Ultralight hiking is a mix of enlightenment and consumerism. It is semi-philosophical, encouraging hikers to “carry less and travel farther”. Less weight on your back means more miles and more comfort. Through the power of round numbers and online bickering, the limit for “ultralight” has been set arbitrarily at 15 lbs of gear, prior to food and water, known as a base weight. This has been further revised down to 10 lbs, depending on who you ask.
Unfortunately, the pursuit of this base weight can turn into a shopping spree of replacing functional yet heavy gear with lighter items in order to reach that elusive threshold. This gear acquisition functions as a kind of stand-in for the fun of actual hiking or camping, since it’s done from your computer while sitting indoors.
My goal with this article is to lay out the most useful steps I found for reducing the weight of what you carry without getting into obsessive territory. These are my tips, in rough order of savings.
First off, weigh everything that will go into your pack and log it. Lighterpack is a hugely popular site for building a library of camping gear and cataloguing it by weight and it’s also free. I know this sounds obsessive, but it is an indispensable way to see the “big picture” of everything you’re carrying. When replacing gear, it lets you easily see the potential impact to your back of trading up to something lighter.
Key tool: Lighterpack.com
Carry less water
When I realized that 16oz of water weighs (surprise!) one full pound, I started to question whether I couldn’t carry a bit less and gather it along the trail. That change in philosophy included buying a lightweight tubular Sawyer Squeeze water filter where I formerly relied on Iodophor iodine solution for all water treatment. This change allows me to carry 64 or 96 oz of water when I formerly carried around a gallon.
Key gear: Sawyer Squeeze water filter
Lose the boots
You may be as surprised as I was to learn that hiking boots are no longer the shoewear of choice on the Appalachian Trail. Nearly everyone going long-distance hiking now uses trail runners or hiking shoes, i.e. footwear with good tread and the weight of a running shoe. I suppose it was just following the crowd that made me never question boots before now, because I was definitely an early convert to ultralight running shoes back in highschool.
I bought a pair of Brooks Cascadia (1.6lb/pair) and dropped 2 lbs when compared to my old Timberland Pro Goretex-lined hikers (3.6lb/pair). The Cascadia have a solid tread and padded sole, though they rely on breathability to wick water rather than waterproof fabric. Even though I’m giving up the Goretex, there’s a good chance my feet will be similarly dry, since my heavy lined boots used to make me sweat.
Key gear: Trail running shoes
Lighten your pack
Given the amount of gear I used to carry, I loved my 80-liter Kelty Redcloud. Though once I weighed my gear, I realized I could save roughly 4 lbs by trading my trusty old Kelty (6.5 lbs) for a lighter backpack. I ended up choosing the ULA Circuit (2.5 lbs). The Circuit has a 65-liter capacity, which is more than enough for my slimmed-down gear profile.
The Circuit has a lighter belt and frame, though is functionally the same as the Kelty. There are many others like it. Lighter options exist without a hip belt or frame, similar to a large school backpack, but I like the weight distribution of a frame for food and water carries.
Key gear: Lighter backpack (sub-3lbs)
Switch to down
When I started on this quest to upgrade my gear, my number one wish for an upgrade was my sleeping bag. I had had my previous bag since my Scouting years and it was synthetic, of unclear warmth, and huge. Even as a kid I was jealous of the Scout Dads with their lofty down bags.
I traded up to a down sleeping bag, the lightest that I could find under $300, which at the time as the Marmot Hydrogen 30-degree bag. Many others that go ultralight end up with down quilts which are essenially zipperless sleeping bags that wrap around and attach to your pad. My Hydrogen is 800- or 850-fill down, which is a measure of loft. Higher is better and lighter per unit of warmth, the cheapest bags will use 650-fill while high-end ones will use 900 or 950.
My sleeping pad had been a Thermarest Ridgerest foam pad for as long as I have been camping. These pads are very light but also not very padded. For the sake of comfort, I traded up for a Thermarest self-inflating pad. It’s my one trade up in weight but also in comfort.
Key gear: Down sleeping bag
Pop a new tent
A tent is one of those nice items that can be split in half if you’re couples camping. For us that meant splitting up a Marmot tent weighing over 6lbs. At the point I was looking to replace the tent I was in full-on immersion into the r/Ultralight group and so decided I would try out the Durston X-Mid 2P sold on Drop.com. It offers a good balance of durability, weather protection, and space, all while coming in under $300.
The Durston tent weighs a hair over 2 lbs, for a savings of nearly 4 lbs, but there’s a catch: many long distance hiking tents are made to utilize hiking poles as the supports for the tent. I got mine from Fizan and they weigh in at 10 oz, which makes the tent package a bit closer to 3 lbs. These are just about the lightest poles that are still usable for hiking, though there is the option to buy a set of simple foldable tent poles, which would weigh 6-8 oz.
Key gear: Sub-3lb tent and trekking poles (if applicable)
Lighten your stove
As a former Scout, I grew up using Coleman stoves and lanterns. In fact, I still use them for car camping, I have the big green briefcase stove and the matching green lantern. For backpacking, I had the Coleman Peak One stove. This was all overkill for hiking.
Backpacking meals are mostly re-hydrating food, so what is needed is a simple way to boil water. Early in my upgrade process I purchased a butane-propane stove from Snow Peak which, even with its case, weighs only 4 oz. I paired it with the inexpensive Stanley Adventure cook set and nested it inside, using the locking lid to secure the stove inside the pot.
I’ve since learned that many hikers use an alcohol stove, wind screen, and titanium pot for even further weight savings, though the ease of my butane-propane canister and minimal weight savings means this upgrade will have to wait for another day.
Key gear: Isobutane canister or alcohol stove
In order to draw some comparisons between all this new gear, I made some rough estimates of cost, weight saved, and the price per pound saved:
Sleeping bag: ~2 lbs saved / $200 = $100/lb saved
Tent and poles: 4 lbs / $320 = $80/lb
Backpack: 4 lbs / $260 = $65/lb
Shoes: 2 lbs / $100 = $50/lb
Stove: ~1.1 lbs / $30 = $27/lb
Water: 2 lbs (32 oz) / $30 = $15/lb
Total: 15.1 lbs saved / $940
Among hikers there is often a lot of debate around the “Big 3” of tent, sleeping bag and pack and what to choose. Not surprisingly, in my exercise those were some of the biggest weight savings, though they were much less cost effective than upgrading my shoes, stove, and [carrying less] water.
Admittedly, I’m messing with the numbers a bit by assuming I would carry 32 oz less water if I used a filter on-trail, but this exercise is a good example in diminishing returns. Those smaller items requiring a change in approach saved more weight, per dollar, than fancy gear-focused purchases.