44 Ultralight Backpacking Tips That Actually Make Sense for Thru-Hikers
Going ultralight is the holy grail of modern backpacking. Yet so many ultralight backpacking tips I read on the internet are downright silly, or at least unrealistic for thru-hikers. For instance, I’m not going to schlep my spices around in a tic tac container, adorable as that looks, because I don’t carry spices in the first place. Likewise, the idea of me having the forethought to pre-order enough dehydrated tooth powder to supply my dental hygiene needs for six months is ludicrous.
So I’ve compiled a list of common-sense ultralight backpacking tips to reduce your base weight in ways that actually make sense for thru-hikers. Even employing just a handful can lighten your load substantially. As a bonus, many of these hacks are budget-friendly.
READ NEXT – Ultralight for Under $1,000
44 Common-Sense Ways to Lower Your Base Weight
Lighten Up Your Big Gear
These items make up the bulk of your base weight and have the most potential for huge weight reductions.
1. Quilt Instead of Sleeping Bag
Quilts have grown wildly in popularity in recent years—last year, more than half of the participants in our annual Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Survey preferred quilts over traditional mummy bags. Not only are they significantly lighter, but quilts are far less constricting, and many hikers find them more comfortable.
2. Tarp or Trekking Pole Tent Instead of Freestanding
Swapping dedicated tent poles for trekking poles, which you’re probably already carrying, is an easy way to save weight. Single-wall varieties are naturally the lightest option. If bugs and privacy aren’t a major concern, you can go even lighter (and cheaper) with a simple tarp.
Ultralight tent fabrics like DCF will be the lightest options, but minimalist silnylon tents and tarps are still lightweight at a fraction of the cost.
3. Minimalist Pack
Look for a pack made with durable, ultralight materials and a simple design: typically a large roll-top main compartment, a mesh back panel, minimalist padding, and water bottle sleeves (there may or may not be hip belt pockets involved). Ultralight backpacks can weigh less than two pounds. Frameless packs are even lighter but not as beginner-friendly.
READ NEXT – Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking
4. 3/4-Length Sleeping Pad
The easiest way to reduce your sleeping pad weight by 25% is to get a shorter pad. For short people, a 3/4-length option is basically full-length anyway. And for taller folks whose legs hang off the end, simply place some folded-up clothes or your partially-emptied backpack underneath them.
Inflatable pads will cost more than foam pads but have a higher insulation-to-weight ratio. If you want the most ultralight sleep system possible, go inflatable.
Minimize Luxury Items
5. Eliminate camp shoes or just bring flip-flops.
A pair of Crocs weighs more than a pound, and you only wear them for a couple of hours per day at most—is it really worth it? Hikers who walk in trail runners often find them breathable enough that they don’t need a change of shoes in any case.
Or just pack cheap Walmart flip-flops, which only weigh a few ounces. (Though I would advise against walking around on steep or rough terrain in flip-flops.)
6. Eliminate common heavy, low-calorie backpacking foods.
Some of the most popular thru-hiking foods are actually not that calorie-dense. It’s hard to eliminate all of these low-calorie staples, but the more you can dilute them with more energy-dense (>125 calories/ounce) foods, the better.
- Tuna packets (30-40 cal/oz)
- Flour tortillas (85 cal/oz)
- Cheese (100-120 oz)
More energy-dense alternatives:
- Nuts and nut butters (170-210 cal/oz)
- Olive oil (250 cal/oz)
- Protein bar (130-150 cal/oz)
7. Eliminate battery bank for short trips / short-duration resupplies (like AT).
My battery bank weighs almost half a pound. While I love being able to use my phone worry-free, I often leave the bank behind on trails with frequent town stops.
By leaving my phone off or in airplane mode most of the time, a single charge easily lasts me four or five days (and my phone is no spring chicken). Using guidebook pages to assist in navigation will extend your battery life significantly.
8. No books, no camera. Use your phone for that.
In direct counterpoint to the above, if you are very attached to entertainment media and/or photography, it might be worth the seven-ounce battery bank to keep your phone powered on, as it will save you the significantly heavier weight of a book or camera equipment.
9. One set of hiking clothes. One set of camp clothes. that’s it.
Clothing is probably the heaviest chunk of base weight you carry besides your Big Three. Don’t make it worse by carrying an extra change of hiking clothes. The exception is an extra pair of dry hiking socks (key for blister prevention and general foot health).
Keep your camp clothes safe and dry in your pack so you have something warm to change into at the end of a cold, rainy day.
10. Leave the baby wipes at home.
Anyone else feel like baby wipes leave a weird residue on their skin? And/or that they’re just smearing the grime around without actually improving anything hygiene-wise? I say embrace your inevitable funk and leave the wipes behind. If you must have them, try drying them out ahead of time and then adding water to rehydrate them on the trail. Pack them out.
11. Cold soak to eliminate stove + fuel weight.
Carrying cold foods that don’t require rehydration probably won’t save you any weight since many of these foods are fairly heavy (tortillas, tuna packets, etc.). If you want to really maximize the weight savings of going stoveless, your best bet is to carry dehydrated food and cold-soak it.
