A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking

By Michael Lanza

What if you could do one thing to make every backpacking trip more enjoyable? Thousands of miles of backpacking have taught me what that one thing is: keeping my pack light. All of the superfluous ounces removed from my pack add up to fewer pounds on my back, and that makes each trip better. And a smart approach to ultralight and lightweight 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.

In this article, I’ll share my tips for minimizing pack weight while staying safe and comfortable on every trip, learned over the course of more than three decades of backpacking—including the 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, and even longer running this blog.

Like many backpackers—maybe like you—when I first started taking multi-day hikes, I packed gear based on what I believed I needed to take; I didn’t think about how much weight was going into my pack. (The lightest gear was also beyond my budget then, and I hadn’t yet learned the tricks for getting higher-quality gear cheap).

In other words: My entire thought process was framed around thinking about what to bring, instead of thinking about only taking what I absolutely needed. That’s important because the first approach increases weight, and the second approach reduces it.

My evolution toward a lighter and lighter pack was driven by comfort, but also emerged from a gradual rethinking about why I’m out there: It’s not about having stuff. It’s about experiencing a place.

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If you want to go truly ultralight, that often involves creating a fixed or only slightly flexible gear list and establishing a weight limit (typically 15 pounds or less base pack weight, not including water and food). I’ve taken that approach on longer treks like the John Muir Trail, and it made those trips more enjoyable.

But lightening your pack doesn’t have to require strict rules or limits. I don’t embrace extreme measures. I don’t live in one pair of socks (nor do I ever carry more than three pairs) or make my own gear. I won’t sleep only on a wafer-thin foam pad, because the energy saved through reducing my pack’s weight by ounces would be eclipsed by the energy sacrificed to sleep loss. I don’t forego some optional gear that I choose to carry (like my DSLR camera and two lenses, because of my work ).

Get the right backpack for your trips. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best ultralight backpacks.

I prefer to follow a set of guidelines and customize my gear for each trip’s circumstances (including who I’m with and how far I’m walking each day). 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 20° F bag. I don’t aim for having the absolute lightest pack on the trail, 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 go about planning a hike.

Whether your goal is going truly ultralight, or simply making your trips more comfortable by lightening your pack significantly, the tips that follow will help you realize significant weight savings. And that just might revolutionize your backpacking experience.

A backpacker on the Tonto Trail on the Grand Canyon's Royal Arch Loop.
David Ports backpacking the Tonto Trail on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.

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 persuaded me to question that assumption—but gradually seeing that I didn’t really need all that stuff convinced me that assumption was wrong. I’m now convinced 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, among them:

  • You want to hike farther each day.
  • Your knees or back have begun bothering you and you want to continue backpacking without suffering.
  • You’re already carrying most of the gear and food for your young kids who can’t carry much weight yet.
  • You’re carrying climbing gear for a multi-day trip.
  • You simply want to avoid carrying a painfully oversized pack.

Certainly, if you plan to attempt a major thru-hike on any long trail like the JMT (which I can help you plan—click here to find out how), your chances of success will hinge more on your pack weight than on weather or your fitness level on day one.

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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 lighter: I’ve increased my miles per per unit of energy burned.

That said, 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.

A backpacker hiking past Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail.
Mark Fenton backpacking past Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail.

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, and wear boots that will keep my feet warm and dry if it does snow. That buffer of insulation might enable me to still use a light, summer-rated bag—but I may instead consider a 15- or 20-degree bag worth the extra ounces.

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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.

Any number of factors could drastically reduce your daily mileage, including:

See also my stories “5 Smart Steps to Lightening Up Your Backpacking Gear Kit” and “The Best Ultralight Backpacks.”

Tell me what you think.

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24 thoughts on “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking”

  1. Michael,

    Another well-written, poignant article to help us realize the maximum enjoyment and experience while backpacking, hiking, trekking, etc. Even having been plodding about the planet for over sixty years I always learn some gems from you. The joys of a light backpack have been brought home recently as I ramp up my preparation for my trekking/climbing adventure to Mongolia in August. Living in the Pacific Northwest provides a myriad opportunities to tromp up and down steep mountain trails and routes. On the cusp of my seventh decade, but so far blessed with good health and joints I still feel the effects of an extra 20-25 pounds after 6, 7 or more hours.

