Ultralight backpacking is a style of backpacking that emphasizes the use of the lightest-weight equipment available. Ultralight backpackers strive to reduce their base pack weight (the weight a pack and the gear inside excluding consumables such as food, water, and fuel) as much as possible. Although no technical standards exists, the terms light and ultralight commonly refer to base pack weights below twenty pounds (9 kilograms) and ten pounds (4.5 kilograms) respectively. "Traditional" backpacking often results in base pack weights above thirty pounds, and often up to sixty pounds.
Extreme enthusiasts of ultralight backpacking sometimes attempt super-ultralight backpacking, a term coined by Ryan Jordan, in which the base pack weight is below five pounds (2.3 kilograms).
Ultralight backpacking was popularized in the late 1990s by Ray Jardine, whose book Beyond Backpacking laid the foundations for many techniques that ultralight backpackers use today. An early pioneer was Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in the 1960s with only a duffel bag containing an army blanket, a plastic sheet, and other very simple gear much lighter than the heavy equipment common among backpackers in those days. In the early 2000s, Ryan Jordan of Bozeman, Montana founded Backpacking Light Magazine and its website. Jordan used his scientific insights to demonstrate how ultralight gear performed under environmental stress. Jordan is largely credited for providing balanced, thoughtful, insightful, and practical education about ultralight backpacking, reflected in his book Lightweight Backpacking and Camping. This is colloquially referred to as the "Bible of Ultralight Backpacking".
By carrying lighter and more multi-purpose equipment, ultralight backpackers are frequently able to cover longer distances per day than traditional-weight backpackers, without sacrificing comfort. This is particularly useful when thru-hiking a long-distance trail.
The first way to reduce weight is by leaving items that are unnecessary at home. This often includes camping luxuries such as coffee makers, electronic gadgets, multiple items of clothing, etc. This is the initial step taken by any backpacker seeking less weight on their back.
The next method is reducing item weight. This is where a significant portion of base pack weight can be lost. Materials such as ripstop nylon can make a much lighter pack than canvas material. Silnylon tarps are lighter than double-walled tents. Silnylon stuff sacks can also be used for waterproof bags that are far lighter than the relatively thicker vinyl bags. Many backpackers find that a 1-inch thick inflatable sleeping pad is just as comfortable as a 2-inch thick one that weighs more, or possibly even go with a closed-cell foam pad which is even lighter. There are many options, so reducing item weight has innumerable choices.
The final method is to utilize more multi-purpose gear. For instance, a specialty made poncho rain coat can also serve as a tent, or a down jacket can be used with a lighter sleeping bag for the same effectiveness.
Backpackers that have yet to try UL backpacking often negatively criticize the method, commonly referring to cutting up a toothbrush, which by itself does not reduce much weight. However, since one way to reduce weight is by eliminating unnecessary parts of gear, UL backpackers can lose several ounces or even pounds by shortening straps, shortening toothbrushes or utensils, cutting off brand patches and tags, cutting off map edges, and cutting holes through heavier materials. Each of these methods only saves a small amount of weight, but when combined will actually make a difference.
The "Three Heavies" or "Big 3"
Examples of reducing weight: Tents are relatively heavy due to 2 layers of fabric, metal poles, stakes, and a ground cloth. Ultralight shelters include silicone-impregnated tarps, single layer tarp-tent hybrids, hammocks, and poncho-tarps, and weigh pounds less than a standard tent.
Standard backpacking sleeping bags are filled with synthetic material, and weigh several pounds. Ultralight backpackers save weight by substituting for bags filled with down, which are lighter by volume. A minority carry quilts in place of sleeping bags; with adequate insulation from a sleeping pad underneath, a quilt can weigh half as much as an equivalent sleeping bag. Ultralighters also tend to carry bags rated for warmer temperatures than traditional-weight backpackers, and make up the difference on cold nights by wearing more clothing.
With a lighter shelter and sleeping bag, the backpack can consist of lighter material and a less bulky frame. The common ultralight alternative to an internal frame pack is a frameless pack made of ripstop or silnylon, with a weight limit of twenty or twenty-five pounds. An internal-frame pack can weigh upwards of five pounds; ultralight frameless packs are commercially available in weights ranging from eight to fourteen ounces.
Examples of reducing weight:
|Shelter||Double-wall tent (~5+ lbs.)||Single-wall tent (~3 lbs.)||Tarptent/tarp (1-2 lbs.)||Tarp (<1 lbs.)|
|Sleeping system||Synthetic-fill sleeping bag (~5+ lbs.)||Down-fill sleeping bag (2-3 lbs.)||Down quilt (1-2 lbs.)||Down quilt (1 lb.)|
|Backpack||Internal frame 60+ liters (~5-8 lbs.)||Internal frame 40 liters (~3 lbs.)||Frameless (~1 lb.)||Frameless <30 liters (<0.5 lbs.)|
|Sleeping pad||Inflatable 2in. thick (2-3 lbs.)||Inflatable 1in. thick, 2/3 length (~1 lb.)||Closed-cell foam 3/4in. thick, torso length (0.5 lbs.)||Closed-cell foam 3/8in. thick, torso length (0.2 lbs.)|
|Total weight of these:||17-21 lbs.||9-10 lbs.||3.5-5.5 lbs.||2.2 lbs.|
The remaining gear (see ten essentials for some of the other items) carried by an ultralight backpacker follows a similar philosophy. Very light weight alcohol or solid fuel stoves, such as a beverage can stove, can be substituted for heavier gas stoves, and a single titanium pot with just a titanium spoon or spork can be carried instead of a mess kit and utensils. Since an ultralight backpacker carries much less weight, hiking boots are excessive and can be substituted with trail running shoes for equal support. An ultralighter's first-aid kit and repair kit tend to be stored in plastic or silnylon bags instead of the conventional packaging that a conventional backpacker might carry. A quarter-ounce LED light can substitute for a heavy flashlight or headlamp. Even a toothbrush can be adapted for the ultralight philosophy -- an infant's toothbrush with holes drilled through the handle will clean teeth as effectively as a full-sized one weighing an ounce or two more.
Food and Water
Water weighs one kilogram per litre, regardless of the hiker carrying it, and most hikers require two pounds of consumables per day. While the weight per unit of food and water remains constant, ultralight backpackers can save weight by carrying less of it, and resupplying more frequently. When travelling through an area with many springs and streams, an ultralighter can carry as little as a single litre of water, and on long-distance trails with multiple access points, ultralighters can choose to place food caches or stop at stores to resupply with food at more frequent intervals, allowing just two or three days' worth of food to be carried in place of a larger load.
- Backpacking Light Magazine -- magazine devoted to ultralight backpacking
- Ray Jardine's Adventure Page -- home page of an important popularizer of the style
- Ryan Jordan's Backcountry -- home page of important thought leader in the ultralight backpacking movement
- Joe's Ultralight Backpacking -- an introductory page including an example gear list and many links
- Trekking Ultraleicht -- German portal devoted to ultralight backpacking, English translation available
- Ultralight Backpacking Network -- social network for ultralight backpackers