Just How Light is Ultralight Backpacking? A Beginner’s Guide

How Light Is Ultralight Backpacking

Welcome to the wonderful world of “ultralight” backpacking. We all want a lighter pack weight while at the same time being as comfortable on the trail as possible. If you are ready to take this ambition to the next level. This article is for you!

So, how light is ultralight backpacking? Ultralight backpackers have packs with a base weight under 10 lbs. Your “base weight” is everything in your pack that’s not a consumable (i.e. food, water, and fuel). This includes everything from your tent to your spoon but doesn’t include the clothing and footwear you’ll always be wearing on the trail.

Within the global ultralight community, there is some consensus about the standard weights of an ultralight backpacker’s pack. Here is what different kinds of backpackers carry:

  • Regular backpackers usually have packs with a base weight over 30 lbs.
  • Lightweight backpackers usually have packs with a base weight under 20 lbs.
  • Ultralight backpackers have packs with a base weight under 10 lbs.
  • Super ultralight backpackers usually have packs with a base weight under 5 lbs.

Note that this is a rough definition of how much each of these kinds of backpackers usually carries and that there are certainly people who would want to adjust these numbers by five pounds or so either way. The point is that ultralight backpackers carry really light packs compared to the rest of us, though they make quite a few sacrifices to get to that point.

How do we determine pack weight?

When we defined how light ultralight backpacking is, we used the term “base weight” to determine our acceptable pack weight range for different kinds of backpackers. Unless you’re already an ultralight backpacker, however, you might be a bit confused as to what this means. Let’s take a look at how we determine pack weight:

Base weight

Your “base weight” is everything in your pack that’s not a consumable (i.e. food, water, and fuel). This includes everything from your tent to your spoon but doesn’t include the clothing and footwear you’ll always be wearing on the trail.

While traditional backpackers will just use their total pack weight (basically everything they’re bringing with them) when they talk about what they’re carrying, the ultralight crowd likes to use base weight instead, as it’s a better metric to use when comparing people’s pack weights on different length trips.

This is because, while your food and fuel weight will vary drastically from a 2 day trip to a 10-day trip, your base weight stays about the same.

Worn weight

Worn weight includes anything you’ll be wearing at all times during your trip in regular weather. Since ultralight backpackers aren’t the type to bring a spare outfit, worn weight generally includes hiking pants, t-shirt, hat, sunglasses, socks, underwear, bra, and hiking boots. It can also include trekking poles, but poles are sometimes included in the base weight measurement.

Some ultralight backpackers are more concerned about their worn weight than others.

Consumables

Consumables are anything that will get, well, consumed during a backpacking trip. This includes all food, water, and fuel that you’ll be bringing along. While the weight of consumables is, indeed, important, most ultralight backpackers try to minimize this weight by using dehydrated food and a lightweight food source to minimize poundage.

Additionally, by making consumables into its own weight category, it’s easier to compare the pack base weights of people heading out on different length trips.

Total pack weight

Your total pack weight includes everything you’re bringing with you, from your food to your tent. This is, of course, an important metric for the ultralight backpacker, but they tend to focus, as we’ve mentioned previously, on the base weight of their pack more than the total pack weight.

Imagine this scene… You’re plodding down the trail and that 65-pound pack feels just as heavy as it did six days and 50 miles ago at the trail head. You feel like you’re carrying a small elephant on your back when the next thing you see is someone speeding toward you with what looks like a small day pack on.

Confused, you ask, “Just out for the day?” “The day?” they respond. “I’ve been out here for months!”

While most backpackers among us will happily – or begrudgingly – carry a pack that’s upward of 70 pounds on our back to sneak in some extra amenities on the trail, a few among us have opted to go the other way, eschewing creature comforts in exchange for a light and fast trip through the mountains.

These people are ultralight backpackers.

If you’ve ever seen these folks out on the trail, it’s understandable why you would be jealous – who wouldn’t want to decrease their pack weight by 10, 20, even 50 pounds? Why wouldn’t you want to carry a lighter pack as opposed to a heavier one?

That being said, ultralight backpacking can be a confusing and difficult kind of hiking to get in to, especially if you’re used to packing heavy. Plus, it can be confusing to figure out just how light is ultralight backpacking really is.

