Ultralight Backpacking Essentials Worth The Money
Get The Most Bang For Your Buck With The Least Weight On Your Back
Backpacking in Jasper National Park: Alberta, CA - Photo Credit: Allison Edgerton
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It is a backpacking rite of passage to suffer under the weight of an unnecessarily heavy pack. Most of us make our first backcountry voyage with clunky rentals or reappropriated car camping gear, and pack way, way more than we really need.
I look back in awe at what accompanied me on my first backpacking trip years ago. From multiple extra shirts, to cans of beer, to a paperback novel - packed naively assuming I’d have the energy to read in my sleeping bag at the end of the day (I most certainly did not!)
I quickly identified the items not worth the pain. A light pack means a happy back, and thus a backpacking experience that is far more enjoyable. But learning what not to bring only gets you so far, the essential gear that you do bring with you needs to get lighter as well.
Unfortunately, when it comes to backpacking gear, ultralight almost always means ultra-expensive. But some key pieces of gear are worth the upfront investment.
HyperLite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest Backpack - Photo Credit: Allison Edgerton
How to Get Started with Ultralight Backpacking Gear
Rather than spending thousands of dollars overhauling your entire kit to make all of your backpacking gear ultralight, it is better to go one step at a time, beginning with the items that make the biggest difference.
Your tent, backpack, and sleep system (sleeping bag and pad), known as “The Big Three”, are the heaviest pieces of gear in any backpacking setup. Upgrading these is the best way to save a ton of weight. Since ultralight setups are not particularly well suited to the rigors of winter backpacking, we will focus this guide on the best three-season gear.
Tarptent Double Rainbow Tent - Photo Credit: Steve Edgerton
Ultralight backpackers aspire to get each of their Big Three items to under 3 pounds apiece. Many conventional three-season backpacking tents weigh more than double that. Depending on your current tent, replacing it with an ultralight alternative could reduce your overall pack weight by 10-15%.
Designing a tent that clocks in under 3 pounds demands some creative design and material choices. Manufacturers often feature minimal zippers and storage pockets, are made of lightweight (AKA expensive) fabrics such as Dyneema, and even utilize trekking poles as tent poles to help save weight.
The best ultralight tents come from specialty manufacturers like Tarptent and Durston Gear. But with small production runs and generally limited retail presence, these tents often sell out quickly and/or have significant order lead times.
Fortunately, some larger brands are adding ultralight tents to their product lines. Two excellent tents that you may have more luck finding at your local outdoor shop include the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 and the NEMO Hornet 2.
Zpacks 20F Solo Quilt Sleep System - Photo Credit: Steve Edgerton
Ultralight Sleep Systems
To achieve a sub-3 pound sleep system, look for a sleeping bag weighing 2 pounds or less, and a sleeping pad weighing 1 pound or less.
For a three-season backpacking sleeping bag, you want to look for a temperature rating suitable for as low as 20 degrees F. High-quality down bags or quilts provide more loft and warmth at lighter weights than synthetic bags. Down does lose its insulating abilities when wet, but if you are mindful of conditions and are careful to keep it dry, it is the best way to go ultralight without freezing. Down is also very compressible, allowing you to get away with a lighter, lower-volume backpack.
This often means spending upward of $400, but a good down bag can last 10 years or more with proper care. Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, and Zpacks are among the best ultralight sleeping bag and quilt manufacturers. These brands offer exceptional build quality using down that is certified by the Responsible Down Standard, ensuring it is sourced ethically and sustainably.
Air-inflated sleeping pads are the best choice for an ultralight pad. The best ones, like the Sea to Summit XT Insulated Pad, can be extremely comfortable even while weighing just over 1 pound.
HyperLite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest Backpack - Photo Credit: Allison Edgerton
After upgrading your tent and sleep system, the next big ticket item is your backpack itself. Plan for it to be the last of your Big Three purchases. Knowing the volume of your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad in advance will allow you to pick a backpack of the appropriate size and design.
For most three-season trips, from a simple two-night getaway to a Pacific Crest Trail thruhike, a 50-60 liter pack is the sweet spot, offering a good balance between capability and weight.
It is now easy to find backpacks from well-known brands like Osprey and Gregory in the low 2-pound range. Specialty manufacturers to consider include Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Gossamer Gear. Just make sure whatever pack you choose can accommodate the rest of your gear as well!
Sunset Coast Trail: British Columbia, CA - Photo Credit: Steve Edgerton
Ultralight Gear Beyond the Big Three
By upgrading your Big Three, the most important work is done. Though you can continue down the ultralight rabbit hole forever, keep in mind that the real joy of backpacking comes from exploring beautiful places with people we love. The gear is merely a means to support that end.
Ultralight shouldn’t distract you from what really matters. Rather, it should help you prioritize the important stuff. Ultralight means hiking more often and for longer, with less discomfort. It means you can now afford to bring that book, that beer to chill in a glacial mountain creek, or anything that makes your trip more memorable. Think of ultralight as adding value, not just subtracting weight. And by investing in expensive gear that will hold up for years versus constantly needing to replace the cheap stuff, you may even save money in the long run!
Of course, you can obsess about your spork choice, ditch stoves for cold-soaked meals, and trim off your toothbrush handle, all to shed a few ounces. Many do this and derive a lot of satisfaction from a perfectly tuned kit that is light as a feather. However, the value added begins to diminish rather quickly the further down this ultralight rabbit hole you go.
But if you do indeed wish to continue refining your ultralight backpacking setup, here are the weightier categories beyond the Big Three worthy of ultralight upgrades, and our pick for the best product for each:
Best Ultralight Stove: Snow Peak LiteMax Stove
Best Ultralight Filtration System: Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter
Best Ultralight Cookware: SOTO Thermostack Combo
The Pre-Ultralight Backpacking Experience - Photo Credit: Allison Edgerton
Go Ultralight, Not Stupid Light
If you begin compromising your ability to stay safe or comfortable in the backcountry all in service to the Almighty Ounce, you’ve gone too far. You have transcended ultralight and are now in the realm of stupid light.
In practice, stupid light can look like:
Being unprepared for extreme weather by forgoing rain pants or “bulky” fleece mid-layers
Trying to save weight by choosing a sleep system without adequate insulation
Not bringing bug protection when bugs are expected
Not bringing a bear canister or bear spray to bear country
If your ability to survive worst case scenarios is compromised, or you have sacrificed any semblance of comfort, your gear is not ultralight - it is simply inappropriate for the conditions.
Lighter is better... until it isn’t. Ultimately, bringing gear you don’t end up needing is preferable to needing gear you don’t have.
Backpacking in the Canadian Rockies - Photo Credit: Steve Edgerton
Planning Ultralight Backpacking Adventures
Thoroughly researching the terrain and conditions you can expect to encounter on a trail is the best way to know what gear is necessary and what is not. And with Pathloom, you can have every resource at your fingertips, all in the same place. Explore more expert backpacking advice on our blog, where we cover everything from trip reports, to recipe ideas, to bear safety, and beyond. You can also find out how our outdoor trip planning app makes preparing for your adventures easier than ever - join our Beta today!
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