5 Stupid Light Gear Choices That Take Ultralight Too Far

Have you been on a really long streak of whittling down your gear list? Have you tinkered every gram of your pack to perfection? For some hikers, getting to a lower base weight is a relentless process of upgrading gear to cut weight. Most approach it incrementally, replacing a few gear items at a time, inching closer to the arbitrary 10-pound “ultralight” mark.

But what happens if you never stop upgrading and dropping weight from your pack? While a seven- or even four-pound base weight is possible, cutting this far will land most hikers in the “stupid light” category. While stupid light doesn’t have a set definition, most take it to mean selecting gear that isn’t comfortable, safe, or appropriate for the trip, or eliminating crucial equipment to the same end. Unless you’re trying to set a speed record, you probably want to be comfortable on trail AND in camp. Going stupid light can prevent both.

There are some classic mistakes that can easily land you in the stupid light category. While it’s OK to try new things and test your limits, you can hopefully save yourself some misery by avoiding these objectively bad decisions.

1. Not Adjusting Your Packing List for the Season/Environment

stupid light gear choices

Different type of trip, different packing list. Spring Skiing in Alaska’s White Mountains. Nighttime low: -40˚F.

You’re probably quite familiar with the climate of your hometown. You’re also probably not very familiar with the weather patterns 40 hours away on the other side of the country. While it’s tempting to assume that you can use the same packing list for a November trip to the Sierra as you used on an August trip to the Appalachian Trail, this is a dangerous line of reasoning. Your packing list needs to adapt with the weather and terrain. The same packing list can be ultralight in one set of conditions and stupid light in another simply because they have different challenges that require different gear.

Some trips require specialized gear as well. You might need snowshoes or skis for a winter snow hike or a helmet to tackle that scary Elk Range 14er. Leaving these behind in the name of weight is irresponsible to you and the SAR team that might be coming to get you.

READ NEXT – 44 Ultralight Backpacking Tips That Actually Make Sense for Thru-Hikers

2. Sizing Your Pack Without Considering Consumables

It’s standard advice to choose your pack last when purchasing backpacking gear so you’ll know what size to get. One way to estimate gear volume is to pack all your equipment into a cardboard box, cut it to size, and convert the volume of the box to liters (or cubic CMs). If you’ve done a good job of picking compact gear, you might come out with a stellar number like 20 or 30 liters.

One mistake that can happen at this point is then going to shop and buying a 25-liter pack without considering the consumables you have yet to pack. Just as your base weight doesn’t account for food and water, your base volume doesn’t factor in that five-day resupply of chips and Sour Patch Kids. The number of fastpack-style bags I’ve seen with a food bag wonkily strapped to the outside is insane.

How much extra volume to add for food and water will depend on where and when you’ll be hiking. Appalachian Trail? You probably could get away with one water bottle pocket and enough room for 3-4 days of food. Pacific Crest Trail in a high snow year? You better leave some room for long food carries through the Sierra and big bottle pockets for the desert.

stupid light

Gear I took on the CDT. Could I have fit it all in a 30-40 liter pack? Sure. Could I have gotten six days of food in there with it? Absolutely not.

3. Not Learning the Skills That Go with Your New UL Gear

You’ve probably owned a freestanding dome tent at some point and marveled at the ease of setup. All the poles are bungeed together, the body always attaches with ease, and you don’t even have to stake it in if you are feeling extra lazy. Ditching the freestanding tent is one of the most effective ways to drop multiple pounds off your LighterPack list. But using your new trekking pole tent won’t be as easy as that Big Agnes Fly Creek.

Most trekking pole tents and tarps are going to require much more skill to pitch successfully. Your model might be more sensitive to flat ground, good staking soils, or require knots to use guylines without LineLocs. Make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions or watch their videos before using. If you are going all out with a flat tarp, learn some basic knot skills and learn different tarp pitching methods.

This goes for all your gear: tightening the right straps on your backpack, how to cook and ration fuel on an alcohol stove, and more.

READ NEXT – When Ultralight Is Too Light

4. Modifying Your Gear Into Dysfunctionality

While cutting off unnecessary junk from your purchased gear is a time-honored UL tradition (looking at you, half toothbrush and clothing tags), there is a point where you start to remove the features that make your gear functional in the first place. The ever-popular HMG Southwest can be reduced by 6.5oz or more, but you’ll end up with a floppy mess that can’t be compressed or loaded to full capacity without making your back and shoulder sore. You could also replace the beefy hip belt strap with a much thinner and narrower version, but then you’ll no longer be able to effectively transfer weight to your hips.

