Your Guide to Ultralight Backpacking Gear


Growing up in New Hampshire, I saw my fair share of the wilderness from a young age. That said, most of my hiking or camping trips prior to my 20s involved a lot of gear…a LOT of it. So, the idea of going ultralight was not really on my radar until I met a friend.

If you’ve not yet joined the ultralight tribe, I feel you – it can seem like a bold, expensive, or even pretentious transition. But, I’m here to tell you that it’s worth it…and there’s nothing wrong with boldness, it’s not all that expensive, and there’s a pretentious crowd in every activity.

Hell, you might even become a weight-weenie yourself.

ultralight backpacking gear guide

Why is Ultralight Backpacking Useful?

Many backpackers carry around 50 pounds for a week-long trip. With a pack like that, a hiking or camping adventure can be ruined by exhaustion, injury or little time to enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors: swimming, fishing, and exploring beautiful canyons, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls. With ultralight backpacking these inconveniences can be avoided.

When it comes down to the core of it, the real questions is “why not go ultralight?”

While ultralight may seem like just an expensive trend, its premise is really quite simple and practical: hike more comfortably and enable yourself to go farther or faster. Certainly, this appeals to most hikers and campers.

There’s no cut and dry definition for what constitutes an ultralight load. Many people consider your base weight to be the determining factor (we’ll talk more about base weight soon). All in all, most people consider a pack under 20 pounds to be ultralight. However, some try to keep it all under 10 pounds and still others weigh in at around 30. What’s important is that you’re taking weight off your back by getting rid of items that aren’t necessary.

Remember, your goal weight will obviously vary depending on many factors, like the length of your trip, the season and weather, your experience level and what you plan on accomplishing.

Now, let’s get started.

Your Base Weight & Why It’s Important

Your base weight is calculated by adding up the weight of just the three items that almost always take up the most space and weight, coined the “Big 3”:

  1. Backpack
  2. Shelter
  3. Sleeping bag & pad

There are plenty of other places where you can cut down on weight, but if you’re prioritizing, this is definitely where you want to start.

Ideally, you want each item to weigh no more than 3 pounds – bringing you to a sum of just 9 pounds for your base weight. Likely, this will already significantly lighten your load. But there’s nothing wrong with carrying a bit more…or cutting down somewhere else. It really comes down to what is most comfortable for you. Let’s look at some of the best options for the Big 3 items.

Picking Your Ultralight Backpack

In backpacking, as with most everything else, there’s a mainstream industry and an alternative industry. In backpacking, the alternative is called the cottage industry. In the cottage industry, equipment is made and designed by small operations, usually backpacking devotees.

Rather than mass produce, they use the best materials and carefully assemble each item. As you probably guessed, cottage industry brands tend to be a little more expensive than their mainstream counterparts. However, if you can afford to spend a little extra cash, you’ll probably find it worth your while – particularly if you plan to spend a lot of time on the trails.

Our top pick is the 3400 Windrider Pack ($320) from Hyperlite Mountain Gear, a small business based in Maine. Hyperlite is known for their use of Cuben fiber, a laminated fabric with an unmatched strength-to-weight ratio. For comparison, Cuben fiber is 50-70% lighter than Kevlar and four times stronger. It allows for flexibility without compromising strength and is 100% waterproof.

Ultralight Backpack

Hyperlite’s 3400 is a series of 55L bags designed for longer backcountry trips. We chose the Windrider because it’s the most versatile in the series, and perfect for trips in the White Mountains or Shenandoah, which is where we spend most of our time.

Most importantly, it’s super comfortable and lightweight at just 2 lbs. It can hold up to 45 pounds, so it easily carries all your gear if you’re into outdoor sports or all your food and water if you’re on a long trip with limited opportunity for resupply.

However, it also packs down really well – it can even be used with a small load on a daytrip. I really like how weatherproof the material is because there’s nothing worse than accidentally getting your gear soaked a day into your trip.

If you’re not looking to spend $320 just yet, we also recommend the Mariposa 60 Lightweight and the REI Flash 45 pack. Take a look at the chart below to see how they stack up against our top pick. As everyone has different preferences, you might find one of the cheaper packs actually has features more suitable for your adventures.

