These Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists, 5 Pound or 9 Pound, will save you a lot of pack-weight but still keep a smile on your face. You will most likely be warmer, more comfortable, and sleep better than most campers carrying 2 to 3 times the weight in conventional/heavier backpacking gear.

The Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

These two great lightweight backpacking gear lists are suitable for most backpackers on most 3-season trips (spring, summer, and fall) in the lower 48 states of the US as well as most trekking (backpacking) trips world-wide. They will do you proud for:

  • Appalachian Trail and other backpacking areas on the East Coast
  • The Sierras, Rockies and other mountains of the Western US
  • Cascade Mountains and Pacific Northwest
  • The Canyons and Deserts of the Southwest
  • Trekking Trips Worldwide (e.g. Patagonia, Europe, New Zealand, etc.)

Pick the Gear List that Suits You

5 pound Practical Light Backpacking Gear List 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Gear List
3 day wt 11 to 13 lb* total pack weight for 3 days
(*total wt includes gear, food, fuel & water)
15 to 20+ lb* total pack weight for 3 days
(*total wt includes gear, food, stove fuel & water)
Purpose To travel as light as possible but be warm, dry & safe. Focused on efficiency. Whatever you like to do: enjoying great views, photography, swimming, fishing, getting extra camp time, or hiking long miles, this will give you more time to do it. Capable of 100+ miles w/o resupply Travel light while retaining all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking gear. e.g. a freestanding tent vs. a tarp and a canister vs. alcohol stove. Gear is familiar and easy to use. Good for trekking almost anywhere worldwide.
Gear Sources Uses some exciting, lighter & innovative gear from cottage manufacturers like Hyperlite Mountain Gear, ULA Packs, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Hammock Gear: (may need to wait a few weeks for some gear) Uses more conventional gear (sometimes heavier) from mainstream commercial vendors like REI. Gear usually available off-the-shelf.
Pack Under 1 pound: Frameless, with a good hip-belt & durable fabric. (Options for a frame pack for longer trips w/heavier loads.) 2 pounds or under: Solid internal frame. Larger volume. Can carry a bear canister. From REI: Osprey Exos 48 Pack
Shelter Around ½ lb/person: usually a tarp  or a shared pyramid shelter Around 1 to 2 lb/person: freestanding tent (an ultralight one), or a TarpTent
Other Less “other stuff.” Minimal light A few more comfort & convenience items
Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

My pack for 8 days:  With a light pack you can cover a lot of trail miles in complete comfort—wanting for nothing. Pictured the HyperLight Mountain Gear Southwest 2400  pack on the GR 20 in Corsica.

Modify These Gear Lists to Your Personal and Trip Needs

By all means, fine-tune these lists to your particular trip needs and/or backpacking style. Just select from the optional or alternate gear items (already included in these lists). In addition, you may wish to use some gear from the 5 Pound List and other gear from the 9 Pound List. Mixing and matching between lists is fine.

The two modifications I often make to the 5 Pound Practical Light Backpacking Gear List are:

  1. Substitute a two-pound pack like the HyperLight Mountain Gear Southwest 2400 or 3400 pack ULA Ohm 2.0 or Circuit pack (or from REI:Osprey Exos 48) if reg’s require a bear canister, and/or if I am carrying a lot of food and/or climbing gear that pushes my my total pack weight above 20 pounds. Note: in areas where an Ursack is allowed I would go back to using a 1 lb frameless pack.
  2. Skip the tarp and use a MLD Pyramid or HMG Pyramid Shelter if I know (from a recent Wx forecast) that I will likely be camping exposed, above treeline in really cold/wet weather.

Hammock vs. Ground Sleeping (e.g. Tent)

Of particular note is that both lists have options for hammock or ground-sleeping (e.g. tent). In areas with plentiful trees like the East Coast of the US I feel that hammock camping has many advantages, see: Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems. When in the Sierras or other areas with few trees, the opposite is true and I usually cowboy camp on the ground in a 7 ounce bivy sack, only putting up a tarp when it is actually raining (or sharing a pyramid shelter).

Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

With a lighter pack you can get into some incredible areas like this that few people with heavy packs are likely to visit. (Off-trail in the High Sierra)

This “Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking” is the companion post to my 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List. It explains the underlying philosophy and criteria that integrates all the gear into a safe and effective ultralight kit. And most important, it gives you few tips on how best to use it.

Overview of Technique for Ultralight Backpacking

I originally created the 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List list for my 3-day, 102 mile section hike on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. See: “My Trip Report.” I was surprisingly warm, dry and comfortable on the trip in challenging late winter conditions. After my hike, I looked over the trip’s gear with a worldwide trekking perspective and saw that it was extremely similar to gear I have taken trekking for most of the US and worldwide. I concluded that this ultralight backpacking gear list was likely the lightest, most efficient & practical gear list for backpacking treks in the US and worldwide.

The5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List works for 3-season treks (spring, summer, fall) in these locations and likely many more:

  • Appalachian Trail and other backpacking areas in the East
  • The Sierras, Rockies and other mountains of the Western US
  • Cascade Mountains and Pacific Northwest
  • The Canyons and Deserts of the Southwest
  • Trekking Trips Worldwide (e.g. Patagonia, Europe, New Zealand, etc.)

IN EUROPE, lead photo above: Using a ultralight pack with gear almost identical to what I used on the AT this spring, Alison walks a high alpine ridge in Corsica, France. The GR20 in Corsica is considered the hardest long distance trek in Europe and is legendary for its violent  weather.

Definition of Practical Ultralight Backpacking

Practical Ultralight Backpacking is the gear, food and technique that will maximize distance traveled in the most efficient manner (less time wasted, less wear and tear on the backpacker). Practical Light has an emphasis on efficiency in all aspects: when hiking, making camp, getting a good night’s sleep, leaving camp in the morning, proper nutrition and hydration, and staying warm, dry and in good spirits. Warning: As a side benefit, the light pack may increase your enjoyment of backpacking.


Guiding Principles for Practical Ultralight Backpacking

  • My first priority is to enjoy myself and appreciate the terrain I’m walking through. Hiking at my own comfortable/efficient pace and watching the ever changing landscape unfold is my favorite way to fully appreciate the beauty of the backcountry.
  • Being cold, wet, or hungry or getting a crappy night’s sleep sucks. I want no part of it.
Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAL, the embodiment of practical light backpacking: My pack weighs only 10 Pounds (gear, food, water & fuel). With it I hiked a 102 mile section of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. Covering that distance would not have been possible if my light gear weren’t also extremely efficient and practical. I was surprisingly warm, dry and comfortable in late winter conditions—snow, 40 mph horizontal sleet, cold rain, and hard freezes at night.

Philosophy and Techniques for Practical Ultralight Backpacking

Important Efficiency and Time Saving Considerations. Obviously a very light pack is still a significant contributor towards Practical Ultralight Backpacking, but it’s far from the only one. Other factors I consider important for keeping it fun, minimizing wear and tear on my body, and minimizing time wasted include:

  1. Food: I need to carry enough and the right food to sustain me from dawn to dusk hiking. I need appetizing, nutritious, and high caloric food. See Backpacking Food Page.
  2. Water: I minimize water carried (while still staying well-hydrated!). The key is to drink when thirsty and filter/drink at the source when possible. See Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty
  3. A good night’s sleep: My shelter (tent/tarp/hammock) and sleep system (sleeping bag/quilt and ground-pad) should give me a great night’s sleep to recover from a long day day of hiking, and allow me to wake cheerfully ready to hike another day.
  4. Don’t waste time fiddling with gear: Messing around with “high-futz, high fiddle factor gear” wastes time, and reduces my daily time for fun things. For example, a light shelter with a complicated spiderweb of 9-12 guylines is not practical. The time it takes to stake out all those guylines (even worse in rocky ground) is not worth the few oz of weight savings vs. a shelter with 4-6 stakes or better yet, cowboy camping under the stars in a bivy sack.
  5. Quick access to gear while walking:  Maps, food, water, camera, sunglasses, hats, gloves, etc. should all be available without breaking stride. Here, pockets are your best timesaving friend; the more the better. I use up to 12 walking-accessible pockets: 6 cargo pants pockets plus 2 side, 2 hipbelt, and 2 shoulder strap pockets of my pack. Rooting around in the main bag of your pack in the middle of the day to find some elusive item is frustrating and a huge time waster.
  6. Maximize available campsites: My gear should allow me to camp wherever I want at the end of my optimal hiking day—whenever I decide that I am done. I do not want my light gear to limit my options and force me to camp at inconvenient locations.

