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Ultralight Backpacking: Do's and Don'ts

Want to do ultralight right? Check out these tips.

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Going light can make your backpacking life a thousand times easier. Understanding how to shave every ounce, what gear to buy, and how to pack it all can do wonders for your back, your speed, and your daily mileage. There are lot of factors to consider when going ultralight backpacking, which can make it a confusing and stressful experience. That is where this guide comes in. It’ll take a look at the gear that has been field tested, the skills you need to shave the weight, and the technique that can see you covering some serious mileage.

Get A Scale

No this isn’t for you; it is just for your gear. Getting one of those five pound scales that post offices use can help you weigh out everything to the ounce, which is vital for ultralight packing. When you comparing items, the choice is easy; lighter always wins.

Pay Attention to Those Calories

An interesting ratio that can save you both weight and money here is something called the “dollar to calorie ratio.” These would be items that are cheap to buy, but also pack a lot of calories (i.e. doughnuts!)

Really though, you should be looking for foods that have a high calorie amount relative to the ounce. For example, peanut butter fits great into this category because it packs 165 calories per ounce! (plus, it goes on almost anything). Other good foods for this criteria include cheese, cashews, and dark chocolate. The more calories per ounce, the better because you will still get the necessary energy without as much weight.

Bring That Extra Layer?

This is the easiest way to bring your weight up or down. Debating on whether you should prepare for a freak winter storm in July is a true conundrum when backpacking. But for ultralight backpacking enthusiasts, the choice is easy.

Only bring what you could ever imagine needing. To do this, check out your weather for the duration of the trip you are embarking on. Then, you can plan accordingly and take only what you absolutely need. This will probably save you time on trying to weigh everything because you can shave a significant amount of weight just by leaving those extra items at home.

Don’t Be A Camel

Desert hiking is an exception here, but you shouldn’t need to carry more than 1.5 liters of water at a time, especially if you plan your stops around places with a water source (which of course, you can treat with something such as Aquamira).

The Pillow Conundrum

Using clothes as a pillow inside of a stuff sack operates a great pillow instead of carrying an entire pillow. Those huge insulated sleeping pads? You could cut down there too by using ridged foam (Therm-a-Rest) or other light options. Oh, and that winter sleeping bag that weighs three or more pounds? Try out a down quilt instead and notice the weight difference, not the comfort difference.

An Ultralight Backpacking Mindset


Being an ultralight backpacker means that you think about things in a different manner than your weighed down peers. Some ways to get into that mindset…..

Hiking All Day, Even into the Night

Guess what? You don’t get tired nearly as quickly when you don’t have 40 pounds on your back. You can walk all day until you feel exhausted. You don’t become worn down and stressed by the weight, thus enjoying the hike much more, making the “journey become the destination.”

Many ultralight backpackers will take several breaks, even naps during the middle of their expeditions. And, you won’t miss those luxuries you left at home, guaranteed. You will feel so accomplished and beat after you walked however many miles that you will drift off into the night.

Change You Attitude, Change Your Mind

Ultralight backpacking is truly an attitude and a mindset in itself. Telling yourself you don’t need that extra comfort item, relying on living with less, and paying attention to what you are bringing takes effort and time. Being open to the idea though can get you started, and once you get there, you could have an experience like no other.

Ultralight Gear

Here are some of the best pieces of gear that has been tested and considered ultralight

MontBell Ex Light Doesewn Anorak Jacket

A light hooded pullover that packs down to the size of soft ball. It provides maximum warmth in only 6.2 ounces. Runs at about $219; check it out on MontBell’s site,

MSR Pocket Rocket Stove

MSR Pocket Rocket 240x180

One of the best, if not the best, canister stoves in the market. Super tiny (3 oz), and has been shown to have a sub-four minute boiling time. A must have! You can pick one up for $40.

Marmot Plasma 15 Sleeping Bag

2 pounds, 875 fill goose down, and warm sleeping bag. You’d have to invest some money into it, but it is well worth the price. $539.

ZPacks Arc Blast 52 Backpack

Carbon fiber framed backpack that supports up to 35 pound loads, provides airflow against the back and keeps the weight down. Only weighs 1 pound, 1 ounce on its own. $279.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X Lite S Sleeping Pad

2.5 inches thick and insulation that protects cold and rough rocks, this amazing sleeping pad packs comfort into only 8 ounces. $130.

Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp 75 (Courtesy Photo)
No more wet, cold, midnight adjustments: Tweak this tarp’s guyouts from inside. It sleeps up to three. $199; 12 oz.; (Courtesy Photo)

Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp

With guyouts on the inside, the rain and cold will stand no chance against you. This tarp sleeps up to three and runs at a price of $199, weighing just a meager 12 ounces.

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