The art of ultralight backpacking is challenging to master, however, with time and experience it can easily become second nature. When I first started backpacking, I was an absolute rookie. I remember packing multiple fleece hoodies for an overnighter, carrying heavy coffee accessories, and even bringing all of my skincare products with me (yikes). Flash forward five years later and I’m not yet perfect, but I have my ultralight setup pretty damn well dialled.
This summer, I had the awesome opportunity to backpack the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland. Our group hardly saw another soul on the trail except for a few locals when we passed through the various towns along the trail. We were beginning to wonder if we were the only ones hiking the trail. One day we finally ran into other hikers. We met a really nice couple, however, I kid you not it looked like they had packed up their entire apartment and stuffed it into their packs. The duo had bags of oranges and apples that they were snacking on while they were cooking their dinner in a massive pot that belonged in a real kitchen. Their packs were massive and I’m still curious as to how they fit everything that they had with them. I’m not judging them for their packing choices, rather I felt bad that they were carrying so much unnecessary stuff for their trip. Our group was pretty sore, but I couldn’t imagine how sore the couple was feeling. This guide is partially inspired by the couple I met on the ECT.
Two weeks after the East Coast Trail, I walked across the entire country of Iceland (420 km). From these back to back objectives, I was able to truly understand what is a necessity and what is a luxury for backpacking.
What is Ultralight Backpacking?
The concept of ultralight backpacking is more of a frame of mind. Ultralight Backpacking is about going into the wilderness with only the essentials while having as little weight as possible in order to enjoy your journey to its fullest. It’s important to accept that you won’t use the typical day to day ‘luxuries’ that you have access to at home. If you’re going ultralight, you’re not bringing anything with you that you don’t need. No unnecessary redundancies, no extras, and certainly no “I might need it” items.
I had to include the word ‘realistic’ in the title of this post because in my early pursuits of converting my backpacking setup to a lightweight one, the articles that existed were so outside of my comfort zone. The authors suggested tactics like, “use your hiking pole and a tarp as your tent” or “use a DIY stove”. Although some burly outdoors(wo)men might be able to pull off such procedures without any hiccups, personally, I could not. If I tried to make my own stove it would probably combust and I would lose a limb.
Not to sound dramatic but the truth is, I want to enjoy my time in the great outdoors. I don’t want the uneasiness of trying to sleep through the night while wondering what creepy crawlies might be making their way into my makeshift tarp tent, you know what I mean?
On that note, here’s my beginner’s realistic guide to ultralight backpacking.
There are a few key rules to live by if you want to master ultralight backpacking:
#1) If it isn’t a necessity, it’s a luxury which means… leave it at home.
#2) Pick functional and versatile items that can be used in a variety of settings. Each piece of gear serves a purpose and builds upon each other.
#3) Don’t forego safety items but also don’t pack for all of the “what if” scenarios.
#4) When it comes to comfort vs weight, opt for weight. Every ounce matters and your heavy pack will cause the most discomfort.
#5) If you’re backpacking in a group, divvy up the weight.
Your pack, shelter, and sleeping system are going to be the areas that you should focus your primary efforts on for conserving weight. If done right, you can shave tons of pounds off your back by adjusting these three items alone.
Do your research and really consider the nature of where you will be backpacking. What will the conditions will be like? How many supplies you will likely have to carry? Will there be an opportunity to resupply? These questions are essential to ask yourself as you consider your pack size.
The smallest pack that you can get away with will always be the right choice. For the majority of my backpacking trips, I use the Osprey Tempest 40 L and I’m always amazed by how much I can fit in there. If you opt for a larger pack, be aware that you will likely feel the need to fill it/ overpack because you have ‘space’. Don’t make this beginner mistake, because the weight will without a doubt catch up with you when you are out on the trail.
A few things to consider for a solid pack:
- Remember- Extra padding equals extra weight.
