Ultralight Backpacking Gear & Techniques
by: Ryan Jordan
Carrying a light pack is easy. Carrying a lighter pack is harder. In Lightweight Backpacking 101 (reference at the end of the article), we extol the virtues of lightweight backpacking. More important, we offer practical advice for lightening your pack.
Following is the basic framework that nearly every ultralight backpacker considers when embarking on her quest to reduce pack weight. We call this, of course, the path to enlightenment.
Evaluating your Equipment Kit
The first, and most obvious place to start is your equipment kit. The two governing principles here are:
Analyze your current equipment kit; and
Select the lightest equipment.
A computer spreadsheet and a postal scale provide one cornerstone to the foundation for lightening your load. The ability to visualize every item in your kit - and their weights - allows you to see the impact of gear selection on the big picture.
Next (financial resources permitting), begin to replace your heavier gear with lighter items. The first place to look is in the "big three" - sleeping bag, pack, and shelter. But don't go too light with your pack until reducing the weight of the rest of your load - or your musculature will pay the price for an overloaded "ultralight" pack.
Logistics and Planning
Next, we consider the logistics phase of planning a trip. The most fundamental task during this phase is to:
Plan according to season and weather.
It doesn't make sense to carry a zero degree sleeping bag and a four season tent on the Appalachian Trail in July. Carefully look at your clothing, shelter, and sleeping bag, to make sure that it's appropriate for the season.
Now we go a little deeper - and these areas typically divide the lightweight backpacker from the ultralight backpacker. The ultralight mantra, of course is:
Take only what you need.
I don't necessarily advocate leaving luxuries behind; just don't take all of them. Camp chairs, binoculars, self-inflating pads, books, personal digital assistants, and fishing waders are among the more popular luxuries carried by backpackers. Look for lighter alternatives, go without, or carefully select one or two key items for any particular trip.
Getting Practical With Lightweight Gear
The nitty gritty of course, is gear. Selecting gear is only half the equation, however. Knowing how to use it properly (and to its maximum potential), on the other hand, is another challenge altogether. Perhaps the most weight can be saved if you:
Choose jackets and sleeping bags with down fill insulation.
Down insulation in sleeping bags and insulating clothing has always been, still is, and will always be (at least in the foreseeable near future) lighter than synthetic alternatives for the same amount of insulating value. However, carrying down assumes that you possess the necessary skills and attentiveness to care for it in inclement weather - down provides precious little insulating value if it gets very wet. Replacing a Polarguard 3D sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees and a 1" thick Polarguard 3D jacket with down counterparts that are equally as warm can save as much as 1.5 to 2.5 pounds.
Some other areas of weight savings are not so obvious. Lightweight backpackers have long been advocates of actually adding a piece of clothing to their kit. They:
Wear a wind shirt.
Wind shirts from GoLite, Montane, Marmot, and Ibex now weigh less than 3 ounces. Addition of a wind shirt to your clothing system can add tremendous comfort and significant warmth, allowing you to wear lighter base layers, lighter rain shells, and lighter insulating garments during active exercise in cold conditions. The bottom line: a wind shirt extends the comfort range of your clothing system, and allows the other pieces to be lighter.
And, if you find yourself hiking with a partner:
Share your gear.
Hiking with a friend, you can pool resources, especially shelter and cooking gear. With some creativity you can extend the concept further - sleeping bags, ground sheets, light, maps, camera. If your are both advocates of the lightweight philosophy, then you can hit the trail with some very light packs. If your partner refuses to buy in, then at least strap the poor sap with his share of lightweight gear!
Perhaps one of the more advanced concepts that ultralight backpackers invoke as they lighten their packs, is to:
Look for items that have multiple uses.
Start treating your gear as a system of components that work together. The ability to recognize synergistic relationships between your gear, or to select gear that performs multiple uses, is a key skill in reducing your pack weight and increasing the level of simplicity in your approach to lightweight backpacking. The classic example of ultralight multi-use gear: the poncho-tarp, which serves as both shelter and raingear.
The media, through the years, has successfully made the judgment that lightweight backpackers are survival freaks waiting for an accident that will put them into a state of hypothermia forever. Another way of putting it: "lightweight hikers provide great search and rescue targets". Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, lightweight hikers tend to study and practice more advanced outdoor techniques. So if you want to go ultralight, be sure to:
Develop your skills.
Expertise at backcountry hiking and camping is simply the accumulation of experience that allows you to solve problems using innovative solutions with minimal equipment or supplies. Facing challenges, and working through them, can allow you (over a period of years, probably) to comfortably reduce weight of your first aid and emergency kits, clothing, food, and other items. Attending backpacking clinics, wilderness medicine courses, wilderness survival programs, and of course, actually getting out there and logging some trail miles provides the best foundation for reducing your pack weight.
Finally, we close with a little more philosophy:
Recondition your mentality.
If you want to go light, you really have to want to go light. Make sense? Exercise your will to reduce your pack weight, set some goals, and be willing to try different approaches, even if, after trying, they fail you. Try again. Learn as much as you can. Sleep out in the backyard a lot. Especially on rainy or snowy or windy winter days.
"Going Light" is not a task. It is a process - and an iterative one at that. It is as much a philosophy of mind as it is a philosophy of gear selection. Good luck on your path to enlightenment!
Backpacking Light - The Magazine of Ultralight and Lightweight Backpacking
Lightweight Backpacking 101 - A nine chapter book about how to reduce your pack weight. Beartooth Mountain Press, 2001. Ryan Jordan and Alan Dixon (Editors).
Clothing and Sleep Systems for Mountain Hiking. Beartooth Mountain Press 2003. By Ryan Jordan, Jim Nelson, and Alan Dixon.
About the author:
Ryan Jordan is the publisher and editor of Backpacking Light Magazine.
He is an avid flyfisherman, fastpacker, and alpinist. He calls Bozeman, Montana home, and lives within
a short drive of the Beartooths, Yellowstone, Tetons, Wind Rivers, and several lesser mountain ranges.
His "long-distance cup of tea" is sipped out of a pack with a four pound base weight while traversing
the country's wildest roadless lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Ryan has pioneered several
200+ mile roadless routes in the area, most of them comprised of a significant amount of off-trail
travel above the treeline. Ryan and his staff have established Backpacking Light as a premier source
for technical information and education about lightweight backpacking, and have been featured in the
New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and on the Travel Channel.