ULTRALIGHT BACKPACKING QUICK GUIDE: EQUIPMENT ESSENTIALS
For many years, I used to lug a 70 litre backpack around the wilderness, full to the brim with clothes and gadgets that I barely used. Then a mate introduced me to the ultralight philosophy: “less is more”.
I was skeptical and unsure of giving up my creature comforts in exchange of a lighter pack. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and took his advice for my next camping trip, a five-day trip to the Blue Mountains.
My pack weighed just under 10kg. A significant step down from the 15-16kg I usually took camping. I have to recommend it. I did not miss anything I needed and I realised that a lot of the items I used to take camping were utterly superfluous. The lighter pack made hiking from campsite to campsite a pleasure.
Since that first trip, I have found my own rhythm with packing and now I never seem to break the 10kg barrier, even with everything I need. The “less is more” mentality has crept into my camping psyche and I haven’t looked back.
MAKING THE LEAP TO ULTRALIGHT
Start off by weighing your typical camping load with all your gear. How heavy is it? This should be everything except food and water. This is your base weight.
Can you replace any of your older, essential gear with newer, lightweight gear? If you are conscious of weight every time you replace a piece of gear, then by the time you have replaced everything, you will be able to get your base weight including sleeping bag and tent to around 5kg.
You can make the leap in stages. Good gear is costly and it’s much softer on the wallet to do this in stages. Besides, there is no sense in throwing away perfectly good gear. Just every time you need to replace something, replace it with a lighter-weight model. Not to mention you’ll need to get used to the difference of compromise but you will be able to go the distance.
20kg of base weight seems okay when beginner’s test it at home but before too long into the first day, they’re thinking about what they can dump because the weight is so unbearable. Then they have to stop, get everything out of their bag to put back what they’re not willing to give up, only then it dawns on them they can’t just dump anything. Once you set off with it, unless there are rubbish bins along the way, which there aren’t, you have to carry it until you have somewhere you can dispose of it at the end of the journey.
THE BIG TICKET ITEMS
Your camping essentials, or ‘big ticket items’ like your backpack, shelter, sleeping bag and sleeping pad are the bulkiest items you are likely to take. Making these more lightweight is where the majority of your weight saving will come from. At the same time, the prices skyrocket as you shed a few grams. Ultralight hiking and camping gear is seriously expensive. Weight reduction is also often paired with even more features, you’ll understand this is the upper-end of what is available for pros.
A frameless 45-55 litre backpack is my preferred size. It fits everything I am likely to need, but doesn’t provide extra room to be filled with clutter. The lack of frame also keeps the weight to less than 1kg. This is my biggest expense to own at around $160.
If you are married to the idea of sleeping in a tent, then it is possible to get ultralight tents that weigh as little as 500 grams (trekking pole not included). They’ll cost you a minimum of $400 with a list of features only hiking fanatics understand and have ratings like “at least one full 2,500+ mile thru hike” and other extreme details. That compares to a pop-up dome tent for 2 people for about $50 that’s designed for festivals and short weekends that weighs 2kg, suitable for moderate to tropical temperatures and 2-year manufacturer warranty.
I prefer to use a bivy sack. There’s lots of terminology being used out there, so to be clear. I am talking about something that is akin to a durable sleeping bag that you get into with your sleeping bag that’s designed to provide outer-protection in the same way a ground tarp does for a tent – big zip up sports bag shaped like a sleeping bag but a bit bigger. I have a perfectly good bivy that keeps the rain off me while only weighing a mere 2kg. If you are willing to try something new, ultralight hammocks with a rainfly offer a comfortable night’s sleep. The only downside is finding a suitable location to support the hammock.
Down sleeping bags are typically lighter than their synthetic counterparts offering the same temperature rating, pack into a tighter space but look for features that include being waterproof if you are heading into rain or tropic areas – all of this comes at a cost.
Synthetic sleeping bag benefits include being waterproof and don’t need the “proper care” of down but tend to be a little bit bulkier to pack and a little heavier but apple for orange, they are generally cheaper. I’m partial to down because that is just what I prefer and I’m not as worried about temperature ratings as some – hot or cold, I’m just used to it.
To keep the weight to a minimum, don’t bring a heavier sleeping bag than you are likely to need. Do some research on weather conditions beforehand.
AIR PADS VS SLEEPING PADS
Air pads instead of self-inflating pads are the go to sleeping pad for ultralight campers. Air pads normally have a insulation rating compared with a general sleeping pad although terms are often interchanged but for ultralight camping, an air pad is different to just a sleeping pad. They give plenty of cushioning and weigh in at around 500gm. Choosing a sleeping mat depends on what comfort you are willing to sacrifice to go lightweight and how much money you have to spend. Each ultralight backpacker has their own preference and many are willing to carry a few more grams to have a little more comfort under them at night.
I’m good enough with my down sleeping bag and bivy bag on concrete to a hostel mattress when I have to. It was only a month ago that I spent a week sleeping cold nights in only a cheap sleeping bag and tent but that’s another story.
What do you think? Do you have any experiences with ultralight backpacking? Join the discussion through the comments section below.