- Brain or no brain? Is it worth it to you to have a compartment (e.g. brain) to store lightweight items for accessibility?
- Many hardcore ultralight backpackers opt for frameless packs. Choose wisely when deciding what type of support will work best.
- I always choose brighter pack colours to ensure that I can be seen by my fellow backpackers in low visibility conditions.
There are a few ways to go about a lightweight shelter. Many people opt for a tent as their shelter. One of the problems with with ultralight backpacking tents is their price point. If you want a quality lightweight tent, you can expect the price to start at $300.00 . A few years ago, I invested in the Nemo Hornet 2 Person tent and have used it on every single trip I’ve been on. It weighs about 1 pound and packs down so small.
Any tent that weighs more than 2 pounds is too heavy. Pro Tip: Use titanium tent stakes to shed some ounces.
Other options for a shelter would be the trekking pole/ tarp set up or a hammock tent which is usually lighter.
Sleeping bags can be extremely bulky, heavy, and contribute to more weight on your back than necessary.
Before we talk about some options, there’s a few important things to understand about a good backpacking sleeping bag.
You can find a quality, warm sleeping bag without going over 2 pounds. As a rule of thumb, avoid bags that are heavier than 2-3 pounds.
The key thing about sleeping bags is to understand what you will be needing it for. If you are primarily backpacking in the summertime, a hefty -10 degree bag might not be a good purchase. The lower the rating temperature, the heavier the bag will be.
Additionally, make sure you are able to pack down your sleeping bag in a compression bag. A compression bag will save you tons of space in your pack and will open up more room for other essentials.
For my sleeping bag setup, I use the Nemo Tango Duo Slim which is a two person quilt). The setup is 2 lbs, 10 oz which seems on the heavier end but I share the sleeping system with my partner, Ryan so we are each only allocating 1 lb 5 oz
If you’re backpacking as a couple, I highly recommend the Tango Duo Slim.
- For two people, it’s a great lightweight option
- Paired with a liner, it’s super warm
- Bonus: Tent cuddles
If you’re venturing solo, there are tons of ultra lightweight sleeping bags on the market. The Azura ultralight backpacking mummy bag by Nemo is a fantastic example. The cruelty free bag traps in heat while offering opportunities for the user to ventilate and regulate body temperature. The bag weighs 1.12 oz.
Now that we’ve established the Big Three, let’s discuss the rest of your setup + tricks to keep that pack light!
Sleeping Pad + Liner
I don’t recommend foregoing a sleeping pad as the ground is usually so stiff and cold. There are a couple different options for sleeping pads. The option that will least break the bank is the pad that the majority of hardcore ultralight backpackers bring along- the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol. This $50 barebones pad hardly separates you from the ground. The appealing thing about the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol is that you can cut it easily to the exact length that you need and it’s SO light.
Personally, I think air pads are the way to go and there are tons of light ones on the market, like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Mat which weighs 12 oz.
A sleeping bag liner is important because it adds tons of warmth to your bag. A liner is essentially an extra layer of insulation and keeps your sleeping bag from getting dirty.
Hydration is so important to consider when choosing what items to bring. Depending on where you’re backpacking, there may not be many opportunities to have access to clean water so a filter/ purification system might be necessary.
Purifiers vs Filters
Water filters are a system that essentially strains out bacteria and cysts in the water.
Purifiers protect even further by eliminating viruses that may be found in the water. If you are backpacking in the US or Canada, viruses are less of a concern.
If you’re needing to protect yourself from viruses, your lightest option would be water purification tablets. Aquatabs makes water purification tablets that come in packs of 30 and purify 20 L of water per 1 tablet.
I also like having a LifeStraw on hand in times of emergency. LifeStraws are so light and hardly take up any space in your pack.