Top of the LineMiddle of the RoadBudget Option
BrandHyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider PackMariposa 60 LightweightREI Flash 45 pack
Price$320-350$210-255$129
Weight2 lbs1 lb, 16 oz*2 lb, 2 oz*
Volume55 L60 L45 L
Material50 denier Cuben/polyester hybrids, double reinforced 150 denier Cuben/polyester hybrid, mesh pockets100 denier Robic High Tensil strength nylon, 200 denier Robic High tensil strength nylon, 70 denier double-rip ripstop nylon, Darlington Mesh, Supreme Air Mesh, foamNylon,  mesh, aluminum frame
ProsExtremely durable, lightweight, holds up to 45 pounds, great for any sport or trip length, ice axe loop, customizable by manufacturer.Large capacity, 7 built-in pockets of varying size, removable frame, very lightweight and comfortable.Very lightweight for the price, multiple exterior pockets, lash loops and loops for hiking poles.
ConsIf you like a lot of bells and whistles, this isn’t the bag for you.Even though it can hold 60 L, it’s not recommended for holding over 35 lbs.Smaller size, less durable. Doesn’t pack down well. Only available at REI.

*For size medium

What about GoLite Backpacks?

Some of you may have heard of a company called GoLite based out of Colorado that produced ultralight gear for very reasonable prices. Unfortunately, they filed for bankruptcy in October 2014.

However, one of the founders is looking to start a new company through Direct Public Offering, called My Trail Co. According to the company website, they “believe in helping people enjoy the outdoors more with high performance, lightweight products that responsibly made and delivered affordably to our customers.”

So, if they’re successful, be on the lookout for MyTrail gear!

Next up, Time to Pack Your Shelter

What shelter system works best is a heated topic of debate in the ultralight community. There are simply so many options and combinations to choose from. The basic choices are an ultralight tent, a tarp, a hammock, a bivy or some combination of the four. Alternatively, if you’re in the right environment, you can sleep out under the stars. However, unless you’re really positive that you’ll have sunny skies all the way through your trip, we don’t really recommend this.

So, how do you choose? It depends a lot on the season, climate and type of hike you are planning or will most often be doing.

Here’s a brief description of the most-used options.

Ultralight Tent

For those that need the comfort and protection of four walls and a floor, ultralight tents are on the more traditional side. You’ll find versions that are stand alone, some that require adjustable hiking poles to set up, and some that use support poles. Most of the time, the lightest versions won’t be stand alone.

Tarp

These days, the line between ultralight tents and tarps is blurry. A basic flat tarp is versatile and usually uses adjustable hiking poles for set up. They should be very lightweight and easy to pitch. You’ll also see many “tarp-tents,” sometimes just referred to as tents, which usually have netting and a zippered floor just like in your standard tent. They are different from “regular” tents because they usually have just one wall and don’t use tent poles, which results in saving weight.

Bivy

A bivy sack is essentially a waterproof shell that slips over a sleeping bag as way for hardcore outdoor enthusiasts to create a barrier against wind chill and rain. Traditionally, they cinch all the way down to your face, leaving a small hole to breathe through. These days, bivy shelters are more common. They have two additional features: an extended area of head space and a full enclosure to lock out bad weather and bugs. In rainy weather, many backpackers use a combination of a bivy and a simple, large tarp.

Hammock

An alternative gaining popularity among ultralight backpackers is the hanging hammock. Many backpackers swear that a best night’s sleep on the trail is found in the hammock. And of course, they don’t use poles, resulting in many ultralight options. However, one obvious con is that you’ll need to find two trees the appropriate distance apart. If there’s rain or you want any semi-enclosed space to cook and change clothes, you’ll pair a hammock with a simple tarp.

Personally speaking, I like the tarp-tent option.

This is in part because I don’t usually go camping alone, and I like to share my shelter! I also like the easy set-up and not having to worry so much about weather conditions.

My top pick is the TarpTent StratoSpire 1, a shelter that has some nice features of a tent (a double wall, a floor with bathtub walls) but stands using hiking poles or optional support poles. It weights in at just over 2 pounds and only takes a few minutes to set up. The company claims two minutes, but I’d give myself a little more time.

Many people, on the other hand, will be saving up for the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, a highly adaptable cuben fiber tarp that’s durable and very to the point. You can actually use just about anything to set it up – hiking poles, oars, ski poles, and even skis. Weighing in at only 10 oz, it’s the ultimate in ultralight – but remember you’ll probably want a bivy sack to go along with it in any weather that’s less than ideal.

Let’s take a look at the best options in each category, comparing their pros and cons.

