ultralight then?
The purpose of ultralight, in my opinion, is simply to lighten your load. For me, the whole point of "going ultralight" is to reduce the stress on your back caused by carrying extremely heavy weights over difficult terrain for long distances. It's a healthier option for your body, and will allow you hike further, in more comfort. It may well enable you to hike more regularly, and for many more years to come.
This, for me, is what it's all about. It's not a numbers game: the weights are there simply to give you an indication of where you are now, and what is possible. Ultimately, you define how light you want to go.
Perhaps the question is better put as why wouldn't you go lighter? Why would anyone want to haul a ton around on their back? Being in the wild shouldn't be an endurance test. I'd like to see a shift in people's mentality from boasting about how heavy their packs are, to how light they are. Backpacking shouldn't be about suffering – it should be about enjoying the world. With a light pack, you'll find you don't even notice the weight on your back, and consequently you are able to give your full attention to the wonders that surround you. It's quite a liberating transformation.
Now, just because it's possible to whittle your pack weight down to below 5kg/10lb, doesn't mean you have to. If you can reduce the weight of some of the items in your pack – specifically the heaviest – you'll have already shaved pounds off your back.
Similarly. there is no need to feel you have to do this all at once. With careful planning, it's possible to reduce your pack weight one item at a time. Why not continue tol make use of your existing gear, but replace elements of it piece-by-piece. You’ll lower the weight step-by-step until, before you know it, you’re carrying a seriously light pack compared to the “normal” one you carried a couple of trips ago.
What is normal?
Normal is what everyone else is, and UL'ers are not.
- Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek Generations
OK, he didn't really say that, but he could have if the film was about ultralight backpacking(!).
My point here (trust me, there is one) comes from the aforementioned discussions about the value of ultralight backpacking as a term. Had you wandered inadvertently into one of these discussions you might have been forgiven for assuming ultralight was created for elitist egomaniacs obsessed with going into the wilderness unprepared, or "stupid light". Oddly, however, the people making the arguments against the concept of "ultralightism" had, almost without exception, already reduced their pack weights, and many of them were even "ambassadors" for ultralight gear manufacturers. The idea of such people criticising ultralight backpacking from the comfort of their cuben fiber shelters over a steaming Esbit stove tickles me to this day.
It's very easy to forget, once you have made a transition to lightweight gear and techniques, what it felt like before you started packing light. We tend to normalise the new. Yes, it's all just backpacking – as one conclusion put it – but it's very easy to say that when you're not lugging 30kg around the wilderness.
I think that weight definitions serve a purpose. Certainly for some people (e.g. myself, perhaps), at some point new ideas become an obsession. Sometimes, we need to take things to the extreme in order to find out what works and doesn't work for us as individuals. We do this to locate our personal comfort zone. I think this is a part of human nature. Going ultralight doesn't require an all or nothing approach. In fact, I would argue that you shouldn't go the whole hog all at once; not only will it prove expensive, but you'd be relying on untested gear, and a lack of grounded experience in how new tools and equipment function in the field.
To get down to the extreme light weights of SUL (Super Ultralight) and UL (ultralight), requires accepting certain amount of sacrifice in gear durability and comfort which you might not be ready to leap straight into. As we'll see in the rest of the guide, any attempt to lighten up requires a willingness to reconsider one's needs when backpacking. It necessitates cutting out luxury items (those which are rarely, if ever, used), and modifying techniques and the expectations you have of your gear. You have to re-learn techniques and skills, and in some cases adopt practices that at first might seem counter intuitive.
What it shouldn’t involve is putting yourself through an endurance test. There's no reason to take unnecessary risks, and travelling light doesn't mean you can't enjoy a little luxury, and indulge in something that gives you pleasure. One of the plus sides to lightening your load is that slipping in a little whisky (re-bottled in a lightweight platypus), or a Tenkara fishing rod, is that much easier.
OK. So how do I go ultralight?
The first thing you need to do is address the core mass of heavy loads. These are often referred to as the "big three" – your sleeping gear, your shelter, and your backpack. This has been covered in far more detail by others, so let's turn to them and see what they have to say on the matter.