Water is something that you should not skimp out on for weight. I suggest drinking as much water as possible when you have access, however, I do not believe it is a good idea to carry less water because you ‘hydrated’ ahead of time. The last thing you want is to get dehydrated while you’re backpacking so I recommend always having at least 1 L of water with you as long as you know exactly where the next water source is. One litre weighs 2.2 pounds.
Many articles online will argue that a plastic 1 L water bottle such as Dasani or Smart Water is your best option to use as your primary water bottle.
Although they are correct that these bottles are light, it just feels wrong to be purchasing plastic water bottles in 2020.
There are several options out there that are still light and are actually way more convenient.
I prefer using a hydration bladder with a hose. My Osprey pack has a compartment that I can easily stuff the bladder into for convenience. I really don’t like the idea of stopping, pulling out my bottle from my pack’s side pocket and unscrewing a lid. I can imagine that sounds like it shouldn’t be an issue, but when you’re walking tons of kilometres every day, the last thing you want to do is stop for a bunch of unnecessary water breaks. It’s so hard to get going again once you stop.
I find Platypus Hoser Reservoir 1.8 L to be the best for backpacking. It is evident that Platypus created the reservoir for backpacking because of its minimalist design and weight (3.4 oz). Camelbak also makes great reservoirs, however, the weight of their products are quite heavier than Platypus’.
Some say the lightest kitchen is not having a kitchen at all. Many refer to it as the ‘no cook’ method which means only eating cold food. This practice sounds absolutely miserable and not ideal at all. I believe you can still ultralight backpack while having a solid kitchen set up.
Fuel is something that you will have to prioritize for weight. The amount of fuel you will depend on the length of your trip and how often you will be boiling your meals/ wanting coffee. You can’t avoid the weight of fuel, but you can invest in a lightweight stove to help you shed some pounds.
My absolute favourite is the MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove. The PocketRocket has great fuel efficiency, it boils 1 L of water in 3.5 minutes and only weighs 2.6 oz.
You will need a pot to boil the water in. The Snow Peak Trek 700 Titanium Cookset is king for ultralight pots. The pot holds 700 ml of water and weighs 136 g. While the price is up there at $65 CAD, you can’t beat the weight.
Weighing in at 0.4 lbs, the GSI Outdoors Fairshare Mug II is my absolute go to for camping mugs. It doubles as both my food bowl and coffee mug. What I love so much about the Fairshare mug is the lid and insulation sleeve to keep the contents hot. Additionally, the sleeve is a perfect cozy for rehydrating my meals. The only downside of the mug is its bulky shape, however, it does have a carabiner compartment so you can hook it right onto your pack if need be. Also it’s big enough to store certain items in to create space in your pack.
The Sea to Summit Alpha Light Long Spork pairs so well with the GSI Fairshare Mug II. The long handle on the spork keeps your hand clean which I personally appreciate. The spork is made of aluminum and is ultralight.
Lighting Your Stove
Matches, lighters, flints, sunlight + mirrors? How do you choose which one to utilize to light your stove? I believe this one comes down to personal preference. Ryan and I prefer different methods, he uses a flint and I like using waterproof matches (easier to light the stove). It also comes down to redundancy. What happens if your lighter leaks? Or you lose your flint? Personally, I think it’s important to have a backup on this one just in case your primary method fails.
When we backpack, Ryan and I both carry a mini bic lighter. I carry waterproof matches and he carries the flint. If we were to ever get separated, it’s important that we both have our own redundancies.
Much like the rest of the items, your clothing choices will depend on where you are backpacking. Either way, there are a few essential pieces that you should consider for ultralight backpacking.
#1) ONE of everything. You don’t need two (ok maybe underwear). If an article of clothing is feeling dirty, wash it. The idea is that the material your clothes are made out of will be fast drying.
#2) Versatile pieces.
#3) Moisture wicking- avoid cotton and heavy materials.
One long sleeve base layer top and one pair of base layer pants will do the trick. Look for baselayers that are medium weight and snug fit.
