Jun 21, 20164453 views

Massdrop 101: Why Go Ultralight?

Lighter Loads for Longer Roads
“Do I really need all this stuff?” For some, the question first comes up while tackling a particularly challenging trail; for others, while running to catch a train in a foreign city during a vacation abroad. Whether you’re backpacking your local state park or another continent, the gear you carry should serve your needs, but shouldn’t be so heavy that it distracts from the beauty and inspiration of your surroundings.
That’s where the ultralight philosophy begins: Pack smarter, go further (and faster), and experience more. Traveling light also puts less stress on your body, reducing fatigue and enabling you to hike more regularly—and for many years to come.
But What Is Ultralight Exactly?
As far as official weight limits go, definitions vary, but it’s generally accepted that a lightweight backpacker carries a base weight under 20 pounds (9.1 kilograms), an ultralight backpacker carries a base weight under 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms), and a super-ultralight backpacker carries a base weight under 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms). For comparison, conventional backpackers typically carry at least 35 pounds (15.9 kilograms), and sometimes as much as 60 pounds (27.2 kilograms).
Your base weight is the total weight of your gear kit—that’s your backpack, the gear inside it, and any gear attached to the outside—excluding consumables. Consumables are food, water, and fuel, and they’re excluded from your base weight because the amount varies by trip length and conditions.
For ultralighters who take these weight limits as gospel, there’s no expense too great or method too creative when it comes to paring down an ounce (or even a few grams). And if the truly dedicated can’t find the gear they want, they might make their own! For others, especially those just starting out, the numbers are there simply to provide a benchmark for where you are now—and what’s possible with some research, experience, and investment.
Back to Basics
So you’ve decided you want to lighten your load. What now? Because different people have different ideas about what’s important and what’s essential, there’s no single answer that will work for everyone. Some choose to refine their pack one item at a time, while others opt to build an entirely new system from scratch. Whichever route you take, keep a few things in mind as you go through the process:
How much do you value comfort and convenience? For example, would you roll up your jacket and use it as a pillow if it meant saving space in your pack? How does your skill level relate to your safety needs? Know your limits. If the unexpected occurs, are you experienced enough to improvise with what you have?
Finally, think about the items you’ve carried in the past and didn’t end up using. No one can make all the right choices from the beginning, but every trip and the errors made along the way teach you how to modify your pack in the future.
Tips to Get Started
Most people think about their packing lists in terms of systems. The “Big 4” includes your packing system (your backpack), shelter system (your tent, tarp, or bivy), sleeping system (bag, pad, etc.), and cooking system (stove, pot, and so on). These four categories account for the lion’s share of your pack weight, and are supplemented with additional items like clothing, a first-aid kit, trekking poles, and more.
Weigh everything. The first piece of gear any ultralighter should have won’t come on any trips: your scale. Any $20 digital kitchen scale will do—just make sure it is accurate to a tenth of an ounce (or single grams). Create a spreadsheet where you can compile your packing list and the individual weights, and determine which changes will make the biggest impact. An online document is easy to share and compare with others, but if pencil and paper are more your thing, those work too!
Rethink your list. This step takes knowing the difference between needs and wants. Do you need that deck of playing cards? The mug in addition to a Nalgene bottle? The full-size camera? The extra clothes? Some gear you might bring car camping without much thought can add unnecessary pounds when you’re backpacking and find yourself on the move for most, if not all, of the daylight hours.
Repackage. Travel-size items from the store can come with a lot of extraneous packaging, and pre-assembled kits may include stuff you don’t need. Repackage these before your trip, and remember that a simple Ziploc bag is a great place to store small items.
Live multi-purpose. This is an easy way to cut weight and spend less money doing it. Trekking poles can be used to support your shelter. A pot can double as a bowl or cup at mealtime. A bandana can be worn as a hat or scarf, or used as a potholder, bandage, or towel for washing up.
Sharing is caring. If you’re traveling with a friend or a group, split community gear (like the tent, water filter, and stove) evenly between your packs to lighten each one and ensure you don’t bring too much of any one thing.
Skills go a long way. Learn how to set up an ultralight shelter, like a tarp, and you could save yourself a couple of pounds. Learn about campsite selection, and you could save yourself a night of harsh winds and mosquito bites. Learn how to find water in the backcountry, and you won’t have to carry as many bottles. If you have a big trip coming up, test your gear (and those new skills) on a shorter trip first.
Replace as needed. The materials commonly used to make outdoor gear have changed in recent years, and you could save a substantial amount of weight by replacing outdated items. Start by swapping out your heaviest, bulkiest gear, and think about which new items are best for your circumstances. Do you need them to be durable? Versatile? Budget-friendly? Are you looking for a minimalist item or one rich with features?
Feet first. Many backpackers choose to replace hiking boots with hiking or trail running shoes, which are often lighter and less expensive. Because the weight on your feet requires about five times as much energy to move as the same amount of weight on your back, minimizing your footwear can immediately reduce the number of calories you burn and allow you to do more miles.
