New - May 2009: A Lightweight Backpacking Photography Gear List for serious photography, but save 4.8 lb and $3,650.
New - June 2009: Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101
or Why Sensor Size Matters
My son, Colin, may be laughing in this picture, but his monster pack is no joking matter. Over eight days that 55 pound pack took its toll.
- 1999 - His pack was 55 pounds
- 2001 - His pack was 25 pounds
- 2007 - Now his pack is 15 pounds
- 2008 - Gear Lists & General Discussion of Ultralight Gear
Or, the better question to ask - why suffer if you don't have to? Why would anyone want to carry a 40 to 50 pound pack? Yet, for the average hiker, this is about what they carry for a one week trip.
A pack this heavy causes plenty of problems:
- Slow, tedious hiking
- Exhaustion, irritability, and low morale on the trail
- Increased chance of injury - sore back, sprained ankles, blown knees, sore muscles, bruised and blistered feet
- Tired, cross people make bad decisions, sometimes with serious consequences.
- Slow hiking leaves less time for fun stuff - relaxing in camp, fishing, staring at clouds, skinny dipping, side trips
All this detracts from enjoying the outdoors - the reason you went in the first place.
How about 24 pound pack for a one week trip? A 17 pound pack for a weekend trip? Or even a 9 pound weekend pack if I am going Super Ultralight (SUL). At these pack weights, backpacking feels more like day hiking. It's hard to describe how freeing this is until you experience it. The trail miles melt away. Without the misery of a heavy pack you can actually appreciate the beauty of the land you're hiking through. You get into camp early, with plenty of time and energy to do almost anything.
2001: I believe that you can easily take everything you need to be safe and warm for around 10 pounds for pack and equipment (I carried around 8-9 pounds in 2001). See my ultralight gear list/discussion page (my 2001 list about 3 down from the top). If you add around 1.75 pounds of food per day, you have a 24 pound pack for a seven day trip and a 17 pound pack for a weekend, 3 days and 2 nights. (See my 2001 food list for more details.) Note: Some 2001 materials needs updating. I recommend you browse my more recent gear lists (2007 and up listed below) for equipment ideas.
2007: Now I am usually under 5 pounds base packweight (see my 4.7 lb super ultralight (SUL), and my 2.4 lb Extreme Ultralight (XUL) gear lists for more details.) Also see my 5.9 lb Canyoneering GearList.
Ultralight backpacking is for everyone from serious outdoor jocks to just about anyone else. Heavy packs turn away a lot of people that might really enjoy backpacking. The following people may benefit even more from a light pack. In their case it may make the difference between them backpacking or not.
- Children and/or people hiking with children
- Older people
- People with joint problems
- People who may not be as fit and/or light as they wish
An ultralight backpacker carries all of the same safety items that any hiker would take - clothing, sleep system (e.g. sleeping bag), shelter, first aid kit, water treatment, etc.
But, like everything else in life there are no guarantees. Inexperience and poor judgment of hikers cause most problems when backpacking - not the equipment. This can happen to someone with a pack fully laden with all manner of equipment just as easily at it can to an ultralight hiker with a stripped down load. Solid backpacking technique, familiarity with your equipment, sound safety practices, and above all good judgment, count a lot more for your well being on the trail, than the type and quantity of equipment you bring.
That said, most of what the average backpacker takes is either too heavy; or unnecessary, adding little to their safety. With a little bit of thought, selecting lighter equipment, and leaving stuff you don't absolutely need at home, you can carry enough to keep you warm, dry and safe for one-half to one-third the weight of what the average hiker carries.
Sometimes this lighter equipment is every bit as good as heavier equipment. Sometimes the lighter equipment has some performance limitations and is less durable than heavier equipment. In this case, I believe that the reduction in weight exceeds the limitations of the lighter equipment. With care and proper use the equipment works fine. For example:
A silnylon tarp doesn't provide the easy setup and bombproof rain and wind protection of a free standing tent. But in summertime in the Sierras where the normal weather pattern is for short afternoon thunderstorms, if any at all, do you really need the 5 to 7 pound tent? With proper care and pitching, the 0.5 to 1 pound silnylon tarp will keep you dry and sufficiently sheltered from the wind. And it's a lot airier and less claustrophobic under a tarp. If tarps aren't your thing, there are complete two person ultralight tents for around 2 pounds (Links to: TarpTent, Six Moon Designs, Gossamer Gear.)
For more discussion of ultralight equipment see my ultralight gear list page.
- Loosely defined, ultralight backpacking is a base pack weight (BPW)* of under 10 pounds. This is an arbitrary number, but I'll use it for now since many ultralight backpackers seem to make this number or go substantially below it. No one has died yet!
