The History of Ultralight Backpacking [From 1880s to Present Day]

Updated on May 5th, 2020
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In this post, we're going to talk about ultralight backpacking, which is a more gear and weight-conscious group of backpackers.They're folks who have literally been known to weigh every item in their pack and tally it up on spreadsheets, maybe use trekking poles for their tent poles, or possibly even shave off the handle of their toothbrush to save weight.

And we are going to discuss what ultralight backpacking is, where it started, why it became so popular and where it is going.


    A lot of people used to think that the bigger your trip the more gear you needed, and that being over-equipped was a good thing a sign of preparedness.

    Ultralight backpackers have preached the contrary—"Less is more!" being their classic war-cry.

    Ultralight backpackers used to be a more extreme subset of the regular backpacking community. In my opinion, they have now effectively infiltrated the regular backpacking community though. Subsequently, they've shifted the conversation and the priorities of backpackers as a whole.

    The need to keep gear and pack weight to a minimum has slowly started to become more and more self-evident. And, the the weight of an item has been brought to the forefront of gear buying considerations. It seems like just about every gear manufacturer has slapped the ultralight label on just about everything they make

    I want to explore what has happened here. Why the craze? Is that a trend or is it here to stay?

    Part 1: What Is Ultralight Backpacking?

    Let's start with a more textbook definition of ultralight backpacking from Wikipedia:

    Ultralight backpacking is a style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip.

    This sounds like normal backpacking. Backpackers have always been weight-conscious. Most are aware that it is not ideal to pack a stack of their favorite books nor is it a good idea to pack a 5 pound cast-iron skillet on a trip. However, I don't think hikers have always been quite as weight-conscious as they are today.

    First, to really determine what might be and what might not be considered ultralight requires some numbers to quantify a standard.

    How to Measure Pack Weight?

    There are three classifications for the gear you might bring on a trip: base weight, consumable weight and worn weight.

    • Base weight: Fixed items that you'll always carry like your backpack, your sleeping bag, shelter, stove etc
    • Consumable weight: Variable items like food and water that will inevitably fluctuate and change from day to day. Depending on who you're talking to consumables can include other items like toothpaste and toilet paper and stove fuel.
    • Worn weight: those are items worn while hiking, like clothing and shoes, and will not actually be in your pack.

    We could break these down further and really nerd out on what items should be in the base, consumable and worn categories, but this should serve as a good overview.

    Because consumable items will vary so much from day to day and because worn items won't actually be in your pack, the main thing backpackers look at is base weight. This helps keep a rough standard of measurement so hikers can compare apples to apples.

    What Weight Is Considered Ultralight?

    There is no governing body to determine what pack weight is considered to be ultralight. However there are some generally-accepted guidelines from the backpacking community. I'm sure some will disagree with me here, but for a point of reference, I'm going to take a stab at some rough numbers:

    • Hyperlight: base weight under 8 lbs
    • Ultralight: base weight between 8 and 15 lbs
    • Lightweight: base weight between 15 and 20 lbs
    • Regular backpacking: base weight above 20 lbs

    For example, you might have a pack with a 14 pound base weight with two pounds of food per day for a five-day trip and four pounds worn for a total pack weight of 28 pounds.


    How are people getting down to such small packs?

    In general, I think there are four main methods to lighten your load. 

    1. Remove gear: This is about being very intentional with the items you choose to bring and prioritizing only those that are essential. So, instead of packing 45 or 50 items, you may only bring 35 or 40 items.

    2. Replace something: This would be maybe replacing a two-pound sleeping pad for a one-pound sleeping pad.

    3. Optimize existing gear: This might mean stripping down a piece of gear removing excess straps or external pockets.

    4. Multi-use: This could be consolidating two gear items items into one item so instead of packing tent poles and trekking poles. You can use a shelter that is compatible with trekking poles to stand so now those trekking poles serve two functions and you can leave the tent poles at home.