If I compromise any of the above to lighten my pack, my gear is no longer practical. That is, I will be less efficient, waste time and hike fewer miles per day if I cut more weight.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

IN THE SIERRAS, modification to use a framed pack for a heavier load: I am using a HMG Pack with a frame to carry both a bear canister (required) and my climbing gear. This is too much of a load for a frameless pack. All other gear items are essentially the same as the “5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List.” (Don and I climbed Mt Conness in the background.)

How your sleep system (hammock, tent, bivy sack, etc.) determines where you can camp

Hammock camping example: Let’s say you are hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s mid-to-late-afternoon and you are plum tuckered—done hiking for the day but… you are midway between shelters/good campsites. There certainly isn’t any good camp-able area where you are. The ground is rocky, sloping, full of trees, and tree roots. There doesn’t seem to be any decent place to pitch a tent. Your options are:

  1. Continue another few hours to the next good campsite. Not an appealing option if you are already tired.
  2. Decide to do the best to camp where you are. It may take a bit of searching to find a remotely passible place for your tent. Even then it likely to take some time and effort to pitch it in a less than optimal “campsite.” [Believe me. It happens! I’ve seen more than my share of tents pitched in the middle of the AT by desperate hikers than ran out of time and/or energy. The actual trail was the only flat ground they could find.]
  3. Or if you had a hammock you could easily pitch it between two trees and enjoy the rest of your day.

As you can see your choice of a sleep system has an impact on where you can camp. Of particular note are choices for hammock camping vs. ground camping (i.e. a tent) and how your choice determines whether you have many or limited campsite options. In areas with plentiful trees like the Appalachian Trail, most ground is rocky, sloping and unsuitable for camping. There are limited camps with flat ground and they are usually far apart. Here hammock camping allows you more campsite options. All you need is two trees to hang from—that’s just about everywhere! The ground below you is irrelevant. Note: Hammock camping has many other advantages. See Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems.

Ground camping (bivy) example: When in the Sierras, other western mountains above treeline, or in other areas without trees like the desert, the opposite is true. Sleeping on the ground gives you more campsite options. For example, in the Sierras I usually cowboy camp on the ground in a 7 oz bivy sack—this has the smallest footprint and does not require stakes, giving me the most options for campsites—I can even tuck in between boulders or small shrubs to get out of the wind. I only put up a tarp when it rains. Otherwise, I am enjoying the stars at night. Tents with a larger footprint and more stakes reduce campsite options and take more time to setup and take down, although this is rarely a showstopper in the western mountains.

For distance oriented hikers: Let’s say that you are hiking near the end of the day and you can 1) reach the next campsite an hour before dusk or 2) you can reach the campsite after that by hiking an hour in the dark. In other words, you have two choices, 1) stop short for the day and loose an hour of daylight hiking time or 2) hike an hour in the dark to the next one. Hiking in the dark under headlamp, while possible is not efficient. Your pace slows trying to find good footing, your risk of injury goes up, and it is exceptionally easy to loose the trail at night, and very hard to relocate it. What would be optimal, and most efficient would be to camp right before dusk midway between the two camps. What camping gear you choose plays a role on whether you have the flexibility to camp right at dusk when it’s most convenient for you.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

HAMMOCKS GIVE YOU MORE CAMPSITE OPTIONS IN THE EAST: Alison and I are happily sleeping side by side in hammocks above sloping ground with plenty of roots—ground unsuitable for tent camping. It went down in to the 20’s that night but we slept blissfully warm and comfortable. Great star gazing too!

I realize that some readers will be unconvinced by my enthusiasm for hammock or tarp camping even in areas with lots of good trees, or cowboy camping in a bivy sack. Therefore in the gear list, I also provide more conventional alternatives like TarpTents and Pyramid Shelters. If you are looking for full tent options, See: 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

IN THE CANYONS AND DESERT SOUTHWEST: a light pack is essential to moving safely across slickrock. I am using a HMG Southwest 2400 Pack to handle the extra weight of a rope, a minimal set of climbing gear, and extra water for the desert environment.

Modifications to the 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List

Readers may wish to modify this list to their particular trip needs and/or backpacking style. As such, I have provided a number of optionals or alternate gear items in the list. Here are my two most common variations:

  • I will skip the tarp and use a MLD Pyramid or HMG Pyramid Shelter if I know (from a recent Wx forecast) that I will likely be camping exposed, above treeline in really cold/wet weather. Usually I am sharing the pyramid shelter with my wife or a climbing partner so the overall shelter weight per person remains around ½ pound—so no increase in weight.
Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

IN EUROPE, modification to use a shared pyramid shelter: That stone wall is there for a reason. The GR20 in Corsica is legendary for its violent afternoon thunderstorms. Just a few weeks before our trip, a number of hikers died and many more were injured in a powerful storm. Alison and I chose to share a pyramid shelter. At only 10 oz, (280 g) per person and requiring 5 stakes, it is in keeping with the principals of practical light backpacking.

“Everything in its place and a place for everything.”Pockets keep gear organized where I can quickly find things, saving a bunch of time. Scrabbling into the main compartment of my backpack in search of some elusive item is never fun and wastes a lot time.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

A sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with Olympus E-520 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens.] This photo looks great enlarged to 14x19.

A sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with 16 oz, mirrorless digital SLR camera (like this) with its stock zoom lens. ] This photo looks great enlarged to 14×19.

Purpose: This article addresses the selection of a lightweight backpacking camera and photo gear. In particular, you will understand the tradeoffs of camera size and weight vs. image quality.


The 16 ounce Sony a6000 with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D. Pictured is my full Sony a6000 backpacking kit: Sony a6000 Mirrorless Camera w (kit 16-50mm lens or alternate lens), Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco Ultrapod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery (spare), Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

Camera Item Oz Comments
Camera SLR
crop format
Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens*
new model: Sony a6300
16.0 Among lightest 24mp APS-C cameras. With the right lens, image quality approaching Canon 5D
Lens alt/add’l Sony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens w hood (6.2) Fast, superb resolution, normal lens w image stabilization. Use dawn & dusk. Possibly w/o tripod!
Lens alt/add’l Sigma 19mm f2.8 DN, w hood (6.1) For landscape. Light, inexpensive, sharper at 19mm than the a6000 16-50mm kit lens
Lens alt/add’l Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN, w hood (5.7) Only $199! Superb resolution. Lightweight.
Battery spare Sony NP-FW50 Battery (1.5) Alt less $: Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) & Charger
Mount Peak Designs CapturePRO 110g 3.8 Take more photos! Fast access to camera!
Attaches to backpack shoulder strap
Mount Peak Designs Micro Plate 25g 0.8 Needed to clear a6000’s hinged LCD screen
Tripod SLR Pedco ultra-pod II 114g, 4.0 oz For small mirrorless SLR cameras
Tripod mount Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head 51g, 1.8 oz For quick attachment of camera with Peak Designs Micro Plate (alt = Desmond DLVC-50)
Protection Gallon Freezer ZipLoc To protect camera gear from rain
TOTAL 20.6 ounces


A recent photo shot in Dolly Sods Wildness with the 16 oz Sony a6000 mirrorless digital SLR camera and its stock zoom lens (listed in table above).

Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101 – Why Sensor Size Matters

If you don’t want to go into all the gory details at this point you can just jump to a discussion of the Lightweight backpacking cameras I use.

