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Ultralight Backpacking, How to Start

Want to run up that ridge, just to see what’s there? Want to easily carry your pack up those fourteener’s, so you can go down by any route you choose? Want to feel good at the end of a twenty-mile day? It’s time to lighten your load.

Ultralight Backpacking – The First 3 Steps

1. Buy a light backpack. Mine weighs 14 ounces, and I’ve used it on week-long trips. Don’t go over two pounds.

2. Buy a light sleeping bag. I stay warm in my 17-ounce bag down to freezing. Don’t go over three pounds.

3. Buy a light shelter. My tarp weighs just 16 ounces with all strings, but if you prefer a tent, keep it to three pounds.

The “big three” above are where you save the most weight. After those, consider each item carefully. Do you need it? What happens if you don’t bring it? Are there lighter alternatives? After you’ve cut down your weight, you can always add back a luxury or two. But then, ultralight backpacking is a luxury in itself.

Money helps reduce weight. The lightest gear can be expensive. If you don’t have much money, well…decent rain jackets cost a sixth of the great ones, and weigh almost the same. There are many options.

Learning Ultralight Techniques

Knowledge allows you to use a tarp instead of a tent, to carry only a pint of water (depending on location) by filling up at every stream, and to eat a belly full of berries instead of carrying fruit. Read, learn, practice, and backpacking will be lighter AND more safe.

In the meantime, walk a few times a week on uneven ground (not down the sidewalk). This strengthens your ankles. You’ll love hiking in running shoes instead of clunky boots, and you can safely do this if your ankles are ready.

Problems Of Ultralight Backpacking

There are limitations to consider with lightweight backpacking. Some techniques require practice, for example. Learn to pitch your tarp, or you’ll get wet. Keep your down sleeping bag dry, or you’ll get cold. Don’t try to carry thirty-five pounds in your new ultralight backpack, which brings up the next point.

Ultralight gear can be fragile. My 14-ounce waterproof/breathable rainsuit, for example, is not as tough as an expensive, heavier nylon/Gortex one. Still, I’ve used it for ten years, from Michigan forests to Ecuadorian glaciers. At $50, compared to $300 for high-tech rainsuits, I figure I can replace it a couple times in my life, and still save money and weight.

Bottom line: The problems of ultralight backpacking are small compared to the advantages. Become an ultralight backpacker and you won’t go back to the traditional routine of struggling and suffering.

Steve Gillman is a long-time backpacker, and advocate of lightweight backpacking. His advice and stories can be found at

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