A lightweight GORE-TEX rainshell and emergency shell pants should be items in your pack. Not only will the shell protect you from getting wet, if there’s strong wind on the trail, your shell will keep you from feeling chilled.
I highly recommend investing in a quality rainshell like the Arc’teryx’s Beta SL Hybrid. The Beta SL Hybrid is one of the best of its kind because of its breathability, durability, and ultralight weight.
If you’re looking for a more budget friendly jacket, I’ve heard that the MEC Synergy GORE-TEX Jacket holds up well in harsh conditions and is half the price of the Beta SL Hybrid.
For pants, I’ve upgraded mine to Arc’teryx’s Zeta SL pants, however, it can hurt investing $300.00 for rainpants. Prior to the upgrade, I was getting away with Columbia Boy’s Cypress Brook II Rain Pants in size L. These rain pants are the real deal and kept me bone dry in torrential downpour in Iceland (such a steal for $45.00 CAD). If you need a bigger size, Columbia makes these rain pants in both men’s and women’s sizes.
GORE-TEX socks are ideal. Without getting too into it, I always use trail shoes instead of bulky hiking boots for my backpacking shoes of choice. I also prefer not to get GORE-TEX shoes because once they are soaked through, it will take a lifetime for them to dry. Additionally, GORE-TEX shoes are heavier on the feet than non GORE-TEX shoes. My preference for trail shoes is the Salomon Speedcross 5 .
One Hiking T-Shirt
Find a hiking t-shirt that is breathable, wicks sweat, is fast drying, and controls odour. My top hiking t-shirt go to is the Lululemon Swiftly Tech Short Sleeve Crew . The shirt breathes great, wicks sweat, and doesn’t smell. Additionally, I never chafe when I wear this t-shirt.
Pro Tip: Arm Sleeves
Rather than bringing an additional long sleeve shirt, pack a pair of sleeves that you can throw on with your t-shirt.
You can find great arm sleeves in different colours on Amazon like these ones here
You might wonder why two midlayers are being included in an ultralight backpacking guide. It’s important to have two midlayers because one should serve as your active midlayer and the other one should be your camp midlayer.
A lightweight midlayer, such as the Arc’teryx Proton FL, will work great while you’re hiking.
When you get to camp, the Proton FL may not be warm enough, so this is when many would use their puffy jacket. I personally love the Arc’teryx Atom AR for my camp midlayer.
One Pair of Shorts
Depending on the weather, a great pair of hiking shorts will be necessary. It’s important to find a pair of shorts that prevents chafing and doesn’t hold odour.
I swear I’m not biased towards Lululemon, but I love the Fast and Free 6″ shorts. Designed as a running short, you wont experience chafing or constant tugging and pulling. I find that the shorts really stay in one place and are a really comfortable length.
One Pair of Hiking Pants
Hiking pants or leggings, whatever is most comfortable for you will be your best bet. Ideally, you’ll want pants that are slightly water resistant in the event that you get some light precipitation. I absolutely love Arc’teryx’s Sabria Pant. What’s nice about the Sabria pant is that they are form fitting, light, and feel great next to skin. You can feel confident that these pants will hold up walking through brush and other harsh conditions. They are slightly water resistant which is convenient during times of light precipitation.
A pair of gloves is a good idea to have in the even that there’s wind and the temperatures are cooler. The Northface Etip Glove is a great pair of gloves that keeps your hands warm and protects against the wind.
I always ensure to bring a lightweight warm hat on my backpacking trips. This is especially helpful at night when you start to feel chilled. I usually sleep with a warm hat on as well.
I really like BUFF’s Thermonet Hat. The hat wicks away moisture while keeping your head super warm.
Additionally, Buff’s Pack Trek Hat is a great sun cap that packs down small and is extremely lightweight to wear.
The socks you wear while you backpack are important because they could make or break your trip. A bad pair of socks will leave you hating your life because of blisters. On the contrary, a good pair of socks will allow you to focus on enjoying your trip without having to worry to much about your feet.
