How to get ultralight?

Going ultralight ends up as a goal for many people as they start their journey into backpacking.

The term ultralight is an arbitrary term and certainly nothing new, but since sometime in the early 2000s, the word generally means ten-pounds or less for the base pack weight.

Why this goal?  

Because carrying a few grams makes for an easier time if your kit’s dialed-in appropriately for the environment, your skillset, and trip goals.

And, let’s face it, many consumers of backpacking gear are high achieving professionals with disposable income.

It’s another challenge to accomplish and a goal to attain via purchasing new items.

Favorite piece of gear for some? Common image found via GIS.

But whatever the reason(s), people want to get lower pack weight when out in the mountains.

I can’t say that I blame them as I like to pack light myself.  Though we take the term “Be Prepared” to mean taking a lot of crap, that’s the not original intention at all. I prefer to take what I need for my safety, comfort, and enjoyment levels.  And though schlepping 50+ pounds for a weekend trip might make some feel like a “mucho, macho, hot dog”  (as a High School teacher used to say to us), I’m lazy at heart and prefer to pack light so I can carry more essential items such as rum.

Or a tallboy.

So whether you want to go lighter to have an easier time hiking, as a challenge for yourself, like your toys, or want to be the lightweight version of a “mucho, macho, hot dog,” here are my thoughts on how to go sub-10lbs.

Research

If you are new to backpacking, get some basic trips under your shoes to see what works for you. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, doing anything #EPIC, or anything overly tricky. Get out, have fun, and get out some more. I know a guy who wrote a book for beginning backpackers well.  I also have a collection of articles that should assist.

Once you have your gear kit dialed in, I suggest you keep it simple. There are many books articles, and YouTube videos on the Uber Deep Secrets of Super Duper Ultralight  or some similar nonsense from dubious “experts.”

Instead, I suggest picking up a copy of Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping by Mike Clelland. 

This book is vendor-neutral and gives both quick tips and ideas to make an overall system that will let you dial in your gear. It’s also very entertaining and makes a great read!

If you want to take a deep dive into specifics, concepts, and reviews, the folks over at Reddit /ultralight do an excellent job of making people feel comfortable new to the UL world due to their moderator staff. Their sidebar resources and Wiki are thorough places to start, and their “Newbie Tuesday” threads are especially good introductions to the UL world.

If you want a more in-depth book that is gear specific, Andrew Skurka’s book will appeal to those who like to be process and detail-oriented.

I do not consume too many backpacking focused videos but I realize many people prefer YouTube for various reasons vs reading.  Having said that, many people enjoy Darwin on the Trail and Homemade Wanderlust.  I do not watch them myself but, again, people like them and similar YouTube channels. 

But, seriously, start with this book. From Slideshare.

 

Take Fewer Items

People new to the concept of going lightweight tend to look at gear. While gear is important, knowing how to use the tools, and what tools to bring, are more critical.  A no-cost method to go lighter is to take fewer items of gear.  Take two pairs of socks instead of four, a pair of underwear you can rinse in the stream, drink out of a water bottle rather than taking a mug, etc.

Additionally, learning skills such as knot tying or first aid means you have knowledge. That means you take fewer items, and education does not weigh anything.

Going minimalist is a vital part of ultralight that not only costs nothing but arguably is what attracts me the most to ultralight backpacking on a personal level. The fewer items I have on me, the simpler I find my time in the wild spaces. I am not concentrating on gear, but rather than the experience itself.

I like to say I’m a minimalist, and because of that, my solo kit ends up as ultralight. I’d find it hard to go ultralight if I took too many items.  Plus, I’d have spent more money.

And this philosophy also spills over to the rest of my life and lets me live a modest but comfortable life.

I’ll let the Grammar Badgers debate the title. And in grocery lines.

Weigh everything

Once you start gathering your items, time to weigh everything.  As you dial in your gear system, this task holds less importance. But when you start, all those “lightweight” items add up.

A simple kitchen scale will let you get a realistic assessment of the gear weight. You can purchase a digital scale or an analog scale that does not need batteries (my preference at this point.)

And as you weigh everything, make notes!  Lighterpack is a free tool that lets you keep track of your gear weight, the items, and even an overall snapshot of the type of items in your pack.

Stock photo of a digital scale

Be Honest

Let’s assume your goal is not just to make a cool looking spreadsheet to impress people. Your goal is to enjoy the outdoors more with fewer pieces of gear and to keep it simple. And to make it easier on your body as you go up and down the trails.