TypeStand-alone tentTarp-tentTarp
BrandBig Agnes Fly Creek 2 PlatinumTarptent Stratospire 1Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp
Price$460-$550$309$330-370
Weight2 lb, 1 oz2 lb, 4 oz10.2 oz
Packed size19 in. x 5 in. (round)16 in. x 4 in.6 in x 7 in x 4 in
Capacity2-person1-2 person2-person
FabricUltralight silicone treated nylon rip-stop with a 1200mm waterproof polyurethane coating, polyester mesh30-denier ripstop nylon treated with silicone, uncoated ripstop nylon, polyester meshCF8 Cuben fiber
Pros
  • Very light for full tent
  • Easy setup
  • Clips separate inner & outer tents
  • 3-season ready
  • Bathtub floor
  • Affordable for complete system
  • Full enclosure with bug netting
  • Easy, very quick setup
  • Interior never gets wet
  • Bathtub floor
  • Big for 1 person
  • Ultimate in light weight
  • Very adaptable
  • Completely water proof
  • Alpine wind protection
  • No need seam-seal.

 

Cons
  • Expensive
  • Not as light as a most tarps
  • Doesn’t do well in heavy wind or heavy rain
  • Not  durable
  • Not as adaptable as a standard tarp
  • On the smaller side for 2 people
  • Requires seam-sealing to be waterproof
  • Expensive for a tarp
  • No floor or walls
  • Stakes sold separately

 

TypeBivy ShelterHammock
Brand Outdoor Research Alpine BivyClark JungleHammock TraceLite (comes with tarp)
Price$240$219
Weight2 lbs2 lbs, 5 oz
Packed size4 in x 15.5 in12.5 x 5.5
Capacity1-person1-person
Fabric3 Layer Gore-Tex Respiration Positive fabricl, durable hydroseal coated waterproof nylon floorSil-nylon rain tarp, No-See-Um netting, mosquito-resistant bed fabric, water-repelling polypropylene ropes
Pros
  • Durable
  • Lots of headroom using poles
  • Very waterproof
  • Supreme storm resistance
  • Very warm
  • Quick setup
  • Lightweight
  • Tarp detaches
  • Keeps bugs out
  • Zippered entries on both sides
  • Comfortable night’ssleep
  • Very durable, high-quality
Cons
  • Heavy for a bivy
  • Bulky
  • Creates condensation in cold weather
  • Pricey
  • Included tarp doesn’t cover much
  • You’ll need trees.

You’ll Need a Good Sleeping Bag or Sleeping Pad

The sleeping bag decision is, in my opinion, a simpler one than the shelter debate. That being said, there are two contradicting camps in the ultralight community: traditional mummy bags vs. quilts. The difference is simple; a mummy bag fully surrounds your body and has a hood; a quilt, on the other hand, doesn’t fully enclose your body, leaving your torso in contact with your sleeping pad, and it lacks a hood.

The ultralight argument for quilts is that the compressed material under your body doesn’t offer much insulation anyway and a hood isn’t always necessary, depending on the weather. On the other hand, many find quilts too drafty for fall/winter or opt to wear warm layers to bed to stay warm.

Ultimately, the debate ends up being mostly about what backpackers find most comfortable for sleeping, and that simply varies from person to person. Being a bit claustrophobic, I like the idea of a quilt, but I do find sleeping bags warmer.

Here are our top picks for sleeping bags and quilts – a high-end and a more affordable option for each!

High-end BagAffordable bagHigh-end QuiltAffordable Quilt
BrandSpark SP IIOMM Mountain Raid 40Katabatic Gear PalisadeEnlightened Equipment Revelation
Price$360-380$240$445-510$250
Weight16.4 oz13.9 oz18.8 oz19.6 oz
Packed size5 x 10 in5 x 9 in5.5 x 10 in6 x 12 in
Fill850+ loft Ultra-Dry DownSynthetic Primaloft One900 Goose Down850 Goose Down
Ideal Temperature35 F40 F30 F30 F
Pros
  • Packs small
  • Fill is 30% more  water repellent than untreated down
  • Light weight
  • Packs small
  • Very light
  • Works well in wet weather
  • Good for emergency use or travel
  • Comfortable
  • Versatile
  • Good pad attachment system
  • Nice neck closure
  • Inexpensive
  • Available with a variety of options for size, color, temperature, water-repellency
Cons
  • For the price, it’d be nice if you could use it in colder weather.
  • Cold spots even in spring weather
  • It’s sold by a UK retailer, if you’re in the US you have to buy it online.
  • Not as warm in dry conditions as some of the other bags
  • Other Katabatic options are warmer (and heavier)
  • Very expensive
  • Fabrics aren’t very high quality
  • Pad attachment leaves room for improvement

Of course, you also can’t forget about your sleeping pad!