Lightweight Backpacking Camera

My three lightweight backpacking cameras L to R: Canon PowerShot S100 (current model s120), Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens (new model: Sony a6300), Sony RX100iii (current model RX100iv). With each increase in size, weight and cost you get higher quality images, but at expense pocket-ability and rapid access to the camera for a quick shot. (photo taken with my iPhone 6+)

While some point and shoot lightweight backpacking cameras may produce quite serviceable photos, don’t expect professional quality images from a camera with a sensor* the size of your little fingernail and a lens the size of a snap pea. It would be great if a 5 oz Point and Shoot (P/S) compact camera produced images close to the quality of images from a 3 ½ pound digital SLR (DSLR) camera and lens combination like a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. But camera sensor and lens size has significant impact on image quality. In summary: better image quality requires a larger sensor, which in turn requires a larger camera body and a larger lens, and ultimately a heavier camera.

Since we can’t bypass laws of physics (sensor* and lens size), each backcountry photographer will need to find a satisfactory compromise between camera size/weight and image quality.

* Sensor is the device in a digital camera that electronically captures the image. It performs the same function as film in old style film cameras.

5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking CameraAlso see 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

Alert! as a backpacker you are not well served by mainstream camera reviews like DPReview. That is, the 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera are quite different than those for a general use camera in mainstream reviews. Hear are the major differences.

Major factors to consider for image/photo quality

  • Larger sensors produce better image quality: (see Table of Sensor Sizes and Pixel Densities below)
    A P/S camera has a sensor 5% the size of the full-frame sensor of a camera like the Canon 5D. If each camera has the same number of pixels, then the pixels on the P/S camera will need to be 5% the size of the full-frame camera’s pixels in order to fit on the smaller sensor. So each P/S pixel can only gather 5% of the light of a full-frame sensor pixel—sometimes only a few photons per pixel (yes literally down to the photon level!). Without going into gritty detail, the close pixel spacing and limited light gathering ability of smaller sensors leads to less resolution/sharpness (for the same pixel count), less dynamic range (especially problems with clipped highlights, i.e. entirely white areas without detail), less color saturation, more noise, decreased ISO performance, and ultimately lower image quality.
  • Lens size matters: A larger sensor requires a larger lens to cover the larger sensor area. In addition, there is a limit to how precisely one can shape a small lens (e.g. a P/S camera lens). Due to the immense popularity P/S cameras and digital video recorders, there have been astonishing advancements in the optical quality of small molded plastic lenses. Nonetheless, the best optical quality is still from precisely ground glass lenses. These are the lenses used for for mid-size-semi-pro-sensors (approx. 30-40% of 35mm coverage) to full frame sensors (100% of 35mm coverage). Larger lenses do cost a lot more. A top quality lens might cost between $800 to several thousand dollars. But there are bargains to be had with some gems in the $200 to $500 range (e.g.Sigma’s Art Series prime lenses). And even some quite good zoom kit lenses.
  • Intended print size or use of images: If you intend to use the camera to produce 800 pixel snaps for your webpage, a good P/S camera should to the trick (although you will still a reduction in dynamic range, and color accuracy). But if you intend to frame large prints, you will be disappointed with the results from a P/S camera. To get sharp 16×20 or larger prints, with good color and tonality you’ll need at least a mid-size-semi-pro-sensor camera (approx. 30-40% of 35mm coverage) with a high quality lens—something like the Sony a6000.

Finally, there are no takeovers for backpacking photography. A small sensor P/S camera is extremely unlikely to produce a high quality enlargement no matter how fabulous the shot. Photoshopping is unlikely to make significant improvements. Think hard before you commit to a smaller sensor camera.

Killer Point and Shoot Cameras for backpacking

The Sony is a DP Review Editors Pick and in a class to itself for image quality for a light and compact camera. But it is quite expensive.

The Sony is  in a class to itself for image quality for a light & compact camera.

Some great, almost pocketable, 11 ounce “point and shoot” cameras produce superb images. The major disadvantage is high cost.


Mirrorless crop format cameras are probably your best option for serious photography

You best option for serious backpacking photography is probably one of the inexpensive mirrorless crop format camera (APS, APC, μ4/3) like current Sony a6000. The best of these cameras approach full-format SLR picture quality in a light, compact camera with interchangeable lenses. By doing away with a SLR mirror and viewfinder, but retaining the larger sensor and lenses of an SLR, you significantly reduce weight and bulk but retain picture quality. The 16 ounce Sony a6000 with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D.


Canon 5D challenger: The 16 ounce Sony a6000 (new model: Sony a6300) with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D. Above is the full Sony a6000 backpacking kit use: Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco Ultrapod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery, and Newer Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

And I admit, even I am tempted from time to time to carry a Canon 5D into the backcountry for its superb resolution and image quality! Note: The full-format mirrorless Sony a7 is starting to make inroads into the serious professional photo market. Even here photographers are finally getting tired of the weight and bulk DSLRs.

Lightweight backpacking camera

Sunrise Escalante River, Olympus E-30 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens. This photo looks great enlarged to 14×19. I just got done looking at the pictures my friend took with a compact P/S camera vs. the pictures I took a few weeks earlier in the same area with an Olympus DSLR with a 4/3 sensor (about nine times larger sensor). The P/S pictures are ”muddier“ and not nearly as sharp. The colors are muted and there is less tonal range. There are lots of pictures with detailess dark shadows or white (not blue) sky, sometimes both in the same shot. True, my friend still has a nice (and serviceable) photo record of her trip but most of these photos are not technically worthy of an 8×10 enlargement. Some of the shots, if they were taken with a better camera would make excellent enlargements worthy of framing. Bottom line—larger camera, larger sensor, better picture.

Cameras and Their Sensor Sizes

The following is a list of some cameras and their sensor sizes.
As a rough estimate, the lower the pixel density (mp/cm2) the higher the image quality of the camera.

Lightweight backpacking camera

Note: the example cameras in this are a bit dated, but the message is still good. Altho, now over 5 years later sensor technology has improved to the point where a current crop sensor camera like the Sony a6000 out-performs a 5-year-old, full-format DSLR.

Pixel density counts, but there may still be significant image quality differences between cameras with sensors of similar pixel densities (although probably not enough to jump camera classes). These differences in image quality are usually due to improved sensor technology and improved camera image processing. E.g.:

  • Even though it has a higher pixel density, the new Olympus E-620 has almost 1.0 EV more highlight range than the older E-520. But it still doesn’t have the RAW headroom (dynamic range) or high ISO performance of the best, mid-sized sensor APC/APC cameras (e.g. Nikon D300 or Canon Rebel XSi), let alone a full 35mm sized sensor camera (e.g Canon 5D mk2 or Nikon D700).
  • The Canon PowerShot G10 performs considerably better against compact cameras than its extremely high 34 mp/cm2 pixel density might indicate. But its 10x higher pixel density cannot match the image quality of the mid-sized APC/APS and 4/3 sensor cameras like the Canon Rebel XSi or Olympus E-620.
  • The improved technology of the Canon 5D Mk II (sensor and image processing) has better image quality (but not by a lot) over the older and lower pixel density 5D. And at 21 vs. 12.7 mega pixel the Mk II has more resolution. But the 2.4 mp/cm2 Canon 5D Mk II does not have near the RAW headroom (dynamic range) of the 1.5 mp/cm2 Nikon D700.

Available Lenses: Their Quality and Their Weight

Larger sensors require larger lenses. Larger lenses are heavier, and significantly more expensive to make. In particular it is quite difficult to make an inexpensive, high quality full frame (35mm) lens for cameras like the Canon 5D. This is where the smaller, high quality midsized sensor lenses like the Olympus Zuiko μ4/3 format lenses really shine. For the Sony a6000 there are some incredible deals with Sigma’s Art Series prime lenses. So make sure you check out the availability of high quality lightweight lenses before committing to a particular camera line. Sometimes, the lenses are significantly more important for weight and image quality than the camera body. And it is likely that you will own and use the lenses far longer than a given camera body.



