The popularity of such movies as Wild and A Walk in the Woods has prompted a similar rise in the popularity of backpacking, more specifically, thru-hiking. The Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) have seen record numbers in the past fiver years and as a result, the discussion among outdoor companies have turned to ultralight equipment and backpackers. Many companies are trying to get their equipment on everyone’s ultralight backpacking gear list.
Though not a new concept, ultralight (UL) backpacking has seen tremendous strides in both the availability of gear and the quality of that gear. Gone are the days when a “light” pack’s base weight is over thirty pounds and so too are the days when most UL equipment lasts only a few months. The equipment has become lighter, more durable, and more useful.
The goal of any lightweight or UL gear is to lower the base weight of the pack, that is the weight of the pack with all your gear without food and water. For UL backpacking, the average base weight is usually under twelve pounds but can very from person to person depending on what they “need” in order to comfortably hike. As the theory goes, the lighter the pack, the more miles in a day you are able to do.
If twelve pounds sounds like a very low weight, there are Super Ultra Lightweight backpackers who are able to pare their base weight to under ten pounds.
Below we’ll discuss some of the items you’ll want to take with you and some of the different options (in terms of style or method) that many use when hiking ultralight.
This item is obvious but is honestly the most important piece of equipment you’ll carry with you on the trail. It’s also one of the items where you can save a surprising amount of weight if you choose the right one. There are a couple different styles available, however there is one style that has essentially become obsolete.
Though some prefer the external frame, most, and we agree, find it too cumbersome, inefficient, and heavy to use when trying to hike ultralight. So unless you only plan on hiking a few miles with very little gear, ditch the external frame and look at lighter options.
The Internal Frame
As the name would suggest, this particular pack has a frame of some sort either sewn into or fit into the body of the pack. Usually made from aluminum, the internal frame has two one pieces of metal, struts, attached secured to the pack wall. The struts are on either side of where the spine sits and. Are meant to keep the pack standing upright when placed on the ground.
The benefit of the frame on the inside of the pack is a much narrower and far less cumbersome pack. It sits square on your back (within the edges of your shoulder blades) and helps concentrate the weight of the pack on your hips rather than your shoulders and back. The pack also helps keep the pack in balance in terms of lateral weight bearing. This helps reduce muscle fatigue and takes a lot of strain off your neck and back. For a review of the top internal frame backpack, check out our article to find out more.
The weight of an internal frame pack varies depending on the size and material of the struts and the materials for the pack itself. In general, many of the packs weigh between two and four pounds, the heavier packs usually made of heavier materials and costing a little less than their two pound counterparts. In general, anything more than four pounds is too heavy to use a UL pack and should be avoided.
The Minimalist Frame
Similar to the internal frame, the minimalist frame also incorporates two struts to help the pack keeps its shape and structure. The struts used for the frame of the pack are completely different, however. The minimalist frame generally uses two hard-plastic rods on the outer edges of the pack body and are generally less sturdy. Than their aluminum counterparts.
The advantage of the minimalist frame is its weight and disincentive to overload your pack with too much gear. The maximum load on most minimalist frames is generally thirty-five and forty pounds, meaning you want your base weight as low as possible so as not to exceed that limit when packing food and water. On average, a minimalist frame will weigh in between two and three pounds and will cost a little bit more than the internal frame packs, however, the material of the pack itself is usually made of high-durability, light weight material.
The number of tents and the number of styles could take up an entire book, from half-dome, to full-dome, to single-wall tents. Instead of going into detail about every single type, we’ll instead concentrate on three larger categories: poleless, free-standing, and hammock. These three types comprise almost ninety percent of the tents available and are the most common.
When talking about UL tents, the average goal weight for most hikers is around two pounds for a single person or what’s called a 1.5 person tent. The 1.5 person tent just means there’s room for one and the manufacturer added a little space for your gear. See our list of the best ultralight tents for more options.
