How Ultralight Backpacking Works

Packing Your Ultralight Backpacking Gear

A hiker stops for a break under a tarp on the Pacific Crest Trail. A tarp is a lightweight shelter option.
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?