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? Three decades 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. 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—learned over the course of many thousands of trail miles—for minimizing pack weight while staying safe and comfortable on every trip.
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.
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 thru-hiking packs.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Fatigue slowing even one person.
- Bad weather slowing everyone down.
- A trail or route that’s much more rugged than anticipated.
- Route-finding complications.
- Heavy rain turning the trail to deep mud.
- A big storm confining you to your tent for a day or more.
- Trails long neglected of maintenance and choked with downed trees.
- One person suffering an injury like a sprained ankle.
In any of those scenarios and other potential ones, there’s a risk of running low on food and/or finishing the trip much later than planned.
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, and who will be fine if you run low on food?
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 and lightweight hiking demand that you consider how light 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.
And this point can’t be overemphasized: Far more backpackers get injured or just endure a lot of discomfort from a heavy pack than starve in the backcountry.
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Four key principals:
See also my related stories:
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