While poleless is a bit of a misnomer, these types of tents have become extremely popular among thru-hikers and UL backpackers as they use trekking poles as the basis of its structure (hence the slight misnomer). They are generally called poleless tents for the simple fact poles are included with the tent by the manufacturer.
Essentially, poleless tents are shaped like a normal tent but instead of the standard, six-foot long poles to help the tent stand, they use the hiker’s trekking poles and stakes. Innovative and efficient, your trekking poles are no longer a single-purpose use of equipment. Developed by thru-hikers, the idea behind the poleless tent is, if you’re going to have trekking poles anyway, you might as well put them to use while you’re not hiking.
If you like a certain style of tent but don’t use trekking poles, fear not. Several tent manufacturers produce their tents with the option of either using trekking poles or standard tent poles. Some companies will even retro fit your poleless tent with channels and poles.
A great option for thru-hikers and UL backpackers alike, many use the lightweight, waterproof Cuben fiber as their base material. More durable and lighter than most Nylon and polyfiber blends, Cuben fiber is extremely expensive but can be worth the const depending on your intended use.
A free-standing tent is modeled after your basic camping and hiking tent and generally only needs the standard tent poles to stand, though many work better with the use of stakes and guy lines. These are generally the most well-known style of tent and usually are the first type of tent people research when looking for a UL tent.
As popular as the design is amongst normal hikers and campers, they are extremely difficult to find in the two pound range. Those that are in the two pound range or under are generally so expensive most hikers opt for the poleless tent or the hammock.
The major advantage free-standing tents have over the other two categories of tents is its ability to be set up virtually anywhere. It doesn’t matter if the ground is too hard or too soft, it doesn’t matter how hard the wind is blowing, you will be able to at least set your tent up with the same structural integrity no matter where you are.
Though created ages ago, the hammock has also started gaining a cult following in the past two or three years as the popularity of thru-hiking has grown. The design is simple and cost effective and you don’t have to sleep on the ground or spend time blowing up an air mattress.
Hammocks are generally lighter overall than tents of any kind and are drastically cheaper. Even with innovations in design and the use of rainflies, hammocks will generally cost you far less than any of the UL tents. It also saves space as you can store your gear underneath you and it will stay as dry as you do.
Though you won’t necessarily need one, a sleeping pad is recommended by most hammock manufacturers in order to keep the airflow beneath you from sapping away your body heat. Check out our top ultralight hammocks to help you with great choices.
The downfall of the hammock is its needs for set up and use. Though you can sometimes improvise with buildings or other random structures, hammocks usually need two trees in order to be used. This can be difficult when you’re in the desert sections of the PCT and the Continental Divide Trails. That being said, you can generally improvise with your rainfly and sleep on the ground if you absolutely had too.
There are two basic types of sleeping bags we’ll be talking about in this section: the mummy bag and the quilt. There are more types of sleeping bags but they are either too heavy, too expensive, or not meant for backpacking. The two we’ll be taking about are both very popular and will keep you warm without weighing you down too much. For great choices of ultralight sleeping bags, see our article to find out more.
In theory, you’d like your sleeping bag to weigh less than your tent, though different people sleep at different temperatures and the weight of your sleeping bag will largely be determined by the temperature rating of the individual bag.
Mummy bags are so called because of the way they curve and form to the contours of your body eliminating fabric and materials thereby saving you weight. Made from either down or synthetic insulation, the shape of the bag is meant to keep you warmer with the attached hood that surrounds your head. The idea is to eliminate heat loss through the part of your body where 40-45% of your body heat is expelled.
With the form-fitting style, the mummy bag will keep you warmer at a lighter weight cost.
The quilt takes the same basic concept as a blanket with a few changes in the shape and materials of the bag itself. The concept of the quilt is to eliminate unnecessary fabric and therefore weight but getting rid of the bottom part of a regular sleeping bag. When using down insulation, heat is generated from airflow and the structural integrity of the individual feathers.
When you sleep on the feathers as in a mummy bag, you are crushing the individual feathers and essentially rendering the heat rendering of the down useless. Quilts eliminate the crushing effect by eliminating the bottom part of the bag and save you a significant amount of weight.
