My Ultralight Backpacking Setup Weighed Almost Nothing—and it Was Miserable to Use
Is lighter really always better?
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Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.
I’ll never forget the joy I experienced when I unfurled my Enlightened Equipment custom ultralight quilt for the first time. It was so light the box felt empty, and the quilt packed easily down to the size of a small melon in its stuff sack. The quilt was the final item that brought my kit to the hallowed sub-10-pound base weight. Finally, I thought, I had the perfect setup.
Then I took it on the trail for the first time, and I was miserable.
A year prior, I’d started the Appalachian Trail with a 45-pound pack. Like many hikers, I quickly reduced the weight by sending items home or purchasing lighter gear at outfitters along the trail. I replaced my Therm-a-Rest ProLite pad with a NeoAir X-Lite (saving a whopping 11 ounces), my bulky Mountain Hardwear Cloud’s Rest 5°F bag with a sleeker Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed. My original 70-liter Gregory Deva pack weighed 5 pounds empty, so I bought a 55-liter Osprey Exos in Damascus, Virginia. I settled comfortably at a mid-range pack weight of 15 pounds and never missed the extra socks or fleece.
I might have been happy with my gear, but over the next thousand miles, conversations with other hikers continued to revolve around their pride in shaving ounces. A trail friend did a shakedown for me in New York and scoffed at my Crocs dangling from a strap and the merino camp pants tucked at the bottom of my pack.
“I like separate clothes at camp,” I muttered, stuffing them back into the pack as he shouldered a pack smaller than what I’d carry on a dayhike. “Besides, I don’t cook anymore, so I saved weight by sending my cooking stuff home.”
After the AT, the idea of a lighter, brag-worthy pack nagged at me—I had hiked higher miles more easily for the second half of the trail, and I attributed some of this to reducing my pack weight. With this in mind, I kept replacing gear, trying to shed even more ounces. I swapped my 55-liter Osprey pack for an ultralight 37-liter from Pa’lante Packs. I traded my inflatable sleeping pad for a closed-cell foam pad, and stopped carrying base layers and camp shoes. I left my change of clothing at home. The last item was the coveted quilt. I’d customized it for the lightest specs—950-fill down and a hair warmer than I should have gone—and couldn’t believe how airy it was when it arrived.
It only took one four-day trip in September into the mountains of southwest Montana to figure out that, for me, my fine-tuned ultralight setup was awful to actually backpack with. It rained incessantly, and my hiking clothes were soaked by the end of the first day. I had nothing to change into at camp, and I huddled under my new quilt, grasping desperately at the corners. The quilt was so light it would lift off my shoulders with any movement, sending icy air shooting into the gaps. I had ordered the regular width, and I couldn’t get it wrapped all the way around me securely enough to prevent drafts.
I snapped the collar closed, strapped the elastic bands around my foam sleeping pad, and lay awake shivering. The temperatures dropped into the low 30’s, which my quilt was rated for, but I was unable to stay warm. I’d never slept on a closed-cell foam pad before, and while it worked for plenty of my hiker friends, I felt each pinecone, twig, and pebble under the pad. I missed my camp clothes, and couldn’t keep my feet away from the condensation-beaded walls on my smaller shelter.
I went on a few more trips with my ultralight setup, but the bottom line was that it didn’t work for me. I am not setting speed records and I’m not a fastpacker. I am a very average hiker who doesn’t like to carry too much, but enjoys being comfortable at camp. Going from a pack that weighed over 40 pounds to a nine-pound base weight wasn’t realistic, and five years after my one season as an ultralight backpacker, it’s still not the right setup for me. I’d let the sneers of other hikers as I put on my camp shoes get to my head—I had chased the ultralight trend all the way to a setup that didn’t work for my hiking style.
I’ve learned that the trick to being happy in the “middle” is understanding your priorities. While ultralight hikers can give up camp comforts and heavier packers don’t give up much of anything, mid-range backpackers—where most people fall—give up some luxuries and not others. Part of honing your system is learning through trial and error, including trips where you wish you’d packed some things and regretted bringing others.
My partner and I are good examples of different gear priorities. When we hike together, we’re both middle-of-the-road packers, but what we carry looks different. I care about being comfortable at camp, which means separate baselayers that I only wear when I’m done hiking for the day. However, I don’t care about backcountry cooking. Aside from the extra weight of cooking gear, I don’t want to collect extra water, I’m too impatient to let my food rehydrate, and I don’t enjoy cleaning dishes. Hot food is not a priority for me, so while I carry camp clothes, I’ve traded out the weight of a cookset for tortillas with cheese and pepperoni.
My partner is the opposite. While he enjoys hot food and coffee on his relaxed trips, he doesn’t carry any extra clothes, and is fine using his jacket as a pillow. What works for him isn’t the same as what works for me, and it won’t be the same for anyone else either. While it was hard for me to let the ultralight voices go, I’m very happy with where I ended up.
There’s no substitute for trial and error to dial in your own setup, but here are a few tips to get you started.
First, consider your actual backpack: If you anticipate long water carries and carry heavier gear, your pack is not the first place to reduce weight. My LiteAF 46L Curve might be on the smaller side, but it has a padded hipbelt and plenty of pockets—a far cry from most ultralight packs. I chose this pack because I like keeping some weight off my shoulders, and I love organizing my smaller items. This pack also has a sturdy internal frame, critical for keeping the weight off my shoulders.
Don’t ditch everything at once: This was the biggest mistake I made in my short-lived ultralight endeavor. I got rid of camp comfort, on-trail comfort, and changed my entire gear system all at once. Try paring down your pack a few items at a time.
Evaluate how much you’re using the items while you carry them, not at home: This was the best way for me to learn my priorities. I appreciated changing clothes at camp and sleeping on an inflatable pad, so it wasn’t something I should have changed. On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy the process of cooking, which should have been an indicator to drop the stove faster. Also consider whether or not the weight savings will increase enjoyment. If you know you get cold in the mornings, keep the beanie and gloves. You’ll be happier carrying them than you would be saving four ounces by leaving them at home.
Know your hiking style: Do you tend to sleep warmer? You could be fine with a lighter, smaller quilt than someone who needs a hooded, fully enclosed sleeping bag. Do you need more padding and comfort between yourself and the ground? You might want a cushy, inflatable pad. If you are less of a side sleeper and don’t need as much cushion, you could be fine with a closed-cell foam pad.
Don’t forget to have fun. Unless you’re chasing records or crushing huge miles, you can spare a pound or two for luxury items. Will a camera add an exciting element to the experience? Bring it. Do you like the space of having a two-person tent all to yourself? Take it. You’ll have more fun if you’re comfortable and allow yourself a few extras.
Ultimately, this is your own hike, and what you choose to carry will make a difference in the trip. If it’s not worth it? Send it home, or simply leave it behind next time. The beauty of backpacking is that you get to hike your own hike, not anyone else’s.