How to get into ultralight backpacking

Lightening your backpacking load can have dramatic implications, particularly for aging hikers who have followed the techniques in Colin Fletcher’s “Complete Walker” hiking bible.

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    Last summer, when I was hitchhiking in Colorado, I met a 63 year old hiker who gave me a ride. He taught a course on Ultralight Backpacking at the local college. Bob said that the easiest way is go ultralight was to scrape up $1250, go to the zpacks.com website, and order their most popular cuben fiber pack, solo tent, and down sleeping bag.  This gets the “Big Three” on your back for total weight of three pounds. Expensive, but efficient.
For the rest of us, it’s best to start with keeping the big 3 under 10 pounds, which would lead to a fully loaded backpack of 15-20 pounds if you leave that Rambo knife at home.
Once you have cut the weight on your Big 3, you enter the “ we pack for our fear” zone.  Anxiety about what might go wrong on a hike may lead to placement of unnecessary items in that light pack.  For example, I once saw another backpacker pull a cast iron two foot long lawnmower blade from his pack and place it by the side of his sleeping bag at bedtime.  I asked him about it and he said, “ Wild hogs here in Georgia can attack you when you sleep.”  I used to carry a heavy ankle brace, “just in case” , but after lugging around-unused for 3,700 miles I now leave it at home.
I hike with three pair of thin socks, two for walking in, one for sleeping. Ultralight hikers don’t generally carry spare clothing like underwear.  Some give up long pants in the warmer weather, adding thin wool tights and rain pants if it gets too cold.
Another popular option to ditch weight is to go stoveless, and forget the cooking pot as well, opting for foods that don’t require cooking, or that can be rehydrated with water in a plastic container.
A Katadyne-type pump filter for water purification is not a typically in an ultralight pack- instead we see the Aqua Mira solution, or a Sawyer Squeeze gravity system.
The best resource for a quick lesson in learning about ultra and lightweight backpacking is the book “Lighten Up ! A Complete Handbook for Light and Ultralight Backpacking” by Don Ladigin. It’s inexpensive and filled with all you need to know. 51VeNaJAHsL._AA160_
Of course if you have $1250 bucks, you can get there quickly, but I would rather take that amount and use the money for a one- month backpacking trip.

5 thoughts on “How to get into ultralight backpacking

  1. Love these posts, Tom. Keep ‘em coming.

    In TLOTR, Gollum is the prime example of going ultralight. He caught fish. He stole what he needed. He was above cannibalism, or at least, that is what is hinted (darkly).

    Of course, I doubt very much that he could make twenty miles a day. But after all, ‘it’s the journey, not the destination.”

  2. As I try to get in some kind of shape to get out on the trail, I think very long and hard about weight. If I could lose as much weight as I ought to, I could carry a huge pack without weighing as much as I do now. The years have not been kind and the weight doesn’t come off as easily as it went on. As I think about the things that I carry, it strikes me that there is a lot of truth to the Zpacks statement. The heaviest and bulkiest items that I could carry would be my pack, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Forty years ago, I tarp camped with my REI duck down bag and a foam pad from the surplus store. As the years went by, my gear got heavier and the trips went to car camping and dayhikes. Last fall, I went on a short day hike in Canyonlands N. P. and I could feel my heels starting to give me trouble after just a few miles. Living in the flatlands is not good for conditioning feet to ups and downs. I need to cut my pack weight and get out more. The one thing that I think I have to get right is my sleeping bag and pad. If I can’t get a good night’s rest, I’ll be no good to anyone. The Cuben fiber tent and pack can come later. I’ll make a new tarp and learn how to pitch it. I’ve made a new pack and, while I’m sure it isn’t as light as it could be, it will be lighter and more comfortable than what I have used. I’ll think about the things that I put in my pack and try to be certain that I need them and will use them. The ultra lightweight and superultralightweight terms really don’t matter to me. I just want to cut down the weight of the things that I have to carry with me.

    • Thanks for commenting. Dropping body weight is a struggle worth taking on. I think my improved mountain biking and hiking this season is due in part to dropping 8-10 pounds. I don’g think the Z-packs solution is a joke. I have hiked with people who have made really low weight packs, sleeping quilts, and tarps that work fine. But there is not a lot of discussion about losing bodyweight.

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