Joe's Ultralight Backpacking

Where To Start

Q: "OK, so I'm willing to try and lighten up my load, but cutting the handle off my toothbrush seems stupid. Where do I start?"

A: You're absolutely right. It's silly to see folks who've cut down their toothbrush and trimmed the edges of their freeze- dried food pack, yet carry a cast-iron skillet and big metal spatula.

It's my firm belief that before you even consider shaving ounces,


Once you've pared down the Big Items, THEN you can worry about cutting the ounces (if you feel further paring is even necessary).

So what are these Big Items? I call them the Three Heavies and the Four Not Quite So Heavies. (Thereby needlessly adding yet more annoying buzzterms into the English lexicon. *8-) ) A grand total of seven items that account for at least half of the base load in most folks' pack.

With a careful examination of what's available in the market today vs. what you currently use, it's easy for most folks to find gear of similar comfort/capacity that weighs pounds less per Big Three item, many ounces less per Not-Quite-So-Big-Four item. In fact, many folks could EASILY drop their packweight 10-25% simply by shopping around carefully to replace their Three Heavies.

(Remember, we ALWAYS want quality gear that's light, NOT gear that's light because it lacks quality. That's a critical distinction for the ultralight traveller to make!)

Some examples...

STARTING OUT -- 18+ lbs / 8+ kg (Three Heavies Only)

Let's say we have a backpacker whose Three Heavies are currently:

1) Camp Trails Taos 2                Capacity: 2    7.9 lbs / 3.6 kg (avg packed)
2) The North Face Tempest (women's)  4000 ci (base) 6.4 lbs / 2.9 kg
3) Kelty Clear Creek Bag (regular)   +20F/-5C       3.9 lbs / 1.8 kg
                                                   18.2 lbs / 8.3 kg

They work well for her, but she's always had a nagging feeling that she could be getting by with much less weight on her back, yet be just as comfortable.

THE BASIC CASE -- 9.7 lbs / 4.4 kg (8.5 lbs / 3.8 kg saved!)

Now assume our Intrepid Backpacker finds a Mountainsmith Mountainlight 4000 at her local store and tries it on. It fits her well, and is comfortable for her. She then takes a look at some other gear, and finds a tent and sleeping bag that fill the exact same needs for her, yet weigh much less!

1) Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight CD  Capacity: 2   4.3 lbs / 1.9 kg (avg packed)
2) Mountainsmith Mountainlight 4000   4000 ci       3.1 lbs / 1.5 kg
3) Marmot Pinnacle Bag (regular)      +15F/-10C     2.3 lbs / 1.0 kg
                                                    9.7 lbs / 4.4 kg

Notice that she's incurred NO loss of function or comfort, nor has even she had to modify her habits/techniques, yet she's just dropped 8.5 lbs off her back! That's got to be at LEAST 20% of the weekend load she's been carrying!

THE ADVANCED CASE -- 6.1 lbs / 2.8 kg (12.1 lbs / 5.5 kg saved!)

Our Intrepid Backpacker soon begins to wonder just how light she can get her Three Heavies to be, yet still be safe and comfortable. She's experienced and capable in the backcountry, and is ready and willing to try some new ideas.

She realizes that the only time she's in her tent is when she's sleeping, otherwise she's out hiking or sitting under a tree, enjoying her surroundings (else why not just set up a tent in the garage?!?).

She travels solo sometimes, and also travels with a married couple who like their own tent. Either way she ends up sleeping solo. That 2-person tent is looking like a lot of dead weight! She considers a 1-person tent, but instead decides to borrow a bivy sack. She tries it and likes it. (Later she may experiment with only a tarp.)

Next, our Intrepid Backpacker takes a hard look at her backpack. She decides to replace her aluminum stays with carbon fiber stays for her Mountainlight 4000, saving her half a pound. She's able to play on her boyfriend's guilt of forgetting their anniversary and gets HIM to pay for it. *8-)

Finally she considers her sleeping bag. Her +20F/-5C bag is usually too warm for her and she sleeps with it unzipped most nights, but she likes the "safety factor" of the extra warmth rating. Then she realizes something. She's *already* been carrying extra warmth apart from her +20F/-5C bag! Her polartec balaclava and pullover would give her the extra sleeping warmth on the rare night she needs it. She could carry a lighter bag that better matches her typical 3-season overnight lows, and during the rare times it drops below freezing, she can go to bed wearing some of the extra clothes she's always been carrying!

1) Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy     Capacity: 1   1.6 lbs / 0.7 kg (w/o poles)
2) Mtnsmith Mountainlight 4000 C/F    4000 ci       2.7 lbs / 1.2 kg
3) Marmot Arroyo (regular)            +35F/+2C      1.8 lbs / 0.8 kg
                                                    6.1 lbs / 2.7 kg

She's now dropped over 12 lbs / 5.4 kg from her pack by changing some of her habits, but is still comfortable and safe. Now let's see what happens when the GoLite Breeze rucksack turns out to work for her:

THE FINAL CASE -- 4.1 lbs / 1.9 kg (14.1 lbs / 6.4 kg saved, 70% lighter!)

1) Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy     Capacity: 1   1.6 lbs / 0.7 kg (w/o poles)
2) GoLite Breeze (Medium)             4200 ci       0.7 lbs / 0.3 kg
3) Marmot Arroyo (regular)            +35F/+2C      1.8 lbs / 0.8 kg
                                                    4.1 lbs / 1.8 kg

That's over 14 lbs / 6.4 kg lighter, just in the Three Heavies alone! She hasn't even started paring down the rest of her gear yet!


Without changing your style of backpacking, you can probably shave at LEAST 10 lbs / 4.5 kg off your pack load - most from re-evaluating your current Three Heavies, the rest by turning the same ruthless, efficient eye toward the rest of your pack's contents. So you can benefit by using an ultralight hiker's eye, even if you choose not to pursue ultralight travel.

For those of you willing and ready to experiment, however, a whole new world is ready for you to explore! Ultralight backpacking is both rewarding and enlightening. You'll get to see backcountry you just couldn't have gotten to with your previous heavy loads. Weekend trips can mean more than a 5-mile trudge from trailhead to a crowded site. You'll leave the crowds behind, and see more of the wilderness you came to see in the first place!

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