Ultralight Backpacking Gear: Best Weigh To Go!

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

Ultralight backpacking gear (UL) is aimed squarely at backpackers who want to shave time and effort off their hikes.

Their motto: "Fractions of ounces matter".

This type of hiking appeals to a minimalist, someone who wants to go fast and light without being burdened by creature comforts.

This is in contrast to a traditional backpacker who, from the UL perspective, is a plodder carrying way too much weight.

Ultralight backpacking equipment is designed to ease the anxiety of any hiker who has a particular base pack weight target to achieve.

Pause for a definition:

Base pack weight = backpack + what's in and on it, minus food, water, fuel or anything else consumed over the duration of the hike.

To be considered lightweight, base pack weights need to stay around (or under, which is the target of fierce competition) 20 pounds, or ~ 9 kg.

Ten pounds (4.5 kg) is the maximum target weight for an ultralight backpacker.

NOTE: These weights are for U.S. hikers, and the numbers vary depending on where you are and who you're talking to.

These gear weights are astounding for someone like me who started backpacking in the late 1970's, carrying up to one third of her body weight in heavy gear. That worked out to 40+ pounds!

Let's take a stroll (because we're going fast and light, rather than heavy and burdened) through what sets ultralight backpacking equipment apart from the regular stuff.

Female hiker wearing green backpack on large boulders

Fast and light hiking:
historical origins

One of the first people to notice that traveling light was the way to hike was Emma Gatewood. Her late-in-life Appalachian Trail adventures make me proud to be in the female hiker clan.

A climber (among other things) named Ray Jardine receives most of the media credit for the origins of the ultralight backpacking equipment philosophy, which makes sense coming from a guy who defied, and defeated, gravity again and again.

  • He's got an entire product line of gear you can make yourself to shave off ounces (or grams) left and right...

The book can give you some great trail insights even if you're not interested in lightening up the the nth degree.

  • His "stealth camping" tips can be utilized by all women solo hikers.

And there's a chapter written by a woman to shed light on female hiker trail issues.

I highly recommend it!

Non-negotiable facts
about hiking

The planet we live on enforces certain rules.

These rules are annoying to hikers in general, but particularly onerous to lightweight and ultralight backpackers.

Rules such as...

  • One liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds pretty much everywhere.
  • Your body needs at least 2 liters, minimum, per day for kidney function and hiking performance.
  • Your core temperature must be maintained regardless of weather conditions. Staying warm requires regular ingestion of fuel known as food.
  • Your food can be dehydrated, but must be ingested in a hydrated state for proper digestion and release of steady energy.
  • Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) requires roughly 1000 calories (more correctly referred to as kilocalories, but not commonly used) per 100 pounds of body weight to remain operational.
  • Hikers need way more calories than that, because they're working hard regardless of how much the backpack weighs.
  • Weight on your feet "costs" you more effort than properly distributed weight on your back. Hiking boots -vs- trail shoes is a discussion you need to have with yourself.

All of these facts lead to a hiker's natural curiosity about how to reduce the weight of your backpacking gear.

Which leads us to considering whether or not ultralight backpacking gear is a good choice for your trail time.

Ultralight gear

What kind of backpacking gear delivers function and form without a lot of annoying gravitational tugging?

A sarcastic hiker might respond: expensive gear, that's what!

Indeed, it takes some coin to purchase the highest end lightweight backpacking equipment, but it could be the best investment you ever made if it spares you a sore back and gives you more time to explore the backcountry.

Start with basic necessary gear:

If you adhere to the RayWay of Mr. Jardine, you should be sewing your own lightweight hiking gear which saves weight!

  • He even gives you sewing tips on the link I shared above.

Some gear stores will rent the backpacking gear, something I highly recommend before making an investment in any hiking equipment that has a high price point.

This company, ULA Equipment, offers great ultralight packs with really interesting features, and they do business in a unique way:

  • All of their gear is manufactured in house, and shipped free, in the United States;
  • Their gear is only available through the company, so all packs are in stock and ready to ship;
  • Gear is designed by hikers who know how to tackle a trail when weight matters;
  • They provide expert fitting advice via Skype and digital photos so you'll be satisfied with the fit.