    A related part of the experience leads me to strongly encourage you to write a companion piece on “all things footwear.” With the wonderful evolution in footwear, I have mostly transitioned to using light, low-top hiking shoes or trail runners. This included a six-day trip in the Grand Canyon staring with a 50-lb. pack with my wife and friends.

    My current training regimen has included using my mountaineering boots. Believe me, the extra 1.5-2 lbs per foot makes a bigger difference than the extra weight in the pack. The convention is that every extra pound on your feet is equivalent to 5-6 lbs. on your back. But beyond that are the stresses and strains of that weight hanging off the end of your leg, swinging back and forth. Especially when coming downhill.

    Probably the most common reason I hear from hikers and outdoor shop staff, or read in most articles is that heavy, high-top boots are required for ankle support. While this may be true for some people and may apply when backpacking with a heavy pack in certain terrain, I believe finding the lightest, fully functional footwear is the way to go. If you have spent a life time using only high-top boots, then make the transition carefully.

    First, carefully research the available shoes and try several out to find the ones that fit the best. Fit and comfort are everything. If you have a particular brand of hiking boot that you like, check out for their lighter boots or trail shoes. Often the lasts are the same or similar, so the fit may work.

    Start walking or hiking on easy trails with a light backpack. If you have always used high-top boots, your ankles will need time to adapt and strengthen. Gradually increase your weight, challenge of the trail surface, etc. You will quickly realize the benefits.

    There is much more on the topic of selecting and using footwear that can be written. I believe footwear is the most important piece of gear and deserves the time and effort to get it right. Everything we hikers, backpackers, trekkers do depends on our feet. Give them the time and care to allow you to enjoy the experience to the maximum.

    Hey Michael over to you!


    • Hello John,

      Good to hear from you, and as always, I appreciate your informed perspective as much as you appreciate mine, and we are thinking along the same lines. My “Pro Tips for Buying the Right Hiking Boots” addresses your question to some extent, but I have begun writing (and intend to finish) an article that explores this issue more deeply.

      I agree that boots represent the most personalized and fit-critical piece of gear that we hikers, backpackers, climbers, trail runners, and others of our ilk buy, and getting the right type of footwear and an excellent fit are essential.

      Like you, I’ve made a gradual transition to lighter, often low-cut footwear for most of my trips, including my most recent backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon (which was outstanding and one I recommend to you).

      However, I’m occasionally reminded that sturdier (and heavier), more reliably waterproof and durable boots are appropriate for certain places, sometimes including your own region of the world (one of my favorites). I’m writing this from northern Spain, where I just finished a five-day trek in the mountains of Picos de Europa National Park, Spain’s first national park and a stunningly beautiful mountain range. I’ll eventually write about this trip. It being early season, we got snowed on one day, with cold, strong wind; and even on the days of better weather, we were hiking either in that new snow or on rough trails with sharp rocks that are hard on the lightweight footwear we chose to bring with us. It did not go unnoticed by me that our two local companions on this trek, a new friend who works as a trekking guide in the Picos and his assistant guide in training, were wearing heavier mountain boots. They told us they would switch to lighter shoes in true summer weather, but those shoes also got destroyed more easily.

      Thanks again for a good suggestion and keep your eyes on my blog for an article exploring this topic more deeply.

  2. Good post overall. Caveats:

    A: Lighter weight often means weaker: Shop with care. I have a light weight Sierra designs goretex rain parka. I also have a MEC expedition rain parka. The latter is far heavier, but is tough enough to crash through the bush that makes up much of the back country in Willmore Wilderness (just north of Jasper National Park.) The Sierra designs is made of something a bit heavier than rip stop nylon, but would be shreds all too soon in brush.

    Similarly I had a coated light weight tarp. But many days of buffetting by heavy wind has stretched the fabric to the point it is no longer water proof.

    I am leary of unltralight packs. From running trips with teens I’ve seen too many zippers that parted, straps that pulled away from pack bodies, stress points that tore.

