The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun
By Michael Lanza
If you could do one thing to make every backcountry trip more enjoyable, would you? If you’re one of the many backpackers who finish every day on the trail sore from neck to toes, the answer may be simpler than you think.
After two decades of backcountry trips as a field editor and correspondent for Backpacker Magazine, experience has convinced me to keep my pack as light as possible—every unnecessary ounce removed from it makes my trip happier. My evolution was partly about comfort, but also emerged from a slow rethinking about why I’m out there—which is not to have a lot of stuff with me, but to experience a place.
I don’t embrace extreme measures. I don’t sleep on a bed leaves, harvest wild edibles or starve, live in one pair of socks, or make my own gear. I won’t use a wafer-thin foam pad or sleeping bag, because the energy saved through reducing my pack’s weight by ounces would be eclipsed by the energy sacrificed to sleep loss.
My approach to ultralight backpacking does not compromise safety or comfort—the point is to increase comfort and safety. If you’re not accomplishing both objectives, you need a new strategy. Going ultralight should not entail a fixed gear list or weight limit, but rather a flexible and customizable set of guidelines. My pack’s weight varies from trip to trip—in one place I may use a tarp and a 30° F. bag, in another a tent and a three-season bag—but I scrutinize everything, trying to make my load as light as possible. That guiding principal has completely changed my on-trail experience and how I look at and go about planning a hike.
If you’ve never thought much about paring down pack weight, the tips that follow will help you realize significant weight savings—and maybe revolutionize your backpacking experience. If you’ve already taken steps to reduce your load, my advice may still help guide you toward incremental weight reductions or help clarify decisions about what to bring or not bring.
Why Lighten Up?
I started out backpacking with the conviction that more stuff made you safer and more comfortable. Carrying 50 pounds or more enough times dispelled that notion. I now believe a heavy pack is often a major factor in backcountry injuries and accidents, particularly common ones like blisters, sprains, strains, and falls.
There are many reasons for lightening your load. Maybe you want to hike farther each day. Maybe your knees or back have begun bothering you and you want to continue backpacking without suffering. Maybe you’re already saddled with a lot of gear and food for your young kids who can’t carry much weight yet, or with climbing gear for a multi-day trip, and you want to avoid having a ridiculously oversized pack. Certainly, if you plan to attempt a major thru-hike on any long trail, your chances of success will hinge more on your pack weight than on weather or your fitness level on day one.
Ultralight backpacking is not necessarily synonymous with ultra-long days (sometimes called “fastpacking”). However far you want to hike each day, or your body is capable of going, your enjoyment of every step along the way will correlate directly with how many pounds are on your back.
That said, though, hiking with a lighter pack lets most people walk a little faster and farther. I like seeing as much of a place as I can within the time I have. Ultralight backpacking enables me to walk farther, in the same amount of time, without using more energy than when I carried a heavier pack. I’ve done for myself what the auto industry did by making cars more fuel-efficient: I’ve increased my miles per gallon.
The Big Picture
Making decisions that determine your pack weight begins with knowing what your destination may throw at you. Know the climate for that time of year and the weather forecast. Know how much water will be available. Find out what you can about the difficulty of the trails you’ll hike, the number and difficulty of any river fords, or anything else that can slow you down.
Then digest this information with a chaser of perspective. In many mountain ranges, you’ll be told that snow can fall even in August. But in reality, if you’re heading into New Hampshire’s White Mountains for four days with a forecast of 75° F. highs and lows around 50, you’d roast in a 15° F. bag. On the other hand, if I’m heading out for a week in Glacier National Park in late August or September—knowing that the weather forecast loses reliability over that length of time and across such a large area of high mountains—I’ll carry a three-season puffy jacket (as opposed to lighter summer insulation) and long underwear. That buffer of insulation also enables me to still use a light, summer-rated bag.
Trimming pack weight smartly has to be part of a complete strategy for a trip. If I’m planning to hike 15 or 20 miles a day and want to plan food for, say, five days, I need a high degree of confidence that every one of my companions and I are capable of walking that far in the terrain we’ll encounter. We have to be sure that factors like fatigue, weather, route-finding complications, or injury aren’t likely to drastically reduce our daily mileage. If one person slows us down; or heavy rains turn the trail to knee-deep mud; or a storm confines us to our tents for a day or more; or trails haven’t been maintained in years and are choked with downed trees; or someone who’s inexperienced at walking on rugged trails sprains an ankle, then there’s a risk that we’ll run low on food or someone could suffer an injury.
