Beginners Guide to Ultralight Backpacking

Last Updated: January 2021

Ultralight backpacking has become increasingly popular, especially with thru-hikers on long trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.

Most ultralight backpacking fans want to cut down on pack weight for long treks. They do so by investing in lightweight gear or minimizing their packing list.

An every ounce counts mindset is important as you move to ultralight backpacking.

Knowing what gear to bring, what food to eat, and how to plan for an ultralight trip will look different than what you may have been doing.

So, taking time to adjust and modify your equipment and packing systems will be an important part of your journey.

How to Choose the Right Gear for Ultralight Backpacking

The key to choosing ultralight gear is to become a minimalist. Get to know your gear and your hiking habits to make sure you are only bringing the essentials.

Start With What You Have

If you are a beginner ultralight backpacker, that means you have some backpacking experience and gear already.

This is the best place to start. Before you invest in expensive new ultralight gear, see if you can alter what you already have to fit your needs.

Ultralight gear is lightweight, meaning it isn’t always durable unless it is in the high-end quality. Thus it will be more expensive.

Try finding ways to alter or sew your current gear. You will be saving money and pack weight while being able to travel with the gear you’re already familiar with.

Invest in Quality Gear

A big part of starting with the gear you already have is an attempt to save some money. If money isn’t an issue for you, then this section won’t matter as much.

However, if you are on a budget, it can take some time to get your full gear set up.

When you are searching for any outdoor gear, you should be looking for quality over the price. Most budget items are cheaply made, and their lifespan will reflect that.

You can find gear on discount websites like Steep and Cheap or the REI Garage Sales.

Also, don’t look past asking other outdoor enthusiasts if they have gear they’re willing to part with. You’ll end up paying a fraction of the price, but you will still be investing in high-quality gear.

Gear Should Have Dual Purpose

One of the most common ways to minimize gear and cut weight is to have gear that has a dual purpose.

This could be a poncho that doubles as your tent’s rainfly or your trekking poles doubling as your tent poles.

When you are updating your gear to be ultralight, look for items that have more than one use.

Weigh All Your Gear

One of the best ways to start the transition process to ultralight gear is to weigh everything.

Find a scale and weigh each piece of gear. This will give you a good idea of where you need to improve. It will also lead to you choosing an ideal base weight for your pack.

Then, once you feel like you have a good gear setup, weigh your entire pack of gear.

If you’ve hit your target weight, that’s great! If not, then go back to individual items, weigh them, and see if there are more places for improvement.

Choosing a Base Weight

The consensus on a base weight is anywhere between 10-12 lbs.

That number can be shocking to people when they first start out. Most traditional backpackers will have a pack weighing 30-45 lbs.

If it is your first ultralight backpacking trip, don’t worry if you exceed this weight. Do what works for you and make adjustments each time until you find the set up you enjoy.

silhouette tent ultraltight opt outdoor

Ultralight Backpacking Gear Guide

Backpack

When investing in new ultralight gear, make your first item be your pack.

Most traditional backpacking packs will weigh around 4-5 lbs. They get most of their weight from their frames and large carrying capacity.

Ultralight packs will be closer to 1.5-2 lbs and have a smaller carrying capacity. Jumping to a smaller pack right away is an excellent way to force yourself to minimize gear.

We like the Granite Gear Virga 52 as our best Ultralight Backpack in our Best Backpacks Buying Guide

Sleeping Bag

In any camping situation, research the temperature of the area you will be traveling. Then, find a sleeping bag that falls within the middle of the temperature range.

The most common choice of material for your bag is the ultralight down insulation.

Most new down bags are water-resistant, and they can be as light as one pound. If you want to cut a little extra, choose a mummy bag without a hood. Instead, you can wrap your head with clothing, or wear a hat. 

Synthetic bags are starting to become lighter and easier to pack. They have the distinct advantage of being able to continue insulating when wet.

If you are traveling in a wet climate, synthetic insulation may be worth the few extra ounces.

Sleeping Pad

Foam pads, such as a Thermarest Z-Lite, are an excellent option for a thru-hike, mainly since they won’t puncture.

Another option is the inflatable sleeping pads. They are tempting because they pack down smaller than foldable foam pads. However, most are not as lightweight and not as durable as the foam pads.

If you want an inflatable pad for ultralight packing, get one torso length, not your body length. You can use your pack and clothing layers as insulation on your legs when you sleep.

Check out our Best Camping Mattress & Pads Buying Guide for more information. 

Shelter

The best ultralight shelter will depend on the climate. Most humid climates, like on the Appalachian Trail, a tent will work better than a bivouac bag.

A bivouac, or bivvy, bag/sack, is a lightweight shelter option. They were traditionally designed for emergency shelters, but have since evolved to become a go-to lightweight option. They look much like a sleeping bag and serve as a protective, waterproof layer.

However, in a desert or dry climate, a bivouac will save weight and space. Most bivvy’s weigh around 2 lbs or less depending on the style you’ve selected. They can be completely waterproof.

If you decide on a tent, get one that is entirely or mostly mesh, and has a rainfly. There are plenty of lightweight one-person tents that have innovative designs.

These designs make sure your gear has multiple uses. For example, some tents use your trekking poles as the poles to secure the shelter.

Check out our pick for the best Ultralight Tent - Nemo Hornet Elite Ultralight.

Ultralight Backpacking Food & Water Guide

Beyond the base of gear discussed above, we must also consider the weight of our consumables - things like food, water, and fuel.

These items will add a considerable amount of weight to your pack. Remember that the weight will fluctuate over time as we consume these items.

