Ultralight Hiking + Camping
If you're anything like me, then you love the outdoors and want to maximize the enjoyment of every second in the backcountry. If you're exactly like me, you're currently watching a Magnum P.I. marathon while typing an article on ultralight backpacking. With a light total pack weight, you are less likely to experience back/shoulder pain or swollen/blistered feet. It also directly translates into greater miles and thus more time to enjoy your surroundings. I will explain the factors involved in determining the lightest and most weight-efficient pieces of gear for a variety of categories. It's more than just trimming the fat. It's a different way of hiking and living in the backcountry.
Sleeping bags were invented by a guy who was attacked by a flock of geese on a cold fall morning. He described the ordeal as traumatic and toasty warm.
DOWN - Don't try to kid yourself, if you're looking to drop weight and drop it fast, go for a down sleeping bag. Synthetic can't match down insulation when it comes to warmth-to-weight ratio. The important thing to look at is down fill power. The higher the fill power, the more air the down clusters trap. You'll want to aim for 800 fill down or higher. Depending on the temperature rating on the bag, you can find down bags available for 16 ounces or less (usually around 35 degrees F). In addition to their light weight, down bags compress incredibly well. You can probably even stuff one in a pickle jar. Pickle jars aren't ultralight though so leave the jar at home.
SYNTHETIC - I'll be brief, as down is the clear winner when it comes to lightweight and compressible. Outdoor technology is constantly improving, allowing synthetic to sneak its way into the conversation every so often. Synthetic bags fit into a slim category here, and it's wet environments. Synthetic bags can keep you warm even when wet. These bags can come in around 2lbs (again, depends on temperature rating), so if you're willing to shoulder an extra lb, you'll at least be rewarded with a lower price.
SLEEPING BAG LINERS - Heading out for a sticky summer overnighter? Grab your sleeping bag liner instead of a full bag and your shoulders will thank you. Often weighing under 12 ounces, they're light, comfy, but only good on incredibly hot nights. If there is even a slim chance of it being cold, this route is not recommended. Keep this option to really short trips where you have a really high chance of warm temperatures.
Why sleep on the ground when you can sleep a tiny bit above the ground?
INFLATABLE - Inflatable pads are typically lighter than foam pads and offer more cushion which generally means a greater R-value (insulation against the cold ground). Quick tip: squirrels have an R-value, in a pinch you can wrangle a few and try to sleep on them. Inflatable pads pack down into neat and tidy packages, often coming down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. Watch out for sticks and stones and other stabby bits of nature though before laying down to rest, they puncture easily so you'll also want to have a repair kit handy.
FOAM - Foam pads are incredibly durable and can be thrown directly on the ground for impromptu naps. Sadly, with this option you'll be forced to roll it up and strap it to the outside of your pack when you're on the move. They're still incredibly lightweight and typically come in under a pound. Plus, you're really giving your wallet a rest in this case.
SHORT LENGTH - If you're looking to buy a new sleeping pad, consider going with a short length. Great for those who are already short in stature, but also capable of being used by tall people. The short pads won't lift your feet off the ground, but as long as your torso is off the ground you'll get the effect necessary to keep you warm at night. You can even prop your feet up on your backpack through the night. If you already have a foam pad, you can cut down the pad to 3/4 length to save weight. Note: you can cut an inflatable pad down to save weight too, but you lose about 100% of your R-value.
Tent shopping is a lot like house shopping, but much easier because everything is 1 bedroom, 0 bath.
Less Tent Poles = Less Weight
On the trail, your home is a tiny nylon shell which you crawl into at night. During the day, you carry your home on your back, kinda like a turtle. That's why you want it as light as possible. Imagine how fast turtles would travel if they had nylon shells. Zipping around. Tent choice boils down to packability and weight.
SOLO TENT - Also known as a one man tent, these are typically free-standing structures that include poles, tent and rainfly in the package. It sometimes includes the footprint, but is often a separate purchase. In these tiny tents, there is basically enough room to sit up as you change clothing and lay down for reading or sleep. That's about it. They provide protection against not just rain, but also wind, bugs and even blowing sand in desert situations. Capable of coming in at just under 2 pounds.
TREKKING POLE TENT - To cut weight even further, there are some solo tents that can be pitched with trekking poles. If you're already using trekking poles, this is the way to go. Nothing better than multi-use items on an ultralight adventure. If you don't use trekking poles, then forget I said anything.
TARP - If you don't mind some bugs and just need a little protection, a tarp can weigh even less than a full-on tent. If a wind comes in with some rain, you'd better know how to set it up facing the right direction, otherwise you might get some water right in the face as you snooze. You can usually prop this up with the help of your trekking poles, or get some cord and use the trees to your advantage.
BIVY - The bivy should only be used by those that aren't claustrophobic. They're waterproof and only provide space for your sleeping bag and yourself. Your pack will have no shelter from any storms but at least you and your bag will be tucked inside a dry spot. This can be used in combination with a tarp if you're looking to just waterproof your bag from wayward rain.