Quick ways to reduce backpack weight

Moving fast and light along the spectacular ridge line of the GR20 in Corsica. A minimal pack (and good pre-trip training) enabled Alison and I to do a 16 day trip in under 8 days. Pictured – the award winning Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack

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Quick ways to reduce backpack weight. A few may surprise you…

  1. Look at The Big Three: Backpack, Tent/shelter, and Sleep System (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and ground cloth). You stand to lose a bunch of weight from these: as much as 10 to 12 pounds.
    1. Take a Backpack that weighs less than two pounds. See our: Best Backpacks for Backpacking and Hiking
    2. Take a Tent that weighs less than two pounds. See our: Best Backpacking Tents | Lightweight & Ultralight
    3. Take a Sleeping bag that that weighs less than 1.5 pounds. See our: Buyers Guide to Lightweight Backpacking Quilts & Sleeping Bags
    4. Look at our 9 Pound Full Comfort Lightweight Backpacking Gear List for more ideas for gear to save weight.
      Nine pounds of backpacking gear is all a hiker needs to be safe and warm. Or simply put, this list has better backpacking gear. For over a decade it’s been tested, refined, and updated to reflect only the best and most current backpacking gear now available in 2019. So, if you want to reduce pack weight without reducing comfort, look no further! The hiking gear in this guide is suitable for all 3-season conditions on trips around the world, from Alaska, to Patagonia, to Utah.
  2. Look on The Backpacking Food Page to save a ton of weight at zero cost
  3. Get a weather report (the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative and accurate)—then pack for those conditions! Since 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less, this weather report should be quite accurate for the short time you are out. This will let you pack a tent, clothing, and sleeping bag appropriate for actual conditions. It will also deter you from taking inappropriate, “what-if-the-worst-happens!” gear, e.g. 6 pound tent, and a +10F sleeping bag for a balmy weather trip on the Appalachian Trail.
  4. Don’t take extra clothing. e.g. don’t take any more clothing than you can wear at one time.
  5. Take less: Be disciplined and leave a few items at home that you haven’t used in the last three trips. Put stuff like sunscreen and trail soap in smaller containers.
  6. Extra Credit: Browse The Gear Lists Page for other ideas and examples to save weight. This will give you a good examples of what type of gear is available and what is a reasonable weight for that type of gear, e.g. around 6-8 ounces for a rain jacket, or around 1.0 ounce for a pocket knife. Think hard if your gear is 2 to 3x heavier than the examples on these lists.
  7. Read my The Best Hydration — Drink When Thirsty. Use a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter to drink at the source (lake, stream, etc.). Then only carry a sensible amount to get to your next known water source. I.e. it makes no sense to carry 3 liters of water, almost 7 pounds, when your next water source is only two hours away.
  8. Remember to have fun! That will at least, lighten your spirit and mood.

How Do I Start?

  • Ground yourself in reality: Get all your stuff together and weigh it. If you’re like most conventional hikers, your equipment will weigh around 30 pounds, possibly higher.
  • Get individual weights for your heavier items like tents and backpacks. For stuff in the range of a few pounds or less you’ll want to buy an inexpensive digital scale that weighs up to 10 pounds.
  • 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?
  • Put together a spreadsheet (or at least a list) with all your equipment weights. This is an indispensable analysis tool.
  • 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.
  • Buy on Sale: Don’t try to purchase all your new equipment right away. 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.

These Recommended Lightweight Backpacks are your first choice if you want one light pack to work for all your trips. These packs will carry gear and food for trips up to 7 days or more—yet at around 2 pounds they are not too heavy to use for a long weekend on the Appalachian Trail. They have an internal frame to support heavier loads and will accommodate a bunch of gear and/or a bear canister.

lead photo: The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack on the rugged terrain of the GR20 in Corsica. This pack is a favorite and a Backpacker Magazine award winner for “Best UltraLight Pack.”

Do-it-all Packs for most trips up to a week (or longer)


Hyperlite Mountain Gear Packs: HMG makes very light, functional and extremely durable packs. The 3400 Southwest Pack will work for most trips, even those requiring a bear canister. The 2400 Southwest Pack is a personal favorite and a Backpacker Magazine award winner for “Best UltraLight Pack.” For longer trips it’s great for those with a more compact kit. Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling. HMG packs have stiff frames, capable of supporting heavy loads. HMG packs are Cuben Fiber which is light, waterproof and extremely durable. Seam taping and a roll-top closure make these packs virtually waterproof! 

left: HMG Southwest 2400. Light, rugged & versatile. Can be dragged across rock. Nearly waterproof.


ULA Equipment Packs: ULA packs are a great value. They have much of the performance of HMG packs but cost less.  The Circuit Pack will work for most trips, even those requiring a bear canister. The Ohm 2.0 Pack is great for those with a more compact kit and/or shorter trips (although I carried gear and food for 7 days on the Southern Sierra High Route including a bear canister). Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling. ULA packs are Robic fabric which is light and reasonably durable but inexpensive, keeping pack prices down.

right: The Ohm 2.0 Pack: Slogging up the Mountaineer’s Route on Mt. Whitney carrying a bear canister and 7 days worth of food in a ULA Ohm 2.0 pack. Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling and its durable construction is up to the abuse of climbing Sierra granite. In this case it allowed us to climb over the summit of Whitney mid-trip on the Southern Sierra High Route.


Z-packs Arc Packs: If you hike mostly on trails, this might be the pack for you. What sets it apart is the load carrying capacity of its external frame. Z-packs does a modern, lightweight carbon fiber reinvention of the external frame backpacks of the 70’s and 80’s. Make no mistake, nothing transfers load to your hips like an external frame pack. Their Flexed Arc carbon fiber frame creates an air gap against your back, reducing that sweaty back feeling. The external frame has some considerations for off trail use. It doesn’t move with your torso as much as an internal frame pack when scrambling on rough terrain. And if you need to haul or lower your pack the external frame is exposed. It could catch on things and/or be damaged [but guessing that the majority of readers don’t haul their packs on rock]. The are Arc Haul uses more economical Dyneema fabric. The Arc Blast uses, lighter but expensive Cuben Fiber.

left: Z-packs Arc Pack: What sets it apart is the load carrying capacity of its external carbon fiber frame.

Osprey Exos 58 Pack: The main advantage of the Exos 58 is off the shelf availability form major retailers like REI (the rest of the packs on this page are not). At 2.7 pounds the Exos 58 is almost a pound heavier than other packs on this page but has features like a breathable, tensioned-mesh back panel frame and a top lid with a pocket that some trail hikers may appreciate.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Pack: A great trail pack with a lot of volume! While not quite as durable for scrambling/bushwhacking as the HMG and ULA packs, the Mariposa is under two pounds and has a bunch of features and creature comforts, like a top lid with a pocket that many trail hikers will appreciate.

Recommended Lightweight Backpacks for shorter trips (e.g. a long-weekend)

recommended lightweight backpacks

A light and compact pack is a huge advantage when navigating over difficult terrain. Alison descending after the crux of the GR20 with her 1 pound MLD Exodus Backpack

These packs are a great choice for a “long-weekend trip*,” typically 3 days and 2 nights. Their main advantage is that they weigh 10-18 oz, or 1/3 to 1/2 the weight of the Do-it-all Packs. In general, these packs are suited to carrying loads of 10 to 18 pounds. As such, many do not have a frame and/or may have less capacity than the Do-it-all Packs. But some backpackers with a trim gear kit may be able to use these packs for longer tips. *Note: 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less.


Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus In Dyneema Fabric

Mountain Laurel Designs Packs: The MLD Exodus Pack is a darling of the AT and a Backpacker Magazine award winner for “Best UltraLight Pack.” At just over a pound, it has the same volume of the Do-it-all Packs but saves weight by not having a frame. With light but durable Dyneema X fabric, it’s surprisingly strong, light and resistant to abuse. The 0.8 pound Burn Pack at 38 liters is a smaller and lighter version of the Exodus and is suitable for backpackers with a trimmer gear kit and/or lighter load.

mld burn

MLD Burn Pack in Cuben Fiber

Note: Mountain Laurel Designs is now offering their Burn, Prophet, and Exodus packs in Cuben Fiber. the Cuben Fiber is inherently near-waterproof. When you combine this with a Cuben stuff sacks for your down sleeping bag and jacket, you can pretty much not worry about rain. That means less time dealing with putting on a pack rain cover (they don’t work anyway) or dealing with putting everything in a waterproof pack liner.

  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 WindRider Pack: The 1.7 pound 2400 WindRider Pack is another winner of Backpacker Magazine’s “Best UltraLight Pack.” This pack is a hybrid between theDo-it-all Packs and Short trip packs. It has a bomber frame to support heavy loads but for many backpackers its 40 liter volume is more appropriate for shorter trips. It’s virtually waterproof and will handle a ton of abuse.
  • ULA Equipment CDT Pack: At 1.5 pounds and frameless, the CDT is ULA’s lightest and most basic pack. Like the MLD Exodus, its volume (54 liters) is similar to the Do-it-all packs, only the lack of a frame relegates it to shorter trips for many (but not all) backpackers.

  • Zpacks: At around 1.5 pounds the Arc Haul and the Arc Blast from Z-packs, would be a good choice for trail hiking. Especially those with sensitive shoulders that want to transfer the maximum weight to the hip belt.
  • Gossamer Gear Packs: Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson used the The Gorilla 40 Ultralight Pack to set the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. At 1.6 pounds, the Gorilla is a hybrid between the Do-it-all Packs and Short trip packs. It has a frame to support heaver loads but its 40 liter volume is more appropriate for shorter trips. The 1.1 pound Kumo Superlight and 0.6  Murmur Hyperlight are frameless 36 liter packs suitable for backpackers with a trimmer gear kit and/or lighter load. Unique to the Gossamer Gear Packs is an external and easily removable foam back-pad. This adds a bit of structure to the frameless packs and can be used as a sit pad for breaks and in camp, and/or to put under your feet at night if you use a shorter sleeping pad.
  • Osprey Exos 38 Pack: The main advantage of the Exos 38 is off the shelf availability from major retailers like REI (the rest of the packs on this page are not). At 2.2 pounds the Exos 38 is over twice the weight of most packs on this page but has features like a breathable, tensioned-mesh back panel frame and a top lid with a pocket that some trail hikers may appreciate.

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters
Possibly the best all-around, lightweight shelter is a pyramid shelter. I have used Pyramid Shelters on trips to Alaska, Patagonia, the Sierras, major European treks and around the world. (Picture of Alison in a Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid XL on the G20 in Corsica. Considered to be the toughest long distance trek in Europe, the GR20 is legendary for its violent weather.)

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Why would I not take a conventional tent?

Pyramid SheltersTarps and Shaped Tarps are lighter and better ventilated than most Conventional Tents, yet give excellent wind and rain protection. For instance a pyramid shelter with a palatial 65+ ft2 floor area and 5+ feet of headroom can weigh between 1.5 to a only pound depending on fabric (43ft2/lb to 65 ft2/lb). A well-known 2-person backpacking tent is almost 5 pounds for 47 ft2 floor area and 3+ feet of headroom (9.6 ft2/lb). So the pyramid shelter has between 4.5 to 6.8 times more room per pound than a conventional backpacking tent—put differently it is a larger storm-worthy shelter that weighs 4 pounds less!

See Shelter Weights and Stats for a detailed comparison table of Tents, Tarps and other Shelters.

Quick Answers for Tent and Shelter Selection

1) I just want to get the best all-around shelter and be done: Look at the Pyramid Shelters Page


Pyramid shelters are light and keep you dry!

Consider pyramids from Mountain Laurel Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear or My Trail Co. Pyramid shelters give you huge floor area and great storm protection for the minimum weight. Many of the pyramid shelters have an optional insert which has full mosquito netting and a bathtub floor, effectively making them a tent when needed. But giving you the option of leaving the insert at home, saving both weight and pack volume.


2) I want a conventional Tent from a major retailer like REI: Look at the Tents and Tarptents Page 

Consider lightweight tents like the REI Quarter Dome 1 Tent, or the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 Tent. (If you want to save a bit more weight, look at the Tarptents, altho these will not be from REI.)

3) I feel adventurous & want to go really light: Look at the Tarps and Shaped TarpsPyramid Shelters Page

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

The 7.8 ounce MLD Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp was our choice for the Wind River High Route: Don and I weathered a strong thunder and hailstorm at the back of Cirque of the Towers. Exposed at over 10,000 feet in a mountain meadow, it kept us and all our down gear dry.

Consider one of the pyramids without an insert and/or in Cuben Fiber. Or consider Tarps (like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Tarps, or Mountain Laurel Designs Tarps) and Shaped Tarps if you backpack in places with occasional rain (Summer in the Sierras or the desert of Southern Utah) and/or camp in more sheltered areas (below treeline, behind large rocks, etc.). Tarps and Shaped Tarps far more floor area but a bit less headroom than a pyramid. They are significantly lighter than pyramids. e.g. a 2-personMountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp  is 8 oz vs the 16 oz for the DuoMid XL. (Note: that some skilled and adventurous backpackers use Tarps above treeline in the high mountains and other exposed areas that get appreciable wind and precipitation. Some even winter camp under a tarp!)


Shelter Types and Stats

These shelters are listed by weight (high to low). In general they are also listed in increasing floor area (ft2) per pound (lb) of shelter weight (ft2/lb) . That is a conventional 4 pound tent provides only 5 square feet of floor area per pound of shelter weight, while a Cuben Fiber tarp provides an astonishing 100 to 130 square feet per pound of shelter weight—over 20x floor area per pound.

Lb Ft2/lb  Type of Shelter  Example Pros and Cons
Tents and Tarptents
4  5.0 Conventional
retail tent
REI Passage 1 Pro: low price, readily available, full floor and bug protection, freestanding Con: heavy, low ft2/lb area & headroom
2.6  8.2 Lightweight
retail tent
REI Quarter Dome 1  Pro: moderate price, readily available, full floor and bug protection, semi-freestanding Con: heavy, low ft2/lb area & low headroom
2.1 14.3  Tarptent  TarpTent Squall 2 Pro: OK price, full floor and bug protection Con: not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
Pyramid Shelters
1.7  18.2 Pyramid shelter
silnylon w innernet
Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid Pro: full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 4+ ft high, full floor and bug protection, modular – take innnet only when needed Con: moderately expensive with innernet, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
 1.1 29 Pyramid shelter
silnyl w/o innernet
Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid Pro: moderate price, great ft2/lb ratio, full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 4+ ft high Con: no floor or bug netting, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
.7  46 Pyramid shelter
Cuben w/o innernet
 Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid  Pro: Exceptional ft2/lb ratio, full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 4+ ft high Con: High price, no floor or bug netting, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
 1.1  57.3 Pyramid shelter
(Cuben Fiber)
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2 Pro: Exceptional ft2/lb area, full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 5+ ft high Con: Expensive, no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles, *can get optional floor/bug net insert
Tarps and Shaped Tarps
 1.9  38 Flat tarp with innernet & beak
(Cuben Fiber)
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II UL Shelter System Pro: better rain & wind protection than plain flat tarp, large floor area, full floor and bug protection, modular – take “insert” or beak only when needed Con: Very expensive, not available at major retailers
 1.2 40 Shaped tarp
Silnylon fabric
(Cuben 0.7 lb and 72 ft2/lb)
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Pro: Great ft2/lb area, moderate price, good rain & wind protection, huge 50+ ft2 floor space Con: (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain & wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI: *there is an innernet for the TrailStar
 0.8  80 Flat tarp
Silnylon fabric
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo Pro: High ft2/lb area, moderate price, decent rain & wind protection, huge floor space Con: (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain and wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI *can get optional innernet, 7.8 oz in Cuben
0.6  115 Flat tarp
Cuben Fiber
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Tarp Pro: Exceptional ft2/lb area, decent rain & wind protection Con: Very expensive, (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain and wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI *can get optional floor/bug net insert
 .5  130 Flat tarp
Cuben Fiber
Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp Pro: Exceptional ft2/lb area, decent rain & wind protection, huge floor space Con: Very expensive, (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain and wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI *can get optional innernet,


2016 Update: I have redone this with a a new post “5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List” which I believe is a far better approach to light on the AT. This new gear list is both light and practical. It can be used by many AT hikers to increase both their enjoyment and miles covered per day.


