Assuming serious consideration is being given to experimenting with “uberlight” (UL = ultralight, SUL = super ultralight, EXL = extreme ultralight), what is the best way to achieve this goal? Following is a sample of UL and SUL gear choices (for moderate, summer weather conditions). I start with what are usually the four heaviest items carried.
[Note: even though the primary focus of this article is UL backpacking kits, the suggestions offered should provide ideas on how a traditional backpacker might gear down a bit.]
Serious Reductions With the Four Heaviest Items
Shelter: Camp in a sheltered area using a lightweight tarp (a one person size weighing 4-8 ounces) made from silnylon, silicone-coated spinnaker cloth or cuben-fiber material. Use readily available rocks, branches, sticks, and/or trekking poles for support. Add another 2-3 ounces for a variety of tie down cords, guy line tensioners and a few stakes.
Sleeping Gear: Ultralightists often use down or synthetic sleeping quilts without hoods, zippers or other enhancements. Assuming moderate temperatures, quality lighter weight quilts are available in the 12-18 ounce weight range. Lightweight three season sleeping bags are available in the 16-24 ounce range. Some are constructed as wearable bags for around camp. Regular bags and quilts can be worn around camp to eliminate an insulated jacket or parka. Ultralight sleeping bags/quilts are supplemented by wearing all of one’s clothing to bed (including wind breakers and storm shell clothing) as needed. Bags and quilts are sometimes supplemented with a lightweight, breathable bivy sack (6-8 ounces) to expand the comfort range. The bivy sack also functions as a ground cloth. A torso sized sleeping mat (weighing 2-6 ounces) and a 2-3 ounce ground sheet completes the basic ultralight sleeping package. Add your favorite sleeping pill (weightless) for those who do not sleep well on a thin mat or are too tired to search out a soft sleeping site.
Footwear: Following the commonly accepted wisdom that every pound on your feet is equal to 5-6 pounds on your back, ultralightists usually wear lightweight trail shoes or sandals in the 12-24 ounce/pair weight range. Adding quality insoles (2-3 ounces) and lightweight socks (two pair totaling 3-5 ounces, wearing only one pair at a time) completes the footwear package.
Packing: Frameless rucksacks made from the lightest weight materials (e.g., silnylon, silicone-coated high-tenacity spinnaker cloth or cuben fiber) are the ultralightist pack of choice. Frames, sternum straps and hip are not necessary if carrying pack weights in the ultralight range. Frameless or lightly framed packs adequate to carry a total pack weight (including consumables) of up to 18 pounds are available weighing 3-8 ounces. Frameless or lightly framed packs with a load carrying capacity of up to 30 pounds are available weighing 18-26 ounces. Add a plastic pack liner for weather protection and a few ultralight stuff sacks for organization (another 2-3 ounces).
Other Significant Reductions
Clothing: To keep warm, keep moving. Follow the practice of continuous hiking with regular, but brief rest stops throughout a full 12-16 hour hiking day. If it gets too cold for the clothing you have (or you stop for the day), set up your tarp, crawl into your sleeping bag/quilt and prepare a hot drink. Let your sleeping bag/quilt be your extra insulation. With this regimen, thin base layers (tops and bottoms = 10-16 ounces total), thin outer storm shell layers (tops and bottoms = 10-16 ounces total) combined with a lightweight insulating top (4-7 ounce vest or an 8-9 ounce pull-over jacket) will suffice for experienced ultralighters in moderate climates. Clothing should be quick drying (usually while on the trail), because no changes of clothing are carried. The overriding principle: No extra clothes; one set is used for both hiking and sleeping. If these clothes need to be cleaned, storm gear is worn.
Hydration: Water is very heavy (approximately 2 lbs per liter). Carefully scrutinize the planned route for water sources and don’t get uptight about being waterless for several hours. Depending upon the terrain and weather, ultralightists often carry no more than 1/2 liter, preferring to “camel up” at water sources. When there is a need to treat the water use water treatment chemicals (like chlorine dioxide) to treat newly obtained water to get one to the next water source. Though a little heavier, UV light purification technology is beginning to supplement chemical treatments (which are then relegated to backup status). A SteriPen purifier (4 ounces) takes 48 seconds to treat a half liter. Carry collapsible water containers (0.5-1.0 ounces per liter of empty weight each) for when the situation demands more water.
[Caution: going without water for several hours is not a problem, but chronic dehydration is. Deep dehydration can take two or three days to recover and will seriously affect one’s health, mood and general well being.]
Food and Cooking: Carrying light packs means consumption of fewer calories. Ultralightists usually get by with 1.0-1.5 pounds of food per day (but considerably more food on high mileage jaunts). Even though a starvation diet is not usually a part of the ultralight philosophy, plan on losing a few pounds on longer trips. Don’t get concerned if go a day or two with little or no food. Carry only cold food or fast-prep hot food that requires no cooking. Only occasionally (or in emergency) heat water for hot drinks. Heating water is usually done with simple alcohol or solid fuel tablet stoves weighing 3-6 ounces (stove, pot, lid and utensil). Fuel for this minimalist cooking can weigh as little as 0.5 ounces per day per person.
Personal and Essential Items: Minimal first aid, medications, personal hygiene, sun protection, bug protection, etc. can be paired down to 4-8 ounces total.
Warning!!! Inexperienced hikers should experiment gradually and not attempt these kinds of severe reductions all at once!
Ultralightists usually pack for moderate conditions, but moderate conditions can deteriorate to more extreme conditions. The sensible ultralightist deals with unanticipated severe weather conditions by changing plans: postponing the trip, holing up, heading down out of the high country or cutting the trip short with a forced march back to the trailhead.
The above is only a short overview of the art and science of ultralight backpacking. Many spend lifetimes paring their gear and honing their skills and equipment.
In general terms, the ultralighter needs to develop an extremely disciplined gear list and the ability to deal with some discomfort. The above are only examples of gear and strategies commonly utilized by experienced ultralighters. Many variations and modifications are possible depending upon your experience level, climate, required comfort levels, goals for specific trips and equipment budget (ultralight gear can be quite expensive).
Legal Disclaimer: Nothing in this website article can substitute for experience, careful planning, the right equipment, and appropriate training. There is inherent danger hiking and backpacking and viewers must assume full responsibility for their own actions and safety. The Author will not be responsible for the safety of those who visit this site.