Ultralight Backpacking

Ultralight Backpacking…. what is it? How do you get there? What are the benefits?

Well before I drop down some knowledge on your eyes first let me explain how I started:

When I first made my quest in to serious backpacking I read many of the mainstream books and media. All of which focused on fairly heavy gear. For example my backpack was an 85 liter monster which weighed 6lbs by itself, pots and stove added another 3lbs, sleeping bag weighed 3lbs, pad weighed 2lbs, and shelter weighed 4lbs. Just those objects alone I was at 19lbs which didn’t include my clothes, food, water, rain gear, etc. My total pack weight was 62lbs my first trip out! Humping that bad boy out was insane.

Eventually I got involved in hiking forums and noticed this group called Ultralight Backpackers. So I asked around and posted my gear list and got a TON of feedback.

My discussions then led me to dealing with hikers and hammockers who make their own gear and sell them. These lesser known individuals are known as “Cottage Industry” vendors. These hikers make lighter weight gear such as backpacks, stoves, tarps, hammocks, sleeping bags, quilts, clothes and test them out and see how they fair on the trail. Most of the gear these cottage industry vendors make are tested by “Thru Hikers” or someone who walks a trail from end to end in a single season which is usually over 2,000 miles in length. And believe it or not the gear makes it the whole trip.

So it got me thinking all these mainstream companies such as MSR, OSPREY, BRUNTON, MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR make gear with heavy fabric stating that it’s important for the longevity of the product. But these little known vendors are making the same gear with lighter fabric and it fairs out the same! BAM thats when I started my adventure in to Ultralight Backpacking.


You are going to hear this term a lot when you start on your quest to lower your pack weight and this term is… BASE WEIGHT. Your base weight is the weight of everything in your pack (including your pack) before you introduce food, fuel and water (aka consumables). Reason being is after all the consumables are depleted you are still carrying the non-consumable weight on your back on the trail.

Normal or Traditional Backpacking Weight – Is basically known as any base weight of 20lbs or more.

Light Weight Backpacking – Is between 10lbs and 20lbs base weight

Ultralight Backpacking – Is between 5lbs and 10lbs base weight

And the almighty crazy Super-Ultralight Backpacker – is a base weight of 5lbs or less (yes those psychos exist and it’s pretty ridiculous and awesome at the same time)


First it is all about experience and comfort level. You have to get out there and test your gear and see what you use and don’t use. The more you are comfortable out in the woods the less you will need to bring and you can start supplementing large “comfort” items with a lighter alternative.

Second you have to make a list of everything you bring and then buy a postal scale and weigh each item. No seriously that’s probably the most important step in the whole process. Once you have that data upfront you can then identify the objects you really dont use or need and really heavy bulky items.

The items you really dont use or need – no longer in the equation and the weight on those items are gone.

The lighter alternatives (usually found with cottage industry vendors) can then be plugged into your spreadsheet to see how much of an impact it has on your ending base weight.

I was at it for months! Months I SAY! What could be swapped, what could be left out, what areas I could skimp on etc.

Some examples are:

Swapped out my MSR Canister stove (4lbs) and pots for an alcohol stove and beer can pot (1lb)

Ditched my 4lbs tent and got a hammock and tarp 2.5lbs

I “Macho Man” elbow dropped my pad (2lbs) and got an under quilt (.5lbs)

And so on and so forth. Honestly you can get really caught up in the whole weight cutting business. And some do. How caught up? Like cutting down the handle of your tooth brush, cutting down the excess straps on your backpack, etc. Hey man to each his own.

You also want to find gear which serves as a multi-use item. Examples would be your tent stake can also serve as your trowel for digging catholes, your rain jacket can also serve as a wind breaker, your top quilt as your jacket, you can get really creative.

Here’s a video on my transition from Light Weight Backpacking to Ultralight Status and the thought process involved:


OK well if you haven’t figured it out… backpacking is a lot of work. The act of backpacking causes you to burn 3,000-5,000 calories per day with traditional loads. Read that again son.. 3,000 to 5,000 calories per day. Do you know how much food you need to consume to maintain that type of output? Can you say Brontosaurus Burger Please!

With a lighter load you actually burn less calories during the day.

You are also able to travel farther and faster. On my November 2009 trip up Bear Mountain, NY on the Appalachian Trail I travelled 5 miles to the shelter. It took me 6 hours with a 40lbs pack for an overnighter. Now with an overnight pack weight of approximately 18lbs I travelled 9 miles in 4 hours and wasn’t even winded. I did that April 2011 while training for my first 50 mile hike. HUGE difference!


Yeah that’s right the Water Monkey said it. There seems to be 2 camps when it comes to hiking especially long distance hiking: Those that don’t train and get their fitness once on the trail; and those that work out and train their bodies to withstand the rigors of the trail before hand.

Guess what camp I fly my flag on? Yeah man Train now or forever be sucking wind on the trail!  Lightening the pack weight is just one step in the process. If you want to enjoy yourself on the trail and view each obstacle in your path as an adventure instead of a burden I suggest you start getting some exercise. Ride your bike, hit the treadmill, go for a jog, go on several day hikes, hit the weights, and start eating more healthy.


With a lighter load  and a fit body you will actually enjoy yourself out there more. You will tend to have a bit more fun because the pack weight is almost unnoticeable and you are charging up those mountains with legs of steele. How much fun… well you may just break out into a gangsta rap hike out of nowhere:

So in conclusion… get out and have fun be ye Traditional, Light Weight, Ultralight Weight, or Super Ultralight Weight backpacker. Because in the end it’s hike your own hike anyway.

Stay Gangsta,

Water Monkey

  1. Steve says:

    What is the lightweight advantage of the kilt? Thanks.

  2. Gerald says:

    Where did you get your kilt?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s