    B: Where I go, fires are allowed. I bring quart tin cans (restaurant supply tins — #10 tin can 105 fluid oz) equipped with bailing wire handles. They are a few oz. each. Fit over a rolled foam pad. One pot makes supper. One makes hot water for beverages. If there are 2 people, bring 2 pots. 3 pots for 3-4 people. At 4 people you usually need to make two pots of supper — or, as I prefer, a soup and a main course. A leatherman in plier mode makes for controlled pouring of hot water, or reaching the pot off the fire.

    I’ll admit to wanting a hot meal very much in the evening. Even in summer here, the mountains are cool. Snow can occur any month of the year. The hike I just returned from had lows in high 30’s (F). Rainy weather makes this even more important. Backcountry here is often on rutted trails knee to chest deep in willow shrubs, which on rainy days provide continuous wet, even if the rain is intermittent.

    C: Last trip I took an empty 2 liter pop bottle per person. Intent was to use these for long dry passes. The weather was rainy, and they weren’t needed. But they are light, almost indestructable, and free. To save a few more grams, you can use bottled water water bottles, which are of thinner plastic, but don’t wear as well.

    D: I always bring a pair of some form of alternate footwear — crocks, or water socks usually, so I can change into dry footwear once we reach camp. Wet feet are a fact of life even on a sunny trip. The north end of Munn Pass crosses the creek 35 times, the path IS the creek for stretches over 50 feet another dozen times, and swampy bits of trail abound.

    E: At least one walking stick is a necessity for balance on scree and in water crossings. Mine spent 80% of the trip strapped to my pack, but I was glad to have it the other 20%. They also can aid in setting up a tarp in difficult circumstances.

    F: I agree with you regarding extra packaging. We made one exception. We brought Stoned Wheat Thins for our lunches (along with peanut butter, cheese…) We brought the original box to give some protection against crushing. This worked well. With 2 of us, one person carried breakfast and supper, one all the lunch. Lunch was split into 2 meals.

    G: 2 lbs dry weight per person per day is safe. Probably over by about 10-15% That’s based on 150 lbs per person. Warning: Teenagers during a ‘hungry year’ need 20% over this, regardless of weight. If you have little people, divide their total weight by 120 to get adult equivalents. (120: Small people eat proportionally more than an adult due to usually less body fat and higher metabolism) You can get some weight reduction by including more fats in your diet. Fats run 9 kCal/gram while starch, sugar, and protein run 4 kCal/gm.

    H: Do a ‘shakedown’ hike before a big event. This can be as short of as 2 days, but should be at least 15% of the length of expedition scale expedtions. (E.g. if you are planning a month long trip, do a 4-5 day shakedown.) This will help you find out what you forgot, and may give you insight as to what you don’t really need.

    I: At my wife’s insistence, I now carry an InReach device. This allows emergency two way communication at the price of about 4 oz. If you only turn it on for communicating, it will run for weeks. We had it on from after breakfast to after supper. After 5 days it was down to 27% charge.

    J. I carry a repair kit with a spare of each kind of buckle, a sewing awl with heavy thread, safety pins, the end of a roll of duct tape, a glasses screwdriver and spare screws.

    K. First aid kit includes bandaids, tweezers, box knife, small bottle of alcohol (airline vodka bottle) burn dressings, antibiotic cream, pain killers up to Tylenol with codeine, anti-histamines, disinfectant. A foam pad and branches makes a good splint.

    L. All trips have two sets of maps. Carried by different people. One can be photocopies.

    M. If you take GPS, take enough batteries. If you are recording your tracks, you typically need a set a day. Don’t believe the battery life figures until testing. This is another item for the shakedown hike test. Do remember to minimize the illumination for longer battery life.

    • Hi Sherwood, thanks for those detailed suggestions. You are correct that lightweight gear is generally less durable than heavier gear, but there are exceptions to that, and I try to note durability in all of my reviews. I concur with most of your thoughts, but I would stress that what I carry varies from trip to trip depending on the weather forecast and environment.

      Please keep on sharing your suggestions in comments on my stories.

