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Ultralight Backpacking Tips – 5+ Tips for Packing Ultralight

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Ultralight Backpacking tips: Alisha and Josh backpacking in Isle Royale National Park.
Alisha and Josh backpacking in Isle Royale National Park.

Into backpacking? Thinking of giving it a go? (If so, you should check out our Backpacking 101 article here.) You may have heard the term “ultralight” tossed around from time to time. Not sure what it means? We’ll tell you. Essentially, it’s a form of backpacking that involves packing as light as humanly possible in an effort to go farther faster and with less pain and strain on your shoulders, feet and joints. It’s not for everybody (it does require giving up some creature comforts), but if you’re ready to give it a try, here are a few simple ultralight backpacking tips to get you started.

Ditch Heavy Gear

First things first: get rid of the obnoxiously overweight stuff in your pack. I’m talking about cots for sleeping, cans of beans, steel pots and pans, 10-inch-thick sleeping pads with electric pumps, full-size tubes of toothpaste, Bluetooth Speakers, the novel you’re reading, anything that’s large and heavy and not 100% essential. Leave that crap at home.

Swap Your Gear

When it comes to more essential gear, consider swapping heavy items like backpacks, sleeping bags and tents for ultralight items as your old, heavy gear needs replaced. Ultralight backpacks like the Osprey Levity can weigh pounds less than their conventional counterparts and tents like our beloved Big Agnes Tiger Wall are much lighter than your typical camping tent.

As for sleep systems, consider swapping a bulky sleeping bag for a lightweight one, using a sustainable closed-cell foam sleeping pad instead of an inflatable one, and a fly- or tarp only shelter like the Sea To Summit Escapist (instead of a whole tent body with walls and zippers) if you really want to cut weight.

Then, move on to smaller items. Ditch heavy boots for trail runners like these Altra Lone Peak shoes, stoves that require heavy IsoPro canisters in favor of lighter weight alcohol stoves or tablet stoves, ultralight cookware for heftier pots, etc.

My mom and dad NOT packing ultralight.
My mom and dad NOT packing ultralight.

Consolidate

Once you unburden your pack of unnecessary, heavy gear, look over what’s left and consolidate to eliminate duplicates or items you don’t really need. For example, do you really need a cup AND a mug? Just bring one. You could even use it as a bowl if you really want to streamline. Do you need a tripod AND a monopod? Unlikely. A bandana AND a neck gaiter? Doubt it. A spoon AND a fork? Swap it for a spork. A pot AND a pan? What is this, Master Chef? You could even use a stuff sack full of your extra clothes in place of an inflatable pillow. Whatever you do, ditch the duplicates to save weight.

Minimize Your Clothing

What clothing to pack largely depends on your destination, the season, and the duration of your hike, but bring only what you need. If you think you “might” use it, leave it; you won’t. Bring one (maximum two) of everything: shirt, mid-layer, jacket, pants and shorts. The only exceptions: socks and underwear. You can sleep in the same things you hike in and wear a shirt more than once. It won’t kill you. Just remember in cold and wet weather to protect a dry layer with your life to prevent hypothermia.

And if you happen to have ultralight clothing like this Outdoor Vitals Ventus Active Hoodie instead of, say, a heavy fleece or a tiny pair of these Craft Sportswear shorts instead of an extra pair of bulky hiking shorts, even better.

Just about everything in our two packs on a recent 7-day backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park.
Just about everything in our two packs on a recent 7-day backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park.

Pack Food Wisely

Pack what you need to adequately fuel your adventures plus just a little more (you’ll likely eat more on the trail than you think you will). But leave heavy items like pre-cooked rice, cans of soup, and excessive amounts of trail mix at home in favor of freeze-dried meals, dried fruit, instant rice, etc. Need ideas? We wrote about our favorite vegan hiking snacks in this post and wrote a whole cookbook of plant-based backpacking recipes, which you can find here.

Want to go ultra ultralight? Ditch the stove entirely in favor of meals that can be eaten raw or cold-soaked like noodles and quinoa.

That Said…

All that said, packing for a backpacking trip is a very personal thing and you have to hike your own hike (and pack your own pack) in order to enjoy the best trip for you personally (not some ultralight packing guru). So if a slightly heavier pillow or sleeping pad makes sleeping outside that much better for you, pack it. If fresh fruit lifts your spirits on long days, bring it. If you just don’t want to bother cooking at night and want a hot meal ASAP, pack pre-cooked items.

Because if you don’t enjoy your experience in the outdoors, what’s the point? So take these ultralight backpacking tips and tweak them to fit your style and needs.

Jumping for joy because my pack weighs less than 20 pounds with food and water.
Jumping for joy because my pack weighs less than 20 pounds with food and water.

Other Ultralight Backpacking Tips

There are plenty of other little tips and tricks to cut small (and even significant) amounts of weight:

  • Bring just the right amount of toothpaste tabs or powder instead of travel tubes
  • If you wear contacts, bring dailies or wear glasses to cut the wight of contact solution and extra glasses
  • Bring a reusable pee cloth like the Kula Cloth instead of multiple rolls of toilet paper
  • Sort through your first aid kit and take out anything you don’t need (we show you what should be in a wilderness first aid kit in this post)
  • Know where water is so you know where you can filter, purify and refill instead of carting water for your whole trip (unless backpacking in desert regions where this is sometimes necessary).
  • Practice makes perfect. The more you go, the more you know (what you actually need, that is). If You don’t use an item on one trip, you won’t likely need it on the next. So ditch it.

Ready to get out there and put these ultralight backpacking tips to use? What are your favorite tips for cutting pack weight? Let us know, then get out there and wander on!

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