5 Budget-Friendly Ultralight Backpacking Hacks

It’s no secret that carrying a heavy pack sucks, but it can be tough to lighten your load without breaking the bank. A high-end ultralight setup can cost thousands of dollars, making an expensive trip even harder to budget and save for.

Luckily, even if you don’t want to drop beaucoup bucks on your gear, there are a few things you can do to ease your back pain.

The number one secret to ultralight backpacking is to simply take less. You don’t need the lightest version of each piece of gear out there (although that certainly helps). Instead, you typically just need less gear. When people say “luxury item,” I hear “heavy item.” If you don’t need it, don’t take it.

Even after you’ve narrowed down your gear to just the essentials, there’s still some weight you can cut. People make fun of ultralight hikers for taking extreme measures like cutting the handle off their toothbrushes, but every ounce adds up.

After two seasons shaking down AT thru-hikers at Mountain Crossings outfitter, I’ve learned a few tricks for saving weight without blowing your budget.

1. There’s an App for That

One thing pretty much every hiker carries is their cell phone. At some point, you’re going to want to call home or snap a sick pic for your Instagram feed, but there’s so much more that your phone can do for you on the trail. I have given countless pack shakedowns to thru-hikers who were hoping to lighten their load, and rarely have I failed to find something that couldn’t be replaced by an app on their phone.

Yet I’m guilty of breaking this rule myself. Many newer phones now come with an SOS feature that allows you to contact Emergency Services via satellite. For now, I’m still carrying my Personal Locator Beacon, but I’m excited to see how this technology progresses.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what items in your kit can be digitized, but is a good place to start.

READ NEXT – 13 Useful Smartphone Apps for Thru-Hiking

Navigation and Planning

The most common substitution is ditching the guidebooks and maps for navigational apps such as Farout, Gaia, and CalTopo. Guidebooks such as The A.T. Guide, commonly referred to as the AWOL guide, are an excellent resource for planning your hike but are unnecessarily heavy for the trail. Instead, try the Farout App. It contains a wealth of information, uses GPS to display your location in real-time, and has the added benefit of updated waypoint information in the form of comments from other hikers.

Books and Journals

I like flipping through the pages of a physical book just as much as the next guy, but not enough to justify how heavy they are. Many people find that the perfect way to decompress at camp after a long day is to read or to journal, and to them I would recommend apps like Kindle, Audible, or the Apple Notes app.

While I don’t journal in the traditional sense, I do like to keep track of things like my daily mileage and where I camp. A perfect task for the Notes App.

I understand that swiping and typing just doesn’t replace the feeling of physical media, but you’re sure to save yourself a lot of weight and space inside your pack.

2. Hiker Boxes Are Your Friend

Some items are so ubiquitous — and so rarely needed — that you needn’t carry them.

A prime example of this is the syringe that comes with your Sawyer Squeeze water filter. While it is necessary to occasionally backflush your filter in order to maintain its flow rate, it is not necessary to carry the extra gear to accomplish this. These syringes are easy to find in hiker boxes: use one when you need it and then leave it for the next hiker.

Consider what other items of gear you’re rarely using, especially those that help you achieve a task that is not urgent. Are you willing to use hiker box/communal hostel toenail clippers? I am.

Bonus budget tip: always check out the local hiker box before heading in to do your resupply. They often have some pretty decent snack options.

READ NEXT – 6 Useful Items You Can Nearly Always Find in an AT Hiker Box

3. Be More Efficient

This one ties into the number one rule of ultralight backpacking: just carry less. A common mistake I see in this area is what I like to call “bags inside of bags.”

During one shakedown at Mountain Crossings, I removed over a pound of bags from a hikers pack. Not everything needs its own stuff sack or waterproof bag, and for the things that do, a lightweight gallon-sized Ziploc should do the trick.

If you’re not counting my pack, I only carry three bags: one large contractor bag that acts as a budget-friendly pack liner, and two large Ziplocs — one for toiletries and one for trash.

No stuff sack for my tent, no compression sack for my sleeping bag, and no extra waterproof bags for my clothes. It all gets stuffed together into the pack liner. Using this method I am able to cut out a surprising amount of weight and bulk.

Another way to increase efficiency and decrease weight in your pack without spending a cent is to eliminate redundancies. There’s a pretty good chance that your headlamp, Personal Locator Beacon, and battery bank all use the same type of charger. Instead of carrying a tangled mess of cables, take only one charger of each type that your devices require.

What Else Can I Do?

To quote Ed Harris’s Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, “I don’t care about what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.” Many simple pieces of gear can perform multiple functions.

A bandana can be used to wipe sweat, clean your cookpot, and remove sediment from water before filtering it. Your second pair of socks becomes a pair of mittens on a cold night. A trowel becomes that extra tent stake for your vestibule.

One of my favorite examples of this is my piece of Tyvek, which is both cheaper and lighter than a tent footprint. On it, I have written “Hiker to Town/Hiker to Trail” to help with hitchhiking, and drawn a chess board for some good ol’ fashion sticks vs. stones checkers games in shelters. Get creative.

4. Rethink Your Resupply

Most of us are focused on our base weight — the weight of everything minus wearable and consumable items — rather than the total weight of our packs at any given moment. The amount of food, water, and fuel we have on deck fluctuates constantly, so base weight is an easier number to talk about. But those consumables add up.

