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
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- Continue another few hours to the next good campsite. Not an appealing option if you are already tired.
- 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.]
- 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.
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.
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:
- Substitute a 2-pound framed pack (see picture above) like a Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400 pack or ULAOhm 2.0 Pack if I am carrying a lot of food and/or climbing gear that pushes my total pack weight above 20 pounds. If regulations require a bear canister then I’ll need the larger volume of a HMG 3400 pack or a ULAOhm 2.0 Pack to fit a bear canister and all my gear. (Note: in areas where an Ursack S29 Bear Bag is allowed I would probably use a 1 lb frameless pack.)
- 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.
“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.