For many years, backpacking has been a great way to get outside into the great outdoors and immerse oneself with nature once again. With just ourselves and a map (nowadays a smartphone!), we can set off and forget the stresses of the world for a few hours. However, there has been one big downside to backpacking for many years and it’s prevented many from choosing this activity; the backpack.
For some time, there has been a notion that backpacking requires a huge backpack for hiking filled to the brim with bottles of water and various other essentials until it becomes a burden to carry like some sort of army drill. Today, we’re going to show you that this doesn’t need to be the case and it all starts with what’s come to be known as ‘ultralight backpacking’.
What Is It?
Although there’s no strict definition of this term as of yet, it relies upon the philosophy that less is more. Rather than just packing all the usual items because it has become the ‘norm’, ultralight backpacking suggests that we don’t need to pack our home for a simple trip. Instead, we can adjust our frame of mind and rely more on our judgement than the equipment inside our bags whilst still remaining safe and healthy.
For us, we believe this philosophy is fantastic news for backpacking because it might just persuade more people to give it a go and they can then enjoy the hobby for many years to come. As you may know, there are four key elements to every backpack but we’re going to show you how to slim down; after listing these for you, we’ll bring some top tips to keep your backpack…well, ultralight.
The Four Essentials to Ultralight Backpacking
Backpack - Of course, this is absolutely essential unless you have huge pockets and fifteen hands to carry all the items. and it is advisable to buy a backpack that is waterproof. This being said, ultralight backpacking suggests you don’t need a huge 65-litre model. Instead, you can go for a lighter design with a frameless pack of as little as 45 litres. Depending on how willing you are to cut back, you could go even smaller; just make sure you aren't leaving items at home that will put you in danger (we’ll discuss this in more detail later in the guide).
Sleeping Bag - Next up, we have the sleeping bag and we advise going for down as opposed to synthetic fill. In case you didn't know, down bags can weigh around one pound and they can be water-resistant too. As long as you remember the minimalist mindset, you’ll choose an appropriate product to fit into your smaller backpack. Buy the best sleeping bag that fits your needs but also your pack.
Shelter - With shelter, this is where a significant amount of weight can be lost because the market now offers ultralight options for tents. For example, some models will be made of mesh which keeps it light and prevents critters and bugs from getting inside. If you want to take it one step further, you could even use ultralight tarp, a hammock, or even a bivy sack. There are tents made for backpacking.
Sleeping Pad - Finally, self-inflating pads have actually been replaced as the lightest option for comfort pads in recent years. Now, air pads lead the way and most will weigh under one pound while providing ample cushioning for your needs. At this stage, you actually need to make an important decision regarding your comfort. With torso-length options on the market, could you use the backpack under your feet to save a few ounces or would you prefer a full-length pad which is essentially a camping mattress?
Learn to Cut Down
With these four items addressed, you have the heaviest items dealt with and you should notice a significantly lighter backpack at this stage. Not only do you have a smaller backpack, the items inside are lighter and your shoulders and back are already thanking you for choosing ultralight backpacking. A little later, we’re going to bring you some small tips that you should consider. First, we have tips for some of the more important parts of backpacking including food and water.
Food - According to many backpacking experts, they say you should bring over 3,000 calories of food to consume per day and this will equate to around two pounds in weight. However, you need to adjust this depending on the length of your backpacking adventure and how many miles you plan to cover over a set period of time.
In recent times, we’ve learned some valuable tips when it comes to food including the fact that instant foods are a real winner. For fuel and for weight, protein bars, instant oatmeal, and instant coffee will keep you going for hours to come. On this note, we should say that you need whole foods so you feel fuller for longer. If you choose foods that have empty calories just because they’re light, you won’t make it past lunchtime without losing energy and feeling hungry.
Elsewhere, try dehydrating your food before you leave and pack everything yourself. By using cold water, you can actually rehydrate your food within a matter of minutes so this will allow you to save money, weight, and you can bring along meals you’ll actually enjoy.
Water - As we all know, water is pivotal for your backpacking experience but this doesn’t mean you need to pile your backpack full of bottles. Instead, you need one bottle and knowledge of local streams and lakes where you can refill during the journey. By investing in a mini filter and purification tablets, you’ll have access to clean water wherever you go. In terms of volume, a bottle holding one litre should be just fine unless you’re going to travel across a scorching hot desert with little access to a water source.