In every gear category, someone has found a way to reduce the weight with a custom mod. It’s worth taking a step back before feverishly slashing with the utility knife and considering if the weight saving is worth the utility price.

Classic examples and their pitfalls:

Cutting a toothbrush in half: Makes it hard to brush your teeth well (hello, cavities).

Replacing cords and straps with thinner versions: Might not hold that sleeping pad or chip bag securely anymore, and that ribbon hipbelt might not actually transfer weight.

Removing LineLocs on tarps/tents and using knots: The fabric loop against the guy line is more likely to fail after repeated friction (best to have some sort of plastic or metal interface).

Choosing inflatable sleeping pads with ultra-thin fabrics: Pop too easily and put you on the ground regardless.

Inflatable pads in the desert? Doable, but dangerous. These pads had just gotten blown away and popped before this photo, meaning some hard nights before getting to town.

5. Using “Toughness” and “Grit” as Stand-Ins for Proper Gear

A popular criticism of ultralight hiking is that UL’ers aren’t tough enough to just carry a heavier pack. Being stupid light might mean you need to be even tougher, though. If you don’t pack the things you need to be warm, dry, and comfortable, there’ll be some rough times making it to your next town. In contrast, with a 20-pound base weight comfort setup, it’s hard not to feel like you’re living in luxury (when your pack is off).

I met a hiker on the CDT who carried a 40-degree quilt the entire trail, even in southern Colorado when temps were consistently in the 20s and 30s. He selected this underrated quilt solely to cut weight. When I asked him how he kept warm at night, he replied, “If I get too cold to sleep, I just have to get up and start walking in the dark until it warms up enough the next day to get some sleep in.”

I am simply not tough enough to deal with that strategy, and I bet most hikers aren’t either. During that same cold stretch of trail, I doubled my sleep system weight by switching from a 22-degree quilt to a zero-degree bag. I like to be asleep when it’s dark, and I’m not willing to give that up to save eight ounces. I doubt many people can consciously decide to be cold at night, but doing so is definitely stupid light.

Gear decisions that deliberately make you uncomfortable also often put you in hazardous situations. Being wet, cold, and having to hike in the dark? No thanks, I’d rather wait it out in a tent. Not packing yourself any margin of error is firmly in the stupid light category.

READ NEXT – The Ultimate Ultralight Backpacking Gear List


While no individual piece of gear is always stupid light, there are endless ways to make it stupid light by pulling it into the wrong situations. Packing is more than a base weight number at the end of a spreadsheet, so use what’s between your ears to make sure you have the right stuff before your next trip.

Featured image: Photos by Alexander “GPS” Brown. Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 13

  • Dogwood : Oct 31st

    Those are good examples of being stupid light. The one I take issue is the last. Depending on the rest of your apparel, food choices, set up, shelter system, CS selection, etc it’s very possible to extend an UL accurately rated Mummy bag or quilt based sleep system from 40* to the mid 20’s*. Rarely is a quilt or bag used in stand alone fashion. They are both best perceived as a component, likely the primary component in a sleep system. UL is sometimes perceived as systems and integrating those systems.

    • Doug : Jan 14th

      Bad advice. Yes you can survive 15F below an accurate rating on a quilt or bag but it is dumb to count on that for standard day after day use. If you wear clothes and puffy inside a bag repeatedly they get sweaty and dirty and that creates problems. That and other measures like hot water bottles should be only for emergencies. If that is your standard procedure what do you do when there is an emergency? If you plan on using a 40F bag in 25F and it hits 10 or 15 you have a very bad situation, possibly fatal, or maybe staying up all night by a fire if that is feasible.

  • Bart : Jan 13th

    When it comes to being “ultralight”, the big question is, “How uncomfortable are you willing to be?”
    I like to be comfortable, and a couple extra pounds isn’t going to make a difference.

  • Piper : Jan 13th

    The half toothbrush: Yes, I agree, cavities, and my hands are really not all the clean, they’re pretty nasty. I prefer a long handle on my toothbrush so I can keep my fingers out of my mouth. I also use a long-handled flosser with a disposable end that typically last at least 2 weeks.

