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Here's a not-so-well-kept secret: we're obsessed with pack weight.

Unless you're a surefooted Sherpa, we're going to guess that the less you carry is proportionate to how much you enjoy a hike.

Minimizing weight is nothing new to long-distance through-hikers, but what about the rest of us? The weekend warrior who wants an overnight escape into the backcountry without packing the entire household?

Enter ultralight backpacking.

 gregoryWill Saunders


What is ultralight backpacking?

Ultralight backpacking is simply the less-is-more philosophy of reducing both the quantity of gear and the collective weight of the gear you pack. There is no universal base pack weight (total weight of your backpack and gear, excluding consumables which vary depending on the duration of your trip); what is ultralight to a 125-lb hiker is going to differ from what a 180-lb hiker considers featherweight. However, most backpackers eyeball a base pack weight between 10 and 13 lbs / 4.5 - 5.9 kgs. 


Ultralight backpacking: where to start?

Ultralight backpacking takes some mental lifting at the planning phase in order to safely lighten up, from sourcing light-but-durable gear (without breaking the bank) to deliberating, “Do I really need that?” At the end of the day, you don’t want to get stuck in a rainstorm without waterproofing, nor in an emergency without a first aid kit or way to call for help. 

Analyze everything

Assess your camp needs relative to the environment you will be hiking in. Consider things like water supply, elevation gain, exposure, etc. What can the environment offer to reduce what you pack? For example: a fresh stream can offer drinking water; trees can become posts for stringing a tarp or hammock. 

Separate needs from wants. If you need the item, how much does it weight? Is there a lightweight version of it? Or can you adapt it? Example: cut the handle off your toothbrush. (For some, every gram counts!) 

Also, it's important to consider who you are backpacking with. Going ultralight with another ultralight geek is one thing. Eliminating comfort items that would be appreciated by your less-outdoorsy hiking partner—all in the name of going ultralight—is going to brew resentment. 


Assess the four essential gear items

Gregory backpackWill Saunders

Start by examining the weight and size of the four pieces of critical backpack-camping gear: backpack, shelter, sleeping bag and sleeping pad.


Wave good-bye to a bulky 60-litre+ backpack. Instead, aim for a pack in the 45-litre range. Gregory Octal 45 and Gregory Optic 48 backpacks are both brand-new ultralight options. Aerospan suspension uses a tensioned 7001 aluminum perimeter frame with anti-barrelling support, which is key for carrying comfort. And even though you won't be toting more than 25-30 lbs, a ventilated, dual-density FocusForm padded shoulder harness and supportive hip belt offer a comfortable, snug fit. Weighing just over 2 lbs / one kilogram, it's not too much, not too little, but just right. 


Ultralight purists (in the appropriate environment) will favour tarps as the lightest option for shelter. Prop it up with trekking poles, if you use them. Prefer a more enclosed shelter? A one-person tent made of lightweight material (like mesh) can weigh as little as one to two pounds. If you don't hate them, a hammock tent complete with rain tarp and straps will tip the scales around 3 lbs / 1.4 kg. 



Depending on temperature rating and budget, you can assume 2 - 3 lbs (900 - 1,400 grams) of your base pack weight will be consumed by your sleeping bag.

Down vs. synthetic: Down-insulated bags are lighter and more easily compressed than synthetic, and mummy-shaped bags reduce excess material at the expense of roominess. However, synthetic is cheaper and dries faster, should it get wet. 



Although some opt to get cozy with Mother Nature and sleep on the cold hard earth, a sleeping pad provides insulation and much-craved comfort on an overnight adventure.

There are three types of sleeping pads: air pads, self-inflating pads and closed-cell foam pads. There are pros and cons to each, and your selection will depend on environment, trip duration and budget. 

Air pads: the lightest and most compact sleeping pad option weighing 350-600 grams for smaller, narrower ultralight pads or up to 800 grams for a bulkier, albeit more comfortable, sleep.

Self-inflating pads: typically made of more durable material, self-inflating pads do the work for you—simply unscrew the valve and wait. They are typically less expensive yet less compact than their air pad counterparts.

Closed-cell foam pads: the least expensive and most durable pads (they can't be punctured), closed-cell are typically favoured by long-distance through-hikers. Plus, they can be affixed to the outside of a pack without fear of damage. 


Fueling your hike when ultralight backpacking:

gregoryWill Saunders


Since you're only going for one night, you can get away with leaving the stove set and cookware at home.

If a single butane element (300-500 grams / 7-17 ounces) makes your list of "needs," you can manage with a couple freeze-dried meals. Bonus: you'll have hot coffee or tea in the morning.

If you want to leave the burner at home, consider no-cook meals: vegetable samosas, tuna and cheddar on a bagel, pizza pita wraps, granola and trail mix.



Ask any through-hiker and they will tell you that water is one of the heaviest items to carry.

Cutting water weight depends on the availability of water along your route. If water is scarce, you'll have to carry what you'll need. Stressing about not having enough water is a mental load in itself. A bladder will reduce the space taken by a bulky bottle. Some Gregory packs actually come with a built-in hydro reservoir.

If water is available, is it potable? This will determine whether or not you require a filtration system. Iodine tablets or a Lifestraw are the most portable.


gregoryWill Saunders

Whether or not you decide to go completely ultralight or just decide to shave a bit of extra weight off your back, re-thinking what you pack and how you pack it can make for overall more enjoyable adventures.


Keep reading:

Reddit - the /Ultralight subreddit has a staggering 82,000 subscribers. Mine for advice or post your own question to this vast community. 

REI - Ultralight Backpacking Basics 

Gizmodo - A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Greenbelly - 42 Ultralight Backpacking Tips: How to Shave Pack Weight





Are you an ultralight backpacker?
What tips would you share?
Comment below!

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