Pack smart. While it’s important to be prepared and a lighter pack should never come at the expense of safety, don’t get caught up in “What if?” scenarios. If the forecast says blue skies, why bring a rain jacket or pack cover? Do you need that 0-degree sleeping bag in the early fall? Pack realistically based on the conditions typical to the area you’re visiting.
Final Thoughts
Pare down weight at your own speed and in the order that makes sense for you. Go out, explore, experiment, and learn from your mistakes. Over time, you’ll build confidence and realize that you can do without a lot of stuff you previously thought you needed. If you’ve got enough to sleep, eat, and stay warm, then you’ve got enough, period.
Ultralight doesn’t always have to mean bare bones. If you want to bring luxury items that make your time in the wild more enjoyable (like a sketchbook, collapsible fishing rod, pair of binoculars, tablet, ukulele, or flask of bourbon), don’t let anyone stop you. Having a light pack to start with makes adding these items that much easier.
While we focused on ultralight backpacking here, there are many other types of ultralight adventurin’ to be had, with tips and products that apply specifically to climbers, mountaineers, packrafters, and more. Stay tuned for posts that dig deeper into these topics, and hit the "Follow" button to get notified about future posts from this account. In the meantime, if you have questions, comments, personal recommendations, or stories to share, leave them below. We’d love to hear them—and see pictures, too!
Marten Brosch, Anothercyclist2, and 27 others

The "what if's" should not be ignored especially for newbies. Pack light-pack smart.
I started back in the 60's with a pack when empty weighed as much as my total pack weight today. Why carry a heavy pack and gear when lighter makes it so much more enjoyable and fun. I lowered the weigh with a simple process. Do I NEED this item or do I WANT it , the wnat it's stayed home. Then when I got home the gear was sorted into three piles , 1...used all the time , 2...used now and then and 3...not used. The third pile got left home the next time and before long the third pile shrunk to nothing after a few more trips. As it is in life with the changes everyday backpacking gear evolves as time marches on. Those changes makes it that much nicer for the backpacker if they take advantage of it. I enjoy being a ultralight hiker and lightweight pack at times do miss that oversized monster of a pack. It's good that I don't use it because with a large pack and empty space it's human nature to fill it with something or anything . No I have not lost any comfort or necessary items by going ultralight.
Here’s the problem I have with UL ,at its extremes, and the comment above of “ don’t get caught up in the what if’s”. I don’t know where most UL hikers go or for how long, maybe the sunbelt of the southern US but not many people that hike( seriously) in the Canadian Rockies, ignore the “ what if’s”. Are we educating a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts who look at the forecast and forgo 10oz of wind/ rain gear in their pack because it’s not “supposed “ to storm. That’s just stupid, I’m sorry. Does it really matter from a physiological carrying perspective if your base weight is 6 pounds or 10 lbs? It does not. Maybe if you are horribly out of shape or 80 years old. But the potential margin of safety that’s inherent between those two weights does. On a 2017 thru hike on the PCT I watched several UL hikers turn back, after an early season snow storm in the North Cascades, and sit it out for a number of days in Stevens Pass. I and the group I was with had full rain gear, fleece gloves or mitts and an extra layer. That allowed us to carry on in relative comfort. More importantly we never felt compromised in terms of safety. I saw and heard of a few things during that storm that made me cringe. Many UL thru hikers were simply not prepared for anything but ideal weather. My current base weight is about 12 pounds -+/-. That gets me anywhere in just about any three season conditions. I have a number of UL items in my pack to get to that weight. To each their own but I think the drive to a 5 Ib pack is silly at best and irresponsible at worst. My thoughts only...
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I agree. 🙂
10 pounds isn’t 5. It’s in the realm of an extra layer or a heavier bag. Do people agree there is a certain responsibility to be “ prepared” , perhaps not in the conventional sense, but what most people would deem to be reasonable when stepping foot in the wilds? Especially if egress isn’t simple. And by responsible I guess what I mean is self sufficient. So that a chopper doesn’t have to pluck your hypothermic body out of the woods because you were determined not to carry a shelter or waterproof matches...
Honestly I don't care what moniker you attach to it, it is truly unimportant. Nor do many of us feel the need to spend a couple of grand to shave off 3g. With all things in my world moderation seems to work best. There are a ton of variables involved, but much like many other things it is apparently important for some people to be the 'lightest' or 'best' or whatever. Why does it have to be competitive (& I've been on the trail, you know it is) ? The 'hike your own hike' mantra couldn't be more true, so in lieu of being critical of others, just don't. A lot of the 'tips' on here (too me) are simplistic and common sensical (if you have hiked at all) . It should really be about educating those who want to, but are perhaps intimidated by something new. So if you wish to do the community a favor, please make your comments in that vain...imho
At its core UL is fun. It's fun to think about how to make things more streamlined, efficient, better. Those "Eureka" moments like when you go from heavy boots to runners, get that new Dri-down quilt that weights 3lbs less than that old sleeping bag, realize that when you get rid of all the "what if" gear you never use and you feel better and can walk longer, it's a great feeling. It is simply the logical progression as you gain experience. A gear weight spreadsheet is the most interesting and fun spreadsheet there is!