Food

The amount of food that you need will depend on how many miles you plan to cover and the overall terrain. In most instances, 3000-4000 calories per day are enough.

Being calorie-conscious on the trail is an easy way to make sure you only bring the food you need. Please don’t skimp on calories either. You will need to find a balance that works with your body.

Some easy ultralight backpacking foods include:

  • Breakfast-- instant oatmeal and instant coffee
  • Snacks-- calorie-dense snacks like protein bars, dried fruit, protein powder, and trail mix. Snacks can also replace lunch.
  • Night Meals-- Dehydrating your meals will save a lot of weight. You can also buy dehydrated prepackaged meals.

The best thing to do is to plan everything you will eat on your trip. Having a concise plan will ensure you do not under or over pack with food. Here are some of our favorite easy backpacking meal ideas

Although we are ultralight packing, it is safe to always plan for one extra day’s worth of food in case of emergency.

Water

How you pack water will depend on where you are hiking and what the water availability on the trail looks like.

If you are in an area that has plenty of water sources, you may be able to get away with hiking with 1-2 liters of water at a time. This should be the minimum.

For more information on how much water you will need, check out our article on Staying Hydrated while Hiking & Backpacking.

One liter of water will weigh about 2 lbs. So, you can expect the amount of water you carry to impact your pack weight drastically.

However, you will need to do your research ahead of time to be sure that you will be able to rehydrate when necessary.

Each morning and night on the trail, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Do the same when you are refiling at a water source.

Planning when you consume water helps you to track your intake. It also helps you to stay hydrated without having to carry that much water at a time. As you will be filling from natural water sources, you also need a purification system.

Be mindful of the purification method you use and how many liters it can purify. As always, bring backup purification tablets in case of emergency.

See our guide on the best Purification/Filtration system for backpackers.

Fuel

You will need to choose whether you want to carry a stove or not. If you decide to use one, consider stove options like alcohol or biofuel methods.

Look for something that heats water quickly and efficiently to save on the amount of fuel used each time. If you are mostly using dehydrated meals, boiled water is all you’ll need to cook.

If traveling in warmer months, you may consider only using dry food rations that don't require cooking. An example of "no-cook" is the cold soaking method. You can cold soak oats or mash potatoes.

This method can take some time getting used to as most hikers look forward to a warm meal at the end of their day. On the other hand, this can save on cookware and stove weight.

For camp kitchen items, keep it to a minimum. Only use one cooking pot and one utensil. Remember, ultralight packing is minimalistic, so only bring what you need.

Check out our guide on the Best Backpacking Cook Sets.

ultralight hiking backpacking

Additional Considerations for Ultralight Backpacking Gear 

Beyond the base weight items and the consumables, you are going to need a few other things.

Navigation

At a minimum, have a laminated map of the area and a compass.

You can opt to only use your smartphone as a map and GPS. Keep in mind that it isn’t always as reliable as a paper map and that you’ll need a backup battery source to power it.

Safety Tip: Before you leave on a trip of any length, print out two copies of your itinerary. Give one to a friend/family member and put the other in your car.

Safety and First-Aid

The main thing to take away from this section is to never skimp on safety gear.

Always give things like first-aid and navigation equipment a priority. In the case of safety, it is better to be over-prepared.

One easy way to save on weight with first aid supplies is to split items between your group. This way, the weight is evenly distributed, or each day a new person carries the first aid kit.

We recommend the Thrive First Aid Kit. It packs a lot and only weighs approximately 0.3 lbs. Or you can build your own first aid kit.

Clothing

Layering is one of the best clothing hacks for hikers.

Do your research on the area climate and temperatures. This ensures that you are packing appropriately.

For ultralight backpacking, prepare to wear the same clothing for the majority of your trek.

If it is an overnight or short weekend adventure, you should only have to pack extra underwear and socks. The main realization should be that you will not be changing your pants and shirt every day.

Hygiene

Essential hygiene items include:

  • Toothpaste / Toothbrush /Floss
  • Toilet paper or wet wipes (bring a bag to pack the trash out)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Feminine hygiene products (recommend a menstrual cup versus tampons/pads)
  • Any other items you may need like contact solution, glasses, or prescription medications

Lighting

A headlamp is the only real necessity here. The only backup you should need then is extra batteries.

You can pack a small flashlight in your first-aid kit if you want another backup as well.

Trekking Poles

Be aware of your abilities and the terrain you will be tackling. Trekking poles will not be necessary for all hikers. Yet, they make the journey safer, so we count them as essential.

Don’t make the hike more difficult or dangerous because you could have cut your pack weight a bit more. Plus, trekking poles will usually be in your hands, not on your pack.

Luxury Items

For most hikers, luxury items include a book, a deck of cards, or their smartphone. If you’re on a long hike, like a thru-hike, luxury items can be a way to give your mind a break from the monotony of the trail.

It may be tempting to bring a spade for digging catholes. It is as easy to pick up a stick or rock and dig a hole so you can save a few more ounces.



Start Your Ultralight Journey

Becoming an ultralight backpacker is a journey, and it should be fun!

It can be challenging to start to cut weight as you need some innovation and know-how.

Remember that it isn’t necessary to change out all your gear at one time. Invest your energy into finding the right gear or giving your current gear a facelift.

Avoid swapping things out quickly before considering its alternative use.

Only go as far as you are comfortable, and tweak things along the way. Trust your intuition when you’re on the trail, and keep in mind the things that went well, as well as the gear that didn’t.

Don’t forget about your fellow hikers, either. The trail is one of the best places to pick up new gear tips and tricks.

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