Gear for Ultralight Backpacking
It’s a given: the lighter your backpack, the more comfortable and happier you’re going to be. If you’ve managed to get your pack down to about 30 pounds, that’s a good start. But why stop there? How about 20 pounds? Think you can get it down to 15 pounds? This is the ounce-counting challenge that many are taking. Here are a few ways to help you shave the weight.
This will likely be the heaviest and largest single item within your backpack, but unless you’re sleeping in a hut or lean-to, or are opting for a bivy (see below), you pretty much need one.
As a rule of thumb, the smaller the tent, the lighter it is. There are 1-person tents as light as 2.5 pounds, and 2-person tents that come in at around 3.5 pounds. These are good weights to shoot for. Keep in mind that these tents won’t be very spacious, allowing just enough room to sit up.
Other backpacking tent tips:
i) Consider using titanium tent stakes to minimize weight.
ii) Keep the number of guy-lines to a minimum.
iii) Leave the tent’s stuff sack at home.
For the ultimate solo backpacking experience, consider purchasing a bivy shelter instead of a tent. Some weigh as little as 7 ounces, and they’re the smallest, lightest shelter you can pack with you.
A bivy is designed to fit over a sleeping bag, protecting you from wind, rain, and bugs. However, it doesn’t let you move around much or sit up, and it takes a rugged individual who can withstand the claustrophobia and comparative discomfort associated with bivies.
The lower the sleeping bag rating, the more insulation it has, resulting in a heavier bag. This means a 0º (Fahrenheit) bag will be heavier than a 20º bag, assuming they both use the same materials. Fortunately, ultralight backpacking is enjoyed mostly in summer months, when the threat of severe weather is at its lowest. You should be fine with a 20° bag, or even one rated to 35º. Be sure to do the proper research as to the type of weather you should expect before heading out on your trip, though.
For any given temperature rating, you’ll find that sleeping bags insulated with goose down tend to be the lightest. Some people shy away from down because it takes a while to dry out, but new technologies such as DownTek improve the ability of down to resist moisture. You should be able to find a good 35 º down bag that weighs as little as 1.5 pounds.
If you’re concerned about cool nights, try adding a silk liner to an ultralight sleeping bag, which can improve the bag’s temperature rating by nearly 10 degrees with very little additional weight.
If you’re sleeping without some sort of pad between your sleeping bag and the cold ground, you’re going to have a miserable night. Not only do pads provide cushioning, but they also offer much-needed insulation. Choose a lightweight sleeping pad, preferably one that weighs no more than a pound, but be careful not to sacrifice comfort altogether.
Though they are more expensive than closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating sleeping pads provide the best warmth-to-weight ratio. If available, go with a mummy-shaped pad, as they tend to be lighter. Last, you will have to decide how thick a self-inflating sleeping pad to get. An inch-thick pad will be the lightest, but also the least comfortable. A 2.5-inch pad will be supercozy but too heavy to carry. Go with a 1.5- or 2-inch pad for the best combination of comfort and weight.
Don’t Forget the Rain Gear
Although minimalist backpacking means getting closer to nature and accepting the elements, getting soggy can really have a negative effect on your experience. Fortunately, rain jackets, too, have come a long way. Some of the best rain jackets weigh as little as 10 to 12 ounces, and are fully waterproof while also providing exceptional breathability.
Keep one rolled up in your pack in a readily accessible place so you can quickly throw it on if the rain starts to fall.
Here’s where most of your weight comes in. If you take along the food you’d normally pick up in a grocery store—peanut butter, fresh vegetables, or hamburgers—then you’d better be prepared to drag the grocery cart along with you on the trail. Most “regular” food is just too heavy to carry in a backpack for any length of time.
The trick is to choose dry foods that contain minimal water weight. Macaroni and other pastas are a good example. Trail mix with granola and nuts also works well. The best option is to buy dehydrated meals available at any good camping store. Simply add some hot water, and these meals are actually pretty tasty.
Some of the best, most durable, and trusted stoves are as light as 11 ounces—including fuel canisters and pumps—and can be easily packed into a small pouch. MSR WhisperLite stoves have been used for decades, and are some of the lightest, most reliable stoves on the market.
You’ll also need an aluminum mess kit, which you can get for less than 15 ounces. This typically includes a cup, a frying pan, a pot, and a serving bowl. Using a spork and cutting down the handle can also shave off a few ounces, while you can use an ultralight knife—some are less than an ounce—for all cutting needs. Titanium is even lighter than aluminum, though it can get a little pricey.
The best way to carry water is to take one 32-ounce water bottle, and for the lightest option, go with a used soda bottle. Nalgenes are great for durability, but can weigh more than 6 ounces. This is compared to a roughly 1-ounce plastic soda bottle. Take along a SteriPEN (which is less than 5 ounces) or even purification tablets (less than an ounce), and as long as you have a water source, you’ll be all set.
Most backpackers initially think they want to go with as light a backpack as possible. This may be a good idea, or it may not. It all depends on the weight of everything being stuffed inside.
For example, if the pack’s contents are approaching 30 pounds, you’re going to need a pack with a proper suspension that can accommodate the weight, allowing you to carry it in relative comfort. If you opt for a pack with minimal suspension, those 30 pounds will feel like a load of bricks by the end of the day. This is the one piece of gear where comfort often trumps weight.
On the other hand, if you’ve gotten the total weight down to 20 pounds or less, then you can probably get away with an ultralight pack. There are backpacks that weigh as little as 2.5 pounds, yet still offer more than 3000 cubic inches of capacity, balancing weight with space.
It’s important to keep safety in mind, even if you’re trying to get back to nature. All together, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a compass, and a whistle can weigh as little as 2-3 ounces. Emergency supplies are always smart to take along, and can also be trimmed down to a few ounces.
Even a minimalist can appreciate hygiene, so take a toothbrush and cut the handle in half, and pack a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, which you can use for anything.
By committing to an ultralight backpacking experience, you’ll need to understand that comfort doesn’t always come first. However, by taking only the essentials, you’ll find a new sense of connectedness with the environment you’re in.
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