An ultralight backpacker in Wyoming's Wind River Range.

The Top 5 Tips For Better Ultralight Backpacking

In Backpacking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , , , , , ,   |   4 Comments

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 three decades 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 (photo below), we moved more safely and confidently through its very rugged terrain because our packs were relatively light (even though we carried extra water). Other benefits include being able to hike farther, less likelihood of an injury, and just feeling much better at the end of every day on the trail.

My story “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: 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.

 

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A backpacker on the Grand Canyon's Royal Arch Loop.

Jon Dorn backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.

#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. See my blog post “Ask Me: An Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”

 

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Chip Roser backpacking in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.

Chip Roser backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

#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 helps you establish a ceiling weight for your backpack. A person can’t lose weight without stepping on a scale. The same rule applies to a backpack.

 

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#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 much lighter pack.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Mark Fenton staying light on Clouds Rest during a three-day, 65-mile hike in Yosemite National Park.

Mark Fenton stays light on Clouds Rest on a three-day, 65-mile hike in Yosemite.

#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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A backpacker at Big Spring in The Narrows, Zion National Park.

David Gordon at Big Spring in The Narrows, Zion National Park.

#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. Consider it an investment in your personal pleasure.

See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.

See my story “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun,” which offers much more detailed advice on why and how to greatly reduce your pack weight. That story is premium content, requiring a paid subscription to read. Click the blue button below to access any and all stories at The Big Outside.

 

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4 Responses to The Top 5 Tips For Better Ultralight Backpacking

  1. Backpack Hikers   |  May 22, 2018 at 1:14 am

    It is not recommended for hikers to carry a heavy backpack as it will drain more energy while hiking or trekking. Great tip to plan food and water precisely as these things occupy most of the space in the backpack, thanks for sharing such great tips.

  2. Hiking Grandma   |  July 28, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    These articles are great! Thank you so much for this invaluable information. I do not backpack as much as I used to, not a spring chicken anymore but still do love the outdoors. Backpacking allows you to see the wonders of our world first hand.

  3. Adventurous Aubrey   |  March 13, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you for porting this article this will be a guide as backpacker and I would love to share
    this article for those who are planning to backpack. 🙂

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