  • Brent "Rougarou" Ramsey : Jan 19th

    …Hi fellow hiker…..My pack weighs 15oz, how much does yours weigh!? ….. with or without the IPA? lol If im going to hike, I am going to be comfortable……

  • Jhonyermo : May 5th

    I really liked what you said about: “2. Sizing Your Pack Without Considering Consumables” In my case, wish I had gotten the Pa’lante Desert Pack instead of the V2. Don’t get me wrong, V2 is great but a couple of more liters would have been nice. And they are both the exact same price!!

  • Marmot : May 5th

    The one “ultra light” stupid move I have seen lately is the ridiculous idea that hikers can use fire as a backup for not having a stove or carrying enough gear to stay warm.
    I’m getting really tired of putting out smoldering campfires and full blown wildfires started by long distance hikers. I’ve done it multiple times on all the TC and on other short long trails. Before anyone says it’s not thruhikers—think again. I’ve stopped thruhikers making a fire right next to bush, in drought zones, in red fire zones, in high winds and come on countless smoldering campfires I’ve over heard hikers bragging about how light their packs are and stating that they would be using fire if they got too cold or tired of cold food
    Pre 2000’s I never had to put out a fire. Now I expect to. Last year on the CDT I walked into two forest fires. One burned 19,000 acres —the Turkey Fire —started by a warming fire. The second I was able to call in water bombers which put it out before it reached one acre. This fire—The Wagontongue-was started by one of three CDT hikers.
    Last year there were 18 fires in the Gila That route is a sideways chimney. We just had our first wildfire in the Angeles Crest near the PCT. The snow isn’t even out of the mountains yet
    In ‘22 I had to stop a group of 8-10 thruhikers from building a bonfire ( after they scattered like cockroaches breaking off all the lower branches of the trees surrounding a shelter). I took off to get water and struggled with what I would say. I came back to find a huge pile of wood so the one hiker could heat up his sausages. This was during an unexpected drought in Maine. The rangers had been passing the word on trail of —-no fires. These people just didn’t care.
    There is never any reason to have a fire unless you are hypothermic. People learn to be long distance hikers from Preppers, vanity Utube channels, and old cowboy movies. They do it for fun and because they don’t know any better
    Long distance hikers should add “ We never make Fires” to our leave no trace list
    It’s time for us all the get it.

    • GPS : May 5th

      I agree, and it was sad watching fires start along the CDT last year in seemingly perfect alignment with “the bubble”. I don’t know many actual thru hikers that have campfires, who has the time?
      I think the people having fires in camp are inexperienced and being sold on an image from an REI commercial, and I hope most who make it through an entire trail learn better by the end. We only have so much unburned forest left unfortunately.

      • Marmot : May 5th

        Unfortunately it is thruhikers. The idea that the on trail damage is done by weekenders and other campers is just deflection. We know who is starting them because there are areas where the only people out there are thruhikers. And also we know where people are, how far ahead they are and what they have told people they plan. I have dragged burning logs into streams , stomped out and scattered fires. I used to hear stories about other hikers doing this but it had never happened to me. Now I know it will. Last year up over 300,000 acres burned in New Mexico alone The percentage of human caused fires is over 85 percent

  • Ben "Paladin" : May 5th

    Excellently written article and can’t disagree with a single thing. After two thru-hike (hello AT and PCT) as well as numerous shorter trails and backpacking trips both domestic and abroad, as you stated, there is no one size fits all. Each adventure needs to be tailored to the individual doing it. Over the years, I’ve drastically reduced the weight that I started out backpacking with. As you stated, most of us purchase UL gear after careful research and financial resources are available. Sometimes, going back to a non-UL piece of gear just because it worked better than the other. With all that said, I still prefer to be comfortable and take a few more lux items than I should, will likely never qualifying as a “true” UL hiker, but hey, we all hike our own hike and carry our own packs. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and educational advice.

    • GPS : May 5th

      Thanks Paladin, out of my own curiosity this article was published almost 7 months ago but has 500 new reads and 3 new comments today… was this reposted/linked somewhere else? I’m always interested how people come across my articles

      • Michael : May 5th

        It was quoted in a The Trek email today (5/5/23).

        Great article, btw.


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