Super ultralight backpacking: What it takes to carry a 3.5 pound pack
I induced a panic in more than a few people when I posted my 3.5 pound gear list for my Appalachian Trail unsupported record attempt this past summer. Concerned parents and experienced backpackers alike chimed in about how risky my gear choices were. But nothing about it seemed crazy to me. I couldn’t believe my pack was so light, but only because the norm for base weights is so high, not because it is inherently unsafe to hike with such little gear. I realized that the barrier to most people going super ultralight weren’t practical reasons, but simply because there was no good advice on how to safely do it. So I want to write up some tips to safely drop pack weight and hopefully inspire others to experiment with their own super ultralight backpacking setups.
Don’t rush it
My first solo backpacking trip I carried a Kelty external frame pack, a slumber party sleeping bag, and an old ripped up tent we used as kids for backyard ‘camping’. My hips ached from the load and I was miserable for nearly every step of the hike. The nights were great. I had a camp chair and a pillow. But it wasn’t worth it. My next trip was only moderately better despite vowing to drop weight. But after dozens of trips and tweaking my gear list, now my summer pack is 10 liters and with four days of food and water weighs in at around 10 pounds. But never was there a targeted weight and never did I feel uncomfortable with my setup. It was a very slow process that took thousands of miles, hundreds of nights, and nearly a decade to refine. Take your time and know that the weight savings will come.
Decide what you need
Lightening your load is as much about deciding what type of gear you need as it is what specific brand and model you want to fill that role. For me, the essentials are: shelter, sleeping pad, quilt/sleeping bag, shirt, rain/wind protection, shorts, socks, shoes, pack, food, and water. Anything on top of these should be specific to the conditions and the individual.
New equipment can be insanely expensive. If you’re on a budget, it helps to do your research beforehand so you get it right the first time. You’re not just looking for the lightest piece of gear. You’re looking for the lightest that still serves its function well, and hopefully serves multiple functions. Reading reviews will help you avoid going stupid light and ending up with a 3 ounce pack that has thread-like shoulder straps. No matter how light, your gear still has to work.
Spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets
For me super ultralight backpacking became less a goal in its own right and more a means to move more quickly. If you really want to develop a light pack, pop open a spreadsheet, buy a small postal scale, and weigh every piece of gear in your arsenal. And cut everything. If there is an unmodified piece of gear in your pack, it either has a brilliant designer or you missed something. Cut edges from your sleeping pad and tags from your clothing, use smaller plastic bags, lighter water bottles, etc.
Know what to expect
I never carry such minimal gear on a trail I hadn’t hiked or didn’t know the conditions for. When I am unsure of the normal temperatures and weather for an area I will be hiking in, I prepare for contingencies I may not have anticipated. And no matter how much studying I do using the weather almanac and other people’s trip reports, nothing makes me as comfortable with a trail than hiking it myself. If your trip is short, know the expected weather for each day, and tailor your gear accordingly. If you’re only going out for two days and it’s 0% chance of rain for the entire upcoming week, consider not carrying rain gear.
Be willing to be uncomfortable
Sometimes the temperature drops unexpectedly, it rains for days, or a meticulously planned resupply fails. Part of the kick that I get out of ultralight backpacking is finding my limits and working through them. Several nights I’ve gotten so cold that I’ve had to get up and get hiking to stay warm. I’ve had to hike for days on just a few hundred calories, or for hours with no water. None of these situations were ever dire but they were certainly not ideal. We all accept a certain level of discomfort when we go backpacking, so to me it wasn’t a tremendous transition from the normal back pain every backpacker tolerates to my discomfort of going hungry or sleeping cold.
Weightless contingency plans
In the words of the climber Chuck Pratt, “Technique is our protection.” This is definitely the one I get the most flak for but is the reason I am able to go super ultralight. I don’t carry any tangible backup for anything. I carry exactly what I’ll need to comfortably survive the expected conditions and nothing more. If I get myself into a bind, I depend on my experience and techniques I’ve learned over the years to get me through it safely.
Whether you’re looking to chase a FKT or just enjoy tweaking gear lists, tailoring a gear list to a specific trip is an incredibly fun challenge. For me, super ultralight backpacking isn’t about materialism; it’s about minimalism. And I get a huge kick out of simplifying my life down to the bare essentials for a time and trekking through the woods with such a light load on my back. This certainly isn’t a step by step guide for how to drop into the super ultralight realm but hopefully it can give an idea of what it took for me personally to get such a light pack.
You can find my gear list here: Gear list
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