Packing Light: How to Get Started with Ultralight Backpacking
Thinking about going light on your next adventure? Ultralight backpacking is a fantastic way for experienced explorers to hike faster and farther.


We’ve outlined our top tips and gear suggestions to help lighten your load.

The Art of Ultralight Backpacking

For those of you who are new to backpacking, ultralight is a style of backpacking that enables trekkers to carry the lightest and most basic gear possible while remaining safe on their expedition.

Fully-packed ultralight backpacks generally weigh less than 20 pounds, and there are several techniques to apply that will help you hit the target weight for your pack.

Packers should…
  • Replace older gear that was manufactured with heavier materials with lighter minimalist gear.
  • Lighten your feet. Too much weight from shoes and socks requires 4-6x more energy than weight that is carried in your pack. Low-weight hiking footwear like the Mammut Comfort Low GTX® SURROUND® Shoe will help you conserve energy and increase agility.
  • Find gear that is multi-purposed. For example, you can use socks for mittens or buy tent poles that can double as hiking poles.
  • Share gear. If you are adventuring with someone else, split the weight of your heavier items. If you’re carrying the tent tarp, let your hiking partner take on the weight of the poles.
  • Carry only what’s absolutely necessary (without compromising safety, of course).

how to pack light for backpackingKeeping It to the Essentials

Like any adventure, before you decide to enter into the world of ultralight backpacking, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re ready for it.

One of the keys to keeping it ultralight is having a detailed understanding of your personal needs. Then choose the most basic and lightweight gear that meets those needs. Before you start picking your bare essentials, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
  1. What essentials do I need to be comfortable? Do you need a pillow, or can you rest your head on your backpack? Are you okay eating with the same utensils that you cooked with?
  2. What essentials do I need to be safe? Are you the type of person who can be comfortable in footwear that’s on the minimalist end like the Mammut Ridge Low GTX® Shoe, or do you need something more heavy-duty like the Lowa Renegade Mid GTX® Boot? Are you okay with cleaning a minor cut using rubbing alcohol and sealing it up with super glue, or do you need to carry a full first aid kit? (Disclaimer: Please talk to your doctor about appropriate ways to handle injuries before you leave on your trip!)
  3. What is my experience level? Are you Bear Grylls or bear bait? It boils down to your survival skills. Are you able to make due with a compass and trail map, or do you need a GPS or map navigation system to reach your destination? Is a small knife sufficient, or do you need a multi-tool?

Bring the Bare Necessities

You’ve assessed your survival skills and now it’s time to get started with the items you’ll need for the excursion. We all have different opinions about which items are essential and which are a luxury, and that’s okay. But when we have to make those tough choices, we like to start by picking three large items we can’t do without.  

Shelter:

If you’re a low maintenance sleeper and are ready to rough it, an ultralight tarp is probably enough protection from the wind and rain. Tarps generally weigh around 13 ounces, which makes them a dream for ultralight backpacking. If you’re more comfortable in an enclosed shelter, you can find lightweight 2-person tents that only weigh around 2 pounds. There are also ultralight hammocks that can comfortably support up to about 200 pounds.

Pack:

Choosing the right lightweight pack is critical, and it can be difficult to find the right one. When you start your search, you’ll want to look for packs somewhere in the light range (around 3 pounds) to the ultralight range (1 pound or less).

For a long weekend trip, we love the Marmot Kompressor Verve 42 Pack, weighing in at 2 lbs. 9 oz. and 42-liter capacity.

Sleeping pad and insulation:

If you’re okay with a thinner sleeping pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad will do the trick. It weighs less than a 1-liter water bottle! And for all the hammock sleepers out there, you can skip the pad altogether.

When it comes to sleeping bags, there are quite a few lightweight bags that keep you insulated in colder conditions and still take up relatively little pack space. Even better, they weigh less than 3 pounds. Cabela’s Evader 45°F Sleeping Bag, for example, weighs just 1 lb. 9 oz.

Clothes:

Okay, so there’s a fourth category to add. If you’re heading into extremely cold conditions, you’re going to want to make sure your outerwear is ready for action. Be sure to check out GORE-TEX jackets and pants made with PACLITE® product technology. They are lightweight to keep you moving fast on the trail without compromising the waterproof technology and breathability that you’ve come to expect from us.

For a great list of some additional gear to consider, be sure to check out REI’s list of 10 essentials for backpacking.

packing ultralight when backpackingDon’t Forget the Food and Water

Here’re a few last tips about some of life’s essentials:

Water:

We all know that water is a must, but you might not know how much you need. A good rule of thumb is about 8 oz. of drinking water per mile you hike. If you’re adventuring near a water source, you can bring along a purification system like the Sawyer Mini Water Filter, which will definitely help conserve both space and weight since it only weighs about 2 ounces.

Food preparation and protection:

If you’re planning on cooking meals while you’re out on your ultralight adventure, a lot of manufacturers produce stoves that weigh around 4 oz. (and sometimes less). Depending on the local wildlife, it’s likely a good idea to look into lightweight animal-resistant food containers as well.

And when it comes to food safety, check out these tips for handling and storing your food from REI.

Have Any Good Stories?

Already an ultralight backpacking pro? We want to hear about your adventures in the comments below!