While it’s nice to have some cushioning, a pad’s most important feature is its insulation — as it’s the thing standing between you and the cold ground. You can choose between an air pad, a simple foam pad (the cheapest option), and a self-inflating pad that combine open-cell foam insulation and air.

I started out with a foam pad, and although it keeps me warm for the price, it simply isn’t packable enough for my preferences. Therm-a-rest makes a lot of high-quality options varying in price and style. Although not the lightest option, a Therm-a-Rest ProLit Plus ($70-$120) is a self-inflating pad that is comfortable and can be used all-year round. Looking for something cheaper? You might try the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Venture for just around $45. But if dropping some weight is your priority, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite weighing just 12 oz is your best bet.

Ultralight Backpacking is about Lightening the Load on Your Feet

There’s an old backpacking adage that says “An ounce on your feet is like a pound on your back.” This couldn’t be any truer. While wearing good, lightweight shoes obviously won’t lessen the weight in your pack, footwear can’t be forgotten if you’re trying to backpack more comfortably and efficiently — which you should be if you’re going ultralight.

The footwear debate is another topic of conversation that’ll bring out strong, varied opinions. Most thru-hikers opt for trailrunners or lightweight running shoes. One company that makes lightweight, durable and minimal shoes for men and women is called Inov-8. They’re a British company, but they have headquarters in the US, too.

A popular option is the Roclite 295, in both men’s and women’s fit. It’s lightweight (about 10 oz per shoe) with a 6 mm drop, so though they feel light and natural, you won’t feel like you’re walking barefoot. Plus, you can buy a compatible gaiter that attaches nicely.

Another common Inov-8 shoe among backpackers is the Terraclaw 220. At just 8 oz per shoes, they’re really light and the lugs are designed for optimal grip on on all terrain. While you may be used wearing traditional hiking boots, this is not very common in the ultralight community.

I, however, have an old pair of Keen Women’s Verdi II Mid WP that I still love. Weighing in a 12.5 oz per shoe, they’re not considered ultralight, though they are on the lighter side for a boot. However, I find them comfortable and durable, plus they give me the ankle support I need (though admittedly, that may be mostly psychological).

Likewise, my friend has a pair of Saloman Quest 4D II boots that he still wears when looking for comfort and stability. They’re a bit aggressive for casual hiking, but they do the trick in muddy and snowy trails. The most important thing to remember is that your footwear does need to be replaced when it starts wearing down. This is especially important for thru-hikers. Don’t make the mistake of trying to over wear your shoes; you’ll pay for it.

Boots tend to last quite a bit longer than running shoes — you can probably get 1000-1400 miles, and then you can get them resoled. Trail runners, on the other hand, should be replaced every 300-500 miles, something to keep in mind if you’re hiking the AT or a similarly lengthy trek.

You Need to Eat, so You’ll Need a Lightweight Stove

Our recommendation is to keep it simple…and cheap. Easily make your own Fancy Feast alcohol stove for 3-season trips, and bring a wind shield. It’s most useful for boiling water, which can be used for freeze-dried meals, a cup of coffee, or freezer-bag cooking.

Reliable Water Storage is Critical

Carry a collapsible soft bottle from Platypus or refill Smart water bottle (they’re lightweight and come in a convenient 1 L size. Boiling water is the cheapest way to purify it, but it takes time to boil and cool. Another ultralight option is chemical treatment via chlorine dioxide. Aquamira water treatment drops are a popular option, and two 1-oz bottles treat up to 30 gallons of water. It kills all bacteria, protozoa and viruses. The downside is that it takes four hours to guarantee effectiveness against cryptosporidium…though most people aren’t patient enough to wait that long.

Clothing Optional

Layering, even when packing ultralight, is still key. You’ll want to focus on the weight of individual items and on cutting out extra clothing that serves no purpose. These days, it’s not hard to find very packable lightweight options, even for winter jackets. So here we’ll focus on what to bring. Common no-no’s include “spare” shirts and trousers, pajamas, camp shoes, or more than two pairs of hiking socks.

Wrap-up

There you have it. With a few pieces of new gear and the willpower to leave behind a few non-essentials, you’re ready to start your ultralight adventure. It may take some getting used to, but you’ll likely find the more experienced you get, the lighter you’ll want to go.

Just remember, going ultralight shouldn’t be a chore. It’s designed to make your hiking more comfortable and efficient. So, if you need to start slow, start slow. Maybe there’s a “non-essential” item you can’t bare to leave behind. Don’t.

At the end of the day, it’s about comfortably settling into camp, after climbing those extra miles to an exceptional lookout or getting to that last waterfall, excited to see what the next day will bring.

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