In 2011, popular US backpacking magazine Backpacker published a 12-step guide to ultralight backpacking. At the time, this was quite astonishing for a magazine that until this point had taken a very traditional approach to backpacking. Being an avid ultralighter, I was excited to see the methodology being referenced by the mainstream, and looked forward to reading their recommendations.
I was naturally interested in what Backpacker's idea of ultralight was. It often seems that the magazine is crippled by corporate sponsorship as the gear suggestions nearly always come from the big names: Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, REI, the North Face, Arcteryx. Not that there's anything wrong with that: those companies make some great gear (albeit at the cost of brand-inflated prices – I'm looking at you, Arcteryx!). How, I wondered, would they fare at making an ultralight packing list under obvious sponsorship from such brands, when the majority of ultralight equipment was emerging from the cottage industries? Could they possibly ignore the small independent manufacturers that had at that point pretty much defined and established the niche ultralight market?
Sadly, upon reading the article, I found that they had indeed stuck with the big guns for most of their recommendations. Furthermore, their recommendations seemed to be quite wide off the ultralight mark, and occasionally come from so-called "experts", none of whom carried any weight at any of the ultralight parties I usually hang out at.
I decided, then and there, that this imbalance needed to be addressed, and set off to write a series of posts that examined their recommendations, found some real ultralight alternatives, and drew on the wisdom of the truly experienced: writers and bloggers who live and breath ultralight on a daily basis.
The series helps people reduce their pack weights down to what would be considered an ultralight level (more on that below), and is intended for a typical, three-season trip over, for example, a long weekend. Rather than fixate on the latest gear, the series recommends gear which has seen fairly wide adoption among ultralight hikers, writers, and bloggers: gear that has been proven capable of being up to the job by people who actually use it.
I originally wrote this series between 2011–2013. Naturally, the backpacking market is constantly changing and new techniques and technologies are adopted. Much has changed in recent years; even the big companies now offer enticing lines of surprisingly light gear. One of the advantages of having this series in web form is updatability, and whenever possible I edit rewrite the guide, one article at a time, adding updated information about new equipment and reflect recent developments in skills and knowledge.
The articles here are updated versions of the original blog posts (which are still available if you're curious), and the latest updates have been written in winter 21017.
So without further ado, let's take a look at what ultralight backpacking is all about.
In its original article, Backpacker stated:
Load up your pack for a summer weekend trip. If it weighs more than 15lbs (7kg), you have a problem.
It's perhaps a little harsh to say "you have a problem". Of course, people have been backpacking with heavy loads for decades. What ultralight backpacking considers heavy, most people consider normal – and the weight of a pack is, to a large degree, what puts many people off backpacking.
I think it's fair to say that most "traditional" backpacking involves carrying a pack in excess of 14kg/30lb (including food & water). For many people, the weights are a lot more. I often meet people carrying over 20kg, even for relatively short trips over, say, a long weekend. And I've run into (or usually, past) people carrying 30kg/66lb, which if frankly astonishing. When I tell them my pack, for a similar period, weighs around 9kg, I typically have to help them pick their jaw up off the ground. (It's much easier if I help them as my pack weighs less. I'm considerate like that.)
There is a set of broad categories that define types of backpacking according to weight carried. Backpacker's limit of 7kg/15lb (assuming it includes food) is actually fairly light:
> 20lb / 10kg = Heavyweight
12-20lb / 5-10kg = Lightweight
6-11lb / 3-5kg = Ultralight (UL)
< 6lb / 3kg = Super Ultralight (SUL)
But beyond the figures, what does this all mean? In my opinion, not much. It doesn't really matter which category you fall into. Lightweight, ultralight, or SUL... they're just definitions. Go as far or as light as you want or feel comfortable with.
So why go ultralight then?
The purpose of ultralight, in my opinion, is simply to lighten your load. For me, the whole point of "going ultralight" is to reduce the stress on your back caused by carrying extremely heavy weights over difficult terrain for long distances. It's a healthier option for your body, and will allow you hike further, in more comfort. It may well enable you to hike more regularly, and for many more years.
This, for me, is what it's all about. It's not a numbers game: the weights are there simply to give you an indication of where you are now, and what is possible.
Perhaps the question is better put as why wouldn't you go lighter? Why would anyone want to haul a ton around on their back? Being in the wild shouldn't be an endurance test. I'd like to see a shift in people's mentality from boasting about how heavy their packs are, to how light they are. Backpacking shouldn't be about suffering – it should be about enjoying. With a light pack, you'll find you don't even notice the weight on your back, and consequently you are able to give your full attention to the wonders that surround you. It's quite a transformation.
Now, just because it's possible to whittle your pack weight down to below 5kg/10lb, doesn't mean you have to. If you can reduce the weight of some of the items in your pack – specifically the heaviest – you'll have already shaved pounds off your back. There is no need to feel you have to do this all at once. By careful planning, it's possible to reduce your pack weight one item at a time. You can still make use of your existing gear, but replace elements of it one-by-one until before you know it, you'll be carrying a seriously light pack compared to what might be considered "normal".
What is normal?
Normal is what everyone else is, and UL'ers are not.
- Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek Generations
OK, he didn't really say that, but he could have if the film was about ultralight backpacking(!).
My point here (trust me, there is one) comes from recent discussions about the value of ultralight backpacking as a term. Had you wandered inadvertently into one of these discussions you might have been forgiven for assuming ultralight was created for elitist egomaniacs obsessed with going into the wilderness unprepared, or "stupid light". Oddly, however, the people making the arguments against the concept of "ultralightism" had, almost without exception, already been through the process of radically reducing their pack weights. Many of them were "ambassadors" for ultralight gear manufacturers. The idea of such people criticising ultralight backpacking from the comfort of their cuben fiber shelters over a steaming Esbit stove tickles me to this day.
