How Ultralight Backpacking Works

By: Amy Hunter
One person exploring Alberta's Rocky Mountains outdoors.
National Park Image Gallery You can't leap when you're carrying a heavy backpack. See more pictures of national parks.
Philip and Karen Smith/Getty Images

You came to the wilderness to lift your spirit, relinquish the tax of long work days, let down the yoke of the smoggy city life. So why does it feel like you're wielding the weight of the world on your back? How can you look up and enjoy the pristine blue sky when you're pretty sure you've got it strapped to your shoulders?

You're not the first backpacker to crumble under this weight in the backcountry. It's the reason ultralight backpacking was invented -- a type of backpacking that aims to lighten that profound pack load. You take as little as possible into the woods without leaving anything at home that could compromise your safety or relative comfort. There's no official standard for how light to go with your pack; its weight will depend on a number of different factors, including your physical condition, the terrain you'll be covering and the weather conditions. But while the traditional backpacker may carry as much as one-third of his or her body weight in the pack, the ultralight backpacker aims for somewhere between one-fifth and one-seventh of that body weight -- quite a difference.


To lighten your load, you'll relentlessly pare down to the minimum. When purchasing new gear, you'll invest in the smallest and the lightest. That gear can be expensive, mind you. So many ultralight backpackers save money by making their own. When you make your own tent, stove and backpack, you have ultimate control over how much it weighs as well as its design. Many Internet sites provide detailed instructions on how to construct camping equipment. And ultralighters often find the challenge of building their own gear as enjoyable as the camping and hiking experience.

Even though you pack light, ultralight backpacking trips may be as long as a traditional backpacking trip -- though the longer you're out, the heavier your pack will be. Even when heading out for a week or longer, it's possible to observe the guidelines of ultralight backpacking to lighten your load considerably.

Be warned, you may begin to display obsessive compulsive behavior in your attempts to reduce your cargo. Find out why on the next few pages.


Why ultralight hiking?

ultralight backpacking
When your pack is too heavy, you're more likely to trip and fall or sprain an ankle when you take on rough terrain.
Guy Crittenden/Getty Images

Ultralight backpacking enthusiasts argue that it's much easier to enjoy the environment with a lighter pack. With less weight on your back, you can look up and enjoy the scenery while you hike, and you'll arrive at camp in the evening more energized. Overall, you'll experience less fatigue, which is good because fatigue is a major factor in many hiking-related injuries. Falling, tripping and twisting an ankle are all more likely to happen when your muscles and your mind are tired. Lighter-weight packs also reduce the stress on your back and legs -- something that can easily lead to injuries.

Another benefit? You'll travel farther each day. Everyone is different, but it's not unusual for backpackers who reduce the weight of their packs by 50 percent to increase the distance they travel by 50 percent. You'll also be able to tackle more rigorous trails. The lighter-weight pack allows you to cruise up and down difficult terrain more easily. If you've got a pack that weighs more than a quarter of your body weight on your back, you won't be "cruising" anywhere.


­Many people get nervous when they think about heading into the backcountry in cold weather with minimal gear. But ultralight proponents maintain that with a lighter pack, you're able to hike faster, and the energy you burn winds up keeping you warm. (Although you'll want to be careful you don't sweat too much. A wet layer of clothing will ultimately reduce your body temperature. Read more about that in "How to Avoid Hypothermia".)­

Now that you're sold on the sport, let's get packing for your lightweight hike.


Getting Started with Lightweight Backpacking

canister stove
Try carrying a small, lightweight canister stove on your next ultralight backpacking excursion.
Michael Jungblut/Getty Images

Ultralight backpacking is a popular activity, and, if you're so inclined, you can easily invest a great deal of money in lightweight equipment -- the kind specifically made for the sport.

Titanium is used for pots, pans and eating utensils, and is much lighter than stainless steel or plastic. Tooth powder, measured precisely so that you only carry enough for your trip, is lighter than the lightest tube of toothpaste. The most expensive sleeping bags also happen to be the lightest weight.


But ultimately, ultralight backpacking is about choices. And each person has his or her own opinion on what's necessary. For example, when you're deciding on how to prepare food, you have several choices of stoves. Liquid fuel stoves are commonly used by backpackers, but canister stoves are smaller and lighter.

Want to go even smaller and lighter? Choose an alcohol stove. It uses denatured alcohol as fuel,  whi­ch you can carry in a lightweight soda bottle. The drawback is that it takes longer to boil water and you have less control over the temperature. If you want to go even lighter than an alcohol stove, fuel tabs are the lightest option of all, but they have a strong odor, can be tricky to light and leave residue on your pot. They also take longer to heat up, and again, you have less control over the temperature.

The same pros and cons must be weighed for each item on your camping list. For example, down sleeping bags are lighter-weight than synthetic bags and compress into a smaller size. But when they get damp, they lose insulating ability and take a long time to dry. Synthetic sleeping bags provide the same amount of warmth and are heavier. But if they get wet, they dry much quicker. Synthetic bags also are generally more affordable.

You easily can spend your next two months paychecks on ultralight backpacking gear, but that's not a prerequisite for the ultralight experience. You can dramatically reduce the weight of your gear without buying a single new piece of equipment. How?


Packing Your Ultralight Backpacking Gear

ultralight backpacking
A hiker stops for a break under a tarp on the Pacific Crest Trail. A tarp is a lightweight shelter option.
Corey Rich/Getty Images

Ready to give ultralight backpacking a try? The biggest challenge for any ultralight backpacker is that first paring down of the load. A dedicated ultralight backpacker will spend the rest of his or her hiking career adjusting and analyzing equipment to make sure it's as light as possible.