The best example of this is water, weighing 2.2 lbs per liter. Look at your map (on your phone!) and plan your water carries appropriately. This will take some practice as you learn how much water your body needs, but strive to carry only what you need to get to the next source. A little extra to be safe is good practice (particularly in arid environments), but if you’re regularly walking past water sources while still carrying a full bottle on your back, then you’re carrying too much water weight.

The same goes for less conventional consumables, like items in your first aid kit. Why carry a full bottle of 200 ibuprofen when a cheap 10-pack will get you to the next town? Are you really going to use that entire box of bandaids before your next resupply? For a minimalist first aid kit resupply, hiker boxes are once again your best friend.

Lightweight Resupply

Another way to reduce the weight of your pack is to be aware of the calorie/weight ratio of your food. Next time you’re in the grocery store you can check the printed weights on food packaging and compare it to the total calories in that package. When I’m getting ready for a longer food carry and want to minimize how heavy it is, I strive for at least 100 calories per ounce across my resupply.

If you want to take this a step further, consider cold soaking your food. As far as I’m concerned, a stove, fuel, and a cookpot are all luxury items (and remember, luxury = heavy). I started cold soaking my food towards the end of my first thru-hike, and I’ve never looked back.

5. Pack It Out (But Only as Far as You Have To)

When I worked at Mountain Crossings, it amazed me how many hikers would show up with a full week’s worth of trash in their packs. I’d always ask them why they were carrying it around, and they’d look at me like I was crazy and ask what else they were supposed to do with it. Throw it out, duh.

Every time you get to a trailhead, park, hostel, or any sort of civilization you should be looking for the trash can. For some reason, people think that the only time they have access to a trash can is when they’re doing their resupply, but you pass a lot more trash cans than you might realize.

In the 30 miles between Springer Mountain and Mountain Crossings, an area without many amenities, you pass three trash cans. Keep an eye out, keep your trash in an accessible part of your pack, and stop carrying those candy wrappers.

Bonus Tip: Let the Post Office Carry It

All right, this one might not be the cheapest option on the list, but it’s still worth an honorable mention. A bounce box with a few hard-to-find items can be a game changer on the trail.

Did you find your favorite brand of supplements, but don’t want to carry a month’s supply? Send some ahead. Tired of carrying your heavy cold-weather sleeping bag in the heat of the summer? Send it north where colder temperatures await. Is it that glorious time of year when it’s not too cold but the bugs aren’t out? Send the tent ahead and just carry the rainfly as a tarp.

The amount of weight you can save by swapping out your gear is rather substantial, so it may be worth the cost of shipping. Even if shipping gets expensive, it may still be your best option, especially if you expect high prices for common resupply items in a specific section of the trail (think Oregon resorts on the PCT).

What are your best ultralight hacks? How do you like to lighten your load? Let me know in the comments — I’m always looking for new ideas.

Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 7

  • Pete : Apr 10th

    If you don’t carry a map, you’re an idiot.
    If you tell other people not to carry a map you are a dangerous idiot.

  • M.J. : Apr 10th

    I am 76and. . . .
    I want to ex/plore/periance/hale. I bought a whole truckload of REI and While Earth Provisions gear. Because I thought I wanted to . . . . go camping. But I never went. Decided I had never camped by myself. am afraid. I was so mortified, I told my wife and children. My friends. Full disclosure. I stop if I feel lost and ask any panhandler directions. Yes! I am not a real man.

    But I start97ed reading the Blogposts. Suggestions. And poop. And I had a lucid thought: “You don’want go camping. You want to long-hiking with my listed words that begin with Ex– (not chatting at dinner about * crement.

    So, thanks thrufers. Gotta return my unused gear . Seeya on the dirt.

  • Mike : Apr 10th

    AWOL comes in pdf as well and has info that FarOut lacks. I use both electronic versions and have used the hard copy of AWOL for planning.

  • Jingle Bells : Apr 11th

    Always solid input from the Moose. However… I will gladly pay the extremely minimal weight penalty to be able to syringe filter flush and nail clip whenever I want for hygiene/convenience. Strategic syringe flushing can speed up the refill process I’d argue.

  • John : Apr 12th

    Your bags within bags commentary is a way to cut weight. However, eliminating bags does not equal efficiency. I’ve watched more hikers’ packs seem to explode when they stop for a snack. I was on Te Araroa when I stopped at a camp ground with a single picnic table (DOC campground single table for all the tent sites). These two UL trampers (that what they call backpackers) had the table and surrounding ground completely covered with their gear. They were kind enough to clear off a spot for me to cook dinner, but this wasn’t the first time I’d come across an exploded pack when it’s time to stop for the night. If you’re going to go bagless, just be sure to be considerate of your fellow hikers when you unpack your bag to have a snack. Walking up on someone’s undies when I’m looking for a place to enjoy my evening meal is unsettling at best.

  • Lauren Brewer : Apr 16th

    As an added hack, you can use the sport cap that comes on different iterations of Smart Water and LifeWater bottles as the syringe for your filter. Just fill up your bottle with water, put on the cap, and press it through the filter. Worked well for me! Just don’t use that cap to drink from, lol.

  • Reah : May 12th

    Leaving a paper map behind is reckless and a good way to get handed a bill for your rescue in the White Mountains. If this solar storm should teach any hiker anything, it’s don’t rely on electronics. They can fail or go wonky in a heartbeat.


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