So going ultralight does narrow your margin of error. But that doesn’t make the strategy inherently dangerous. The question is: how much of a margin of error do you need? Are you hiking with kids or newbie adults—or a small group of fit, experienced people who you know are capable of walking even farther than you’ve planned? Although some of the variables I mention above are not predictable, you can usually know in advance whether, for instance, recent rains have made the trail boggy or impending weather could do so while you’re out there. And hiking injuries aren’t entirely random; they often occur when someone is pushed beyond his or her fitness or experience level.
Ultralight hiking demands that you consider how “ultralight” your party can afford to go. It also often places the most-experienced person, or the trip organizer, in a position of responsibility for leading the conversation about what to bring and who to invite.
Four key principals:
1. Don’t begin with your old gear list and remove items one by one; start with nothing on the list and add only what’s necessary for a particular trip.
2. Weigh every item, from gear to clothes and food—this helps you assess the value of everything you carry, and motivates you to downsize.
3. Don’t compromise comfort to the point where it affects your enjoyment. Two examples:
* The lightest backpack may save you a pound or two at the expense of sore shoulders and hips. Try on a pack with all of your gear inside to gauge how it’ll feel all day on the trail. Find one with enough padding and support for the weight you’ll carry.
* If you don’t sleep well on a thin foam pad, carry an inflatable air mattress; but unless you’re very tall, use a short air mat (unless the ground’s cold) and place your empty pack under your feet.
4. Discuss team gear with companions to avoid duplication.
I’ve listed in the chart below what I carried on a late-August ultralight thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in California’s High Sierra. It was mostly beyond mosquito season, allowing us to use a tarp instead of a tent, and not too cold, so my bag was rated 32° F. My base pack weight (without food or water) was 15 lbs.—including 2.5 pounds of bear canister, not needed in many places. With careful food and water planning (see below), this gear list would keep total pack weight on day one under 25 pounds if you’re starting with five days of food, and under 30 pounds with a week’s food supply. However, if your maximum pack weight exceeds 25 pounds, I’d recommend getting a pack with more support, which would weigh 2.5 to three pounds instead of the 1.5 pounds in my chart.
*In buggy or rainy conditions that require a tent, a lightweight model would add two pounds or less per person.
**Adjust warmth of layers as needed for expected temperatures; but unless you’re heading for an extremely wet destination, there’s no need to carry extra base layers. I bring one T-shirt, one long-sleeve top, two pairs of synthetic underwear and good hiking socks for most hikes up to four days, three pairs for longer trips, and no more. For very mild trips, leave the puffy jacket at home.
***Without a bear canister for food storage—required in the High Sierra and some national parks but unneeded in many places—my JMT base pack weight would have been under 13 lbs.
+Low-cut shoes collect more mud, water, dirt, and stones inside than a mid-cut, and the lightest mids are just a few ounces heavier than a low, so consider the trade-off. With either low-cut or mid-cut footwear, wear low gaiters if you expect a lot of trail debris or wet conditions, but they can be too warm on hot days.
++As a photographer, I usually carry a digital SLR camera, two lenses, and a chest pack, which weigh a combined six pounds, and a four-ounce mini tripod; a small point-and-shoot digital camera weighs a fraction of that.
Old and Heavy Vs. New and Light
There’s an unavoidable economic reality to lightening your backpacking load: It can cost money. Lighter gear is usually more expensive than heavier counterparts. If buying lighter gear isn’t immediately in your budget, acquire it incrementally. Start with a light tent—that’s one of the heaviest items you’ll carry, and a piece of gear where you can make probably the greatest reduction of weight and bulk. Next, get a light sleeping bag—another good place to reduce weight but especially bulk, which makes it more feasible to use a smaller and lighter backpack—your next purchase. From there, scale down other items like your stove and cook set, rain jacket, sleeping pad, etc.
Are you suffering from sticker shock despite knowing that lighter gear is within your budget? I always tell people this: If you’re going to get plenty of use out of the gear, given how many years it will last you, you are certainly getting your money’s worth—especially when you consider the added value in increased personal enjoyment of your trips.