At the very least, read what some of the gear testers have to say about lightweight gear, and then decide if you need to be a fanatic about weight or are just trying to shed a few pounds of pack weight.

Read on for a little advice on how to avoid feeling intimidated if you're just wading into the world of ultralight backpacking gear, and why going lighter and lighter is kind of a silly way to frame things for a hiker.

And here's a great choice for your hiking bookshelf as you evolve, or dive into, ultralight backpacking gear:

Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker's Guide To Ultralight Hiking And Backpacking

How to get started with ultralight backpacking gear

Read some reviews

If you're just beginning to explore the wonderful idea of a lighter pack on your next backpacking adventure, I recommend the following strategy.

Don't run out and buy anything new.

Instead, get a reliable scale and record the weight of every piece of backpacking equipment you now possess.

If you need to purchase some gear, do some comparison shopping and take note of the weights. Select the lightest gear possible within your budget.

This ultralight pack review will help you get started.

Map out your hiking goals

Next, sit down with maps and guidebooks and decide what your upcoming hiking season looks like.

Then consider which gear you can leave at home, or swap pout for ultralight gear.

  • If you're staying in temperate areas, do you need to carry a sleeping bag? Maybe just a liner or a quilt will do.
  • Can you stay warm and dry, and indifferent to insects or rodents, under a tarp?
  • Is a sleeping pad necessary?
  • Do you really need an extra shirt or back-up pair of pants? If you're dressing for fashion, be ruthless with your choices of athletic clothing.
  • Your sleeping system can be lightened up with no loss of warmth if you use a backpacking quilt.
  • Will you have access to abundant sources of water? Maybe only one water bottle is required.
  • How heavy of a rain jacket should you carry?
  • Can your tent stakes be left behind?
  • Lightweight and durable titanium cookware is a great idea regardless of where you're headed, perhaps paired with an alcohol stove.
  • Will one trekking pole be enough?

On and on it goes, the merry chase of "What can I leave at home?"

  • Subtitle: "Shaving the ounces"

Slow down a bit!

I caution you to avoid getting sucked into the black hole of shaving off ounces along with a wide margin of safety and comfort.

It's great to lighten up, but not at the risk of you getting back to the trailhead in one piece.

  • Your base weight is a non-negotiable number for comfort and safety.

Caching supplies along your long trail is of course the best way to lighten your load, as long as you've plotted your course carefully, factored in "oops" days so you don't have to forego food or water, and vowed to stick to your plan once you're on the trail.

  • This includes gear replacement, such as hiking shoes, socks, and stove fuel.

You could also map out resupply opportunities, factoring into account shorter store hours in rural communities, holidays and week-ends, and how much effort it will be to arrive there.

UL gear companies

Now consider which gear you can afford to switch over to ultralight.

I have done this, one big item at a time, over several years, and found it to be a nice gradual transition that doesn't shock my check book.

  • Accept the irony that less is going to cost more.
  • But UL backpacking gear will make you smile more when you hoist your backpack.


Expect the names of the ultralight backpacking gear companies to be different than the usual suspects.

Several companies specialize in lightweight hiking equipment to appeal to a select group of hikers.

Again, read what the ultralighters are saying about their gear, and then begin to investigate companies such as:

  • ULA
  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear
  • Six Moons Designs
  • Gossamer Gear

Ultralight gear -
does it make sense
for your needs?

Only you can decide whether or not to invest time, brain power and money into lightening up your pack.

No matter where you decide to shed weight, please realize that you're way ahead of where hikers were just a few decades ago.

Take small steps to trim the weight of your hiking gear, and never pass up a chance to ask questions, pick up someone's pack and mentally weigh it against yours (with permission, of course), or read about what other hikers are doing.

Send any questions my way.

I don't claim the title of ultralight backpacker (yet), but I am definitely making an effort to go lighter each season as I replace my worn out hiking equipment (beyond ziploc bags acting as stuff sacks, and ditching my heavy tent).

I love to talk about the merits, and drawbacks, of ultralight backpacking gear.

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Ultralight Backpacking Gear

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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.