How to Go Ultralight Backpacking: Being Smart Not Silly

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If there is one thing I have come to understand in the last few months learning about ultralight backpacking for thru-hikes it is that equipment has gotten super light! It used to be when trying to hike you would carry a 40-60 pound pack, these new options can make for smaller easier to carry backpacks than I carried in high school!

Ultralight backpacking is where your pack base weight comes in under 10 total pounds. This helps to lessen stress on your body and helps to extend the health of your legs over the long run. Base weight is calculated on items within you pack prior to adding your food and water in.

What we can check out now is to help expand on the Ultralight mythos and how it came into its own life. We can dive into what is typically brought with and how people typically hit an ultralight level and we even provide information on building a budget ultralight pack for around 500.

Why Go Ultralight Anyway?

This is the question I hear the most from people, maybe even from you as you are currently reading this post! A large reason that I choose to go ultralight is that it helps reduce the chance of injury and helps me stay out and enjoying nature.

Going light also helps you to require fewer calories overall to move the weight, this means you can carry less food with you while still being able to eat well. This way you can choose to carry different foods when not worrying about packing 2.5 pounds of food per day you can be a little choosier.

The final reason is as I hit the big 40 last year my body is always going to be walking a finer line than people who are half my age. When you are 20 you can get away with more as your body still adapts faster and more efficiently, take note young ones, as you age this ability lessens.

Dangers To Ultralight Backpacking

Since ultralight backpacking requires lessening your items in your pack or in general carrying less weight this can lead to issues if not well planned in advance. The result of poor planning can be death if the circumstances go out of your favor, a bizarre weather storm with snow and you don’t have cold gear as an example.

Another danger of ultralight packing is that you bring less food as you have less space which means if something happens to delay you on the trail you could run out. While this is dangerous it isn’t life threatening in most cases due to trails being well traveled.

Ultralight Backpacking Not Stupid Light Weather Can Dictate Gear - How to Go Ultralight Backpacking
Ultralight Backpacking Not Stupid Light Weather Can Dictate Gear

What you need to be is ultralight not stupid light. One doesn’t necessarily mean the other, make sure you are fully protected and not stupidly prepared, don’t cut needed weight to hit a magic number.

Josh Koop

What is Considered Ultralight In Base Weight?

There are many classifications to pack weight and they are rated in tiers. Ultralight is defined as being under 10 pounds of base weight, lightweight is under 15 pounds, and there is even another smaller rating for super ultralight which is sub 5 pounds!

I would think to reach super ultralight would require both expensive gear and proper conditions similar to summer or warmer months as you more than likely cowboy camp frequently.

What To Pack When Ultralight Backpacking

The same items you would pack when not ultralight, you need your sleep system, cold gear, sleep gear, cook system and more. Ultralight doesn’t mean cutting NECESSARY equipment and gear, think about the gear item and if unsure pack it for a gear shakedown and see how valuable it is.

Many ultralight packers move to a Tarp system which means not having an enclosed sleeping area as you would have with a tent. This change actually dramatically cuts the base weight by up to 2 pounds or more in many cases!

Don’t let that fool you into thinking that a tarp is the only method, if weather is poor or expected to become poor then most ultralights bring a tent. This isn’t the tent your family would be in as there are versions from Zpacks and other vendors which can weigh under a pound to two pounds to spend the night in luxury.

Lady with a very light overall backpack - How to Go Ultralight Backpacking
Ultralight Backpacking Comes In Many Shapes And Sizes

What Size Of Pack For Ultralight Backpacking?

Many backpacks for ultralight travel will be very low in overall weight carrying capacity along with lower in overall Liters of space. The typical size in the ultralight side is between 20-30 liters appears to be normal in the options online. The Nero, from Zpacks, is a favorite for ultralight thru-hikers from the AT, PCT, and CDT.

Is Ultralight Backpacking Worth It?

I believe that it is personally, the less weight I wear less wear and tear on my body. Also the less weight on me the faster and farther I can travel in a day while not overexerting.

The cost you pay in this is in dollars, ultralight doesn’t come cheap in most cases you can spend $500 on a tent or single items in your backpack. Think about that as for many this can be eye-opening, you can do ultralight as a beginner and on a budget, it just takes an eye for sales and good values.

Ultralight Backpacking For Beginners

I would say that trying to become ultralight is more difficult to do when you start. Ultralight packs need you to be very focused on necessary gear whereas most new or first time hikers will tend to over-pack.

This over-packing leads to gear failures and carrying too much weight. This is why I recommend new or first time hikers aim towards ultralight gear on sales but otherwise choose to aim for a more lightweight approach first while adding and replacing gear over time. This can and is an expensive hobby and you want to make sure you enjoy it before you sink too much money into it.

How To Do Ultralight Backpacking On A Budget

As a starter to backpacking and not knowing if you will continue to backpack you want to find ultralight backpacking options on the cheap. We have built an amazing article around the best budget ultralight backpacking gear for beginners which should fit the bill.

As I suggest in the post linked above I would start to purchase everything months in advance one at a time so that no one piece of gear will bust your bank account. This also allows you to take advantage of store sales over time where you may be able to acquire ultralight gear at an ultralight price.

Learn Redundancy To Cut Weight In Your Pack

Do you really require a pillow to sleep or can you pack your extra clothes or other gear into a stuff sack and make a pillow? If you use trekking poles then find a tent or sleep system which uses them in place of tent poles to cut more weight off your backpack.

Redundancy and adding items to your pack that can serve more than one role will help you to cut weigh from your pack, many times faster than other methods, if you spend some time planning before making your purchases.

Final Thoughts on How to Go Ultralight Backpacking

Hopefully, you gained some knowledge around ultralight backpacking today and have the ability to start your plan to become ultralight yourself. I started ultralight and will never look to add useless weight back into my pack, I currently run my budget pack from as it was also ultralight on my wallet.

If you learned something new I would love to have you share this out as it helps me reach more people, if interested I have a Patreon page which helps me keep the lights on.

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