Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun

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By Michael Lanza

If you could do one thing to make every backcountry trip more enjoyable, would you? If you’re one of the many backpackers who finish every day on the trail sore from neck to toes, the answer may be simpler than you think.

After two decades of backcountry trips as a field editor and correspondent for Backpacker Magazine, experience has convinced me to keep my pack as light as possible—every unnecessary ounce removed from it makes my trip happier. My evolution was partly about comfort, but also emerged from a slow rethinking about why I’m out there—which is not to have a lot of stuff with me, but to experience a place.

I don’t embrace extreme measures. I don’t sleep on a bed leaves, harvest wild edibles or starve, live in one pair of socks, or make my own gear. 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.

My approach to ultralight 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. Going ultralight should not entail a fixed gear list or weight limit, but rather a flexible and customizable set of guidelines. 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 three-season bag—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.

If you’ve never thought much about paring down pack weight, the tips that follow will help you realize significant weight savings—and maybe revolutionize your backpacking experience. If you’ve already taken steps to reduce your load, my advice may still help guide you toward incremental weight reductions or help clarify decisions about what to bring or not bring.

 

Jason Kauffman crosses Piute Creek in the John Muir Wilderness, California.

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 prompted me to question that notion—but gradually seeing that I didn’t really need all that stuff convinced me that assumption was wrong. I now believe 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. Maybe you want to hike farther each day. Maybe your knees or back have begun bothering you and you want to continue backpacking without suffering. Maybe you’re already saddled with a lot of gear and food for your young kids who can’t carry much weight yet, or with climbing gear for a multi-day trip, and you want to avoid having a ridiculously oversized pack. Certainly, if you plan to attempt a major thru-hike on any long trail, your chances of success will hinge more on your pack weight than on weather or your fitness level on day one.

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.

That said, though, 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 more fuel-efficient: I’ve increased my miles per gallon.

 

Mark Fenton hikes 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. That buffer of insulation also enables me to still use a light, summer-rated bag.

 

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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. We have to be sure that factors like fatigue, weather, route-finding complications, or injury aren’t likely to drastically reduce our daily mileage. If one person slows us down; or heavy rains turn the trail to knee-deep mud; or a storm confines us to our tents for a day or more; or trails haven’t been maintained in years and are choked with downed trees; or someone who’s inexperienced at walking on rugged trails sprains an ankle, then there’s a risk that we’ll run low on food or someone could suffer an injury.

 

Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking

 

So 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? 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 hiking demands that you consider how “ultralight” 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.

 

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this post, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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19 Responses to Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun

  1. Nikolay Stoyanov   |  December 12, 2016 at 2:31 am

    Nice article Michael! I completely agree with morning hikes! It is the best. By the way, shouldn’t you carry at least one liter of water? (you said that 2 liters is too much)

    • MichaelALanza   |  December 12, 2016 at 5:34 am

      Thanks Nikolay. Re-read my specific advice above on water and I think you’ll understand my point better. I’m not saying that two liters is too much or to carry one liter minimum; I’m saying disregard any hard-and-fast rules and decide on how much water to carry based on your circumstances–the distance and time between water sources. The speed and convenience of your method of treating water can also influence that decision. I expound more on that in this review: https://thebigoutside.com/gear-review-lifestraw-go-water-bottle-with-2-stage-filtration/.

      Thanks for writing, keep in touch.

  2. Sherwood Botsford   |  August 7, 2016 at 11:57 am

    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.

    • MichaelALanza   |  August 8, 2016 at 5:45 am

      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. michaellanza   |  January 18, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    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.

    • Tim Wright   |  July 21, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      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,
      Tim

      • MichaelALanza   |  July 22, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        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. Pam   |  January 18, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    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!

  5. Jo Swanson   |  November 13, 2015 at 7:56 am

    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!

    • MichaelALanza   |  November 13, 2015 at 8:36 am

      Thanks, Jo, and you keep in touch!

  6. Rich   |  August 31, 2015 at 8:52 am

    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.

  7. fortboise   |  July 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Suggestions for what to weigh things with? I’ve got a postal scale and a bathroom scale, but neither one of those really cut it.

    • michaellanza   |  July 9, 2015 at 7:21 am

      I have a Universal Accu-Weigh Dial 20-lb. scale graduated to one ounce/50g, which is as precise as needed. There are 40-lb. versions of that dial scale, too.

    • Sherwood   |  December 12, 2016 at 9:40 am

      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.

      • Michael Lanza   |  December 12, 2016 at 10:39 am

        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).

  8. virginiatrailschristine   |  May 21, 2015 at 6:10 am

    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.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 21, 2015 at 7:04 am

      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.

  9. Kody   |  February 24, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    I hadn’t thought about using a down puff jacket in lieu of a warmer sleeping bag. A jacket like that is definitely going to be my next gear purchase.

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