Water and Food
Gear constitutes a fixed weight that doesn’t vary over the course of a trip. But food represents a diminishing weight (unless you resupply), and water a constantly variable weight. And water and food are heavy: On an average day in the backcountry, you’re liable to consume two pounds of food and eight pounds or more of water.
Imagine an ideal goal of always draining your water bottle shortly before reaching the next water source, and eating your last morsels of food an hour or two before finishing a hike. In that scenario, you avoid carrying more than needed at every step along the way. Then ask yourself how much of a margin of safety you need, given the trip circumstances. What’s the walking time to the next expected water source, and the likelihood of not finding water at it—or the one after that, and how much farther is it? What are the real chances of not finishing the hike on time, or running out of food long before reaching the road?
Over the past three decades, I’ve underestimated food planning only a few times. The worst outcome was having to ration what we had, going a little hungry for a day—not exactly an Ernest Shackleton-caliber epic of near-starvation. Like most traditional backpackers, I have far more often carried an excessive surplus of food the entire length of a hike, and a couple of liters—more than four pounds—of water through mountains where water is abundant.
Whether it’s three or five pounds or more, the cumulative impact on your body of hauling that superfluous weight is substantial over the course of, say, the approximately 100,000 steps taken on a 50-mile hike. Here’s how to minimize that impact.
• The best way to carry water is inside yourself—drink a lot at water sources.
• Disregard the old rule about carrying a minimum of two liters of water, regardless of circumstances. Instead, consider how long it will take you to reach the next water source and how much water you’ll drink on the way there. Often, it’s no more than one liter.
• Water treatment systems vary greatly in weight and bulk. Unless you need a filter for water that’s silted or potentially contaminated by agricultural chemicals or heavy metals, use a lightweight, compact product like chlorine drops, iodine pills, or a SteriPen, which purifies water using ultraviolet light. (For a party of four or more, I like the efficiency and per-person weight of the Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter.)
• Plan in advance exactly what you’ll eat every day, and weigh your food. Most people won’t consume more than two pounds a day, and some will eat less than that; by weighing and experimenting, you’ll quickly learn how much you need. Even when thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in a week, averaging 31 miles a day, my companions and I found we just couldn’t put down more than about 4,000 calories a day each, which worked out to slightly less than two pounds.
• Think of your food both as a steadily diminishing weight and something you’ll carry at least a portion of every day. Logically, you’ll eat your heaviest dinner the first night on the trail. But the trip’s final meals will ride in your pack for days—the pound you carry for 50 miles before eating it demands roughly five times as much energy from you as the pound you consume within the hike’s first 10 miles. Make those last meals as light as possible, while keeping in mind that you’re often hungrier after a few days on the trail.
• Eliminate all excess original food packaging, repackaging everything in sealable plastic bags. Some can function as trash bags in the backcountry; others you can clean out afterward and reuse.
• Consider leaving the stove, fuel, and cooking gear at home and eating only foods that require no cooking. Peanut butter, bagels, tortillas, cheese, jerky, pepperoni, smoked salmon, a variety of dried fruits (mangoes, dates, raisins, etc.) and nuts (salted peanuts, cashews, sunflower kernels, soy nuts, etc.), crackers, chocolate, GORP, honey sesame sticks, and candy are surprisingly satisfying—and most of them pack a lot more calories per ounce than prepared foods. And you’ll appreciate the convenience of not cooking when you’re tired. I find this works best in mild weather; on cooler trips, I like having hot drinks and food.
Tips for the Trail
• Hike in the cool morning and evening hours, and rest during the afternoon heat. Going ultralight makes packing up camp quick and easy, facilitating early starts.
• Plan fewer miles on days when your pack is heaviest with food and more miles when it’s lighter.
• Keep snacks handy so you can eat and drink small amounts frequently, especially on longer days.
• Make better time by being more efficient when stopped: Take breaks where you can refill and drink water, eat, go to the bathroom, and briefly remove shoes and socks to keep feet and footwear cool and dry for blister prevention.
• When base or outer layers get wet from sweat or rain, dry them with body heat. Slow your pace to avoid sweating in the final 30 minutes before reaching camp. In camp, if necessary, wear a damp base layer over a dry layer to dry it without getting cold. Stuff damp socks into a pocket of the pants or jacket you’re wearing.