Ultralight Backpacking Guide: Pack Lighter, Move Faster


Gear Guide / Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

In 2018, I’ve transitioned from lightweight backpacking to ultralight (UL) backpacking. It’s been an interesting experience and I’m not hardcore and fully into it (there are definitely a lot of areas I can fully go ultralight on but I’m just not willing to yet), but there are two main adjustments for me which I’ll get to in a minute. First, let me give you a breakdown of ultralight backpacking the way I understand it.

What is ultralight backpacking?

The idea behind ultralight backpacking is that the less weight you carry, the more miles you cover for long-distance hiking. Makes sense, right? It’s the mindset of only bringing what you absolutely need to get by on.

What is the difference between pack weight and base weight for backpacking?

Your pack weight is everything including consumables (food and water) and your base weight is everything before consumables. As an ultralight backpacker, your base weight is generally said to be 10 lb and under… but there’s no strict definition of it. I’m not there yet and I’d still consider myself transitioning into it.

Why I Chose Ultralight Backpacking

To put it out there, I didn’t do and wasn’t planning any thru-hikes when I made the transition; one of my close hiking partners made the jump and highly recommended it to me so we could move faster together. To give you a background of my backpacking weight experience, when I first started backpacking in 2015, my pack weighed 29 lbs (food and water included) but quickly knocked that down to mid-20 lbs. By early 2018, my pack was at 20 lb. Since I started ultralight backpacking, my pack weight has always been under 20 lbs, but on average my pack weight is 13-15lb without the bear canister.

Main Differences in Becoming an Ultralight Hiker

Personally, there have been 2 main factors that stood out most in converting from being a lightweight backpacker to ultralight backpacker:

  1. The backpack itself – I saved almost 3 lbs switching from my Osprey Aura 50 (which I absolutely freaking love still) to my KS50 ultralight backpack. That’s 2.8 lbs automatically shed on every trip…!! The trade-off is comfort – I love the antigravity suspension on the Osprey which also allowed my back to ventilate much better and this was the first backpacking pack I had so I’m not used to a large pack stuck on my back. But if you are used to a traditional pack, then this won’t be an issue for you!
  2. Clothing! I’m sure this isn’t as big of an issue for men as women, but I want to address this for my female readers – I like bringing a clean set of leggings for every other day (because when you sweat in leggings, it gets pretty gross), maybe an extra baselayer long sleeve and tank top, shorts, socks… you know… just a fresh set of clothes for at least one of the days I’m already in the mountains. But do you know how much space and weight just one extra pair of leggings will take up?! I’ve learned not to bring extra clothes. If it’s cold, I’ll only sweat so much. If it’s hot, I’ll probably just be hiking in my sports bra anyways. Giving up the extra, clean set of clothes really helped with space in my ultralight pack. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still bring all the extra and necessary layers that I think I’ll need: down or soft shell jacket, rain gear, shorts because they’re so small, panties just because I do need clean underwear every day (sorry if TMI), & occasionally an extra pair of socks or my down booties.
  • One last note to consider: actually – the bear canister. For my old pack, this sits on the top of the inside. For my new pack, it is strapped to the top of the outside of my pack. The idea of it was hard for me to grasp as I kept thinking is that strap really supposed to hold down this rounded container. Won’t it fall over? But it actually works wonders! It stays on snugly for the most part, but I have had it fall over and out a couple of times so just be aware of that. Keeping it outside the pack does have its perks though… it’s easier to grab snacks! 😉 

Quick Tips to Drop Your Pack Weight

  • Chances are if you’re reading this, your tent weights 4+ lb … get a new tent ASAP! I know, I know, it’s expensive, but I promise it’s worth the investment!
  • Know your water sources – if there’s water along the trail, you don’t need to carry much. Remember, every 1 liter is 2 lbs! I only carry 1 L at a time if I know there’s water along the way, but this can change when there’s little-to-no water source.
  • My water filter linked below is the best thing ever! I’ve already converted all of my closest hiking partners and it’s great for UL hiking because you can even not bring (or if you forget) a water bottle or bladder and drink directly from the water filter bottle. Seriously a game changer!
  • Share a bear cannister for quick weekend trips – you’ll only need to store food for the night and all your snacks during the day can be kept outside of it. Also… portion control! Bring only what you need.
  • Down booties are warmer and lighter than socks for those cold nights
  • If you go extreme ultralight, there are options to significantly reduce the weight such as cowboy camping, using a bivy for your shelter, and lighter cook systems… but there are certain comforts that are not worth the trade-off for me.

Tiff’s Current Ultralight Backpacking Gear List:

*keep in mind my winter gear goes most places with me because I run cold in the mountains, even in the summer… but you can lighten your load depending on the season*

  • Backpack: KS50 (545 gram = 19.22 oz = 1.2 lb) or Ry Mountain Gear 38L which weights about 1 lb also
  • Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 (2 lb 5 oz)
  • Sleeping bag: Katabatic Gear Sawatch 15 Quilt (25.1 oz = 1.57 lb)
  • Sleeping pad: Thermarest NeoAir XTherm Max – rectangle (1 lb 1 oz)
  • Stove: Jetboil MiniMo (14 oz = 0.88 lb) + fuel (full is 100 gram = 3.53 oz = 0.22 lb) = 1.1lb total cook system
  • Water filter: 1 Liter BeFree by Katadyn (2 oz)
  • Water Bottle: empty Smart water bottle 1 liter (34 grams = 1.2 oz)
  • Headlamp: Nitecore NU25 (with the stock strap it’s 54 gram = 1.9 oz = 0.12 lb // it’s 0.99 oz for headlamp only so you can switch out the straps if you really want to go UL)
  • Other items for my pack weight which will vary per trip includes: down jacket, rain jacket, spoon, portable battery charger, Garmin Inreach Mini, bear canister and personal items
  • Total weight before my ‘other items’ is 120.95 oz = 7.56 lb

    This weight is not considered my big 3 for me = shelter, sleep system and pack (or some people will say big 4 if you count sleep bag and sleeping pad separately).
    • My big 3 or (big 4) weight = 98.32 oz = 6.14 lb

See my other Gear Guides:
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7 Replies to “Ultralight Backpacking Guide: Pack Lighter, Move Faster”

    1. Hi Liz,

      I have a lot of different clothing for different conditions but if you let me know what you are looking for, I can send you some recommendations 🙂

    1. Thank you, Nathan! I’m glad to hear it’s getting you motivated to get out there! Hiking is such a rewarding activity and it’s a great workout too!

    1. Hi Dustin, I actually don’t have a full first aid kit and wouldn’t know what to recommend. I took a wilderness first aid course and concluded these are the basic essential items I need to bring in case of emergency: self-cleaning gauze (Johnson & Johnson came recommended), Curad tape (can also get from Walmart), and a nonstick dressing. Steri-strips are great for closing wounds but I don’t bring that. I also bring pain killers, pocket knife and my Garmin Inreach Mini. I know there’s a lot of first aid kits out there but before you buy any, make sure you look at all the items inside and evaluate if it’s better to purchase a kit or create your own. Hope this helps!

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