It's very easy to forget, once you have made a transition to lightweight gear and techniques, what it felt like before you started packing light. We tend to normalise the new. Yes, it's all just backpacking – as one conclusion put it – but it's very easy to say that when you're not lugging 30kg around the wilderness.
I think that weight definitions serve a purpose. Certainly for some people (myself included, perhaps), at some point new ideas become an obsession. Sometimes, we need to take things to an extreme in order to find out what works and doesn't work for us as individuals. We do this to locate our personal comfort zone. I think this is a part of human nature. Going ultralight doesn't require an all or nothing approach. In fact, I would argue that you shouldn't go the whole hog all at once; not only will it prove expensive, but you'd be relying on untested gear, and a lack of grounded experience in how new tools and equipment function in the field.
To get down to the extreme light weights of SUL (Super Ultralight) and UL (ultralight), requires accepting certain amount of sacrifice in gear durability and comfort which you might not be ready to leap straight into. As we'll see in the rest of the guide, any attempt to lighten up requires a willingness to reconsider one's needs when backpacking. It necessitates cutting out luxury items (those which are rarely, if ever, used), and modifying techniques and the expectations you have of your gear. You have to re-learn techniques and skills, and in some cases adopt practices that at first might seem counter intuitive.
What it doesn't mean is putting yourself through an endurance test. There's no reason to take unnecessary risks, and travelling light doesn't mean you can't enjoy a little luxury, and indulge in something that gives you pleasure. One of the plus sides to lightening your load is slipping in platypus full of whisky, or a Tenkara fishing rod, is that much easier.
OK. So how do I go ultralight?
The first thing you need to do is address the core mass of heavy loads. These are often referred to as the "big three" – your sleeping gear, your shelter, and the backpack. This has been covered in far more detail by others, so let's turn to them and see what they have to say on the matter.
There are a ton of websites and books covering ultralight backpacking, each with its own variation on a theme regarding the right approach. One of the clearest and most succinct methods describing the fundamentals of ultralight was by Jörgen Johansson at Fjäderlätt.
He coined the principle of 3 for 3 (or 343) that neatly simplifies the idea of reducing the weight of your "big three." Put simply, if you can get the total weight of your sleeping system, your shelter, and your pack down to 3kg (6.5lb) or less, you will be well on your way to ultralight nirvana.
3 items, under 3 kg. (Or, for the imperialists, 3 for 6.6138679 lbs – you can see why we favour the metric system in the rest of the world!)
Can it really be that simple? Let's take a closer look.
Some sleeping bags alone weigh more than 2kg/4lb – The materials used in cheap and cheerful sleeping bags easily add up to a lot of weight. Tags, labels, zips, hoods, and other bizarre additions add even more. Before you know it, you're hauling around some kind of enourmous puffy zeppelin, about the same size, shape, and weight as one of these.
Many traditional backpackers rely on the venerable tent for shelter, and there's nothing wrong with that. But add up the weight of those heavy materials, and the numerous poles used to create the elaborate sculpted works of art that constitute the tents of today. Throw in the spacious vestibule, and the additional footprint/groundsheet (to protect those heavy materials), and soon you're looking at three or four kilos.
Then take a look at a traditional backpack. Heavy-duty materials will protect your gear from abrasion. A tough aluminium frame keeps everything in place. Throw in a floating suspension system, 24 pockets, a built in rain cover, and a bunch of plastic things that don't really seem to have a purpose – and you have a backpack weighing 2.5kg/5.5lbs before you've even put your sleeping bag in the special compartment at the bottom.
It all adds up:
Tent: 4kg / 8.8lbs
Sleeping Bag: 2kg / 4lbs
Backpack: 2.5kg / 5.5 lbs
Total weight: 8.5kg / 18.3lbs
And you haven't even packed your food and bottle of Merlot yet! Let alone your Trangia stove and fuel. And your clothes. And all the gadgets. And the camp shoes.
What if your sleeping system were to weigh 850g? Your shelter 700g? Your pack 450g? The total for your big three would be 2kg (4.5lb). A saving of 6.5kg (14lb).
For a warm climate weekender, this (2kg / 4.5 lbs) is my typical 343 weight – and believe me, I am by no means a hardcore ultralighter. If I can do it, you can too.
Ultralight backpacking is simply about cutting back to the basics, refining your equipment, and asking what you really need – and that is what the rest of the series looks at in more detail.
Links and resources (general info on lightening your load):
Backpacking Light – Probably the best online community resource for reviews, information, and tips. Membership required for most content, although forums are free with registration)
Ryan Jordan - Do a ultralight course! Like the site says "Explore your wild side (without having to drink your pee.)"
Plus many, many, many blogs.
UK - Ultralight Outdoor Gear
USA - Prolite Gear
Manufacturers of ultralight gear – where often the best equipment is to be found – are linked in each separate article.
USA: Backpacking Light Gear Swap
Backpacker Magazine – I honestly don't recommend the website; it has one of the most godawful navigation systems ever devised. Content is hidden on pages which have no links apart from those printed in the magazine. I challenge you to find information on the current issue, for example – something you would expect a website for a magazine would offer. The magazine is okay, but tends to repeat itself each year.
The Great Outdoors – The UK equivalent, with the bonus of having some respected writers like Chris Townsend on board. Tends to be a bit more on the ball than Backpacker, but with the downside of a rather short-sighted UK focus.
Smarter Backpacking by Jörgen Johansson
Lighten Up!: A Complete Handbook for Light and Ultralight Backpacking by Don Ladigin and Mike clelland
Ultralight Backpackin' Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping by Mike Clelland
Trail Life: Ray Jardine's Lightweight Backpacking