Luckily, we’re here to help. Coming up, we’ve got the ultimate guide to ultralight backpacking, complete with information about what ultralight backpacking is and how just how light ultralight backpacking needs to be. Plus, we’ll walk you through the basics of getting started as an ultralight backpacker and help you figure out if ultralight backpacking is really for you. Let’s get to it!

Hiker descending golden hills with mountains in background
Descending Carn a’Mhaim, Cairngorms, Scotland

What is ultralight backpacking?

Alright, first things first – what is ultralight backpacking? Basically, ultralight backpacking is a type of backpacking that puts a light pack weight above all else (besides risk management, but we’ll cover that in a bit).

While most hikers will add some weight to their pack to be able to bring along “luxury” items, such as a book or heavy camera, an ultralight backpacker would never add a pound to their pack just for a non-essential.

Ultralight backpackers eliminate all of the non-essential items from their packing list, try to make all of their gear multi-purpose so they don’t duplicate their efforts, and trim down on the essentials to the bare minimum required to get through a trip without causing some self-inflicted accident.

It’s a no-frills style of camping that’s more about being outside and moving quickly through terrain than it is about sitting around and enjoying your time in camp.

How is ultralight backpacking different from “regular backpacking”?

Ultralight backpacking differs from regular backpacking mostly in terms of pack weight. However, ultralight backpacking is not just about the amount of weight in one’s pack – it’s a mentality.

Although modern society, in all its infinite wisdom, tells us that the more we have, the better off we’ll be, ultralight backpackers take the saying “less is more” to heart. Instead of trying to cram as much as possible into a pack for a trip in the mountains, an ultralight backpacker will try to see how little they can get away with carrying on the trail.

Thus, ultralight backpacking is often less about the creature comfort and more about actually being outside and crushing dozens of miles a day. Regular backpacking, on the other, hand, often involves moving a bit more slowly and spending a bit more time in camp each day.

Although there are certainly ultralight backpackers out there who will grant themselves a small non-essential for a trip, many will do all they can to get their pack weight down. Regular backpackers, however, while not excited at the prospect of carrying more, are often less strict about their self-imposed rules regarding what they can and can’t bring on a trip.

Hikers walking through golden hills in the mountains
Walking away from the Fords of Avon, Cairngorms, Scotland

What are the benefits of going ultralight?

At this point, you probably think that ultralight backpacking is all doom and gloom because ultralight backpackers get rid of a lot of the “fun” and “comfortable” stuff that many of us like to bring while outside. In reality, however, while I can’t speak for everyone, ultralight backpackers often have quite a bit of fun outside, they just get their enjoyment from being out in the natural world.

Additionally, there are quite a few benefits of going ultralight. Here are a few:

You can hike faster

With a pack that’s just a fraction of the weight of a regular backpacker’s pack, an ultralight backpacker can speed down the trail. When you’re loaded down with 60 lbs on your back, it’s not surprising that you want to slow down and maintain a steady pace throughout the day, but when you’re trucking around less than a third of that weight, anything is possible.

You can hike further

Without all that weight on your back, you can crush miles for breakfast. In fact, ultralight backpackers have been known to do upward of 50 miles a day on the trail. Although this is partially due to the fitness levels of many ultralight backpackers, when you’re not carrying everything and the kitchen sink, you can cover more ground in a day.

This is one of the reasons why ultralight backpacking is so popular among long-distance thru-hikers.

You’re less fatigued

Unless you carry a heavy backpack for work (here’s looking at you mountain guides and outdoor educators), you’re probably going to be pretty tired at the end of the day just from schlepping around your heavy pack. Ultralight backpackers usually find that they’re more tired from the dozens of miles they’ve just covered than from the backpack itself.

You reduce your risk of injury

A lighter backpack means less stress on your joints. In fact, research from the US Military (whose troops often carry 60-130 lbs of gear at any given time) recommends that personnel not carry more than 50 lbs for any length of time as doing so substantially increases one’s risk for fatigue and injury.

If the Army Science Board recommends that incredibly fit people who are trained to carry heavy things shouldn’t be carrying heavy things, then the rest of us probably shouldn’t either.