My favourite pair of socks are made by Darn Tough. Most of Darn Tough’s socks are made from merino wool, however, their Coolmax® Vertex No Show Tab Ultra-Light socks are vegan friendly and work like an absolute gem. I find that the socks don’t slip underneath your heels and they ventilate your feet so well.
For the ladies, I know it can seem important to have a pair of underwear for everyday of your trip, however, this is an area where you should consider bringing only a couple of pairs. Your underwear should dry fast enough that you can wash it and then hang it to dry from your pack or at camp. I would recommend bringing two pairs, maximum three.
I want to emphasize that your backpacking underwear matters. Take it from someone who had to cut open their La Senza underwear in the middle of an Iceland rainstorm and go commando because the pain from the ass chafing was pure misery. Underwear. Matters.
You’ll have to test out a few different pairs of performance undies to see what works best. Some women prefer full-bum undies while others prefer thongs.
I always prefer wearing thongs so I go with the Under Armour Pure Stretch Thong for backpacking. You can buy them in a pack of three for $25.00. They dry fast when you wash them as well.
For men, I’m not much help in this department, but I know that SAXX makes some great performance hiking briefs.
Aside from the ‘Big 3’, footwear will be one of your biggest considerations for your trip. If you really want to go ultralight, trail runners will be your best bet. Trail runners will truly be based on personal preference but I recommend researching brands like Salomon, Hoka One One, and Merrell (Merrell has incredible vegan shoes)
If you’re a serious ultralight backpacker, you won’t bring camp shoes, however, it sure is nice to slip on some comfies after a long day in your trail shoes.
There are tons of lightweight camp shoes on the market. Crocs are the best camp shoe because they are lightweight and so so so comfortable. You can even walk some short distances in Crocs- I know this because Ryan’s feet were SO swollen on the Bruce Trail last May that he had to walk part of the trail in Crocs.
If your route involves river crossings, I would get camp shoes that double as your river shoes. Additionally, I would advise against traditional crocs for river crossings as the back strap is moves easily and the crocs can slip off your feet (happened to me on the Laugavegur trail).
These Speedo Surf Knit Water Shoes make great river/camp shoes. They are 0.4 pounds and can easily clip to a carabiner and be attached to the outside of your bag.
Hiking Poles are so helpful on a long distance trip. You might think you don’t need them but trust me they I recommend getting hiking poles that can fold up easily and be stored away on the side of your pack. My favourite are the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles.
There’s a few safety items that are always worth packing:
- first aid kit
- check out this ultralight medical kit
- small whistle
- duct tape
- Pro tip: wrap about a yard’s worth around your hiking pole for convenient storage.
- tiny scissors and athletic tape
- a makeshift blister kit is a great idea to have on you
- a small compass
- the Bindi headlamp by Petzl is super compact and light
- satellite phone (depending on where you’re going)
- This is a good idea if you’re heading into the backcountry where you might not have cell service
Hygiene and Extras
Some ultralight backpackers will argue that soap is not a necessity. I believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel clean after a long day of hiking, so a small bottle of Wilderness Wash or CampSuds will go a long way. You can use these items as both dish soap and body wash. Additonally, both of these concentrated soaps are biodegradable which means they are suitable to be used in the outdoors.
A BUFF is such a great item to bring because you can wear it around your ears or neck for warmth. Your BUFF can also double as a lightweight face towel and pillow. I usually stuff my clothes in my BUFF and use it as my pillow at night. You’d be surprised how comfortable this is.
Sunscreen & Bug Spray
I like this mineral based sunscreen stick by Baby Bum. The stick is compact, light, and waterproof.
For bug spray, this small Muskol insect repellent does wonders.
Depending on where you are going and what time of year you will be there, it will truly be worth its weight to bring a small bug net for your face. I got caught in a swarm of black flies on the East Coast Trail in June and it was absolutely miserable even with a bug net. You’ll thank yourself later for bringing one.
