My Top 5 Ultralight Backpacking Tips
By Michael Lanza
I field a lot of questions from readers about gear and backpacking, and I find the conversation often boiling down to one issue: how much weight they have in their packs. The biggest lesson I’ve drawn from a quarter-century of backpacking is that the predominant factor dictating my enjoyment of any hike is how much weight I’m carrying. If I could convince my readers who backpack to follow one piece of advice from me—no matter your age, how much you hike, or how fit or experienced you are—it would be this: Lighten up. You’ll make backpacking more fun.
Here are my five most important rules for accomplishing just that.
The good news is you don’t have to embrace extreme measures or compromise safety or comfort—in fact, I’m convinced my strategy has made me more comfortable and safer than when I routinely carried a much heavier pack. When three friends and I backpacked the Grand Canyon’s remote Royal Arch Loop (lead photo, above), we moved more safely and confidently through its sometimes very rugged terrain because our packs were relatively light (even though we carried extra water). Other benefits include being able to hike farther and just feeling much better at the end of every day on the trail.
My story “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun” goes much deeper into why and how I’ve greatly reduced my pack weight. But here are my five most-important tips as you set out on—or continue down—the path toward lightening your pack.
#1 Start With Nothing
The best way to fail at lightening up your pack is to start with your old gear list and remove items one by one. Don’t begin from the presumption that every backpacking trip requires the same gear and clothing. Instead, start with nothing on the list and add only what’s necessary for a particular trip.
#2 Weigh Everything
I mean literally put everything on a scale, from gear to clothes and food. I do it all the time. It may sound a little too obsessive, but this helps you assess the value of everything you carry—it motivates you to downsize when you see exactly how much weight each item adds to your pack. It makes you scrutinize everything that’s potentially superfluous and perhaps establish a ceiling weight for your backpack.
#3 Don’t Be Miserable
I don’t sleep on a bed of leaves, harvest wild edibles or starve, or live in one pair of socks for days on end. 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. Customize your own gear kit to suit your needs—but don’t lose sight of the goal, which is to end up with a lighter pack.
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#4 Plan Your Water and Food Precisely
Water and food are heavy: The average person eats two pounds of food and drinks eight pounds or more of water every day in the backcountry. Don’t subscribe to some antiquated rule about a minimum amount of water you must carry, or hauling around far more food than you will eat. Ask yourself: What’s the walking time to the next expected water source, and the likelihood of not finding water at it? What are the real chances of running out of food long before finishing the hike? I plan exactly how much I’ll eat every day, carrying very little extra food, and I haven’t starved yet. I guzzle water at every source (better to carry it in your belly than on your back) and carry only what I’ll need to reach the next reliable water source.
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#5 Replace Old Gear
This is my only tip that costs money, and it won’t be feasible for everyone—or not immediately for everyone. But new gear is generally lighter—and more comfortable, and sometimes even more durable—than old gear. As you can afford to, replace heavy, bulky, old gear with new stuff—it’s worth the investment in your personal pleasure.
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
“Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?”
“Ask Me: How Do We Make a Big Backpacking Trip (on the Teton Crest Trail) As Enjoyable As Possible?”
“10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier”
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