Why will this be fine? Above all else, we recommend drinking as much water as you can before leaving your house and before leaving camp (and your water source) each morning. If you proactively drink water rather than waiting until you feel thirsty, you’ll have more energy and you won’t be so reliant upon your bottle.
Finally, we also thought it important to address your cooking situation because this is where many go wrong. If you follow our advice on dehydrating your meals, all you need to do out in the field is boil some water rather than starting a meal from scratch. When it comes to equipment, we would always recommend looking towards the items that can have multiple purposes. For example, a titanium mug can double up as a pot whenever necessary.
Before you go buying the first stove, be willing to research the market as much as you can because you’ll find some that fold, some that weigh nothing more than an ounce, and others you can make from an aluminium can. Check out our buying guide and camping stove reviews. In truth, this can actually be exciting and it feels as though you accomplish something with minimal resources rather than just carrying everything you need in a giant backpack. Not only will your wallet thank you, your body will also be appreciative of the lighter load.
As promised, we’re going to finish with some of the best tips we’ve learned and heard over the years. As long as you pay attention to these, you’ll know exactly what to do with certain items to remain light, safe, and able to enjoy your trip throughout.
Use Scales - When you try your backpack on in the kitchen, it feels light because you have energy and you haven't yet moved at all. After walking for miles and perhaps even travelling for a day or two, it’ll be very different so pop your bag on the scales and create a ‘base weight’ before your consumables go in.
Take Your Time - If you’ve grown accustomed to travelling with your current backpack over the course of many years, there’s no need to make drastic changes immediately. As you can imagine, all these changes we’ve mentioned can soon add up for the bank account so take your time and introduce the changes gradually. Eventually, you’ll reach the point where your pack is optimized and you can’t go any further.
Assess Every Decision - In the past, we’ve heard people say that you need to be an ‘expert’ in order to partake in ultralight backpacking but this couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, you just need to question every decision you make. As we said previously, we tend to make decisions these days because they’ve become the ‘norm’. If you question everything, you suddenly notice small changes that can be made in order to become more efficient.
Remember Safety - With ultralight backpacking, the goal isn't to put yourself into danger by removing valuable items. At all times, you need to keep your safety in mind so perhaps we should put an emphasis on ‘smart’ packing as opposed to ‘light’ packing. Read our guide on how to pack a rucksack for hiking or camping. While on this topic, we recommend a small safety whistle that can be worn around your neck. If you’re in a backpacking-heavy location, three short bursts on the whistle and somebody will be along to help in an emergency.
The Ten Essentials - Back in the 1930s, the Mountaineers created a list of ten essential camping survival gadgets every backpacker should utilize. Though technology has adjusted the list slightly, the premise remains the same; navigation, shelter, illumination, repair kit/tools, insulation, sun protection, hydration, nutrition, first aid supplies, and a source of fire. Despite being eighty years old, this list is still as important today as it was back then.
Check the Weather - Just because you want to save some weight, this doesn’t mean you skimp on the rain jacket without even checking the weather forecast. If you wear shorts and a t-shirt with no backup plan of warm clothes and a rain jacket, you’ll have to return home and cut your trip short so don’t forget this important step.
Footwear - While many experienced ultralight backpackers choose light shoes, you may not see the benefit if you choose this option without strengthening your feet first. If you’re accustomed to sturdy boots, try load-bearing day hikes first so your feet get used to the feeling and then you can consider the lighter shoes. Strangely enough, most people will actually recommend non-waterproof shoes as they dry much quicker so keep this in mind.
Finally, all that’s left to discuss is hygiene and cleaning which can be difficult to plan. However, we recommend hand sanitiser, travel-sized toothbrushes and toothpaste, two wet wipes per day, small amounts of toilet paper, a backpacking trowel, and a pee rag.
Summary - There we have it, your ultimate guide to ultralight backpacking. As long as you use this advice, you can enjoy backpacking without the burden of a heavy bag. As we’ve said, it can actually be extremely fun living off your wits and survival skills rather than everything handed to you on a plate so go out there and enjoy the beautiful world in which we live!