Six Tips for Ultralight Backpacking


The thrill of ultra­light back­pack­ing stems from the fact that it’s chal­leng­ing. The expe­ri­ence of tran­si­tion­ing from a 50lb pack to a 20lb pack for the first time, while lib­er­at­ing, can also be very intim­i­dat­ing. You’ll be car­ry­ing less cloth­ing, less sun­screen, and less shel­ter. Basi­cal­ly, you’ll be car­ry­ing less of every­thing that isn’t cru­cial for safety—and leav­ing some items behind entirely.

It’s impor­tant to approach ultra­light back­pack­ing with a sense of deter­mi­na­tion and dili­gence. The goal here is to find the bal­ance between safe­ty and speed; to move as quick­ly through the wilder­ness as pos­si­ble while being mind­ful of the fact that you have removed your­self even fur­ther from civ­i­liza­tion than the aver­age trekker.

Be Ruth­less­ly Picky
Your ultra­light pack is like a foot­ball or base­ball team with a lim­it­ed num­ber of spots on the ros­ter. Just as a coach has to be ruth­less when choos­ing which play­ers to cut, you’ll need to be just as ruth­less when choos­ing which items to pack and which items to leave behind.

This can be tough at first. Sea­soned back­pack­ers will have to part with some of the few com­forts of this already min­i­mal­ist sport. But if you’re look­ing to keep weight down and real­ly cov­er some ground, your favorite book to read by head­lamp before bed will have to stay on its shelf back home.

Pack Mul­ti-Pur­pose Gear
The beau­ty of some pieces of gear is that it can “kill two birds with one stone” by serv­ing mul­ti­ple pur­pos­es. Take advan­tage of this by choos­ing pieces of gear that serve two or more use­ful pur­pos­es over those that serve only one, or worse, no use­ful pur­pose. Util­i­ty knives, mul­ti­tools, and Swiss Army Knives are prob­a­bly the most obvi­ous exam­ple of the type of mul­ti-pur­pose gear. But there are many less intu­itive uses for com­mon pieces of gear. Con­sid­er using a sleep­ing bag as a makeshift stretch­er, stuff sacks as pil­low cov­ers, or duct tape to make a pair of emer­gency sunglasses.

Prac­tice Por­tion Control
This tip applies to every­thing from choos­ing the right sized pack and pack­ing the right amount of clothes, to being sure not to pack too much sun­screen, bug spray, or even food. This is a source of appre­hen­sion for those of us who live by the phi­los­o­phy that there’s no such thing as too much sun­screen. When it comes to ultra­light back­pack­ing, how­ev­er, there can be too much of a good thing. And when your goal is to con­sis­tent­ly trav­el 20 or more miles a day, the half of a bot­tle of Banana Boat you’re not going use is dead weight.

Watch Your Water Weightwater
Water, more than any­thing else, is the most impor­tant thing to con­sid­er any time you plan on head­ing out into the wilder­ness. But water is also very heavy. Be sure to car­ry only as much as you need. Odds are if you’re will­ing to put in the work and plan­ning required for a suc­cess­ful ultra­light trip, you’ll be will­ing to do just a lit­tle more if it means keep­ing your pack light. This addi­tion­al plan­ning includes famil­iar­iz­ing your­self with the area where you will be back­pack­ing and strate­gi­cal­ly plan­ning the trip around what­ev­er water sources are avail­able. Only pack enough water to make it to the next water­ing hole, and once there, be sure to rehy­drate as much as pos­si­ble before mov­ing on.

Share & Share Alike
Some items, such as cook­ware and tents, can serve the same pur­pose for mul­ti­ple peo­ple. And just as it doesn’t real­ly make sense to car­ry items that have no real pur­pose, it doesn’t real­ly make sense to bring two stoves on a two-per­son back­pack­ing trip. If you do plan on shar­ing weight with your back­pack­ing com­pan­ions, it’s impor­tant to spread that weight out as even­ly as pos­si­ble. It’s the con­sid­er­ate thing to do.

Shape Up
Even the light­est gear won’t com­pen­sate for you being out of shape. You don’t need the physique of a Navy SEAL in order to be suc­cess­ful as an ultra­light back­pack­er, but exces­sive weight and lack of exer­cise can make a 20lb pack feel like a bag full of bricks after just a few miles.

by Adam Johnston