So, why fudge the numbers?

I’m not talking about Angels on the head of a pin” type arguments if mobile devices get considered as worn weight or not if you keep it in the pocket,  if poles should be regarded as the gear on self, etc.

In reality, no one cares except for those comparing gear weighs.

But you are cheating yourself by listing two-pounds of camera gear as something similar to clothing because it is in a fanny pack. Or if you cram a rain jacket, warm hat, gloves, etc., in the same fanny pack and don’t count it as weight, I assure you your body will realize this weight most certainly counts.

Chapstick in your pocket? Not-so-much.

 

Be Realistic

Many of the gear lists get optimized for prime-three season hiking on well-marked trails.

If you are hiking in temperate woodlands in summer, you can quickly get to low pack weight.

But is that where you are backpacking?

Off-trail might need more durable gear, desert hiking might require a sturdier frame pack to haul more water, and the sub-1lb packs may not fit your bear canister increasingly needed in more areas.

You’ll need the right, and potentially more substantial, pack to accommodate these parameters.

Ditto for a warmer bag or more durable rain gear.

And so on.

On a related note, beware of gear lists found on various forums or videos.  The user might have much more experience than you or (more likely!) have a nifty spreadsheet with no real-world use behind it. Heck, I’ve seen a sub-3lb winter backpacking list that’s dubious at best. 😉

 

A wise saying from a wise man.

Backpack often as possible

The best way to get ultralight? Go out backpacking!

Until you assemble all your gear and use it, you won’t know what works for you overall.

The experience will tell you how to go lightweight for your safety, comfort, and fun levels.

Besides, it is more fun to use gear than buying it.  Hopefully!

And don’t worry if your first trip does not go precisely as you planned. Mishaps happen.

And they still happen to me.

There’s a trail here. Somewhere.

 

Repeat steps

Continue to repeat all the steps above. Research, tinker with your gear and make adjustments.

I’ve backpacked for a while now, and I’m still learning new skills, adjusting my gear a bit, and trying new things.

My goal is to get out as much as possible and have fun doing it. Over the years, I switched from sleeping bags to quilts, went back and forth with tarps, and eschewed fleece as too heavy and now count it among my favorite pieces of clothing.   And I’ve learned to enjoy backcountry skiing and started picking up packrafting to add to my outdoor fun kit.

And I’m sure my needs, desires, and even technology will change as I continue to backpack.

On the Colorado River. PCO Joan W.

Backpack even more

Yes. Continue to backpack as that’s the best way to learn and how you’ll expand your skillset and further refine your gear and techniques.

And you’ll have fun.

 

Realize going sub-10lbs is a guideline and not an absolute

The 10 lb base pack weight metric is just that: A metric. 

There is nothing magical about this number.

In an alternate universe where the USA decides to use the metric system, our societal preference for groupings of five would mean 5 kg ends up being the magic number…or a smidge over 11 pounds.

In other words, use the 10 lbs mark as a guideline—something to help you gauge your base pack weight. And adjust when needed for different trips.

In further words, think of it as more of a philosophy.

When Joan and I went on a four day trip in The Maze over February pre-COVID, we needed large packs for cold-weather gear, a packraft, and water carries. But because we are used to packing light, all this additional gear ended up as manageable.  Our pack weights were NOT under 10 lbs.  But they ended up being sub-15 lbs. Not ultralight by the metric most people uses for three-season backpacking but very light for the type of trip we did. All because of the steps above that we have followed over the years.

Additionally, you realize that gear is part of a system and that how the system works overall matter more than each piece of equipment.

I use my ULA CDT that’s eight years old with many miles and days on it. Why? IT is “heavy” at  ~20oz compared to some packs, but the toughness, size, and structure make it work well for the trips I enjoy doing off the beaten path.

On a similar note, we took an 8 oz penalty in weight to take a freestanding tent for Joan and me. Quick setup on the ground that doesn’t always work well for staked shelters means less “spirited discussions” when there’s little daylight, it’s getting cold, and the sleet’s coming down. More time to enjoy our cider and rum.  Oh, and the kicker?  My overall carry weight ends up being less as the tent is easier to split! 🙂

As you gain experience with your solo kit, you can apply this idea of ultralight backpacking to other types of trips easily.

 

___________________________

And that’s how to go ultralight: Research, weigh your gear, go out hiking, tinker, repeat, and continue to learn. And get in yet more hiking.

And crucially? Don’t get too hung up on the numbers. Let the numbers guide, not dictate, your experience.

Happy hiking!

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