READ NEXT – 6 Easy Cold Soak Recipes for Your Next Thru-Hike
12. Blow up your pad with your breath; leave the pump sack at home.
Most inflatable sleeping pads come with a giant pump sack you can use to inflate your sleeping pad more easily. I actually think they’re a bit of a pain to use, and more to the point, they’re needless extra weight.
Choose Gear that Does Double Duty
13. Snow stake instead of trowel.
Why pay $20 for a titanium pooper scooper when you could get a $6 snow stake for just 0.4 ounces more? Plus, the stake can serve as part of your tent setup (minorly inconvenient if you need a cathole while your tent is pitched but I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle).
14. Eat and drink out of your pot.
No need for an extra mug and/or bowl.
15. Wind pants double as rain pants.
Unless you’re in a really cold place, wind pants will keep you adequately warm in place of rain pants while weighing a fraction of what rain pants weigh. I like the two-ounce Montbell Tachyon pants.
16. Floss doubles as thread.
In addition to serving its original dental hygiene purpose, you can use floss as part of your emergency repair kit because it’s much stronger than thread for repairing rips and tears.
17. Fritos as fire starter. Bonus: extra snacks for emergencies!
So delicious, so flammable. Most thru-hikers don’t light many fires, but it’s good to be able to start one in an emergency. Rather than schlepping a dedicated firestarter, just include a pack of Fritos in every resupply.
18. Spare clothes inside stuff sack instead of pillow.
I normally just pack whatever clothing I’m not wearing to bed inside my sleeping bag stuff sack and use that as a pillow. I used to use a pack with a detachable brain compartment, and I would stuff my puffy jacket inside the brain for the ultimate comfy pillow. Sigh. I miss those days.
Choose Lighter Everyday Alternatives
19. Crystal Light container for sunglasses.
Weighs next to nothing and costs a lot less than an actual sunglasses case.
20. Wendy’s spoon instead of metal spoon. Just one.
You don’t need a whole cutlery set, just one spoon—you’re going to be using it to eat peanut butter and rehydrated mush, not salad and angel hair pasta. Tines are unnecessary.
21. Ziplocks and trash bags instead of dry bags.
Durable dry bags are thick and heavy, while ultralight dry bags are very expensive and puncture incredibly easily. I opt to pack all but my most precious gear (electronics, down sleeping bag) in ziplocks and top it all off with a trash compactor bag lining the whole inside of my pack.
22. Polycro Groundsheet
Not only are standard footprints expensive, but they’re also heavy. Try opting for an ultralight polycro groundsheet instead.
Polycro is a clear, thin, plasticky material that feels more apt for covering a bowl of leftover salad than protecting my tent floor, but it’s nevertheless surprisingly strong. Just don’t let it blow away in the wind before you weigh it down.
23. Smartwater Bottles Instead of Nalgene or Bladder
Nalgenes are heavy. Bladders are heavy and expensive and inconvenient. Just get two one-liter Smartwaters, and you’ll be good to go. Bonus: the mouth is the right size to mate with a Sawyer Squeeze.
24. Frogg Toggs Instead of Fancy Rain Gear
A Frogg Toggs rain jacket costs about $25 and weighs around six ounces. That puts it on par with the highest-end ultralight rain jackets on the market weight-wise at a fraction of the cost of any of those competitors. They’re not the most durable garments on the planet, but I put over a thousand miles on my ‘Toggs before applying my first duct tape patch.
Manage Your Consumables
25. Bidet Instead of TP
Nothing could be more refreshing than spritzing your undercarriage with a healthy blast of ice-cold mountain water on a chill morning. The CuloClean bidet weighs just half an ounce, costs $10, and also saves you the weight of packing out excess TP.
Some diehard ultralighters recommend wiping with “natural materials” such as smooth rocks, leaves, and snowballs. This may be the purest form of ultralight pooping, but I really can’t imagine wiping my ass with a snowball. I’ll stick with my bidet, thanks.
26. Carry just the amount of food you need between resupplies.
Unlike water, humans can survive quite a while without food. If you’re on a well-trafficked trail with plenty of clear exit points for resupply, don’t oversupply—your food bag weighs enough as it is without you hauling a day and a half of extra rations for no reason.
There are some serious caveats here. If you’re on a difficult, remote trail or hiking in wintry conditions, you would be much safer packing an extra day of food. And of course, not everyone can forego food without incident due to medical conditions. Let common sense take the lead here.
27. More miles per day = less food weight per resupply. Get in shape before you go!
A hiker who can cover 15 miles per day will get to resupply 50% faster than a hiker who can only manage 10. Their food bag will correspondingly be 50% lighter. They will also get from one water source to the next more quickly and easily as well, reducing the amount of water weight they must carry at any given time.
28. Drink up at water sources and carry less.
Water is HEAVY, guys. Be strategic.
