Top 5 Secrets to Become a (Successful) Ultralight Backpacker

For backpackers, the feeling of taking off a super heavy pack after hours on the trail is the supreme bliss. Your whole body feels lighter and the cool breeze begins to gently evaporate the sweat that is dripping down your back. After a few days of hiking, however, that feeling of bliss slowly disappears as you immediately fall to the ground in exhaustion after escaping the weight of a huge pack.

Most people who are new to the world of backpacking tend to bring way more than they actually need. The thought of spending several days out in the wilderness without a refrigerator, central heating system, or a Wal-Mart nearby usually leads to a pack that is upwards of 70 pounds filled with obscure kitchen utensils, extra clothes, and a whole assortment of knives and other weapons to protect yourself while on the trail.

After a few hikes, however, most backpackers tend to realize that the majority of the stuff they´ve taken in the past ends up shifting to the bottom of the pack and never actually makes it out of their pack. You don´t need your nifty (but heavy) espresso maker when the lightweight pot you´ve been using for all your cooking needs does the trick. As the amount of stuff in your bag diminishes, your back and shoulders thank you and you soon find that even after a twenty mile day, you feel fresher and more energized.

For hikers and backpackers who dislike having to carry around a monster pack that needs to be lifted up onto your shoulders with the help of two volunteers, you might be ready to take the next step to ultralight backpacking which will allow you to pack in the miles without feeling dog-tired by the time you make it to your campsite. Below we explain the fundamentals of ultralight backpacking and offer a few tips to become an expert “ultralighter.”

What is Ultralight Backpacking?

Though there are no “official” definitions for what it means to be an ultralight backpacker, the idea is pretty simple: reduce the amount of weight in your pack as much as safely possible. Safety is key here, because while you could head out to the wilderness with nothing more than a pack of matches and a knife, ultralight backpacking still ensures that people will have the needed gear to feed and shelter themselves while on the trail.

Most people accept that “light” backpacking is achieved anytime a pack is under 20 pounds (10 kilos). Ultralight backpacking is more extreme as packs must be at or below 10 pounds (5 kilos). While several people might claim to have invented the ultralight philosophy, the practice can be traced back to indigenous people and scouts who headed out into the wilderness of their territories on several day long hunting trips with nothing more than the clothes on their back and their simple hunting weapons.

More recently, Grandma Gatewood gained fame when she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with nothing more than a duffel bag with nothing more than an army blanket, a plastic sheet, and an umbrella. Not a day goes by without the hundreds of companies that make up the hiking and backpacking industry throwing at us yet another product that is deemed as indispensable for life on the trail. Ultralight backpacking casts doubt on the true necessity of so many different items that quickly lead to a 50 pound pack and instead carefully scrutinizes the pros and cons of every item that eventually does make it into the pack.

Hone Your Skills to Lessen Dependence on Gear

Part of becoming a skilled ultralight backpacker depends on one´s ability to sharpen their wilderness survival skills and their intimate knowledge of the natural world around them. For people without much in depth knowledge and skill, reliance on heavy duty gear is a must. For example, when headed out for a three day hike in late autumn, you probably will be tempted to carry a strong tent and an extra heavy sleeping bag. If, however, you knew how to build a simple structure that protected you from the elements while efficiently capturing and storing the heat of a fire, you could easily make do without the tent and heavy sleeping bag.

Reduce the Weight of Each Item

One of the benefits of the burgeoning backpacking supplies industry is that companies are always competing against one another to try and lower the weight of essential items you will want to carry with you. From ultralight cooking pots to sturdy backpacks that weigh in at less than a pound (read this Wild Guide for more info), you will want to do your research to find which pieces of essential gear will save you an ounce or two. To help you with that, we have compiled and reviewed all the best hiking backpacks available on the market today. Don't forget to check out this Live Once Live Wild Guide as part of your research.

Think About Your Feet

When considering weight, most hikers and backpackers only think about what they are carrying on their back. However, the weight of what you´re wearing on your feet is another fundamental concern of the ultralighter. Instead of opting for those bulky hiking boots that when wet might feel like you´re dragging two rocks along the path, a lighter pair of hiking shoes will significantly reduce your overall weight and even go a long way in making your pack feel lighter as well.

Several Functions for Each Piece of Gear

For ultralight backpackers, the idea of carrying along an extra pair of mittens or gloves when you have a clean pair of wool socks buried at the bottom of your bag is nonsense. One of the essential elements of ultralight backpacking is getting as many functions or uses out of each piece of gear that you bring along. For example, a poncho for rainy weather can also double as a ground cover for your tent, tarp, or other sleeping arrangement. A camping hammock likewise is a good way to keep your bag dry during wet weather. Just don´t try to use your shoe laces for dental floss.

Reduce Your Kitchen Weight

If you have foregone the extra pair of clothes and the heavy tent but your pack is still a couple pounds over the 10 pound threshold, you might want to look at what you´re carrying as kitchen. Those pots, pans, stoves, and silverware quickly add on the pounds, and one of the best ways to reduce weight is to forego the stove all together and opt instead for no-cook meals. You can always bring along the infamous “billycan” which is a single cook pot that you can use to boil up a soup made from the edible plants and morel mushrooms you´ve collected along the trail over an open fire.

Safety over that Magical Number

While most all traditional hikers and backpackers would agree that we really don't need half the stuff we carry on our backs, there is a limit to how light you can go. You should never sacrifice your personal safety just to enjoy a lighter pack. If you´re headed out for a weekend jaunt in the woods and the forecast calls for the possibility of snowstorms, you might want to bring along that heavy duty sleeping bag, or a durable tent even if it pushes your pack up to 15 pounds. With that being said, it's also important to know the best tent brands available today. Make sure to take a look at Live Once Live Wild Guide to help you choose the best tent.

By following these five simple pieces of advice, however, you should be able to drastically reduce the weight of your backpack and continue to hone your wilderness survival skills as your lack of gear will put you closer in contact with the natural world around you.


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