    (Watch: 12 Ultralightweight Backpacking Tips and Hacks)

    (Bonus) 5. Do it yourself: I can't discuss ultralight backpacking without at least a small mention about DIY or Do It Yourself. This group of hikers is known to tinker. They enjoy this just like any other hobby and maybe even the challenge as to how light they can get their packs. Many of the things they want don't have enough demand to warrant a large manufacturer to make them.

    The classic example of the is the soda can stove. You can find some instructions online about how to make a really simple and lightweight stove out of a soda can. Virtually no gear item is off the table. I've seen homemade camp shoes, packs, shelters, ponchos and on, and on.

    Part 2: Where Did Ultralight Backpacking Start?

    I'm gonna break this topic down into two more parts old-school minimalist ethos and new-school gear lists.

    Old-School Minimalist Ethos

    You could argue that this is nothing new. Prioritizing weight or the lack thereof has been a pillar of backpacking and outdoorsman ethos from the start.

    A popular camping and survival book called Woodcraft published in 1888 by George Sears outlined a lot of this early outdoorsman ideology. He says "the temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp kit has been too strong and we have gone to the Blessed woods handicapped with a load fit for a pack mule this is not how to do it."

    "Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment."

    Wise words from the 1800s that are still very relevant today.

    Side note: this book is riddled with attacks on big and heavy gear items from way back in the day. For example, recommending moccasins instead of long-legged boots.

    Sears definitely takes jabs at consumerism as a whole. But, more specifically, he advises we should simplify what we carry without compromising our safety nor enjoyment. That sounds a lot like our early definition of ultralight backpacking and minimalism in general.

    After all, one of the main appeals of backpacking is departing from our creature comfort and living simply. Being deprived of certain comforts helps us appreciate them.

    To me, being intentional about what you carry and mindful about your footprint are core beliefs of backpacking and being an outdoorsman.

    Hitting the trail with everything you need to live in your pack can feel liberating and remove a lot what might feel like distractions.

    New School Gear Lists

    So these minimalist ethos were with us from the start and hiking turned into a big thing. As hiking evolved into a major recreational activity, so did the concept of the gear list. As journeys became more and more defined (ie a specific trail), so did their respective gear lists. 

    Here's a gear list back from the summer of 1969 from a man named Andrew Giger, from his Appalachian Trail thru-hike, broken-down item-by-item with weights. It also includes his food caches and resupplies. (click the image to expand it)

    Andrew Giger's backpacking gear list

    He included some interesting notes about saving weight, like how he purchased a scale he thought about going stoveless.

    Hikers were prioritizing weight from even the early days. However, I don't think this really became a thing—dare I say movement—until Ray Jardine published the PCT Hiker's Handbook in 1992. This book helps solidify all those early minimalist ethos and apply them to the more contemporary long distance hiking culture.

    In it, Jardine outlines:

    "When we go backpacking we tend to lug around as many impediments as possible. The usual intent is to reduce the hazards and ensure the comforts. But the astute distance hiker recognizes that the innumerable appurtenances are neither essential, nor do they contribute to safety or well-being. On the contrary, by their mass they create an aura of general intolerability. And they retard the hiking progress as well."

    He adds:

    "Overweight backpacks not only sap the strength, they tax the feet and ankles. [...] they effectively steepen the hills and magnify the distances."

    This book went on to become a popular guide for that generation of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers. His advice helped plant the seed and shift some of the hikers priorities to being much more weight focused.

    Another hiker worth mentioning is Andrew Skurka. Named adventurer of the year in 2007 by National Geographic, he's done some big backcountry adventures like the Great Western loop and an entire circumnavigation of Alaska.

    He's been known for his ultralight ethos. And, because of his reputation and credibility, he has definitely influenced a lot of hikers. If lightweight backpacking can nominate a leader today, he'd probably be it.

    Andrew Skurka on mountain top

    Hikers started to demand lighter gear, manufacturers answered and a sort of arms race developed.

