Getting Into Ultralight Backpacking? Six Questions to Ask Yourself

Ultra­light back­pack­ing is gain­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty and the avail­abil­i­ty of spe­cial­ty gear makes it eas­i­er than ever to com­mit to light­weight liv­ing. But, tak­ing the steps to light­en your pack requires more than just fan­cy gear. Con­sid­er these six ques­tions before jump­ing on the bandwagon.

ultralight camping tent in the woods

What’s Your Com­fort Level?
Ultra­light back­pack­ing and com­fort are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. How­ev­er, the more crea­ture com­forts you desire, the hard­er it will be to light­en your load. If you’re not will­ing to ditch your gigan­tic pil­low, or cook with­out your cast-iron pan, or leave your hard­cov­er copy of War and Peace at home, light­weight back­pack­ing may not be your cup of tea. On the oth­er hand, if you’re ready to swap your leather boots for some trail run­ners or replace your tent with a tarp, you may be ready to go.

Can You Say “No?”
You have to be able to cut things, some­times lit­er­al­ly, to keep the weight off of your back. Seri­ous light­weight hik­ers trim the ends of their tooth­brush­es and dili­gent­ly cut tags out of their clothes. Are you ready to take a pair of scis­sors to the straps on your brand new pack? Can you think about going stove­less with­out start­ing to sweat with fear of fac­ing cold ramen? If you’re not the kind of per­son who can make tough deci­sions, this may not be the right option for you.

Do You Like Planning?
As with any ven­ture, com­mit­ting to a new approach requires fore­thought. When your goal grows from com­plet­ing a mul­ti-day hike to com­plet­ing a mul­ti-day hike with a lighter pack, the amount of plan­ning also increas­es. This is espe­cial­ly true if your hike is long enough to neces­si­tate re-sup­plies. There are a num­ber of choic­es and sit­u­a­tions to con­sid­er. One step pop­u­lar among long dis­tance hik­ers is the process of de-hydrat­ing meals. It elim­i­nates crit­i­cal weight by low­er­ing the food’s water content.

Oth­ers decide that the qual­i­ty of food is less impor­tant than the num­ber of calo­ries. They can be seen dart­ing through the gro­cery store, pick­ing up can­dy bars and pack­ets of ramen. It’s not that either of these options demands exces­sive plan­ning, it’s the address­ing these ques­tions of where weight can be cut that takes more time.

Are You Will­ing to Spend Some Money?
Light­weight hik­ing is not intrin­si­cal­ly expen­sive, but there are some lim­i­ta­tions to less­en­ing pack weight if all of your gear is tra­di­tion­al. Back­packs are a good exam­ple. Stan­dard packs (~60L) weigh around 4.5 pounds, where an ultra­light pack of the same vol­ume weighs 1.5 pounds. Los­ing 3 pounds of pack weight by cut­ting gear is hard­er than buy­ing a pack designed for light­weight use. Luck­i­ly, the cost does­n’t have to break the bank.

Com­pa­nies GoLite sell ultra­light packs that cost less than tra­di­tion­al packs. Sleep­ing bags, on the oth­er hand, are an expen­sive item that gen­er­al­ly sheds weight as it gains cost, espe­cial­ly if you make the switch from syn­thet­ic to down. Again, these aren’t nec­es­sary pur­chas­es but they’re some of the low­est hang­ing fruit when cut­ting down on weight. Plus, who does­n’t love an excuse to buy new gear?

Does Back­pack­ing Scare You?
We’ve all seen pho­tos of hik­ers strug­gling under a load of a gigan­tic pack; some of us have even car­ried these over-sized loads. Noth­ing shat­ters the roman­tic image of trav­el­ing in the moun­tains faster than a painful­ly large pack. If you’ve shunned the idea of back­pack­ing sim­ply in fear of back­packs, per­haps light­weight would be a good option for you. Imag­ine saun­ter­ing down the trail with a mere 15 pounds on your back. With light­weight back­pack­ing, this could be your reality.

What Are You Wait­ing For?
If you still think light­weight back­pack­ing is the right option for you, there are innu­mer­able resources that will help you make the tran­si­tion. Check out online forums like Back­pack­ing­light, or go to your library and search for “Ultra­light Back­packin’ Tips.” In addi­tion to find­ing a com­mu­ni­ty of like-mind­ed hik­ers, you’ll get use­ful tips on how to build your own gear, where to buy inex­pen­sive tarps, and how to puri­fy water with­out car­ry­ing a filter.