Well, for me getting into UL was a necessity. When you take backpacking your entire family you start to understand the real meaning of weight. When you solo, frankly, 40lbs is OK. Climbed some real mountains in the alps with that weight. First two days maybe a bit tough, but then no real problem. Now I'm also at 5lb base weight with the latest zpacks duplex, arc blast, neo air xlite, ee quilt, ... But I got here because I wanted to take the family backpacking.
Even though there are plenty of success stories with 5lb base weights _under the right circumstances_, I think drawing the "ultralight" line at 10lbs probably does more harm than good, especially in "introduction to UL backpacking" type materials. It's worthwhile for any backpacker to get serious about going ultralight in a broader sense. But inexperienced backpackers making "stupid light" decisions to meet a round-number cutoff is not what UL is about.
Base weight really should include (weight of SAR crew and all their gear)*(probability that SAR crew is going to have to haul your sorry unprepared butt out of the woods when something goes wrong).
Also, talking about those weight limits as "gospel" doesn't help with the continual "this gear isn't TRULY ultralight!" "yes, it is!" "no, it's not!" unproductive conversations that have sometimes seemed to dominate practically every item's discussion page.
Good to push the envelope under the right conditions. We'd still be hauling 60 pounds of crap with a greater chance of injury. nobody suggests a thru hike as a first backpacking trip.
Fantastic read! I'd also like to pitch in my 2 cents regarding "Why Ultralight" from my perspective.
But first a little about myself... I am a co-founder of product design company specializing in textile and apparels. We believe that the fast fashion model is non-sustainable to our way of lives. The idea of making inexpensive apparels based on short-term trend leads to many problems which will impact our environment for a very long time. The micro-fiber pollution from washing our apparel, made from synthetic fiber has been greatly debated. Now, it has been suggested that avoiding the use of synthetic fibers, and instead, using natural fibers such as wool or cotton may be a possible solution. But as a fellow Reddit user (Tvizz) nicely put it:(https://www.reddit.com/r/Ultralight/comments/61hwd6/microfibers_whats_the_solution/dfeq9cj/)
" Sure, you can use wool. Sheep emit methane. A green house gas 30 times more potent than co2. What about cotton? Requires 20,000 liters of water to make one tee shirt.Polyester? Is oil based and non bio degradable.Fleece? Pretty much like polyester except with shedding microfibers."
It's quite apparent there is no "cure/solution" right away, and is certainly a value and behavioral issue. We need to be more conscious about our needs. After all, we do have the technology and products out there. It's down to consumers to make better choices so "quick fashion" that are cheap and seemingly disposable marketing BS that does no good for the sustainability of our environment be discouraged. If there's currently no cure/solution out there, the next best thing is to reduce the impact.
At my company, we strongly adopt the "Less is More" design philosophy in our apparel designs. By adopting cutting edge material (functional textile) and designing in functions while trying to minimize the use of extra material, we can achieve super lightweight and technical functions (i.e. water repellent, breathabillity and even style) for less.
We call it "Less Resources, More Performance."
Apparels greatly appreciated by communities like the ultralight enthusiasts can and should be adopted more into our daily lives. The concepts of keeping what's necessary, reduce waste and the myriads of technological functions which can be enabled by the textiles of today should be able to suffice the many facets of situations we encounter.
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Yeah, that's out of date. I have ditched those heavy ass thongs. And my down bag is an estimated weight. The last few times I've just used one of those "emergency" bivys, which weighs 12 ounces or something. I really need to update my stuff! The G4 is great.
I have to agree. Lighter Pack is pretty fantastic. Many an hour I've wasted on it. *shakes fist at the heavens*
I go ultralight because I consider myself a hiker more than a camper. For me, the joy is in the discovery and the journey. I would rather see another few miles each day than bring all of the comforts of home. I certainly do not have the lightest baseweight, but I look for opportunities to lighten my load or improve my skill level to cut the weight that I carry with me. Going lighter allowed me to include my sons on trips from a very young age. They could hike with nothing but water and snacks because I could carry the other things they needed. As they have gotten older, going lighter has allowed me to keep up with the boys.
@TAGinAZ - How old were your kids when you starting camping and backpacking with them? I'd love to see some photos.
Danny - we started car camping with the boys as soon as they could walk and explore on their own. My oldest didn't go on his 1st backpacker till about 7. But, my youngest son couldn't wait to backpack with the big kids and went on his 1st trip at 5. Being outside is a big part of our family time. We take a least one family trip each year and I do a 1 on 1 trip with each of them that they plan.
Great, realistic advice. It's hiking, not hauling. With just a bit of research and experimentation there is no need to have a bone crushing load anymore. Gear has come such a long way in the last twenty years. I am excited to see where it goes. Geez, my complete kitchen weighs less today than my first stove. And ultralight gear gets a bad rap for being expensive. Not true. Sure you can spend a lot on some things made from exotic materials. But they aren't really necessary to get to a comfortable weight. Take care of your stuff and it will last many, many trips, miles.
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Very cool trip - I have hiked (more in the Point Reyes area) a few times but didn't even consider that a track like that was right there...thanks for sharing.