HAMMOCK - Sleep in the trees. When it comes to hammock-living, you'll need to be sure you always find a couple of trees when looking for a camp, but often the savings in weight can be worth it. They pack down to about the size of a large grapefruit, but can weigh in at less than half a pound (not including straps). Straps can come in anywhere between 8 ounces and 12 ounces. Plus, you're off the ground so say goodbye to rocks jabbing you in the night.
Untreated water might contain something called cryptosporidium, which sounds like an evil alien.
If you're drinking water from a natural source, you're going to want to filter it, regardless of how clear it looks. The risk of getting a bug is too great to ignore.
GRAVITY - Gravity filters are a great option for ultralight hiking. They use similar filter cartridges as pump filters, but lighten your load by shedding the weight of the pump housing. The other advantage here is you don't have to work to get your water. Just fill up the "dirty" bag, hang it up in a tree, then gravity does all the work to filter your water straight into your hydration reservoir, as you spend time setting up camp or prepping for dinner.
HAND PUMP - Hand pump water filters are a tried and true method in the backcountry. They've been around for years but technology has given them the ability to get smaller. While it may take a few minutes to get some clean water, some of the new smaller models can weigh in at just 7.8 ounces.
WATER ADDITIVES - Iodine tablets or chlorine drops are an option that doesn't add much weight to your pack. This is usually just a backup option used by hikers. If you're super serious about dropping the filter, at the very least keep tablets or drops in your pack. You'll be sorry if you're stuck with a bad virus or bacteria in your belly miles into the backcountry. Just remember this method won't clear particulates from the water.
Everything but the refrigerator.
CANISTER STOVES - Guys, stoves keep getting lighter and lighter. There are numerous types of camp stoves, but for ultralight purposes, it's tough to beat a canister stove. They are lighter and more compact than liquid fuel stoves. With the right cookware, you'll be able to fit the stove, a fuel canister and a lighter inside your cook pot. Plus the canister stove requires very little maintenance or upkeep, unlike your ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend, probably. It won't be gourmet cooking, but it'll heat water and get those backpacker meals going in a jiffy.
STOVE SYSTEMS - While they won't weigh as little as a canister stove, they still come in at under a pound. The advantage here is you're getting a pot/mug and stove all in one package. All the included items usually fit inside the cook pot, so you know right where everything is located.
POT - When you're eating in the backcountry, one solid pot with a lid should do. A size of around 1 liter is pretty common. From there you'll want to investigate the different types of material. The lightest available is titanium, but it'll cost you a pretty penny. Your next option would be hard anodized aluminum. Stainless steel pots do exist, but then you might as well be stuffing rocks into your pack too.
PLATE - Ditch the plate and revel in the weight savings. Just eat straight out of the pot you cooked your meal in.
MUG - Drinking coffee or tea really jump starts a lot of peoples mornings, as well as provides a toasty warm up. If this sounds like you, I recommend getting yourself a mug so you can enjoy your early beverage aside breakfast before hitting the trails. Insulated mugs keep your drink hot and toasty, but weigh more than a super strong titanium cup with wire handles.
UTENSILS - If you like to eat with your hands, move on along to the next section. If you prefer a utensil, a spork is the best of two worlds. Keep in mind plastic is nice and lightweight, but can sometimes break. Titanium sporks are durable and lightweight. Plus they make you look super cool and when you're not on the trail, bring it into the office to devour that microwave meal to the envy of all your coworkers.
The first pack was technically just a guy giving a piggyback ride to a monkey holding some bananas.
I listed packs last because your pack choice depends on the weight and volume of the rest of your gear. Keep in mind that you'll also be adding enough food and a couple liters of water to last for specific legs of the trip.
FRAMELESS - The lighter your gear weight, the less pack structure is required to comfortably support it. If your total weight is low enough, you can get by with a frameless pack. These offer little structural support and require careful packing.
INTERNAL FRAME - The other option is an internal frame pack. These are slightly heavier, but often carry weight much more comfortably. It's also nice to have a big external pocket to store snacks and your hardcover copy of War and Peace.
On Your Person
Most folks hike with clothing and shoes on.
You can find hiking clothing weighing as little as a single ounce.
CLOTHING - There really isn't any difference between what you'd wear on a regular old backpacking trip and an ultralight adventure. The difference would be no over-packing, so less extra t-shirts. One pair of pants (your choice if they zip off into shorts), one t-shirt, one long sleeve.... you get the idea. Just make sure you choose the correct amount of layers to go with the lowest temperature you're hiking in. Especially don't forget the rain gear.
SHOES - Ultralight hikers are all about ditching the heavy boots. Light hiking shoes are another way to go, whether you prefer a mid or low height is your choice. Even more common is going with a pair of trail running shoes. Just remember that lighter weight shoes offer less support than a pair of backpacking boots. You'll have to decide what type of support is best for your feet. Don't forget, trail runners will also wear out faster than boots.
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