Modern day thru-hikers are traversing thousands of miles on foot through remote wilderness areas with little to nothing in their packs and making it look easy. They travel fast, ultralight, and as a result, sustain less injuries and better preserve their bodies.
Becoming ultralight isn’t challenging, however it does require some research and experimentation. To see what works best for you, I recommend taking shorter trips with less gear and seeing what you can do without. Then as you become more comfortable, you can up the mileage and embark on longer and more adventurous lightweight excursions.
But don’t go throwing away all of your expensive gear and expect to be comfortable, because being lightweight comes at a price. Comfort is something you’ll need to be willing to sacrifice if you want to shed a few pounds from your base weight, but with some diligent effort and understanding you can go about this transition in a safe and beneficial way.
Consider the nine tips outlined below to reduce your overall pack weight and to help fuel your next ultralight adventure!
1. Shed some weight on your “Big Three”
The “Big Three” is comprised of your backpack, sleeping bag, and shelter system. These three items are essential to any backpackers gear repertoire and are the first areas for which aspiring ultralighter’s can look to cut weight.
Most conventional backpacks like Osprey and Kelty are remarkably durable, however they are just too heavy. Instead, consider choosing a frameless UL pack like the Gossamer Gear Kumo (18.5 oz.), Zpacks Nero (10 oz.), or Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus (16 oz.), which all weigh in under two pounds. I used the Kumo on my AT thru-hike and it’s what allowed me to get as light as I was.
When choosing shelter, consider whether or not you will be traveling solo or with a partner. If going solo, you might opt for a one-person tent like the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1, or – if you’re into hanging out – an ultralight solo hammock. If you plan on hiking with a partner, though, check out some UL two-person tents from Gossamer Gear, Tarptent, Big Agnes, and/or Zpacks.
Your sleeping bag is something you don’t want to skimp on because after a long day of hiking you want to ensure at the very least that you are warm and dry at night. Depending on when and where you are hiking, choose a sleeping bag that best accommodates the weather conditions and the season in which you are trekking. For starters, the REI Flash sleeping bag is a perfect three-season, easily packable and lightweight bag that won’t cost you a fortune.
2. Ditch the stove, eat cold!
Going stove-less on long distance backpacking trips is becoming more and more popular, and for good reason. Although being able to cook a warm meal at night is very rewarding and satiating, it is ultimately a luxury item and can be done without. I was never one to cook many meals on the trail anyway, but when you ditch the stove (along with the fuel and the variety of bulky backpacker meals weighing down your food bag) you all of a sudden have more internal pack capacity and have simultaneously managed to save at least one pound of unneeded weight. Plus, if you like bars and peanut butter, you’ll wonder why you didn’t go stove-less years ago!
3. Size your sleeping pad
For those of you with non-inflatable sleeping pads – such as the Thermarest Z-lite – consider cutting a few panels off of your pad to reduce it down to torso length in order to save a few ounces. This works especially well if you are short (like me) and don’t use the full length of the pad while sleeping at night. Cutting your sleeping pad is NOT advised unless you are looking to cut weight in every way possible, as it may interfere with your rest and will certainly eliminate comfort to some degree. But for all of you UL junkies, this is a great weight-saving hack and an even better conversation starter when people see you setting up your pad in shelters.
“Hey, is that your sleeping pad?”
“Yeah, I cut it smaller because I’m ultralight.”
4. No more Nalgenes!
I read copious amounts of material on water bottles and which were the most ‘environmentally safe’ to bring out on the AT, and I’ll admit that I was that guy with TWO Nalgene’s strapped to my pack before I was ultralight. Since then, I’ve learned that a simple plastic water bottle (e.g. smartwater) does the trick as it is light, easily replaceable, and saves several ounces on your overall pack weight. Water is one of the heaviest items you will carry anyway, so why weigh it down even more with a hefty non-GMO Nalgene? I usually carry a 1L bottle with me, but if I’m hiking in an area with limited water supply I’ll carry an additional 750 mL plastic bladder to be safe.
5. Embrace your stench!
Instead of carrying an overinflated clothes bag filled with extra shirts, shorts, socks and five pairs of underwear, try and reduce your clothing down to only ONE outfit and only TWO pairs of socks. You don’t need more than one shirt, one pair of shorts, and one pair of underwear. You just don’t. Your clothes will get dirty and they will smell, but nobody cares because you’re in the woods and everyone else smells too. Aside from what you wear during the day while you hike, you should only otherwise worry about carrying a rain jacket, and if it’s cold, an extra warm fleece layer or puffy jacket and possibly some leggings. To keep your feet warm I recommend carrying two pairs of socks, one to hike in and one dry pair to rotate with when the other gets wet. Disclaimer: Always be conscious of when and where you are hiking and prepare for the weather accordingly.
6. Ditch the pack cover
Pack covers are virtually useless when you are hiking in a deluge. They are annoying to put on your pack and when not being used serve as extra and unneeded weight. In my experience, pack covers only entrap the water more than they actually prevent it from seeping into your bag, so do yourself a favor and ditch your pack cover. Instead, use a trash compactor bag to line the inside of your pack to keep things dry. That way if it does start raining, you don’t need to stop and take your pack off to rain-proof it. Your personal items will already by safely covered inside your bag and you’ll be lighter because of it.
7. Minimize use of stuff sacks
And by utilizing an interior pack liner like a trash bag, you’ll no longer need to keep your things in stuff sacks. Having separate dry sacks for your clothes, sleeping bag, essentials, and tent isn’t necessary to keep your things dry anymore and will save you a tremendous amount of weight. The key to packing light is to maximize the internal capacity of your bag by packing things loosely and letting them breathe. That means packing your sleeping bag loose and not in it’s own stuff sack, same as with your clothes, and possibly even your tent. As long as everything is packed away inside the trash bag liner, no water will damage your things. I use a Zpacks stuff sack for my tent and tent stakes, and carry one additional stuff sack to use as my pillow at night.
8. Leave your Crocs at home
Unless you are building your own ultralight camp shoes using recycled Thermarest Z-lite padding and duct tape (I knew a guy) you shouldn’t be carrying them. Although stylish, and in some cases lightweight, camp shoes are a luxury item and are not necessary to be apart of your ultralight gear ensemble. The idea is to hike all day so that when you do get to camp you’re not worrying about putting on your camp shoes, you’re just thinking about eating and going to sleep. Take your shoes and socks off at the end of the day and let your stench infiltrate the surrounding campsite, allowing your feet to dry and air out before putting on your wet socks the next day. At night when I need to pee or have to leave the tent, I like to keep my smelly shoes ready in the vestibule so that even in the dark I can slip them on quickly and go about handling my business.
9. Virtual Maps > Paperback
A creative way to save some weight is to convert all of your paperback maps into digital form and store them on your smartphone. The majority of people carry some sort of cellphone with them while they hike to take pictures and stay in touch with their family, so it’s generally a non-negotiable item. But to capitalize on it, especially if you’re hiking a longer trail and have a big guide book that you carry with you, consider downloading the PDF or mobile version and having it accessible on your device whenever you need it. Guthook’s hiking app is a popular mobile mapping system that provides real-time updates and allows you to see comments made by other hikers. While hiking the AT I ended up recycling my paperback AWOL guide and downloaded the PDF version instead to save some weight.