The first time you try to lighten your load, start with the big three -- the three items that have the greatest impact on the weight you carry -- your tent, sleeping bag and backpack. While there are many different types of lightweight tents available, the lightest tent is also the least expensive: a tarp. Made of silicone and nylon, it's cheap and weighs less than one pound (0.45 kg). Add to that some thin cord -- you won't need more than 30 feet (9 meters) -- and six to eight aluminum stakes, and you have a comfortable shelter. If the tarp doesn't have grommets, you'll want to add these before your trip. This provides a spot for your stake and protects the tarp from ripping. Grommets make erecting the tent easier and increase the lifespan of the tarp.


The open design of a tarp tent means you'll enjoy excellent ventilation. Many expensive tents are so airtight that condensation forms on the inside of the tent, causing it to "rain" on you overnight. If bugs are a problem where you're camping, toss some mosquito netting into your pack as well. It weighs only a few ounces and will greatly increase your comfort level. If you aren't quite ready to use a tarp tent, a good weight for a three-season tent is between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds (1.1 and 1.5 kg). (Read "How to Build Shelter" to learn how to build a shelter out of a poncho.)

If you have a lightweight sleeping bag, that's great, but if not, you may want to explore another option. The lighter a sleeping bag, the more expensive it is. To save money, consider packing a quilt. The quilt is just as warm and is lighter than a traditional sleeping bag, and can be compressed into a relatively small area in your pack. It also will easily cut the weight of your sleeping system in half. If you decide to purchase a lightweight sleeping bag, aim for a weight of less than 1.5 pounds (0.6 kg).

A traditional backpack is made of heavyweight material and has a sturdy frame. If you want to carry one-third of your weight like many backpackers do, you need a sturdy backpack. But if you're not carrying as much weight, the backpack can be made from a lighter material. You'll need to experiment to find the design that's easiest for you to carry, but a frameless backpack or one made of a lightweight cloth may meet your needs. Your empty pack should weigh less than a pound (0.4 kg).

Now that you've replaced your backpack, tent and sleeping bag, you're probably traveling light. But you're not finished yet. Everything you carry should have a purpose -- ideally more than one purpose. Aside from emergency equipment, such as a first aid kit and fire starter, you should think hard about taking anything with you that you won't use every day, at least one time.

As we mentioned previously, a lightweight cooking stove weighs less than the ax or saw you'd have to cart along to build a fire. A lightweight ax weighs 2 pounds (0.9 kg), and a lightweight folding saw weighs nearly 1 pound (0.4 kg). If you have a liquid fuel stove, you may want to continue to carry that until you're sure ultralight backpacking is a permanent hobby. But at nearly a pound, you might eventually want to replace it with a canister stove (0.5 pound, or 0.2 kg), an alcohol stove (1 ounce, or 28 grams) or fuel tabs (less than half an ounce, or 14 grams, for a package of tablets). You can burn them on a small piece of metal or a soft drink can.

So, now that you know how you're going to cook, what are you going to eat?


Ultralight Backpacking Food: What's for dinner?

ultralight backpacking
When you meet a water source, you should drink every drop of the water you've got and refill.
Guy Crittenden/Getty Images

When people talk about their ultralight backpacks weighing less than 10 pounds (4.5 kg), they're referring to the weight of their packs without food or water. These items, of course, have a huge affect on the weight of the pack, though the weight will vary based on the person's needs and on the hiking conditions. Larger people, youngsters and teens all require more food. And the colder the weather, the more calories you need to keep warm. On average, you should plan on carrying about 2 pounds (0.9 kg) of food for each day that you're out.

What food to carry is a big decision. Some people choose to carry granola bars and drink mixes that can be added to water, and do very little cooking on the trail. While these foods are dense with nutrition and calories, they may not leave you feeling satisfied. Many backpackers find that one hot meal a day dramatically improves mood, energy level and ability to sleep.


There are a variety of freeze dried foods made specifically for camping that can be cooked quickly in boiling water. Other lightweight foods that make a hot meal include ramen noodles, packaged noodles and potatoes, and instant soups. Pair these with a bagel or other hearty bread, and you have a satisfying meal.

For many ultralight backpackers, oatmeal for breakfast and a hot meal in the evening make up the bulk of their daily calories. Quick breaks during the day to refuel with granola bars, dried fruit or nuts round out their meals.

Water is the most important -- and the heaviest -- part of the pack. How much water you should carry depends on how much water is available where you're hiking. In the desert, you'll want to take more water than you think you'll need. But if you're hiking near mountain streams, you can get by with carrying very little extra water. Regardless of how much water you choose to carry, you should carry two separate containers. What size the containers should be depends on how often you'll reach water during the day, but generally each container should be at least 24 ounces. When you reach fresh water, drink all of the water you have with you and refill both containers. Continue to hike as your water filtration system works. When the water is ready, stop and drink again. Always drink all of the filtered water that you have left when you reach your next stop. This method should keep you well hydrated throughout your hike.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "Hiker Completes First Round Trip of Pacific Coast Trail." Outside. Nov. 18, 2004. (Sept. 24, 2008)
  • Collier, Christopher Percy. "The Specialist: Plan Away Pounds." Backpacker Magazine. May 2008. (September 22, 2008)
  • Jordan, Ryan. Lightweight Backpacking and Camping. 2005.
  • Jordan, Ryan. "Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials." Backpacking Light. July 15, 2008. (Sept. 30, 2008)
  • Kestenbaum, Ryel. The Ultralight Backpacker: The Complete Guide to Simplicity and Comfort on the Trail. 2001.
  • Simon, Alison and Dixon, Alan. "Lightweight Backpacking for Couples." Backpacking Light. Sept. 3, 2003. (Sept. 30, 2008).
  • Wellman, Carol. Trailquest Ultralight Backpacking Page. (Sept. 30, 2008)