"If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light." - Cesare Pavese
For the most dedicated, ultralight backpacking is more than a matter of shedding excess gear. Ultralight backpacking is a way of life, an obsessive art form of shaving off pack weight down to the absolute minimum limit of necessity.
Entering into the world of ultralight backpacking will test your resourcefulness and challenge your ideas about what you need to survive. Casting off the luxuries of your daily life grants a new kind of freedom, a self-reliant pride that can only spring from forgoing the comforts of home.
Going ultralight has big benefits. With a little experience, research and DIY experimentation, you can go from lightweight to ultralight fairly easily.
What is Ultralight Backpacking?
"Ultralight backpacking" is a form of backpacking with the goal of maintaining the lightest level of gear in your pack without compromising your safety. Defining that level of gear is somewhat loose though - there's no set poundage that acts as a cutoff point. The final weight of your pack will (and should) vary according to the climate, the weather, the length of your trip and other environmental factors.
Base Weight = Total Pack Weight - Consumables
The number most associated with the weight of your pack is "base weight". Total pack weight is everything (stove, pack, sleeping bag, etc). Consumables are anything that can vary in weight on your trip (food, water, soap, toilet paper, etc).
To understand what constitutes an ultralight pack, let's take a look at some of the common classifications for pack weight.
"Minimalist backpacking" is a term sometimes used to describe an even lighter form of ultralight packing. Through obsessive gear modification, spartan survival skills, and lots of ingenuity, minimalist backpackers keep their pack base weight to a scant 10 pounds or under--occasionally even dipping into single digits.
Expert ultralight pack base weights usually hover around the 15 pound mark, often aiming for the low teens. However, with the latest gear, a bit of planning and favorable weather conditions, it's fairly easy for less experienced backpackers to go ultralight.
Most recreational backpackers will fall into the lightweight range: around 25 pounds or so. The lightweight pack allows for a couple creature comforts alongside the essentials--a warmer sleeping bag, for example, or electronics like Kindles and phones.
What you see in the movies - a pack the size of Texas engulfing someone with all sorts of odds and ends tied to it. Common backpacking wisdom states your pack shouldn't exceed a 1/3 of your weight. Most hikers can pack quite a bit of luxury items and supplies before reaching this limit.
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with loading up your pack with the comforts of home. But if you find yourself in the "luxury" camp, it's worth considering what you actually need on the trail, and which gear you can stand to lose.
Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking
1. More miles.
The less encumbered you are, the farther and faster you can travel. With less weight on your back, you'll be able to keep a quicker pace, covering a greater distance each day on the trail.
Your newfound, speedier pace will open up more opportunities as well. For example, a trip that might take a traditional backpacker a full week to complete can be tackled over the course of a long weekend by an ultralight hiker.
Consider yourself an engine. The heavier your load, the more fuel it takes to get the same distance. Carrying a lighter requires less fuel - food and nutrition and your case
3. A lighter step.
Less weight on your back means more comfort while you hike. Overall, your time on the trial will be more enjoyable the lighter your load - you'll spend less time looking at your feet and more time taking in the scenery.
A heavy pack can limit your mobility on the trail, forcing you to slow down to hump your pack over obstacles and tough terrain. Ultralight packs allow you to navigate rougher territory with ease and speed.
5. Reduce likelihood of injury.
Lighter packs offer relief for your bones and muscles, particularly for those who are recovering from an injury or managing a physical disability. Even those in perfect health can reduce their chance of future injury by lightening their load. Going up and down mountains with a heavy load can damage your knees, in particular.
(Potential) Downsides of Ultralight Backpacking
No luxury items.
There's no doubt that ultralight backpacking will force you to leave most of your indulgences at home. Luxury items - extra tasty food, extra clothes, extra anything - may be sorely missed.
You may be forced to settle for a thinner sleeping bag, or a tarp instead of an enclosed bug proof tent. One way or another, ultralight backpacking will leave you more exposed to nature and the elements.
In general, some ultralight gear and supplies aren't as sturdy as more conventional backpacking gear. You'll have to use extra care to avoid damaging your gear out on the trail.
More extreme conditions.
Inexperienced backpackers should take care not to exceed the limits of their ability. With less gear, personal experience and a bit of survival skills are crucial to ensure safety.
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 and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.