Ultralight backpacking is a concept that has captured the attention of travellers all around the world. Who wouldn’t want to go backpacking without the need to carry what feels like a baby elephant on their back? Our ultralight backpacking tips have been put together to help you learn how to be efficient and effective when it comes to packing smarter and lighter.
But, before you can really read and thoroughly understand the nature of our backpacking tips and tricks, you need to understand the basics of ultralight backpacking.
Ultralight Backpacking: The Basics
Ultralight, or lightweight backpacking, is something that no one can truly define. This is because the way that two different people perceive to be lightweight could be completely different, depending on their own experiences and opinion.
On a whole, it involves relying on having less equipment and gear with you without that then having a knock-on effect on important factors, like your own safety and well-being, as well as how comfortable you are whilst backpacking. If you are new to the idea of ultralight backpacking, then you might be wondering where to start.
People often say the best way to learn something new is through trial and error, but this is one of those areas that you should spend a little bit of time investigating before you dive straight in. When it comes to all of your gear and equipment, it can actually be quite difficult to tell what is and what is not essential.
The Bare Necessities
The first thing that you need to consider when you come to look at ultralight backpacking is what is essential and what can be left behind. A lot of people make mistakes the first time they try to cut down on the amount of things that they take backpacking with them. There are eight simple questions that you help you decide whether or not you have the bare necessities with you:
Can you navigate your way around your environment?
Knowing how to navigate your way around the environment that surrounds you is really important while backpacking. You must have a map and a compass with you at all times, as they will be the pieces of equipment that can get you out of some really sticky situations. Do read our popular article review of the top hiking compass for your reference
It helps if you know how to read the map and use the compass too! If you are in a mountainous region, then you might also want to consider whether or not taking an altimeter would be worthwhile.
Do you have something to eat with you?
You should always have at least enough food for an entire extra day with you when you go backpacking into the wilderness. Ultralight backpackers tend to stick to no-cook items so that they do not have to worry about taking heavy cooking utensils and stoves. Make sure that you have a good handful of extra energy bars with you! Do check out our must-read piece on freezer bag cooking to give you more convenience on the go.
Do you have access to a source of water or something to drink with you?
Most guidelines advise that you have got at least one collapsible water reservoir and one refillable bottle with you at all times while you are backpacking.
If you do have access to a natural water source, then you might also want to consider taking either a means of filtering the water or a chemical treatment.
Do you have a first-aid kit?
Even the most adventurous ultralight backpackers have to take first-aid kits with them on all of their trips. A good first aid kit should include something for managing blisters, bandages, gauze, tape, disinfectant and pain medication. Things like a pen and paper can also be really useful in turbulent situations.
How will you keep yourself warm?
If you are used to adventuring out in the backcountry, then you will probably know that the weather can change in a matter of hours. What starts off as a beautiful day can turn out to be anything but a beautiful day. An additional layer of clothes can be enough to stop the cold from ruining your trip.
How will you see in the dark?
Most ultralight backpackers take headlamps with them when they head out in the dark. If you don’t like wearing a headlamp, then you could consider taking a torch. Remember that every single person needs to have their own light source. Don’t forget to take spare batteries with you. For more information on how to choose the best LED headlights, check out our article on this topic.
How will you protect yourself from the sun?
Protecting yourself from the harsh rays of the sun is really, really important. We would advise that people always carry a pair of sunglasses with them. You should also use a sunscreen that features a high SPF+ rating. See our review of the top waterproof sunscreen you can use for your protection.
You also need to take your sunglasses with you when you are adventuring in colder climates because light reflecting off of the snow can be blinding.
What tools and equipment do you need to stay comfortable and safe?
The tools and equipment that you need to stay comfortable depend entirely on the sort of adventure that you are planning on going on. We would advise that you always have some kind of emergency shelter with you, be it in the form of a tent or a tarp.
You should also have matches, a repair kit and tools and knives. These can come in really useful in emergency situations.
The rest of what you decide to take on your adventure is entirely dependent on the style of adventure that you are planning on going on. Research the area and try to work out what you think you will need while you are out there and what could be expendable.
Ultralight Backpacking Tips
Learning how to pack light can initially be a rather troubling experience as it requires you to have a lot of time and patience. You will make mistakes at first, but those mistakes will help you jump over new hurdles time and time again.
Eventually, you will know how to identify the unnecessary weight in your backpack and leave it behind, but for now, you can use our tips and tricks to help you get started.
Leave your stove and the majority of your utensils at home
Most backpackers carry their stove and all of their food around with them, but the weight of these different items can quickly add up. A stove is one of the easiest things that you can leave behind. Rather than taking it, you should carry a number of reconstituted meals and extra energy bars, as well as any packaged food that you enjoy.
If you cannot cope without hot food, then you could benefit from using an ultralight alcohol fuelled stove.