Backpacking becomes more accessible

Heavy packs are a barrier to entry into the world of backpacking for many people. With a lightweight backpack, more people can get into the outdoors, especially younger children (who really shouldn’t carry too much) and older adults, who may feel physically unable to shoulder the weight of a traditional backpack. Thus, going lighter might just be what some people need to get into the outdoors.

The five principles of ultralight backpacking

As you can imagine, getting into ultralight backpacking can be a bit of a challenge. If you’re used to carrying a fairly heavy pack, it can be tricky to switch to a lighter system and to cut out some of the creature comforts that you’ve become used to. Thus, to help you get started, here are some guiding principles to live by for ultralight backpacking:

1. Don’t increase risk

Contrary to popular belief, ultralight backpackers are not huge risk takers who leave behind the essentials to see how little they can survive on. Rather, ultralight backpackers are experienced outdoor enthusiasts who know what they need and what they don’t.

They understand what’s necessary to survive in foul weather and bring only what they need to live in the outdoors. When you get into ultralight backpacking, you should never make a gear decision without considering if it adds unnecessary risk to your trip.

Additionally, ultralight backpackers should never leave behind important lifesaving tools just to lower their pack weight.

2. Get rid of non-essentials

Part of what differentiates an ultralight backpacker from a regular one is that an ultralight hiker won’t take anything that’s not essential. For the most part, books, heavy cameras, fourteen extra layers, and other such objects just don’t make it into an ultralight backpacker’s pack. By eliminating the non-essentials you can drastically reduce your pack weight.

3. Down-size, down-size, down-size

Once you get rid of the non-essentials, you’ll want to start looking for ways to downsize what you do need to bring. If you have the resources to invest in different gear, look to reduce the weight of the “big three” – your pack, shelter, and sleeping bag/pad. Figure out precisely what gear you need for the conditions you’ll face and bring only what’s necessary.

If the nighttime low is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you probably don’t need that monstrous 0 degrees Fahrenheit sleeping bag.

4. Opt for multi-purpose

If you can use an individual item of gear for multiple purposes, then you can reduce your overall pack weight. Looking for a tent that can be pitched with your trekking poles, using a pot as a bowl, and other such things can help lower your pack weight.

5. Keep it simple

When you go lightweight, you shouldn’t be adding things to your gear list. People managed to survive (and they still do) in many parts of the world with relatively little by way of material goods. Part of being an ultralight backpacker is keeping it simple, so don’t add unnecessary complexity into your life in the hopes that it’ll lighten your base weight.

How to make the switch to ultralight backpacking

Once you make the decision to join the world of ultralight backpacking, it can feel like you’ve just started along a daunting path. Instead of spending your life’s savings on fancy new ultralight gear before you really have the chance to see what works for you and what doesn’t follow these steps to get started:

  1. Weight all of your gear. You may be surprised at how much or how little your current gear weighs if you’ve never gotten the scale out and actually weighed it all. Get yourself a nice scale (down to the 0.01 oz) and weigh all of the gear you take with you into the back country. Figure out what your current base weight is and look for obvious ways to trim it down.
  2. Make gradual changes. Don’t just go out and buy the lightest gear on the market. Many ultralight pieces of gear require extra care and maintenance as they sacrifice durability for weight savings. Plus, they’re really expensive. Thus, start by making ultralight your packing philosophy and then make gradual changes as you buy new gear. As stuff starts to naturally fall apart, replace these items when necessary. Focus on replacing the big-ticket items (sleeping bag, tent, backpack) first by saving up for them and replacing them when the time is right.
  3. Plan ahead. Check the weather and the trail conditions. Read up on recent trail reports. If you’re going out in the summer and it doesn’t get cold at night, you can find plenty of weight savings just by leaving behind certain pieces of extra clothing. While ultralight puffy jackets are lightweight, 15 ultralight puffs are pretty heavy.
  4. Choose lightweight, calorie dense foods. Although food doesn’t figure into our base weight calculations, it’s still a lot of weight on our back. Choose foods that are healthy but calorie dense for your trip. Opt for dehydrated foods if you’ll be somewhere with plenty of water as they offer plenty of weight savings. Also, you don’t need to bring an entire extra day’s worth of food with you. Starvation doesn’t happen in a day, and unless you’re somewhere truly remote, you can probably get to a road within a day or two of hiking.