Toilet paper is an issue of debate on the trail. A lot will argue that you should just use rocks, pinecones, sticks, etc. As a female, I don’t like the idea of using nature’s TP because the thought of infecting sensitive areas for the sake of lightening the weight doesn’t sit well with me.
If you’re going to bring some kind of toilet paper, make sure it’s biodegradable. I like using Dude Wipes. I’ve actually used these wipes on my face as well and they worked great. The wipes leave you feeling clean without feeling greasy. You can buy Dude Wipes individually packaged or in a pack of 48. It can feel a bit wasteful to buy the individually packaged wipes, however, they are super convenient because you can just pack as many as you think you’ll need.
If you need to bring some kind of skincare, I highly suggest jojoba oil because it can be used for a variety of purposes. Jojoba oil works as a great cleansing agent on the skin to remove dirt. Additionally, jojoba oil is an effective moisturizer and after sun skin care treatment.
Therm-a-rest Z Seat
This might seem like a luxury and luxuries are no-nos, but this seat turned into a necessity for me. I was able to sit down comfortably on sharp rocks and take a nap just about anywhere because of this thing. I’ve found that the Z seat has been a staple part of my packing list and I have never once regretted it.
Just because you’re ultra light backpacking, doesn’t mean you’re not going to take photos and videos during your trip.
I swear by the GoPro Hero 7 Black for any kind of basic filming. You can also adjust the photo settings which is great for shooting in manual. The only issue with taking photos on Go Pro is that they will all be wide, which is cool and works for some people.
Consider a mirrorless camera if you’re wanting to capture quality stills of your trip.
If you’re a beginner photographer and want to bring a camera along, I suggest the Sony a6000 Mirrorless Camera. The a6000 is an incredible beginner mirrorless camera, it’s lightweight and you can’t beat the price. Pair it with a peak design backpack clip and you’ll be set!
For more advanced photographers looking for a professional setup, the Sony a7r III is what I used to cross Iceland with. It’s a great companion for backpacking adventures.
I’ve tried Goal Zero chargers and various Amazon brands and I can say with 100% confidence that Anker Chargers are the way to go. These chargers are $50.00 CAD and give you about 7 recharges. The charges weigh approximately 356 g and is so worth the weight it if you are documenting your journey.
Your meals are going to be based on personal preference but try to keep your food under 2 pounds per person per day.
Food packaging can be heavy and take up unnecessary space. Make sure to repackage all store bought items to save space and weight.
Only bring dehydrated meals. Dehydrating your food cuts the weight significantly.
Tips and Tricks
- Save weight by cutting your toothbrush in half and bringing along toothbrush tablets
- Cut off all tags, straps, and extras on your pack to shed weight
- Use ultralight stuff sacks to reduce volume
- Ditch the bags for your tent and sleeping pad, use rubber bands to roll them up.
- Glue velcro to your shoes and gators- your gators won’t slip off this way and they can remain attached to your shoes at all times.
- If the weather is looking rainy, bring two plastic grocery bags to put over your hands to protect them from the rain. It will be much lighter than carrying additional waterproof gloves. You can use them later as garbage bags if need be.
- Fruit and vegetables are heavy to carry, it’s possible to not have to forego them entirely, click here to learn how I get tons of fruits and veggies in on my trips.
- Opt for Starbucks Via instant coffee rather than carrying an aeropress or pour over.
- Repackage, repackage, repackage- anything and everything. You can buy tiny 1/4 oz or 1/2 oz containers on Amazon
- If you need to bring a towel, invest in an ultralight Pack Towl that you can clip onto your bag. Use the smallest size you can get away with.
- Ditch gels, use electrolyte tablets if you need them.
- There’s no need for a tent light when you can use your headlamp in the tent light compartment.
- Bring ear plugs.