Drink as much water as you can while you are near a natural water source or a source of running water
The water that you drink is actually one of the heaviest items that you will have to carry around with you. A lot of ultralight backpackers try to get rid of this weight by drinking as much water as they can when there is an opportunity to do so, they then only take the exact amount of water that they need with them to get them to the next source of water.
Try to avoid taking electronic devices out into the wilderness with you
Do you really need your iPhone and your MacBook, or will they just distract you from the beauty that can be found around you? Lightweight backpacking involves leaving behind anything that isn’t necessary, and these items could be considered to be unnecessary.
If you are a little bit worried about your own safety and what to do in an emergency, then you should tell someone when you are going to be back from your trip.
Try to stick to one outfit with no duplicated items
When you come to consider what all of the clothing that you would usually take backpacking with you weighs, you will realize that it probably is not a good idea to have it all in your backpack at once. You should minimize the amount of clothing that you take.
All you really need is a top layer, a bottom layer, a rain layer, a light down jacket and something for sleeping in. The only item that warrants carrying two pairs is socks, with one pair for hiking in and the other pair for resting/sleeping in.
Leave your heavy hiking boots at home
Anyone who has ever been hiking wearing hiking boots will know just how heavy they can begin to feel after a little while. You should stick to wearing trail-runners if you are trying to go ultralight.
These are much lighter and they come with a few additional benefits, including a smaller risk of blisters and the safety involved in being able to feel the bumps of the terrain underneath your feet.
Buy some scales and weigh all of your current equipment
Knowing the weight of all of the items that you already own can really help you decide where you can make changes. If you are considering going on numerous ultralight adventures, then you might want to consider upgrading your current equipment.
This would enable you to make sure that your equipment is the lightest that it can be. Unfortunately, light gear is desirable and it comes with a price tag that matches so you might want to consider spreading the cost out over time.
Try to make sure that you are as picky as you possibly can be when you pack
Being picky is really the key to ultralight backpacking. You need to ruthlessly remove as many items and pieces of equipment from your general checklist as possible, while also choosing which items should be in your new ‘ultralight’ backpack. This can be really difficult to start with, but as time passes you will start to get much better at it.
If you tend to hike with a trekking pole, then you should look closely at the material that it is made out of
Carbon fibre trekking poles are the best for ultralight backpackers because they are much lighter than the other alternatives that can be found.
It is worth noting that trekking poles are really important, especially when it comes to working your way through difficult terrain and alleviating knee strain while going either up or downhill.
Make sure that you do not lose any of the excess weight in your pack by sacrificing your own hunger, thirst or comfort
No ultralight backpacker should ever be sat out in the rain with no gear present to enable them to escape the situation. Reducing the weight inside of your pack is important when it comes to ultralight backpacking, but you can do this without having an effect on these vital factors. You really do need to customize your pack to meet your own needs and requirements.
Consider whether or not it is worth down-sizing your current backpack
If you are planning on travelling on an ultralight basis for a while, then you should probably invest in a smaller backpack than a standard extended trip pack.
If you do have a large backpack, then you will more than likely be tempted to fill it right up with gear and equipment that you probably won’t need. Buying a smaller pack will force you to scrutinize everything that goes into it.
Take the right sleeping bag
Make sure that the sleeping bag that you are carrying is suitable for the temperatures that you are going to be exposed to. There is no point taking a heavily insulated sleeping bag if the nights are still going to be relatively warm. If you do decide to carry a heavily insulated sleeping bag, then you will be carrying more weight than you need to.
Use your group to your advantage
If you are going backpacking with a group of people, then you might want to consider splitting the load between you all.
This way, you will still have all of the essential things that you need, but no single person will have to suffer and carry it all. This can help make sure that everyone keeps the weight of their own pack as low as possible. It also helps you work out whether or not there are any unnecessary duplicate items.
Make your own first aid kit
Unfortunately, the pre-packaged first aid kits that you can buy in most shops usually come with a number of different items inside of them that you would never actually need on the trail. Consult our ‘The Bear Necessities’ section to work out exactly what you should pack in your own first aid kit.
You also need to consider whether or not you are heading into a location that will require any specific additional items. For example, you could carry bear spray if you know that there are resident bears around.
Make a list before you start to pack
Making a list can really help you to see the difference between the things that you need to take with you, and the things that you want to take with you. There is a big difference between those two sections, but the lines between the two can often become a little bit blurred.
Your list should include every single item that you plan on carrying, from your sleeping bag to your socks.
Go and have your own ultralight adventure!
Ultralight backpacking is something that is only ever difficult when you first get started. The more you attempt to do it, the easier it will become. You simply have to learn exactly what you need with you while you are out on the trail.
Trial and error is usually the best way of spotting these items. Even if you do need a specific item with you, you should consider whether or not there is a lighter version that you could take, like travel-sized toiletries!
Be aware, once you start ultralight backpacking your standard pack will begin to feel like an elephant. Have you ever been on your own ultralight adventure? Do you have any tips or tricks that you would like to share? We would love to hear your stories in the comments below!