What’s a sample ultralight packing list?

If you’re looking to get into ultralight backpacking, it can be helpful to see what other people are using for their gear. To get you started, here’s a sample ultralight packing list to help inspire your future adventures:

Sleeping and Packing Systems

For many of us, our backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad are the heaviest things we carry. Luckily, these pieces of gear are some of the easiest (albeit most expensive) pieces of gear to find lighter substitutions for. Here are some great ultralight sleeping and packing gear options:

CategoryItemWeight
TentHyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 218.85 oz
Ground clothHyperlight Mountain Gear Ground Cloth3.77 oz
PackGossamer Gear Murmur13.1 oz
Pack LinerTrash Bag – Compactor0.5 oz
Sleeping BagFeathered Friends Vireo UL15.5 oz
Sleeping PadThermarest NeoAir Uberlite8.8 oz
TOTAL60.53 oz

Cooking

Many people bring gigantic liquid stoves, pots, pans, and full cutlery sets on backpacking trips. While these are great for expeditions in harsh environments, most of us ultralight backpackers could do with a much simpler system, such as this one:

CategoryItemWeight
StoveSnowPeak Gigapower3.2 oz
PotSnowPeak Trek 7004.8 oz
SporkSnow Peak Titanium Spork0.64 oz
KnifeSpyderco Honeybee0.5 oz
LighterMini Bic0.5 oz
Water purificationAquamura3 oz
Hydration systemPlatypus 2L Big Zip5.6 oz
TOTAL18.24 oz

Packed Clothing:

Since everyone likes to wear something different on the trail, we’ll only focus on the gear you’ll probably have in your pack. Of course, this list will change if you’re camping out in a colder environment, but this list is a general guideline for what you want to pack clothing-wise.

CategoryItemWeight
Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium II6.4 oz
Down JacketMountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer7.4 oz
Baselayer PantsPatagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Bottoms4.7 oz
Extra socksDarn Tough Men’s Merino No-Show2.4 oz
Camp shoesCrocs11 oz
TOTAL50.14 oz

Miscellaneous

These smaller items are important, yet often overlooked as sources of potential weight savings. Do you really need that 10 oz bottle of sunscreen for a 2-day trip? Here’s a list of the absolute basics you’ll want to bring on an ultralight backpacking trip:

CategoryItemWeight
CompassSuunto A-100.6 oz
MapTrip-specific1.0 oz
GPSGarmin eTrex 105 oz
HeadlampPetzl E+Lite1.0 oz
ToiletriesPersonal selection (small bottles)5 oz
First aid kitBuild your own5 oz
TOTAL17.6 oz

TOTAL: 9.15 lbs (146.51 oz)

At just 9.15 lbs, our base weight is right under the 10 lbs mark of an “ultralight backpacker.” Of course, if you’re headed out into colder or snowier environments, you may need to take more gear with you to stay comfortable in those conditions. Thus, you should use this gear list as a guide to help you make your own personal decisions, not as gospel.

Is ultralight backpacking right for me?

At the end of the day, ultralight backpacking isn’t for everyone. If you’re someone who is willing to sacrifice some creature comforts (but not safety) in exchange for a lighter backpack, then ultralight backpacking is probably right for you.

If you can’t imagine going without your Kindle, pillow, giant fleece jacket, and other non-essentials, then going ultralight probably isn’t a good fit. However, just because you’re not ready or willing to commit to a sub-10 pound base weight doesn’t mean you can’t use some ultralight tips and tricks to lower your pack weight.

Everyone can benefit from looking critically at their current packing list and considering which pieces of gear go unused at the end of each trip. Additionally, most of us could probably do with simplifying our lives a little bit, especially when we’re outside.

Thus, even if ultralight backpacking isn’t for you, there’s plenty we can all learn and take away from the ultralight backpacking philosophy. Remember: less is more!

Just How Light is Ultralight Backpacking? A Beginner’s Guide

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