I always chug a liter on the spot when I stop for water. On a wet trail, I might only need to carry a half-liter or less between water sources if I make sure to stop and drink at each one, saving serious weight. On a dry trail, I’ll probably still haul as much water as I can carry, but I’ll still be grateful for the extra water I drank at the source as the day wears on.
Hiking at night or in the cool morning and evening hours will also help reduce the amount of water you need to get through a given section.
29. Store just the right amount of duct tape/leukotape by wrapping it on your trekking pole.
Don’t carry an entire giant roll of tape.
30. Streamline your first aid kit.
Even the premade “backpacking” first aid kits sold at outfitters are overkill. If it doesn’t all fit inside a snack-size ziplock, it’s probably too much.
Reduce your worn weight too.
31. Trail runners instead of boots.
Trail runners weigh about half as much as boots. It’s often said that one pound of weight on your feet is worth five on your back due to the amount of energy it takes to move weight carried on the feet compared to the torso.
Trail runners also dry faster than boots, making your ultralight dream of not carrying camp shoes that much more attainable.
32. Wear lighter clothing.
For instance, tights or shorts instead of heavy hiking pants. It will be cooler and more breathable, too, so you hopefully won’t end up weighed down by 1000 pounds of rainwater and sweat.
33. Go commando.
34. Lose body weight before starting a trip.
This is a touchy subject since many hikers actually try to beef up a bit before starting a long thru-hike to give themselves some buffer against on-trail weight loss.
This advice is more geared toward people who are carrying extra weight to begin with. Rather than waiting for the trail to take it off for you, you can reduce your risk of injury and make the start of your hike easier by working it off in advance. (I say this knowing it’s far easier said than done for most of us.)
Manipulate your conditions to boost warmth without a heavy sleep system.
It’s important to your safety to have a warm enough sleep system, but that doesn’t always mean opting for the beefiest bag around.
35. Choose a protected campsite.
Sleeping above treeline or on a windswept promontory is pretty cool, but on a cold night, you might be better off at a lower elevation surrounded by nice wind-blocking trees and boulders.
One caveat to the lower elevation thing: remember that cold air is dense and tends to pool at the bottom of narrow valleys, so you may be better off staying higher up on a side slope than at the valley bottom in that case.
36. Eat fatty foods right before bed to stay warm.
A hot, fatty meal will give your metabolism a little extra boost and help keep you warm all night long. (Any hot food going into your core will, of course, be helpful, but the more caloric fuel you give your system along with the heat generated by your stove, the better). I’ve woken up sweating on single-digit nights after a hearty mac-and-cheese dinner. It’s amazing.
37. Slip your pee bottle inside your sleeping bag for a little extra warmth.
a) Don’t get out of your nice, warm tent and go outside to pee on a cold night. That sounds terrible.
b) Don’t let all that warm pee go to waste! Slip your (very tightly sealed) pee bottle into the foot of your sleeping bag and use it to keep your feet warm for a while. Every little bit counts.
38. Sharing is caring.
Share your tent, water filter, stove, guidebook pages, GPS device, etc. with a partner, and you’ll split the weight in half. Just make sure you’re definitely going to stick together.
39. Mini Everything
Mini Swiss Army knife, mini Bic lighter, mini toiletries, etc. You get the picture. Don’t waste weight on full-size anything.
40. Swap headlamp strap for DIY shock cord strap.
Many headlamps have a removable headband for just this purpose. You can often get lengths of stretchy shock cord from an outfitter. Simply thread it through the holes and add a tension adjuster.
41. Ultralight Wallet
A snack-sized ziplock or DCF pouch works perfectly as a wallet. Throw in your credit/debit card, ID, insurance card, and a bit of cash, and you’re good to go. DO NOT bring your Costco membership or your library card, or the ultralight gods will smite you for sure.
42. Trim your gear.
If you really want to maximize your weight savings, take your already ultralight gear and make it even lighter through the magic of scissors. Trim the straps on your pack to a shorter length, remove tags from clothing, snip your toothbrush in half, etc. You’re not going to save pounds with this technique, but if you snip enough stuff, you may save a few ounces.
43. Repackage your food and other consumables.
Really a necessity if you want it to all fit in your food bag. And this likely goes without saying, but avoid foods that come in heavy packaging and are hard to repackage, such as peanut butter in a glass jar or anything in a metal can.
44. Use a kitchen scale.
The weights published by manufacturers are just averages—actual product weights may vary from the published specs. For some items, it’s nontrivial to even find published weights, and if you start cutting bits off of your gear, it gets really complicated.
A kitchen scale will help you determine what each item in your pack definitively weighs. With this information, you can build spreadsheets and itemize your pack weight (if you’re into that kind of thing) to see where there’s room for improvement.
Moral of the Story
Maybe you’ll use all the ultralight backpacking tips you can to bring your base weight below the 10-pound ultralight benchmark, or maybe you’re comfortable with a base weight under 20 pounds, and you just need a few tweaks to get there.
Remember, there is no “right” pack weight that you must strive to attain no matter what. The “right” base weight is determined only by you—your comfort level, abilities, and individual needs will be the biggest indicator of whether you need to reduce your pack weight.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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