What was once a two pound bag is now an eighteen ounce quilt that keeps you just as warm at about the same price. As long as you have a closed cell mattress beneath you, warmth will not be a problem.
The above gear are what make up what’s known as “The Big 3” and are generally where a majority of your base weight will come from. If you can get the lowest possible weight from those three items, usually you can keep your base weight under twelve pounds.
Below we will discuss the various other important pieces of equipment though not in as much detail due to their options weighing almost the same. The below items generally come down to personal preference and different hikers use different methods, though they are no less important.
If you’re planning to hike at an ultra lightweight or light weight, the most you’ll need (depending on the season) is an insulating base layer and an insulating jacket. A base layer is composed of what was once called long johns, or insulating pants, long-sleeve shirt, and a knit cap. Almost every outdoor clothing company makes some sort of base weight clothing and the materials vary from wool to polypropylene.
Remember when buying your base layer to avoid cotton at all costs.
These are subject to personal preference and are not absolutely necessary to completing a thru-hike nor are they art of every lightweight backpacking gear list . They do however, help take tension and stress off your joints, particularly when the train gains or loses (or both) elevation. As mentioned before, they can also be used for tent poles when you’re done hiking for the day.
There are literally hundreds of different stoves on the market that use several different types of fuel. From propane to white gas to alcohol stoves, you can easily find a lightweight or UL stove for a decent price. Typically, UL backpackers either use alcohol stoves or choose not to use a stove at all.
The two main types of water treatment are pumps and chemical tabs or solutions, both of which are very popular and inexpensive. Some hikers also choose not to take a water treatment source but we don’t recommend this as there are several different types of fatal diseases that can result from consuming untreated water. You can also boil water to purify it though this usually takes longer and is far less efficient.
The two main types of sleeping pads are air mattresses and closed cell foam mattresses. In terms of comfort and weight, the air mattress is the most favored as it keeps you off the ground and is far superior in cushioning your body against the hard ground. That said, the closed cell mattress is much better at insulating your body from the ground as there is not airflow beneath you. In the case of the sleeping pad, it boils down to comfort and which one you prefer.
Pots and Utensils
If you’re going to cook your food or make more than dehydrated meals, you’re going to want a pot of some kind to boil water and cook your food. There are many different styles and types on the market and some of the lightest and most durable ones are made of titanium.
If your stove comes with it’s own cup for cooking remember you generally can only boil water and cooking food is not recommended.
In the latter’s case, you can use plastic bags and your knit cap to warm your food. For utensils, we recommend a titanium spork as it gives you versatility and cuts down on weight.
First Aid Kit
A pretty obvious one, especially if you’re an experienced hiker or outdoor hobbyist but it should definitely be on your gear list anytime you go hiking. You can either make your own lightweight kit or there are pre-packaged UL kits available.
Be sure some sort of soap is included for both washing your hands (the best way to prevent sickness) and any one cuts or lacerations you may get while on the trail. For top picks of the best first aid kit, check our article to find out more.
If you plan on spending any length beyond a weekend out in the woods, you’ll want rain gear. Staying dry is essential to survive and be comfortable so make sure you research the best rain gear on the market. There are several companies that manufacture UL rain gear. To keep you more informed on the top rain gear you can use, check out our tips for reference.
In The End
Beyond the listed items, personal preference and creature comforts will dictate what other types of equipment you bring, though the above should be thought of as the bare minimum you’ll want to take with you. Some choose to bring along notebooks or cameras and there are literally thousands of different products for your electronics and to stay connected with the rest of the world.
Before setting off on any sort of hike, make sure you inform someone where you are going, you have the right permits and passes, and that you’ve tested and used all the gear you’re taking with you. There’s nothing worse than bring a new piece of equipment and having no idea how to use it. For the best ultralight hiking gear, see our article for more!
Have a piece of equipment that wasn’t on the list but you always take with you? Tell us about it in the comments section.