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Many backpackers consider their ultralight brethren to be masochists, sacrificing warmth and comfort in exchange for a backpack they can lift with a pinky. Whether it’s a skimpy windshell or a puffy with just the barest hint of down, ultralight gear can often look downright frigid to the casual observer. But a lightweight kit doesn’t have to equate to cold nights. The best way to make the jump to an ultralight setup is surprisingly simple: If you tweak when you eat, hike, and take breaks on the trail, that featherweight clothing can keep you almost as warm as your current wardrobe.
Most hikers structure their days on trails like it’s a day of work: Wake up, make some coffee, and hike all day. Once the miles are out of the way, they’ll set up camp and make dinner as the sun is setting. In a climate-controlled world, it makes sense to bookend our days with meals. It’s relaxing, and it feels familiar. But on hiking trips, you may inadvertently sacrifice warmth by sticking to this routine. After all, an early breakfast and late dinner mean you’re sitting in camp during the coldest parts of the day.
Here are some specific examples of how to reorient your hike to maximize warmth and carry less clothing. It’s worth noting that these tips will be most effective in situations with big fluctuations in temperature over the day, like summertime treks in the mountains. Still, these ideas can be applied to any warm-season hike, no matter the conditions.
If you’re cold in the morning, getting on the move will warm you up more than a hot cup of coffee ever will: Consider how often you start hikes wearing a fleece and pants, only to peel off these extra layers a half hour later. Toss a snack or granola bar somewhere that’s easy to reach and hit the trail. By doing this, you can plan your clothing choices around the fact that you’ll be in motion during the coldest part of the day. There’s always time for a proper breakfast later—like once the sun has peaked and you’ve started to work up a sweat.
Embrace the Siesta
Unless they’re trying to set a new speed record, even ultralighters take breaks. From a practical standpoint, the best time for your longest break of the day is in the late afternoon. It’s the hottest part of the day, which means you can kick back in your hiking attire rather than shivering around a camp stove wearing layers you could otherwise go without. Use this time to cook a good meal, dry out damp gear, and hydrate fully. Since you’re not setting up camp here, you can prioritize finding a water source rather than a flat tent site.
Hike Into the Evening
If you’re eating your big meal in the afternoon, you’ll likely find yourself with several hours of daylight once you’ve finished. As the sun nears the horizon and the temperature begins to dip, keep hiking. It’s the same premise as delaying breakfast: Use your body heat to stay warm instead of pulling out that baselayer, which is now unnecessary weight. Plus, evening hiking offers another advantage—it’s the best time of day to spot wildlife.
Try Out Dry Camping
To an ultralighter, setting up camp is nothing more than a race to get into your sleeping bag as fast as possible. During your siesta, top off your bottles with enough water to get you through the night, and take your pick of campsites (to really optimize your new routine, plan around a water source a few miles away, perfect for your fashionably late breakfast the next morning). Since you’ve already eaten, washed your dishes, and filtered water during the heat of the day, you’ll be inside your shelter and drifting off to sleep before your body even registers that it’s cold outside.
Give Yourself a Safety Net
Since everyone has different tolerances to cold, and old habits can be hard to break, it’s worth bringing your normal insulation layers while you adjust to your new trail routine. Before long, you’ll develop a new, streamlined kit—you might find that clothing that you once considered indispensable never makes it into the pack.
While it’s unlikely you’ll want to ditch your insulating layers entirely, these tips will allow you to leave some clothing at home and replace others with lighter alternatives. Just don’t go overboard. The goal is to be just as warm while carrying less, not to embrace the suffering or take extra risks.