2007 version – 2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail


sub-5 pounds Full Skin Out Base Weight. That’s all of my pack and everything I am wearing. Overlooking the Shenandoah Valley

Detailed 2.4 lb Extreme Ultralight Gear List (pdf)
90+ mile Fall trip – AT in Shenandoah National Park – 3 days / 2 nights, Nighttime temps near 32 F with wind. One day/night of rain.

Some key gear for 4.8 pounds FSO-BW: Jacks R Better Stealth Quilt (worn in poncho mode), Oware Cattarp 1.5 (cuben fiber version), Trail Designs Caldera cook system, Gossamer Gear 2007 Lightrek Poles (supporting the Cattarp), Inov-8 F-Lite 300 shoes, Gossamer Gear Whisper pack (blue), Rain Shield O2 Rain Jacket (yellow behind pack), and Smartwool Microweight Shirt.

A Brief Summary of the Details

When I first thought of testing out a Sub-five-pound, Full Skin Out Base Weight (FSO-BW) gear kit I thought of early Fall in the Blue Ridge. To be a valid test, I’d need some good rain, some wind and cold nighttime temperatures. I’d need to watch the weather and be ready to quickly head out when the predicted forecast met these conditions. I’d also need to cover a lot of trail miles, at least 75 to 100 miles, to test out my gear. I chose the AT in the SNP because it is more mileage than I’d likely cover in three days and for its significance as a national trail. “AT trail miles” have become something of a national hiking standard.

My criteria for testing sub-five-pound FSO-BW*:

  • Hike 75 or more miles in 3 days
  • Must have solid rain
  • One night with temperatures below 40 deg F
    (possibly approaching 32 deg F)
  • Carry own shelter
  • Full rain gear
  • Cook food (There’s 3 oz or so to be saved here, and many who venture into pack weights this low will opt to go without cooking. I wanted to get under 5 pounds FSO-BW and still cook. It seemed a more elegant way to get there.)
  • When possible, gear should be readily available, and reasonable in cost (reasonable for making a Sub-five-pound FSO-BW).

* Using different criteria: Staying in huts and without cooking it would be possible to achieve a 1.9 pound base packweight (see gear list for more details) and under four pounds FSO-BW.

Using the above criteria it was harder to get down to Sub-five-pound FSO-BW than I had anticipated. I quickly realized that my primary gear focus was on keeping warm and dry. To do that and stay under weight FSO-BW, I threw out many of the Ten “Essentials” and gear numerous people would consider essential. For instance: compass, knife, [sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen]*, warm insulating jacket or vest, gloves, spare socks, long pants, TP, toothbrush/toothpaste, and no underwear. I even considered leaving my watch. On the trip I missed very little of this. The thing I wanted most was the down hood that mated with my JRB Stealth down quilt. (I would have traded my first aid kit and more for the hood.) I also missed dry camp socks at night.

* I had a good summer base tan, only my face and hands were exposed, the leaves were on the trees so the trail was mostly shaded.

Clothing and “gear carried” counts for a lot in FSO-BW. Usually, it is more than your BPW. To make sub 5 pounds, I selected the lightest garments I could get away with. Being a smaller person helps. Many times I went down a clothing size to reduce weight.

Key Gear

Jacks R Better Stealth Quilt

This was my most important piece of gear. The Stealth Quilt is a lighter, sewn-through version of the No Sniveler Quilt. At $200 for a sub-one-pound sleep system with 800 fill power down, it is an ultralight bargain. The Stealth Quilt has a slit in the middle so it can be worn as an insulting poncho. Like Francis Capon in his CDT Yoyo, this quilt was both my “sleeping bag” and my sole insulating garment (Francis used a warmer version). Jacks R Better offers a down hood that integrates with both the Stealth and No Sniveler.

The poncho/quilt system works quite well when you hike without stopping during the day. It eliminates about a pound to a half pound for an insulating garment like a down or synthetic high loft jacket. (In cold weather you hike fast enough to stay warm with a light wool shirt and a rain jacket.) In camp, you use the quilt briefly as a garment to stay warm while you cook and do chores morning and evening, otherwise you’re sleeping under it.

My 15 oz Stealth quilt had 2 inches of average loft (single layer), ½ inch over the manufacturer specified 1 ½ inches of loft. It is rated to +45 °F. The first night was in the low 50’s and I slept quite warm under the JRB Stealth Quilt and easily dried out clothes wet from hiking in the rain. The second night on the trip was around 30 F, or about 10 to 15 degrees below the quilt’s rating. Due to the Stealth’s generous loft (for sub 16 oz bag), I managed to stay warm enough to get reasonable sleep.

Note: One can use a conventional sleeping bag as an insulating garment. This involves wrapping the bag around your torso and neck and then covering it with an oversized shell jacket (e.g. a Rain Shield jacket a size larger than you normally wear) to hold it in place. It is the height of fall fashion and your buddies may laugh at you, but it works.

Gossamer Gear Whisper Uberlight Pack — overlooking the Shenandoah Valley

Gossamer Gear Whisper Uberlight Pack

At 3.8 oz and $60 the Whisper may be the best extreme ultralight deal on the market. I’ve used the Whisper since it was first introduced. In the beginning I had misgivings about the packs paper thin appearance but the pack is remarkably durable. I own two and both are doing fine with a many miles on them. For most UL and XUL trips the volume of the pack is about right. My only suggestion: I wish the pack had side pockets to store food and a water bottle, etc. in a more accessible location. (I hope that Gossamer Gear is developing a Whisper-based pack with side pockets.)

Oware Cuben Cattarp 1.5

This tarp, large enough for two-people in pinch, weighs 3.9 ounces! It uses a new lighter Cuben fabric. The large coverage has another weight savings. It allows a single hiker to use down bag without a bivy to protect it from rain that might blow under a smaller tarp. The Cuben Cattarp 1.5 while expensive for a tarp is still inexpensive compared to most UL tents. You get what you pay for. A tarp or shelter with the same coverage in Spinnaker fabric is almost double the weight. The Cattarp 1.5 measures 8.8 feet long x 7.1 feet wide at the front. It kept me dry with room to store gear and cook. I like the simplicity and ease of pitching a tarp.

Trail Designs Caldera and Beer Can Cookpot

Most times I don’t cook on solo trips. But I thought that it would be more elegant to get under 5 pounds FSO-BW and still cook. In addition, I was doing a lot of trail miles and it is a big psychological boost to have hot food at the end of a 30+ mile day with thousands of feet of climbing. I like my hot cuppa (tea) in the morning and a warm meal and hot chocolate at night. The light weight and high fuel efficiency of the Caldera system is hard to beat. I took two ounces of alcohol fuel for the trip. Weight of the whole system including fuel bottle (less fuel) was well under 3 ounces. Image on the left is a lightened version of the TD stove system that I used (lower capacity and no priming ring stove, stripped down parts) that is not currently in production.

Note: A version of this stove (right image), the Trail Designs Caldera Keg Cooking System is now available to the general public.

Gossamer Gear Lightrek 3 Trekking Poles

New for 2007 is a stronger and stiffer tapered shaft that adds no weight to the poles. These are strong enough for anything trail hiking can dish out. They are also excellent tarp supports. At 2.4 ounces they are about ½ the weight of most aluminum and carbon trekking poles yet cost no more than many high quality poles. Another UL/XUL bargain.