There are a ton of websites and books covering ultralight backpacking, each with its own variation on a theme regarding the right approach. One of the clearest and most succinct methods describing the fundamentals of ultralight was by Jörgen Johansson at Fjäderlätt.
He coined the principle of 3 for 3 (or 343) that neatly simplifies the idea of reducing the weight of your "big three." Put simply, if you can get the total weight of your sleeping system, your shelter, and your pack down to 3kg (6.5lb) or less, you will be well on your way to ultralight nirvana.
3 items under 3 kg. (Or, for the imperialists, 3 for 6.6138679 lbs – you can see why we favour the metric system in the rest of the world!)
Can it really be that simple? Let's take a closer look.
Some sleeping bags alone weigh more than 2kg/4lb – The materials used in cheap and cheerful sleeping bags easily add up to a lot of weight. Tags, labels, zips, hoods, and other bizarre additions add even more. Before you know it, you're hauling around some kind of enourmous puffy zeppelin, about the same size, shape, and weight as one of these.
Many traditional backpackers rely on the venerable tent for shelter, and there's nothing wrong with that. But add up the weight of those heavy materials, and the numerous poles used to create the elaborate sculpted works of art that constitute the tents of today. Throw in the spacious vestibule, and the additional footprint/groundsheet (to protect those heavy materials), and soon you're looking at three or four kilos.
Lastly, take a look at a traditional backpack. Heavy-duty materials will protect your gear from abrasion. A tough aluminium frame keeps everything in place. Throw in a floating suspension system, 24 pockets, a built in rain cover, and a bunch of plastic doodads that don't really seem to have any real purpose – and you have a backpack weighing 2.5kg/5.5lbs before you've even put your sleeping bag in the special compartment at the bottom.
It all adds up:
Tent: 4kg / 8.8lbs
Sleeping Bag: 2kg / 4lbs
Backpack: 2.5kg / 5.5 lbs
Total weight: 8.5kg / 18.3lbs
Oops!! And you haven't even packed your food and bottle of Merlot yet! Let alone your Trangia stove and fuel. And your clothes. And all the gadgets. And the camp shoes.
What if your sleeping system were to weigh 850g? Your shelter 700g? Your pack 450g? The total for your big three would be 2kg (4.5lb). A saving of 6.5kg (14lb).
“Wait, is that even possiible?”, I hear you ask…
For a warm climate weekender, this (2kg / 4.5 lbs) is my typical 343 weight – and believe me, I am by no means a hardcore ultralighter. If I can do it, I promise you can too.
Ultralight backpacking is simply about cutting back to the basics, refining your equipment, and asking what you really need – and that is what the rest of this series looks at in more detail.
Links and resources (general info on lightening your load):
Backpacking Light – Probably the best online community resource for reviews, information, and tips. Membership required for most content, although forums are free with registration)
Ryan Jordan - Do a ultralight course! Like the site says "Explore your wild side (without having to drink your pee.)"
Plus many, many, many blogs.
UK - Ultralight Outdoor Gear
USA - Camp Saver / REI
Manufacturers of ultralight gear – where the best equipment is often to be found – are linked in each separate article.
USA: Backpacking Light Gear Swap
Backpacker Magazine – I honestly don't recommend the website; it has one of the most godawful navigation systems ever devised. Content is hidden on pages which have no links apart from those printed in the magazine. I challenge you to find information on the current issue, for example – something you would expect a website for a magazine would offer. The magazine is okay, but tends to repeat itself each year.
The Great Outdoors – The UK equivalent, with the bonus of having some respected writers like Chris Townsend on board. Tends to be a bit more on the ball than Backpacker, but with the downside of a rather short-sighted UK focus.
Smarter Backpacking by Jörgen Johansson
Lighten Up!: A Complete Handbook for Light and Ultralight Backpacking by Don Ladigin and Mike clelland
Ultralight Backpackin' Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping by Mike Clelland
Trail Life: Ray Jardine's Lightweight Backpacking
This article contains affiliate links to products. Our journalism is independent and is never written to promote these products although we may earn a small commission if a reader makes a purchase.