  3. Hi there, I am planning on doing the JMT South to North in a couple of weeks and would love your input. I am beginning the hike with the summit of Mt Whitney. The original plan was to summit Mt Whitney with my wife on her birthday but I decided it would be an opportune time to do the trail I have been longing to for many years. I am choosing northbound largely because I was told I could extend my existing permit. I will also be hiking solo. I live in San Diego at sea level and my training regimen has been running 7-13 miles several times a week, hikes of up to 24 miles several times a month and cross training at the gym to increase muscle strength. Even still, I am nervous! I know the altitude in the beginning will be something to worry about, and I rarely am higher than a couple thousand feet. Logistically, I will be carrying a full pack from Whitney portal to Muir Ranch where I will pick up a food cache. I am not carrying cooking gear although I decided as a precautionary measure to carry a Big Agnes Fly Creek 1 person tent to protect from the elements/critters. It weighs in at roughly 2 lbs. I am using a Sawyer water filter which receives rave reviews and allows me to not take time pumping water, rather just fill up a Smart bottle and go. I will be carrying dried fruit and meats that I will eat early on, and save peanut butter, tortillas and chia for the latter part of the hike to Muir Ranch. From Muir Ranch on, I feel comfortable in knocking out big mileage days since I have completed these sections before. It’s the initial stretch of several high altitude passes and remoteness that are on my mind.

    I plan on completing the trail in 10 days, 12 days for accounting rest days if necessary. I welcome the added challenge of the northbound trek but really just want to hear from a vet what they have to say!

    Thanks in advance,

    • Hi Tim, you have a great adventure ahead of you. Sounds like you’re training smartly and carrying good gear that’s lightweight. I agree your biggest challenge will be carrying a fully loaded pack at high elevation right out of the gate. I would try to get there a day or two early and camp at Whitney Portal or partway up Whitney to begin acclimating, then pace yourself according to how you feel over the first few days. Those first passes are high, but much of the terrain between them is at more moderate elevations.

      If you want to have a more detailed conversation, email me: mlanza@thebigoutside.com.

      Good luck.

  4. Hi Michael! I am a first time JMT hiker summer 2016. I am an avid day hiker and will do some 2-3 day hikes in spring to prepare. I live in Lake Tahoe so I have a good place to practice! 🙂 I am also losing 20 lbs and doing a lot of strength training. Here’s are my concerns: I am 55 years old and this trip is my way of celebrating this milestone along with 25 years of sobriety! I may have to hike part of the trail alone – I have friends with me for the first week and another friend joining the last week. I really want to pack light. I know I can do 10 miles/day, but I would like to try to average 15 mpd. I have read pack lists from women who have ended up with 40-50 lbs! I have no desire to carry that much. Can you give me an idea of a realistic daily mileage and how I can keep my pack 35 lbs or under without running out of food and water and where I should stop to resupply? Are there days that I can do more miles and days that I will be moving slower? I am going to invest in as much lightweight equip as possible. Do you have to have a new pair of socks every day? That seems like a lot of weight! I also love your idea of bringing food that doesn’t require stove etc. and I love all the items on your suggestion list! Is it realistic to do this? I signed up for your newsletter and thank you in advance for your help!

    • Hi Pam, good on you for taking on such an ambitious challenge. But I think your goal of a JMT thru-hike the way you describe it is realistic, and I say that as an age peer of yours. To answer your specific questions and offer some suggestions:

      Strength and aerobic training should be considered mandatory prep for a long thru-hike, so you’re smart to be doing that. (See this story, too: https://thebigoutside.com/cranking-out-big-days-ramp-up-your-hikes-and-trail-runs/). But nothing prepares you for a long backpacking trip better than carrying a pack with what you’ll have on the JMT for a few shakedown weekends, and a somewhat longer trip if you can fit it in.

      I don’t think you have to worry about hiking part of the JMT alone. There are a lot of backpackers on the JMT. You may meet companions to hike with, or maybe not, but you will meet and see other hikers, most of them friendly, quite frequently. If or when you’d prefer more solitude, hit the trail at first light in the morning (packing light makes it easier to get on the trail early) and hike in the evening (more pleasant than the hot afternoons).

      If you train well, 15-mile days are entirely realistic. Experiment with hiking 10-12 miles a day first, on your pre-JMT backpacking weekends, and see if you can work up to 15-mile days on those weekends. Within a week on the JMT, when you get your trail legs, you may find yourself hiking 20-mile days without having to put in ridiculously long hours, too. Let your prep hikes guide your strategy, and don’t start out too hard, that risks injury. Build up your leg strength and endurance.