Note: Some will argue to skip the poles and just string the tarp between trees or use sticks for shelter support. I believe, like many long distance hikers, that trekking poles increase hiking efficiency. While I could have reduced my FSO-BWweight by leaving the poles, I believe it would have also reduced my daily mileage. The poles had two other significant advantages on the trip. (1) They clearly prevented me from slipping and falling when I hiked at night in pouring rain and whiteout conditions. (2) They were a godsend for a quick setup of my tarp in the rain that night. I was not in the mood, nor did I have the time, to ferret about in the dark for the right sticks to erect my shelter. I wanted to be under the tarp, in my warm quilt, and cooking dinner.

Inov-8 F-Lite 300 Shoes and Smartwool Adrenaline Socks

Shoe weight matters. Even a conventional lightweight trail runner is too heavy for a sub 5 pound FSO-BW. The difficulty is finding a very light shoe that provides enough comfort and support to hike 30+ miles a day with no foot problems. The Inov-8 F-Lite 300’s are just over 10 ounces per shoe, provide excellent cushion (3 arrow mid-sole), and are easy on the feet. This summer alone, I’ve backpacked hundreds of miles in the magic combination of Inov-8 F-Lite 300 Shoes and Smartwool Adrenaline socks with no problems. This trip was no different. After 90+ miles in three days I had no blisters or serious foot discomfort.

Gossamer Gear Thinlight Sleeping Pad

Probably the highest R value (insulating) pad for its weight, the Thinlight is surprisingly comfortable for the portion of your body it supports. The Thinlight does take up a bit of pack volume. In this case, that was a good thing as my Whisper pack was a bit over-volume for the small amount of gear I carried. I used a 3/8 inch thick pad trimmed to approximately 30 inches long and 16 to 12 inches wide.

Gossamer Gear Spinn Chapps

These were a new piece of gear for me. I was surprised at how well they worked. I have always taken GoLite Reed pants when there’s a good chance of rain. On this trip, I had on and off rain starting about noon on the first day and hard rain from late afternoon to when I stopped hiking around 10 PM. The rain was fairly warm (60’s), with dreadfully high humidity and whiteout conditions for most of the evening. The Spinn Chapps kept my legs just damp and I easily dried out under my quilt that night.

Rain Shield O2 Rain Jacket

I hadn’t used this jacket for a while but it was perfect for the trip. It is less than 5 ounces. The Propore fabric is highly breathable—almost as breathable as eVENT with the same flat moisture curve of a true microporous membrane (as opposed PU based technology including Gore-Tex). Breathability mattered since the Jacket would also be my windshirt. In a day of hiking in the rain (see Spinn Chapps) I arrived at camp just damp and I easily dried out under my quilt that night. The next two days had cold mornings (near freezing) and evenings and I used the Jacket as windshirt over my wool baselayer to stay warm when I hiked. I also used the Rain Shield Jacket as a pillow by stuffing it into its hood. It was my only bulky item left to make a pillow.

Smartwool Microweight Shirt

Initially I considered taking a 3 oz GoLite C-Thru T-shirt. But with no insulating garment and no long pants, my shirt would be my sole warm piece of clothing when I hiked. From numerous years of experience with Smartwool shirts I know that in combination with a shell (in this case the Rain Shield Jacket) and a fleece balaclava, I can stay warm hiking down to the freezing (or even upper 20’s F if I keep moving fast).

Food and food storage: 6.5 lbs (5.2 lbs food, 1.3 lbs bear cans)
The biggest weight savings of the trip and nobody went hungry.
Again the greatest weight savings was in food. See below.

Clothing:  5.5 pounds
Less clothes, no Polarfleece, no camp shoes, lighter rainwear

Packs: 5.2 pounds
Heavy frame packs vs. ultralight frameless packs

Shelter: 2.4 pounds
Freestanding dome tent and Space Blankets vs. tarps and lightweight ground cloths

Sleeping: 2.2 pounds
Polarguard bags and Thermarests vs. ultralight down bags and foam pads

Stove and Fuel: 1.8 pounds.
MSR stove, full MSR XGK cook set and two bottles of fuel vs. Snowpeak Giga, one titanium pot and one Primus fuel canister.

Misc. Odd and Ends: 2.3 pounds
Including but not limited to: Leaving a 1.9 lb first aid kit & 14 oz of sunscreen, Platypus reservoirs instead of rigid Nalgene bottles, Photon micro lights instead of incandescent headlamps, fewer and lighter maps, etc. (see detailed list)

The Rest of the stuff: ? pounds
Including but not limited to weight reductions in: Additional food carried for other party members, fishing equipment, water treatment, repair kits, straps, soap, bug juice, dental stuff, TP, compasses, emergency Space Blankets, notepaper and pencils, ditty bags, etc., etc.


Logistics (saved us one days food and started the trip right)
First we stayed locally the night before the trip. This put us at trailhead early the first day, feeling chipper and raring to go. This and lighter packs allowed us to easily travel in the fist day some difficult cross country that took us two days on the previous trip. We arrived in camp with plenty of time to fish the evening hatch. It saved us a day’s worth of food as well.

Every other trip I’ve taken has started at 4 AM with a long drive to the Sierras, getting a permit and bear cans, frantic packing of the food etc. Tired and cranky we’d be lucky to get to trail head with enough time to stagger down the trail a few miles before dusk. Starting like this puts a trip, quite literally, off on a bad foot. I don’t think I will do it again if I can help it. Nothing like starting fresh and positive with a big lodge breakfast in your belly!

Food per Person
We carried 1.6 lbs/per/day on this trip vs. 2.0+ lbs/per/day of the last trip. By going for one less day (but the same trip with the same number of layover days) we reduced our food even more — 9.6 pounds (7 days – 6 nights) vs. 15 pounds (8 days – 7 nights). We were never hungry and came back with extra food. In the final calculation we ate 1.47 lbs of food per person per day. In addition, we packed denser (calories per cu/in) food that would more easily fit into bear cans. Lots of good high calorie GORP is great for this.

3,100 vs. 3,700 calories per day
We packed food that was higher in calories, 130 cal/oz vs. 110 cal/oz of the previous trip. Even so, we consumed fewer calories per day than on the previous trip. One explanation is that with lighter packs and feeling less stressed you need less food.

Food Storage (Bear Cans saved 1.3 lb/person)
We rented 3 Bearikade Bear Cans from Wild Ideas. We used two Weekender cans and one Expedition for four people and 7 hiking days — a weight savings of 1.3 lb/person. But renting bear cans ahead of time did more than reduce weight. We were able to pack our bear cans at home before the trip. We could be sure that our food would fit and that we could start hiking as soon as we hit trail head. (Last trip we had a rude shock at trail head when all our food didn’t fit into the 3 Garcia Bear Cans. This was partially a problem of too much food and partially a problem of choosing bulky food that did not pack well into a bear can. We had to hang our freeze dried dinners for the first few days, figuring that they had no scent, had the highest volume and fewest calories, and that we could continue the trip if we lost them. There is also the question of backcountry regulations… Fortunately we were off trail in areas not frequented by bears on those first nights. I wasn’t happy about this and went to some effort not to repeat it on the this trip.)

Fish for Appetizer
Finally we did eat a fish twice during the trip. We didn’t eat all that much fish. It probably only qualified as an appetizer and didn’t add more than a few hundred calories per person for the trip. But it was delicious!


A heavy pack is never a highlight or happiest memory of a trip…”


My son may be laughing in this 1999 picture, but his monster pack is no joke. Over eight days that 55 pound pack took its toll on his body, his spirit & ultimately his enjoyment of the trip.

Disadvantages of a heavy pack

  • It sucks the joy out of the trip…
  • It will not keep you warmer, safer or more comfortable
  • Slow, tedious hiking
  • Exhaustion, irritability, and low morale on the trail
  • Increased injuries – 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 – relaxing in camp, fishing, staring at clouds, skinny dipping, & side trips

Have warmth, comfort & safety for 15 to 25 pounds

How about 24 pound pack for a one week trip? A 15 pound pack for a weekend trip? 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.

