The 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 more than three decades of backpacking—including the 10 years I spent as a field editor at Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—is that a major 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— 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.

This article shares my five most effective tips 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. Among many examples I could offer, when three friends and I backpacked the Grand Canyon’s remote and very rugged Royal Arch Loop, we moved more safely and confidently through that challenging terrain because our packs were relatively light—even with the weight of 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.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker hiking over Park Creek Pass in North Cascades National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking over Park Creek Pass in North Cascades National Park.

My story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” goes much deeper into why and how I’ve greatly reduced my pack weight. (That story requires a paid subscription to read in full, but if you’re not a subscriber, you can purchase a downloadable copy of that story, my e-book “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.”)

But here are my five most-important tips as you set out on—or continue down—the path toward lightening your pack. Please share your thoughts on them, or your own favorite tips, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

And click on any photo below to read about that trip.

Take the first step. See my picks for the best ultralight backpacks.

A backpacker hiking the Clear Creek Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Pam Solon backpacking the Clear Creek Trail in the Grand Canyon.

#1 Start With Nothing

The best way to fail at lightening 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, sure, use a gear list as a starting point but question everything, add only what’s necessary for each trip, and continually modify your list as you experiment and hone your own system and gear kit.

See my blog post “An Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”

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A backpacker at a small tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route.
Justin Glass at a small tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at this blog.

#2 Weigh Everything

I mean literally put everything on a scale, from gear to clothes and food. I do it all the time (especially with food). 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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A backpacker hiking up the Belly River Valley in Glacier National Park.
Pam Solon backpacking up the Belly River Valley in Glacier National Park. Click photo for my e-books to backpacking in Glacier and other parks.

#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 those ounces of bag insulation or mattress would be eclipsed by the energy sacrificed to sleep loss. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added a little more comfort to my kit to ensure that I feel good out there, while still keeping a close eye on that scale.

Customize your own gear kit to suit your needs—including comfort—but don’t lose sight of the goal, which is to end up with a much lighter pack.

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A backpacker hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for my e-book “The Best First Backpacking Trip 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.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Click photo for my complete e-book to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

#5 Replace Old Gear

This is my only tip that costs money, and it won’t be feasible for everyone—or not immediately, anyway. 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 and all of my reviews of backpacking gear and ultralight backpacking gear.

And don’t miss my picks for “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

See also “5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your Backpacking Gear,” “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking” and a menu of all stories about backcountry skills at The Big Outside.

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Leave a Comment

12 thoughts on “The Top 5 Ultralight Backpacking Tips”

  1. These are great tips. It is important to note that there’s a limit to how much you can use your belly as a canteen. You body can only absorb so much. Unlike a canteen, your body won’t store the extra. Rather, you will simply pee it out. Yes, I did validate this the hard way once in Lost River Range

    • Good point, Tom. The statistic I’ve seen referenced most often is that a person can absorb no more than about a liter of water an hour, but that can vary between individuals and depending on conditions, including whether you’re also eating food that helps your body absorb that water rather than just release it in waste.

  2. Nice article. Not carrying too much water is key, and a mistake first-time backpackers—myself included—make. Know where your water sources are, camel up, and don’t be afraid to drink from nasty sources—that’s what a filter is for.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.