For many of us backpacking enthusiasts, the ultimate goal is to reduce the total weight of our packed gear bit by bit. I look back on the many years I have spent in the great outdoors and my gear has evolved over and over. My total weight has ranged all over the place, but a few years ago I underwent a transformation from a gadget backpacker to a minimalist. I now take only the bare minimum on my multi-day trips. Are you interested in trimming the weight to ultralight standards? Below, we will go over some tips to accomplish this, as well as my most recent ultralight gear list.
The Big Three
No matter how many ounces you trim from your gadgets and gizmos, you will be limited by how heavy the big three are – your backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag/sleeping pad. This is the place where you can make the biggest impact on the total weight. But this is also where you can spend the most money. Unfortunately, most of the ultralight gear is on the higher end of the price spectrum. You will need to decide if shaving a few ounces is worth the additional cost, since you will likely start to see the law of diminishing returns manifest itself here.
What if you already own some nice gear, but it is just a little on the heavy side and you want to upgrade to lighter stuff? Sell your other items to fund your upgrades. This is a fairly standard practice, and is made even easier with the advent of EBay, Craigslist, and local online classifieds. Selling your old gear will soften the blow of upgrading to lighter, newer gear.
There is a great company out of Logan, Utah called ULA Equipment that makes ultralight backpacks. The CDT, for example, weighs 2 pounds and has a capacity of 3370 cubic inches. This is a very capable backpack for a multi-day trip, and you are starting off on the right foot with only 2 pounds of backpack weight. The cool thing about this pack is that there are removable features that will trim the weight by an additional 5 ounces if desired (like the hydration sleeve, water bottle holsters, and internal mesh pockets). At a price point of only $135, you might not think you are getting a great backpack. But because ULA Equipment dispenses with style and design costs, they pass the savings on to you. It might not be as visually appealing as a Gregory or Arcteryx pack, but it’s all about weight, and that is where these packs shine. Click on the following link to order your ULA Equipment CDT backpack today.
When it comes to finding a tent or other shelter that is lightweight, bivy sacks are the ultimate option. Weighing as little as 6 ounces (MontBell Breeze Dry-Tec UL Sleeping bag cover, ~$115, and the Equinox Ultralight Bivy Cover, ~$65), bivy sacks are basically sleeping bag covers that will keep you dry. Some come with wire hoops that give you a little headspace, but you will basically be confined to the shape of your sleeping bag.
Tarp tents are another great lightweight option. Black Diamond’s Beta Light 2 person tarp tent is about a pound and a half (split in half is about 12 ounces per person, plus trekking poles) and offers quite a bit more space than a bivy sack. For $150, you get a super light shelter for two. Another great option for about the same price is the MSR E-Wing Shelter Tent, weighing in at roughly 1 pound (plus trekking poles).
Finding an ultralight tent in the 1 pound range is difficult, but splitting the weight of the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 (2 pounds 2 ounces) is about as good as it gets. The Fly Creek UL2 costs about $300, so quite a bit more than the other options, but you will have the most space and weather protection here. I have used this tent for most of my trips, and while it is cozy on the inside, it is perfect for me and my wife.
Sleeping Bag/Sleeping Pad
There are a few other articles on this site that talk about lightweight sleeping bags. My favorites include the Marmot Helium down bag, the Mountain Hardwear Phantom series, and the MontBell UL Super Spiral Hugger series. Down sleeping bags will give you the best warmth to weight ratio, but will generally cost more. There are different temperature ratings to be aware of as well. Colder conditions will require lower ratings, which will bump up the weight and price. My choice is the Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15 degree sleeping bag, which weighs only 2 pounds (~$450), and with a 15 degree temperature rating, I’m usually comfortable for 3 season trips, even at higher elevations.
As for the sleeping pad, if you decide to have one at all (think more weight savings by leaving one at home), look for a pad around 1 pound or less. You might have to settle for a torso length (only covers your waist and up) to shave more ounces. The Exped SynMat UL 7 in medium weighs in right at a pound ($170). Thermarest’s Prolite pad is another great option. You can get a smaller dimension torso length pad weighing 8 ounces for $60.