- Lightweight backpackers fall in the range of a 10-20 pound base pack weight. Again, these numbers are completely arbitrary. There is nothing wrong with lightweight backpacking. Find the weight that works for you
* Base Pack Weight (BPW) includes your pack and all necessary equipment for your hike; but excludes food, water, and fuel. It also does not include stuff like cameras, binoculars, books, etc. or the clothing that you wear hiking. If you include your clothes and all equipment you carry but not food, fuel or water, the term is Full Skin Out Base Weight (FSO-BW).
The 10 pound ultralight base pack weight is limited to:
- Early to late Summer trips to Western Mountains, Sierras or Rockies (slightly longer season for Northeastern US)
- Night time temperatures not too much below freezing
- Trail hiking and cross country routes not to exceed class III
- Usually camping below tree line. Might be a bit iffy at some windy, exposed, high altitude camp sites, although some are able to do this.
Note: There are two even lighter categories of Ultralight:
- Super Ultralight (SUL) < 5 lb BPW (still valid 2+ season Western Mountains)
- Extreme Ultralight (XUL) less than 5 lb FSO-BW (my preferred definition)
but it's a hazy category (for other it's < 4 lb BPW? or <3 lb BPW?)
I go to the mountains to enjoy natural beauty and solitude. I want to get away from houses, roads, and city life. To do this I take very little stuff with me. Stuff that gets in the way of my mountain experience. For obvious reasons Ultralight is a perfect fit for me.
- I don't need fancy food or hot meals.
- I don't mind if the ground is hard.
- I don't want a big fancy tent that reminds me of the rooms I left behind.
- Books? I never get bored. There's always too much to see and something interesting to check out in the next canyon. And I need time to think in the quiet and solitude of the mountains. Something I get precious little of in my life.
- When I'm in the mountains, I like to cover a lot of ground. I want to see as much as I can the limited time I have.
- I hate being a pack mule. I like the freedom of a light pack. It allows me to go further and through more rugged terrain and without suffering!
- I sometimes hike with people that are not fit or fast hikers. Ultralight allows me to carry a little extra weight for them, and substantially reduce their pack weight. With lighter packs we can get to beautiful remote areas that would be unattainable with conventional packs.
The short answer is somewhere between $250 and $1,000.
The equipment for my 2001 summer ultralight gear list cost me under $700. But ultralight backpacking doesn't have to be this expensive. I have put together a basic ultralight gear list for $250. Some of your current clothes and/or backpacking equipment may do just fine for ultralight backpacking (e.g your present pair of running shoes). Also many stores like K-Mart and Target have a surprising amount of inexpensive stuff that will work for ultralight backpacking. If you watch for closeouts from conventional retailers (e.g. REI, Campmor, EMS, etc.) and/or super deals from discount retailers like Sierra Trading Post you can get some great deals. I just bought a Patagonia Essenshell Pullover from Patagonia's outlet store for $55 (reduced from $135). I got my Soloman WindRaid trail runners on closeout from REI for $35 (reduced from $100).
In a recent poll from the BackPackingLight group, the average ultralight backpacker has spent somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000 dollars on equipment. But they are "gear heads" and this is a serious activity for them. Also, it is for all their equipment, so there are bound to be redundant items as they upgrade and improve their list. They may also have more than one of a certain piece of equipment to fine tune their stuff for a particular trip. E.g. two or three bags, each for a particular set of temperatures and conditions. They may own a tarp for some trips and a light tent for others.
In summary: If you are just starting out and own little equipment, my best guess is that for $500 to $1,000 that you can put together a dynamite set of ultralight equipment. But be forewarned this is addictive stuff. Many who started out to spend a little end up spending a lot. Watch that credit card and watch out for those titanium tent pegs!
The short answer is look at the "big three," your pack, shelter, and sleep system (e.g sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and ground cloth). You stand to loose the most weight from these. As much as 10 to 12 pounds.
Here a few other things you might try:
- Find out the horrible truth! Get all your stuff together and weight it. If you're like most conventional hikers, your equipment will weigh around 30 pounds. Possibly higher.
- If you can, try to get individual weights for your heavier items. For stuff under a pound you may want to buy an inexpensive digital scale that weighs up to 10 pounds. Digital is nice but not essential.
- Look at my equipment lists (my list has a discussion of how I achieve my sub-eight pound pack) and the lists of other ultralight backpackers (see Links). This should give you a good idea of how you can reduce your pack weight and what type of equipment is available.
- If you can, put together a spreadsheet with all your equipment weights. This is an indispensable analysis tool.
- See what you can leave at home. Anything you don't bring is free weight reduction. Think hard about this one. Do you really need it?
- Post your equipment list, with weights, with one of the discussion groups listed at the top of Equipment Links . You'll get a lot of good advice from experienced ultralight backpackers.
- Try to figure out where you'll get the most "bang for the buck." E.g. figure out how much a new item costs and divide that by the amount of weight it will save you over your old equipment. Target the items that give you the most weight loss for the fewest dollars.
- If you can, don't try to do this all at once. Many items regularly go on sale or are closed out. Watch carefully over the course of a year and you could save 30 to 70 percent on your equipment.