Ultralight backpacking is a style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and least amount of gear. Base weight (the weight of a backpack plus the gear inside and outside it, excluding consumables such as food, water, and fuel, which vary depending on the duration and style of trip) is reduced as much as possible, though reduction of the weight of consumables is also applied.
Although no technical standards exist, in the United States the terms light and ultralight can refer to backpackers and gear with a base weight below 15 pounds (6.8 kg) and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) respectively for a small hiker. Larger hikers may need to carry clothes, shelters, sleep systems and backpacks weighing up to 50% more. Traditional backpackers can have base weights above 30 pounds (14 kg), and sometimes up to 55 pounds (25 kg).
Ultralight backpacking was popularized by American rock climber Ray Jardine, whose 1992 book PCT Hiker's Handbook, later retitled as Beyond Backpacking in 1999, laid the foundations for many techniques that ultralight backpackers use today. Jardine claimed his first Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike was with a base weight of 5.7 kilograms (13 lb), and by his third PCT thru-hike it was below 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb).
Before modern equipment made it easy, there were also hikers who adhered to an "ultralight" mentality. In the late 1800s, George W. Sears (a.k.a. "Nessmuk") hiked and paddled through the Appalachian territory with only a waxed canvas tarpaulin, walking stick / ridgepole, a small pan, and his trademark dual-bladed hatchet. He laid the foundations of ultra-light backpacking in his concise 1884 book, Woodcraft, which is still in print today.
Another 'early pioneer' was Grandma Gatewood, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1955 with only a duffel bag containing an army blanket, a plastic sheet, an umbrella, and other very simple gear much lighter than the heavy equipment common among thru-hikers in those days.
Philosophy and process
Ultralight backpackers believe a lower base weight allows them to cover longer distances and reduce stress on their bodies. This is particularly beneficial when thru-hiking a long-distance trail. However, gear made from light high-performance (such as titanium, goose down and DCF) is often much more expensive and less durable. Proponents might use the following step.
- Weigh everything. Weigh every item and record its weight. This helps identify items with potential for weight reduction.
- Reduce each item's weight. Modify items to reduce weight, such as removing brand tags and cutting toothbrush handles.
- Ration. Carry the minimal amount of consumables needed for a trip. This includes food, fuel and toiletries.
- Use group gear. Share items if backpacking with others. For example, a group of three may only require a single shelter and cook system. This gear can then be divided among the group.
- Lighten your feet. Sandals and trail-running shoes are usually lighter than hiking boots.
- Multi-purpose gear. Use single items for multiple tasks. For example, a poncho can also be used as a shelter, and trekking poles can be used as tent poles. A bandana can have many uses.
- Swap gear for skills. Learn skills that can replace equipment. For example, by knowing where to find water, a hiker need not carry as much.
- Replace gear. Purchase ultralight gear. This can be expensive but can offer significant weight reductions. Commonly, an ultralight backpacker will start by lightening their 'big three' - their shelter, sleep system, and backpack. Tents can be replaced with tarps or bivouacs (bivy), sleeping bags with down quilts and inflatable mattresses with foam pads.
- Carry less. Omit unnecessary items.
The 'big three'
As mentioned above, a hiker's shelter, sleeping system, and backpack are considered to be the three major items for weight reduction.
Tents, hammocks, and tarps with bivy sacks are used by long-distance hikers to protect themselves from insects and weather. Of these, tents are the most common. The development of Dyneema Composite Fabrics, and very lightweight silicone-coated fabrics have allowed manufacturers to produce very lightweight tents. The lightest tents are single wall, but even some double wall tents are very light weight. Weight can be further reduced by using poncho-tarps, or a bivy sack ("Alpine style") as the sole shelter. Generally as weight decreases, the skill needed to shelter safely increases.
Narrow 'mummy-style' quilts and sleeping bags are lighter than traditional rectangular-shaped items. Down is lighter than synthetic fibers for insulation, but is susceptible to loft loss caused by moisture. Some quilts are bottom-less, relying on the user's sleeping pad to guard against cold ground. A top bag is more like a conventional sleeping bag in that it wraps around the user's entire body but the bottom fabric contains no insulation. The idea is that bottom insulation is compressed by a person's body, rendering any loft in that area useless. Some modern down sleeping bags are through-baffled and under-filled such that the user can shift all the insulation to the top of their body thereby maximizing its potential to retain heat. Ultralight hikers also tend to carry bags rated for warmer temperatures than traditional-weight backpackers, making up the difference on cold nights by wearing clothes to bed, such as a balaclava or jacket. Careful camping site selection can avoid colder "hollows" (low points where cold air tends to collect) or make use of natural wind barriers such as thick vegetation to compensate for less-warm gear. Foam pads can be lighter than inflatable mattresses.
With a lighter shelter and sleeping system, the backpack can consist of lighter material and a less bulky frame or no frame at all. A common ultralight alternative to an internal frame pack is a frameless pack made of ripstop nylon, silnylon, or Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), formerly known as Cuben Fiber, with a carrying limit of around 11 kilograms (24 lb). An internal-frame pack can weigh upwards of 2.5 kilograms (5.5 lb) with features such as hip belts, lifter straps, sternum straps, and compression straps. Ultralight frameless packs can weigh as little as 200 to 400 grams (8-14 oz) and can consist of not much more than a sack with shoulder straps. Jardine's book includes directions to make your own "ultralight pack".
Some backpackers choose to make their own gear. Advantages to such an approach include possible reduction of cost and the opportunity to customize the gear to the individual user. Additionally, if a homemade item fails, the hiker will know how to repair it. Lastly, commercial manufacturers often choose heavier, more durable material for their products in order to reduce the amount of care and maintenance required of the user (and minimize returns of damaged gear). With care, homemade lightweight gear can last as long as necessary.