FAQs about Lightweight Backpacking

  1. Is it Safe?
  2. What are Ultralight and Lightweight Backpacking?
  3. How Much Does it Cost?
    and it doesn’t have to cost a lot here’s some current Cheap Lightweight Backpacking Gear)
  4. A personal history of going from a 55 pound to 15 pound pack.

55 pounds to 15 pounds and just as safe: Colin’s pack 40 pounds lighter to do a longer and more ambitious trip. Even so he’s warmer, safer and more comfortable than in 1999. This trip was actually fun!

Is it safe?

YES! 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. Arguably this is a better thought out and assembled set of gear that will be safer, warmer and more comfortable than an ill considered set of conventional/heavy backpacking gear.

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.

Most of the time this lighter equipment is every bit as good (or better) than heavier, conventional equipment. Sometimes the lighter equipment has some performance limitations and is less durable than heavier equipment. In this case, I believe that the benefits from reduced weight (usually a significant reduction) far exceed the limitations of the lighter equipment. With care and proper use the equipment works fine. For example:


The 7.8 ounce MLD Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp was our choice for the Wind River High Route: Don and I weathered a strong thunder and hailstorm at the back of Cirque of the Towers. Exposed at over 10,000 feet in a mountain meadow, it kept us and all our down gear dry.

A silnylon (thin but strong fabric) 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 (I weathered some horrific Sierra storms and even a blizzard under a tarp without any problems). 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 and shelters for around 2 to 3 pounds (Links to: TarpTent or Six Moon Designs.) For more discussion of lightweight equipment see my Gear List Page.


What are Ultralight and Lightweight Backpacking?

  • 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. [on my site 9 lb and above is Lightweight]
  • 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 a BPW over 20 pounds. The goal is the find the least pack weight that meets your personal needs and goals. Make intelligent decisions of what you do and don’t want—rather than blindly buying heavy gear when you may not need it.

* 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 (usually, but not always) limited to:

  • 3 season trips (Spring, Summer and Fall)  for much of the lower 48.
  • 2+ seasons trips for Western Mountains, Sierras or Rockies
  • Night time temperatures not too much below freezing
  • Trail hiking and cross country routes not to exceed class III (e.g. no ropes required)
  • Usually camping below tree line. Might be a bit iffy at some windy, exposed, high altitude camp sites, although many are alble to this. And there is always the option to move to a lower and/or less exposed location.

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?)

How Much Does it Cost?

The short answer is: for $500 to $1,000 you can put together a great set of ultralight equipment if you are careful with your purchases. 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 beware the titanium tent pegs!

Here’s some great Cheap Lightweight Backpacking Gear. Keep checking back as I add items to this list.

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). Less is more: leaving unnecessary gear at home will save a ton of weight and cost nothing. Stores like K-Mart and Target have a surprising amount of inexpensive stuff that will work for ultralight backpacking, e.g. $20 fleece garments. You can purchase a great pair of $40 carbon fiber trekking poles at Costco.  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.

Historical Information

Read how Colin’s pack got 40 lb lighter:


Colin and Emma with their killer huge packs on a high alpine route.

The Start Of My Interest In Lightweight Backpacking

Killer heavyweight equipment list. What not to take! A detailed Table of Weight Savings from 1999 and 2001.
Discussion of weight savings between 1999 (heavy) and 2001 (ultralight) trips
Discussion of weight savings of 2007 trip vs. previous trips (1999 & 2001)

Killer Packs

Good planning can make or break a backpacking trip, especially with kids and heavy packs. I found this out the hard way when I took my kids on their first extended trip to the high Sierra. Our experiences sparked my interest in ultralight backpacking, especially since our industry-standard equipment was much too heavy for anyone, but in particular the kids, to carry over long distances. Colin and I started out the trip with 55+ pound packs.

We saw a lot of great scenery and camped in beautiful places, but it’s harder to enjoy the astonishing beauty of the high Sierra when you ache all over. Nonetheless, Colin and Emma and I would do the same trip again—but not with the same ten tons of gear. We didn’t get into camp until just before sunset many days. And each day we spent more than double the hiking time I had anticipated. The additional hours on the trail meant that my whole body, feet included, had to support a 55 pound pack for much too long. Just standing up with that weight was exhausting; but what was hard for me was, at times, misery for my kids. Never again!

The Trip

Our loads were just too heavy. And I, the eternal optimist when it comes to getting my family and friends into the great out-of-doors, overestimated the kids strength to some degree and underestimated how long it would take them to hike the distance I had planned. We were out for eight days without re-supply and covered 45 to 50 miles. Over half of this was challenging cross-country, with only one layover day (not surprisingly, the kids favorite part of the trip). Colin and Emma would have enjoyed the trip a lot more if I had known then what I know now about ultralight gear and if I adjusted our schedule to their real hiking ability rather than my sanguine estimate of what they could do. Obviously, if you halve your pack weight, most everything about backpacking becomes easier. Next time it’s ultralight for us!

But we made it there and back. And the kids didn’t kill me, although they’ve promised to bludgeon me if I plan any more hikes with “4 to 5 mile easy days” of off trail hiking. They are old enough to figure out that “easy” in dad lingo means “you’ll survive.”

Colin and Emma (then sixteen and twelve) were model backpackers, getting up at first light each day to help cook breakfast and then break camp. Every night they helped to unpack and set up again. I didn’t need to ask them to help. Mostly, they figured out what needed to be done and just did it, without bickering or grumbling. Even on long and hard days, they never gave up and complained very little.

Day 7 (see photos) is a good example of a hard day. En route to Crown Lake, we’d already been over one steep pass and a difficult boulder field descent. We were all tired. Unfortunately, our planned campsite was already occupied by a tent city of yahoos, breaking every camping regulation you can think of. A shock from the off trail solitude of previous days. Laundry hung from lines. Tents pitched on the waters edge at every flat site. People everywhere. Short of hoping a posse of pack-ripping, tent-shredding, cooler-chomping black bears would descend upon them, there was nothing we could do. Discouraged, we opted to hike the extra distance to Peeler Lake, even though it was late in the day. The uphill climb to Peeler Lake was much steeper and took much longer than we had anticipated. Emma was worn out and moving slowly, although she still didn’t complain. Colin was nearly as exhausted, but better able to disguise it.

I made it to the lake first, dropped my pack, hiked back to Emma, and offered to carry her pack for the last thirty minutes of hiking to the lake. Nothing doing. She made it clear she intended to carry her own pack all the way to the end. Unfortunately, all the nearby campsites at Peeler Lake were taken and we had to hike another half-mile to the far side before finally dropping our packs. But the kids still didn’t complain.

A brief plunge off a cliff into the deep and very cold waters of the lake washed away the misery of the day. After scrumptious handfuls of dusty gorp—which by now had been compressed into bricklike nuggets—Colin and Emma once again helped set up camp, filter water, and cook dinner. We enjoyed the beauty of Crown Peak reflected in Peeler Lake, and checked out its second outlet (Peeler Lake is one of the few lakes that sends water down both the western and eastern slope of the Sierras). I got in some fishing and we watched the dusky, orangey-pink alpenglow suffuse the landscape. Night had fallen by the time we crawled into the tent for much-needed sleep.

In Conclusion — Ultralight Here We Come

This was a fantastic trip! Fabulous scenery, rugged routes, solitude, remote campsites, and great fishing. Please look at the photos of this trip as they say a lot more than anything I can put in words. But with the heavy packs and long days, I think I lost a little credibility with the kids. Our next trip, with ultralight backpacks and a bit less rigorous hiking schedule, will be a 100% winner and should change this. It’s my hope that Colin and Emma will continue to hike in the mountains for years to come. And hopefully their children will hike in the same mountains as well. I feel fortunate that I’m blessed with such wonderful children.

-Adventure Alan