    Some noteworthy advancements:

    External pack frames ➡️ internal pack frames (or no frames at all)
    Hiking boots ➡️ trail runners
    Mess kits ➡️ single pots 
    Canvas material ➡️ Dyneema or Cuban fiber and ripstop nylon
    Clunky sleeping bags ➡️ minimalist down-filled quilts

      Fast-forward to today. There is a very active ultralight Subreddit, entire blogs and threads dedicated to the endless pursuit of reducing pack weight. A lot of manufacturers are still chomping at the bit to shave ounces. Folks seem to be willing to spend a small fortune on their gear to save an extra ounce or two here and there on the newest technology.

      Part 3: Why Is Ultralight Backpacking So Popular?

      This sounds like some people might have gone to the extreme to save a couple ounces or have too much time on their hands, right? Yes and no.

      Big picture, weight definitely matters.I'll talk about some exceptions and other considerations later.

      For now though, let's discuss why—to a certain degree—keeping weight to a minimum matters.

      1. Fuel Efficiency. I feel like this is the main argument for going ultralight. In the same way that small cars are generally more efficient than big cars, a small pack will help you hike more efficiently than a big pack. And instead of burning fuel, this is you burning up your energy. If you're hiking long days for weeks or months at a time too much energy depletion will take a huge toll. In short, the lighter your pack weight, the more efficient you will be getting up and down mountains. And, the longer your trip, the more this efficiency will matter.
      2. Less Likelihood of Injury. This is about putting less stress on the engine. Carrying less weight should in theory help save your back and your knees. From a balancing point of view, I don't want a huge pack on a slippery river crossing or have those extra pounds pressing on me next time I roll my ankle.
      3. Organization. I personally would rather manage 30 necessary items than 50 unnecessary items.

      Part 4: Where Is Ultralight Backpacking Going?

      Is Weight the Only Thing That Matters?

      Of course not. Lighter is definitely not always better.

      1. Safety

      Everyone agrees that going too light can compromise safety; and, as discussed "as safely possible" is stated in the definition. For example, leaving the first-aid kit at home to save a couple ounces is probably not the best idea.

      The devil is in the details and the degree of severity is what is in question.

      2. Comfort

      In my opinion, the real grey zone is knowing when and how to prioritize comfort.

      For example, I know some people that sleep with sleeping pads that only cover half of their body, just their torso. That might be fine for them but for me that compromises comfort way too much. I'm happy to carry the weight for a full body pad. I also like packing a book or a Kindle on my hikes certainly not an essential item.

      Note: Even some serious long-distance hikers really don't care that much. Some even take pride in packing their luxurious items and turn their noses at the seemingly fragile ultralight folks.

      In short you should be mindful about the items you choose to pack and try to keep their weight to a minimum, but there is no right or wrong—just personal preference.

      It is good to understand your options so you can make more educated decisions about what works for you. Find your own sweet spot between comfort and enjoyment and keeping it as light as possible.

      3. Hike Distance

      Also, consider how much you are hiking, as in distance. That is a big—if not the biggest—factor for determining how much you should prioritize weight. Every ounce counts on a six-month thru-hike, but probably not so much if you're only backpacking once a year for a weekend.

      Backpackers continue to demand lighter and lighter gear. Swarms of smaller cottage gear companies have popped up to meet the niche demands and the bigger gear manufacturers have placed a lot of their innovation efforts into making their next model even lighter than the previous model or lighter than the competition.

      It's great that the industry has heard the cries for lighter gear over the years. However, the question then becomes: where will this end? Will we get to a point where we are just carrying a pack load of feather-like items or will this level out?

      I think from a purely ounces and pounds point of view, it already has started to level out. Take backpack models, for example. Early external pack frames weighed about 5 pounds, if not more. Current lightweight backpack models weigh only a pound or two. So how much more is there left to cut off?

      So Is Ultralight a Passing Fad or the New Way of Doing Things?

      I think it's a little bit of both people are accepting that lighter is better to a point. I think outdoorsmen—especially long-distance backpackers and thru-hikers—will always place some level of emphasis on their gear weight and appreciate those early minimalist ethos.

      Chris Cage photo

      About Chris Cage

      By Chris Cage Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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