      One challenge of the JMT is the lack of convenient resupply anywhere south of Muir Trail Ranch, as you know. But if you hike north-south and build up to 15-mile days, you should be able to do that southern half of the trail in about eight days; at two pounds of food per day, that’s 16 pounds of food. Keep your base pack weight to 15 pounds (or less), and you’re at or under 35 pounds (with 1-2 liters of water). Experiment with your food on prep backpacking weekends. Weigh everything and count calories; know how much you’ll need to eat, so you’re not either going hungry or carrying way too much. I was perfectly happy eating all dry food for a week on the JMT; it was satisfying and I was hungry! But you should try it out on a couple of weekend trips first, to see if you like it.

      Water sources are generally frequent; you’ll often not have to carry more than a liter, but plan water based on scanning your maps to know the distances between water sources. Check out this review of water-filter bottles: https://thebigoutside.com/gear-review-aquamira-and-lifestraw-water-filter-bottles/

      I don’t carry more than three pairs of socks. You can rinse and dry them out, and the JMT won’t likely be very rainy and muddy.

      See the itinerary and other planning tips in my story about my JMT thru-hike: https://thebigoutside.com/thru-hiking-the-john-muir-trail-in-a-week-a-once-in-a-lifetime-experience-or-just-certifiably-insane/

      I hope that helps. Good luck and let me know how it goes! Thanks for following my blog and congrats also on your sobriety, that’s a huge achievement.

  5. You are so right that less weight is equal to more fun. If you over pack you could forget for having a good time. Eventually you will have back pain. Thank you for sharing your article! Keep posting!

  6. Great POST and thanks for sharing!
    Posts like this have helped me drop weight significantly and (spend more money, lol)
    I was a 55+ pound pack weekend warrior, I am now down to a 21 lb pack with fuel, food and water for a weekend-three day trip, slightly heavier for winter trips.

    I finally got my food packing down, however I always have some left over, I always bring a tad extra.
    My only caveat is water, I am still working on this and will try to reduce my water weight next trip out.

    I do have one more item I am struggling with, my Canon EOS7D and a 17-55mm lens, its a bit heavy @ near 3.5lbs. (not included in pack weight above) and was very cumbersome on my last trip. The next trip scheduled I will be leaving it home and relying on my phone. (looking into a lightweight point&shoot)

    Another great way to lighten the load is to drop some body weight, if someone is overweight like I am.
    I dropped 20lbs. from my body weight, that’s 45 pounds lighter than my first hike.(got 20 more to go)

    A few other things to consider is Experience and Technique, these two things have helped me to reduce weight also.

    • Lots of kitchen scales out there that are good to about 10 lbs, and are accurate to a fraction of a gram. (I suspect internally that they do scale switching — when you are measuring 5 kg, you accuracy is likely only about 25 grams.)

      I use the kitchen scale to weigh out my food portions.

      Some things are awkward to measure — sleeping bag, pack. You can rig a way to use the same scale like this: Hang a yard stick from the ceiling so that it balances. Put a weight heavier than your object on the scale and hang the item from the other end of the beam. The difference in weight will tell you the item’s weight.

      Or you can buy a fish scale at an outdoor store. They aren’t really good at small weights but from 1/2 to 5 pounds or so they aren’t bad. Calibrate by using known weights.

      • Hi Sherwood, I use a Universal Accu-Weigh 20-pound scale that’s accurate and large enough to weigh anything that’s going into my pack, and I keep a running tally to calculate the total weight (including the pack).

  7. Thanks for this very informative post! Over the past five years, I’ve shaved about 10 pounds from my base weight and am still working on adjustments. Giving up the security of carrying a full 3-liter camelbak has been a huge change for me. It still makes me nervous to not have extra water, but it makes the hiking so much easier.

    • Hi Christine, yes, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about how much water you need to carry. In the desert, it may be a gallon or two; but in mountains with abundant water sources, it may only be a liter or two. Sounds like you’ve already made good progress in reducing your load.