Totals For Big Three (My choices)
|Backpack||ULA Equipment CDT||$135||24 ounces (2 pounds)|
|Shelter||Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2||$300||17 ounces (1 pound 1 ounce split in half)|
|Sleeping Bag||Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15||$450||24 ounces (2 pounds)|
|Sleeping Pad||Thermarest Prolite Small||$70||11 ounces|
|Totals||$955||76 ounces (4 pounds 12 ounces)|
If you are really going for weight savings, you will need to skimp on extra clothing. Plan on bringing a few extra layers for night and for rain/snow/colder weather, as well as extra socks and under garments. Having extra socks and under garments will prevent chafing and blistering, as well as keep you from stinking to high hell. But these garments should be as light as possible. Here is a list of what I pack with me on a spring/summer/fall mountain multi-day (3-5) trip:
|Trail Socks||Icebreaker Men's Multisport Ultralite Micro Socks||$15||1.6 ounces X2|
|Sleeping Socks||Darn Tough Vermont Men's Merino Wool Boot Full Cushion Socks||$15||4.8 ounces|
|Thermal Top||Terramar TXO 2.0||$15||6 ounces|
|Thermal Bottom||Terramar TXO 2.0||$15||6 ounces|
|Undergarment||Icebreaker Men's Anatomica Boxer||$50||3 ounces X2|
|Spare T-Shirt||Mountain Hardwear Way2Cool||$50||4.4 ounces|
|Shell Top||Outdoor Research Helium II||$150||6.4 ounces|
|Shell Bottom||Mountain Hardwear Epic Pant||$90||8 ounces|
|Beanie||Mountain Hardwear Effusion Dome||$25||1 ounce|
|Gloves||Mountain Hardwear Winter Momentum||$40||2 ounces|
|Clothing Stuff Sack||Outdoor Research Lightweight Stuff Sack (10L)||$15||1.3 ounces|
|Totals||$545||49.1 ounces (3 pounds 1.1 ounces)|
Food and Water Prep
Depending on the length of your trip, your menu will vary. One of the most important things to remember is to plan your hike along a source of water. This will allow you to re-supply via water purification. You don’t want to have to carry all the water you will need for a multi-day trip, since water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon (more than the big three combined!). Below is a list of what I utilize for food and water prep with their accompanying weights and costs:
|Trail Filter||LifeStraw||$20||2 ounces|
|Stove||Homemade Alcohol Stove||$0||.5 ounces|
|Fuel||Heet Methanol||$2||12 ounces|
|Cook Pot||TOAKS Titanium 600ml Pot||$30||3.8 ounces|
|Mug||Sea to Summit X Mug||$15||2.7 ounces|
|Spork||Light My Fire Titanium Spork||$15||.5 ounces|
|Firestarter||SOL FireLite and Tinder Quick Fire Starter||$10||1.3 ounces|
|Water Bottle||Platypus Soft Bottle (1L)||$10||1.6 ounces|
|1/4 Water Towel||MSR Packtowl (S)||$12||1 ounce|
|Food and Water Stuff Sack||Outdoor Research Lightweight Stuff Sack (10L)||$15||1.3 ounces|
|Totals||$119||26.7 ounces (1 pound 10.7 ounces)|
Toiletries, Tools, First Aid
When it comes to gadget backpacking, this is where I used to go crazy. I used to pack multiples of different tools based on the old axiom ‘two is one and one is none.’ While there are a few things that might require a little redundancy, most everything in this category will be just fine by itself. Think carefully about these items and how much each weighs. Look for gear items that serve multiple purposes. And if you really feel like you should include redundant gear, go ahead and do it. You will see if you really needed it while on your trip, and might be able to trim it for your next excursion. Below is a list of what I take with me on the trail:
|Toiletries Stuff Sack||Outdoor Research Lightweight Stuff Sack (5L)||$12||1 ounce|
|Light||Black Diamond Wiz Headlamp||$20||2 ounces|
|Multitool||Leatherman Squirt||$30||2.1 ounces|
|Firestarter||Mini Bic Lighter||$1||.5 ounces|
|Tinder||Dryer Lint (in Ziploc bag with Petroleum Jelly)||$0||1 ounce|
|First Aid Kit||Ultralight and Watertight Medical Kit (.3)||$9||2.3 ounces|
|Duct Tape||Wrapped around Old Credit Card||$0||2 ounces|
|550 Paracord||50 feet||$5||3.6 ounces|
|Sunscreen||Banana Boat Sport Performance Sunblock Lotion SPF 30||$2||1.2 ounces|
|Soap||Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer Gel 1 OZ Travel Size||$2||1.2 ounces|
|Toothpaste||Colgate Toothpaste 2.8oz Travel Size||$2||2.8 ounces|
|Travel Toothbrush||GUM Travel Toothbrushes with Antibacterial Bristles||$2||1.6 ounces|
|Towel||Packtowl Nano Light Towel (M)||$10||.9 ounces|
|Trail Map||Laminated Map||$0||1 ounce|
|Totals||$95||23.2 ounces (1 pound 7.2 ounces)|
Worn Or Carried On Self
Not everything will go into your backpack. Some of the gear you will be wearing or carrying on your person. For example, sunglasses, hats, trekking poles, boots, clothing, a watch, a headlamp, etc. will be extra weight but won’t be on your back. You should still consider these items because your body is still exerting energy to carry all of them, even if the final tally doesn’t count against your pack weight. Think about packing some of the items above in other lists in pockets or on your belt for easier access.
