A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Taking weight off your back is a good thing, but not at the expense of comfort, capability or preparedness. Here's how to ultralight backpack in style.

When venturing out into the wilderness on foot, there are two objective-based motivations that can drive us: hiking and camping. If you get off on ever-changing scenery and love the idea of covering lots of ground on your feet, then Ultralight Backpacking may be for you.

I immediately realized the advantage of going lighter on my first ever backpacking trip, which began with a grueling climb to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. My buddy and I were each carrying packs that had to weigh at least 50 pounds. In July. Up a three-mile long granite stairway. It didn't take long for me to start going through a virtual checklist of my pack's contents and mentally tossing items out. Did I really need the survival knife and the hatchet? My 0-degree synthetic sleeping bag was overkill for summer in the Sierras. This simultaneously marked my beginnings as a backpacker and the beginning of my quest to go lighter.

A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Humble Beginnings.

I quickly realized that a lighter pack meant less exertion and greater mobility. As I began to lighten my load, I saw myself traveling faster, farther, and with greater ease. My reward (in addition to less soreness and fewer blisters) was the ability to see more beautiful scenery during my adventures, which are limited in time.

In his book, "Ultralight Backpacking Tips," Mike Clelland lays down tips that he describes as a, "manifesto of intent." The key takeaways here are:

  1. Comfortable and safe are vital.
  2. Scrutinize everything.
  3. Take less stuff.
  4. Know the differences between needs and wants.

Once you take those tips to heart, it's time to start considering gear. Most of your pack's weight is in a few items, or rather, systems. These are the packing system, the shelter system, the sleeping system, and the cooking system.

A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

GoLite Jam 50L in action.

GoLite Jam - $110 The GoLite Jam 50L is an incredibly lightweight (1 lb 14oz,) comfortable, and functional pack with one of the most competitive price points on the market. It uses lightweight materials, but they remain strong and abrasion resistant — if you find yourself crawling through brush or sliding bottoms-down, it'll hold up. Another one of this pack's weight-saving features is the lack of a top lid. That means less organizational abilities, but the gain is shaved ounces and a time-saving roll-top closure that makes the main compartment easy to access. One of my favorite features of this pack is the removable foam back pad. Often, I'll ditch that and wrap a Thermarest Ridgerest sleeping pad around the inside of the pack to act as it's internal structure (part of lightening up is to stick with multi-use items.) At 50 liters, this pack is large enough to hold a full-size bear canister vertically while backpacking through the Sierras and with the back pad it's sturdy enough to carry loads between 30-40lbs.

A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Sometimes, you don't need a shelter.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp - $340 If you're traveling during springtime in California and the forecast doesn't predict rain for months, maybe you don't need to use a shelter. If you are expecting inclement weather, check out the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp. Flat tarps are lightweight, easy to pitch, and can be configured in a multitude of ways. Because of that, they are some of the most versatile shelters in the world. This one weighs less than 10oz and is completely waterproof, due to it's use of space-age Cuben Fiber material.

Cuben is a high-performance, non-woven, rip-stop composite laminate that was developed in the 1990s by a nuclear weapons physicist and an aerospace composite engineer. It's perfect for the construction of lightweight outdoor gear due to its unmatched strength-to-weight ratio. Cuben is highly durable, is 50-70 percent lighter and four times stronger than Kevlar while allowing flex without losing strength. It floats on water, has high chemical resistance, excellent UV resistance, and is 100 percent waterproof. HMG is a pioneer in the outdoor gear application of Cuben Fiber and their Flat Tarp is among the best.

A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

It really is that small.

Sea To Summit Spark SP1 - $299 Sleeping bags are a crucial piece of gear. They keep us warm at night and can be used to keep us alive in an emergency. They are also one of the heaviest and bulkiest pieces of gear that we carry. That's not the case with the Sea To Summit Spark series. These have some of the best warmth-to-weight ratios of any bags on the market. In order to achieve that, STS used 850+ loft goose down (really good stuff that's been treated with moisture-repellent Ultra-Dry Down,) a micro-weight shell and liner, and ⅓ length zippers (a slight inconvenience for the sake of weight.) The SP1 is a summer bag with a 46° rating and weighs just over 12oz. It packs down to the size of a grapefruit — so small that Sea To Summit had to redesign their compression straps. Instead of being one of the largest items in my pack, this sleeping bag is one of the smallest. Expecting temperatures cooler than it's 46° rating? Wear socks, gloves, a warm hat, and a down or fleece jacket to add extra insulation in key heat-loss areas. I've used this bag in near-freezing temperatures and slept like a baby.

A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Simple, right?

Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove - $1.49 You read that right. A dollar forty-nine. That's $0.49 for the Fancy Feast cat food and $1 for a hole punch. If you already have a cat and a hole punch, it's free. These stoves are inexpensive, simple, easy-to-use, and excel at boiling water. Ounce-for-ounce and dollar-for-dollar, you won't be able to buy a better stove. Plus you get the satisfaction of making it yourself and impressing all of your friends. Check the link for instructions and more info.

A Gear Geek's Guide To Ultralight Backpacking

Carrying lighter packs makes it easier to reach places like this.

As my pack has gotten lighter and lighter, I've experienced the direct result of shedding pounds. No longer am I focusing on the soreness of my shoulders and back. They say that every pound that you wear on your feet is equal to carrying five pounds on your back. Because I'm carrying less weight, I can wear lightweight trail runners instead of heavy boots. It's a wonderful cycle. See a cool ridge that's off in the distance? Heading off-trail to check out the view no longer seems like a chore. Stopping for rest becomes easier when you don't have to off-load and pick up a heavy, cumbersome pack. I find myself enjoying every part of the experience more. Give it a try.

Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr

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