The remaining gear (such as ten essentials and survival kit) carried by an ultralight backpacker follows a similar philosophy of replacing traditional backpacking gear with lighter options. Replacements include:
- Making a fire instead of carrying a stove.
- Light weight alcohol stoves such as a beverage can stove or solid fuel stoves instead of heavier gas stoves
- Single cook pot ("billycan") with a single spoon instead of a traditional mess kit
- Going stove-less, eating cold food, including cold soak foods such as couscous, rice noodles and oatmeal.
- Trail running or running shoes instead of hiking boots, and lightweight nylon socks instead of heavy wool socks.
- The minimal amount of extra clothing safely possible.
- Plastic or silnylon bags instead of heavier stuff-sacks.
- A razor blade or a light 1 ounce (28 g) small pocket knife instead of a heavy Leatherman style multi-tool or Swiss army knife.
- Chemical disinfectant water treatment (iodine tablets, chlorine dioxide) instead of heavier water filters.
- Plastic soft drink or soft plastic bottles instead of heavier Nalgene or Lexan bottles or hydration packs.
- A 0.25-ounce (7.1 g) LED light instead of a heavy flashlight or headlamp.
In addition to carrying equipment, hikers must also carry consumables such as water and food, and in some cases fuel. Some ultralight backpackers save weight by resupplying these items more frequently. On long-distance trails with multiple access points, some ultralight hikers choose to place food caches or stop at stores to resupply consumables at frequent intervals, allowing just two or three days' worth of food to be carried in place of a larger load.
Water can be a significant contributor to pack weight because moderate activity in a moderate climate requires 2 litres (2.1 US qt) of drinking water per day, with a weight of 2 kilograms (4.4 lb). When traveling through an area with many springs and streams, some ultralight hikers can carry as little as 350 millilitres (12 US fl oz) of water, or none at all, provided the hiker is confident on how far away the next reliable water source is and the expected weather conditions, but in other regions hikers must carry all their water requirements, and can only minimize the container weight.
Some ultralight hikers reduce the weight of water purifying devices, carried to prevent waterborne diseases such as giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis and dysentery, by carrying lighter disinfectants as opposed to filters or ultraviolet (UV) treatment devices. Some hikers carry no filtration device at all.
After shelter, a sleeping system, the backpack and water, food is the biggest contributor to pack weight and an area where substantial gains over traditional backpacking can be made.
The Basal metabolic rate requirement of food calories (one food calorie is 1000 heat calories, thus sometimes labelled kcal) is approximately 1000 per day per 100 pounds of body weight. However exertion in the form of hiking consumes additional calories; for example the standard US Army field ration is 4500 kcal per day for strenuous work. Thus depending upon type of food an average hiker carries, a hiker requires approximately 2 kilograms (4.4 lb) of food per day. Ultralight techniques can substantially reduce this weight, Jardine suggests 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg) per day for thru-hiking, Jordan suggests 1.25 pounds (0.57 kg) per day (at 125 calories per ounce, 4.4 calories per gram) for a 3-season 3-day backpack.
Many foods can be dried or dehydrated to reduce water weight. Dehydrated meals can be purchased or dehydrated at home. On the trail, rehydration can typically be performed by cooking in hot water. Some ultralight hikers reduce weight by not carrying a stove and rehydrating food in a container with water (although this method requires more time to rehydrate than the traditional cooking method). For example, Ramen noodles, dehydrated refried beans (in powdered form), or dehydrated hummus can be put in a ziploc bag or lightweight microwave disposable plastic container with water to rehydrate. Oats (groats or rolled, granola or muesli) and barley also become soft enough with soaking to eat uncooked as a raw food. Tsampa is a simple, bland and lightweight dish made from flour, and has been used for centuries by wandering Tibetan monks.
Weight in the form of food can also be reduced by choosing foods that have the highest ratio of calories per weight. Proteins and carbohydrates have approximately 4 kcal per gram whereas fat has 9 kcal per gram, thus carrying foods high in fat content can reduce weight, such as:
- Peanut butter (5.89 kcal/gram)
- Nuts (Pecans are 6.87 kcal/gram, toasted coconut is 5.92 kcal/gram)
- Pemican (5.7 kcal/gram)
- Dried whole egg (5.92 kcal/gram)
In some parts of the United States an approved bear-resistant food storage container is a required item for hikers, which will add between 1 lb 9 oz (710 g) and 3 lb 2 oz (1.4 kg) to the base pack weight. These areas include parts of Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Eastern High Peaks Zone.
- Bow drill
- Hammock camping
- Heated clothes
- Hiking equipment
- Leave No Trace
- Survival skills
- Mini survival kits
- Survival kit
- Ten Essentials
- Scout Outdoor Essentials
- Search and rescue
- Altitude tent
- Tarp tent
- Wilderness backpacking
- Wilderness diarrhea
- George Cole; Ryan Jordan; Alan Dixon (2006). Lightweight Backpacking and Camping. Bozeman, MT: Beartooth Mountain Press. ISBN 0-9748188-2-8.
- Ray Jardine (1992). The PCT Hiker's Handbook. LaPine, OR: AdventureLore Press. ISBN 0-9632359-0-7.
- Ray Jardine (1999). Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardines Guide to Lightweight Hiking. LaPine, OR: AventureLore Press. ISBN 0-9632359-3-1.
- Freeling, Elisa (Nov–Dec 2002). "When Grandma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail". Sierra.
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- Colin Fletcher; Chip Rawlins (2002). The Complete Walker IV. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-375-70323-3.
- Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
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- "What to eat when hiking? 4 rules to maximize intake while carrying less". 23 October 2017.
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- "Methods of meat preservation without refrigeration". FAO. Retrieved 2009-09-23.
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