Below is what I normally hike with on my body on a sunny, warm day (obviously, these things will change with the weather and possibly the terrain).
|Trail Shorts||Mountain Hardwear Canyon Shorts||$50||6.3 ounces|
|Trail Shirt||Mountain Hardwear Way2Cool||$50||4.4 ounces|
|Trail Socks||Icebreaker Men's Multisport Ultralite Micro Socks||$15||1.6 ounces|
|Trail Hat||Mountain Hardwear Men's Chiller||$40||2.9 ounces|
|Sunglasses||Polarized P52 Sunglasses Superlight||$30||1 ounce|
|Watch||Dakota Watch Company Digital Compass Watch||$40||9 ounces (belt clip)|
|Trail Shoes||Salomon Men's XA PRO 3D Ultra 2 Trail Running Shoe||$130||14 ounces|
|Trekking Poles||Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles||$140||10.4 ounces|
|Totals||$495||49.6 ounces (3 pounds 1.6 ounces)|
Location Specific/Extra Gear
There are a few gear items that, depending on where I am hiking, I will bring along. If I am backpacking in bear country, there are a few extra precautionary items to bring along, like bear spray or a bear canister. Below is a list of these extra items that I may or may not pack.
|Bear Canister||Bear Keg Food Container||$65||56 ounces|
|Bear Spray||SABRE FRONTIERSMAN Bear Attack Deterrent with Hip Holster||$36||7.9 ounces|
|GPS||Garmin eTrex 20 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator||$165||5 ounces|
|Emergency Messenger||SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger unit||$90||8.6 ounces|
|Bug Spray||Deep Woods Sportsmen||$5||2.2 ounces|
|Mosquito Net||Coleman Insect Head Net||$2||1 ounce|
|Additional Water Bottle||Platypus Soft Bottle (1L)||$10||1.6 ounces|
|Camera||GoPro HERO3+: Black Edition||$400||20 ounces|
|Warmer Top||Terramar Txo 3.0||$50||6.3 ounces|
|Warmer Bottom||Terramar Txo 3.0||$50||6.3 ounces|
|Warmer Jacket||Outdoor Research Halogen Jacket||$200||13.3 ounces|
|Fishing Kit||Eagle Claw Pack-It Spin Combo Telescopic Rod||$25||12 ounces|
When it comes to packing food for an ultralight 3-5 day trip, you really need to maximize your calories-to-weight ratio. There are a lot of good trail foods that help achieve this, like trail mixes, peanut butter, cheese, and granola. Protein is another essential menu item, and any time you are able to have a warm meal, you will have a more enjoyable time on the trail.
Food fatigue is a real enemy of backpackers, and can be a dangerous situation if prolonged. Pack a variety of flavors and types of foods. Sure, 10 pounds of trail mix is chock full of calories, but will you want to eat it three meals a day for 5 days straight? I will go over my ultralight backpacking menu in another post, but keep in mind that you will want to keep your food to about 2 pounds per day, give or take a few ounces. I pack my meals without extra packaging or boxes. For example, if you are taking an MRE, strip all the ingredients out of the MRE pouch and leave behind anything you don’t plan on consuming.
Don’t forget to bring along some water additives as well. Water fatigue is another problem to be aware of. Sweeten up your water with some Crystal Light or Gatoraid powder, and bring along some coffee/hot chocolate/tea for evenings and mornings.
Final Weight Talley
|Big Three||$995||76 ounces (4 pounds 12 ounces)|
|Clothing||$545||49.1 ounces (3 pounds 1.1 ounces)|
|Food/Water Prep||$120||27 ounces (1 pound 11 ounces)|
|Necessities||$95||23.2 ounces (1 pound 7.2 ounces)|
|Worn Gear||$495||49.6 ounces (3 pounds 1.6 ounces)|
|Gear Subtotal||$2250||175.3 ounces (10 pounds 15.3 ounces excluding worn gear)|
|Water||1L||$0||35.2 ounces (2 pounds 3.2 ounces)|
|Food||~2 pounds per day||$40 ($10 per day)||128 ounces (8 pounds)|
|Total Pack Weight||338.5 ounces (21 pounds 2.5 ounces)|
You can see that the total weight of a little more than 20 pounds for a multi-day excursion is not only achievable, but will also afford quite a bit of comfort in the backcountry. The gear base weight at a little more than 10 pounds is just breaking the unofficial ultralight threshold, but I choose to bring along a few extra comforts (like extra socks and underwear) that push it over the top. Your mileage will vary, and you may very well fit comfortably under the magic number of 10 pounds.
Remember that trimming weight from the Big Three is essential for obtaining this goal. I have listed a few options above for getting there, but there are certainly a lot more options on the market today. Get started making your list and find ways to trim extra weight.
Hopefully, this article will help you to get started in the wonderful world of ultralight backpacking. Use these lists to help modify the gear that you pack. Thanks for reading and happy trails!
What do you use for your Big Three? What is your gear base weight? What about your total 3-5 day weight? Let us know in the comment section below. Thanks for your contributions!