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by Diane Spicer
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. A lot".
This type of hiking appeals to a minimalist, someone who wants to go fast and light without being burdened by creature comforts.
It also appeals to a hiker who has gotten to a certain age (defined by that hiker, not social media or Hollywood).
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.
So if you're headed into the backcountry, or are contemplating a thruhike, the ultralight backpacking approach should be on your radar.
But where to start?
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.
You're probably wondering if that can be done.
Absolutely, today's gear and clothing is amazingly lightweight as well as durable and dependable.
NOTE: These weights are for U.S. hikers, and the numbers vary depending on where you are and who you're talking to.
UL backpacking can (and does) become a competitive sport in certain hiking circles!
For me, these gear weights are astounding. I started backpacking in the late 1970's, carrying up to one third of my body weight in heavy gear.
But time marches on along the trail of progress, and we must catch up to it!
And harness its goodness for our own purposes.
Let's take a quick stroll (because we're going fast and light, rather than heavy and burdened) through what sets ultralight backpacking equipment apart from the regular stuff.
Here's what we'll cover:
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.
The book can give you some great trail insights even if you're not interested in lightening up the the nth degree.
And there's a chapter written by a woman to shed light on female hiker trail issues.
I highly recommend it!
Warning: If you adhere to the RayWay of Mr. Jardine, you could be sewing your own lightweight hiking gear to save weight!
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...
All of these facts lead to a hiker's natural curiosity about how to reduce the weight of backpacking gear.
Which leads us to considering whether or not ultralight backpacking gear is a good choice for your trail time.
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.
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:
These are affiliate links, the only way I pay for this hiking website. If you purchase through these trusted companies, you pay nothing extra.
For recommendations for the gear I use, drop down here.
Some gear stores will rent ultralight backpacking gear, something I highly recommend before making an investment in any hiking equipment with a high price point.
Let's take a peek at one of the UL companies I mentioned to show you how they are unique.
ULA Equipment offers several versions of ultralight packs with really interesting features, and they do business in a unique way:
You don't want to succumb to sticker shock and walk away from ultralight gear.
You don't want to pass up a chance to lighten your load.
So choose the middle ground and explore your ultralight backpacking gear options one day at a time, with no pressure on yourself to achieve a particular base weight.
Avoid the mistake of trying to switch over everything all in one go. It adds cost and frustration to what should be a pleasant planning process.
Start with something easy.
Read what some of the gear testers have to say about lightweight gear.
Then decide if you need to be a fanatic about weight, or just want to shed a few pounds of pack weight.
Here's 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
If you're just beginning to entertain 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.
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 out for new ultralight gear.
Questions to ask yourself:
Examine every piece of gear you're currently carrying, including your camp kitchen equipment.
On and on it goes, the merry chase of "What can I leave at home?"
Have some fun with it!
I caution you to avoid getting sucked into the black hole of shaving off ounces along with a necessary margin of safety and comfort.
It's great to lighten up, but not at the risk of you not getting back to the trailhead in one piece.
Caching supplies along a long trail for thruhiking or section hiking is of course the best way to lighten your load.
This includes gear replacement, such as hiking shoes, socks, and stove fuel.
But slow down a minute.
Caches make sense as long as you've:
So be sure to map out resupply opportunities, factoring into account shorter store hours in rural communities, holidays and week-ends when stores will be closed.
Consider how much effort it will be to arrive there during store hours. Do you need to hitchhike at odd times, when you have less chance of getting to town quickly?
Again, this takes dedicated effort and time, but it's well worth it for a successful backpacking trip. The weight of your gear is not your only consideration as a backpacker.
Now it's time to consider which gear you can afford to switch over to ultralight versions.
I have done this, one big item at a time, over several years, and found it to be a nice gradual transition that didn't shock my check book.
Tip: Accept the irony that less is going to cost more.
Now let's get to it. Because we're focused on the "light" part of this gear, I'll highlight weights above all else.
Let's start with basic necessary gear: your sleep system and shelter.
If you're not familiar with a sleep system, start here. Basically, it's a sack to keep you warm and a pad to keep you... well, padded.
You have two choices for a warm snuggly nest at night, a sleeping bag or a backpacking quilt (those links take you to the basics).
To compare these two options, read this.
Outdoor Vitals (OV) has a sleeping bag and a quilt you should take a look at. I own both.
You have lots of options for length and temperature, so be sure you look at the right choices to get your base weight right.
Summit Down Sleeping Bag
Read my review (coming soon).
StormLoft™ Down TopQuilt
Long: 1 lb 6 oz (13.2 oz / 375 g Fill Weight)
Regular: 1 lb 7 oz (16.2 oz / 460 g Fill Weight)
Long: 1 lb 10 oz (18.1 oz / 515 g Fill Weight)
Regular: 1 lb 12 oz (21.2 oz / 600 g Fill Weight)
Long: 1 lb 15 oz (23.2 oz / 660 g Fill Weight)
Read my review here.
You want to keep your body heat inside your sleeping cocoon. So insulate yourself from the cold, damp ground with a sleeping pad.
Here are a few choices:
|Ultralight Sleeping Pads||
Outdoor Vitals has an insulated 20D ripstop polyester pad. It comes with a quick inflate pump sack.
Mummy Regular: 16 oz
Mummy Long: 1 lb 1.5 oz
Rectangle Regular: 18 oz
Rectangular Long Wide: 1 lb 7.5 oz
You'll need the right volume for your hiking plans.
Just remember that UL gear not only weighs less (your base weight is reduced), it usually packs down to a smaller footprint (less volume).
So maybe you can use a backpack with a smaller volume. Best to try out this theory on your own, don't take my word for it.
This ULA backpack has a recommended maximum load of around 25 pounds, and a recommended base weight of sub 14 pounds.
Its volume is 54L/3,370 cubic inches.
There are four torso options, 6 hipbelt sizes, and two strap options.
Their website is all over this!
|3400 Windrider Pack(55L)||
Hyperlite Mountain Gear offers this UL backpack in four torso sizes.
Weight: 30oz (varies slightly by torso size)
Volume: 55L (3,400 cu. in.) main body
That's enough to get you started on ultralight backpacking gear!
Every year, focus on one other big thing (tent, backpacking kitchen, boots, etc.) and lighten up. It's kind of addictive, and definitely easier on your knees and back.
Only you can decide whether or not to invest your 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, as we outlined above.
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 a few token things like Ziploc bags acting as stuff sacks, and ditching my heavy tent).
I'm taking a sensible, rational approach with the goal of lightening up as I age. I love to talk about the merits, and drawbacks, of ultralight backpacking gear.
More tips for older hikers here.
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