Why You Should Take the Ultralight Plunge Right From the Start

Once you have committed to a thru-hike, or even just to backpacking as a hobby, it can be daunting to dive into the world of backpacking gear. There are blogs, vlogs, threads, and subreddits, each touting a spectrum of steadfast opinions on the matter. Perhaps the most intimidating of the backpacking gearheads is the ultralight community. A base weight is what your backpacking kit weighs without food and water, and ultralighters strive to keep that base weight lighter than the typical hiker’s by sticking to the essentials and getting the lightest gear on the market. 

My gear for my 2018 PCT thru-hike. View the details on my lighterpack.

Ultralighters can be pretty elitist, and that makes it seem as though ultralight backpacking is something to work up to, reserved only for the most advanced and experienced outdoorspeople. On the contrary, I think that more than anyone, new backpackers can benefit from making their kit ultralight. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to backpack, but I’m here to walk you through why going ultralight from the get-go is well worth your consideration. As you choose your gear, be aware that you have to commit to the UL lifestyle. Choosing an ultralight pack and jamming 40 pounds of gear in it won’t work for the pack, and it certainly won’t work for your back. 

My Gear Evolution

My brother and me, pictured on the Lost Coast Trail (clearly) before my transition to ultralight backpacking.

Before thru-hiking the PCT, most of my backpacking experience came from short trips with my dad, and my gear reflected that. My Big Three? A 1970s external frame pack found on eBay, a hand-me-down sleeping bag, and the family’s three-person dome tent, each piece weighing several pounds. All of this gear was cutting edge when my dad started backpacking, but as I started backpacking more and encountering other hikers on the trails, I realized that gear has come a long way since 1976. So I went to REI and dropped a small fortune to upgrade to a standard backpacking kit.

A few years later, around the time I began to seriously consider a PCT thru-hike, I went backpacking in Evolution Valley in the Sierra. It was late summer, and I happened to cross paths with two SOBO PCT thru-hikers. I could not believe how tiny their packs were. Those baby packs inspired to me start researching the kind of gear optimal for a thru-hike, and I discovered the ultralight community. Initially I was afraid to jump to the other side of the gear spectrum. Because I felt like I wasn’t a “good enough” backpacker yet, I found myself making compromises with my gear choices: more security to make up for less time on trail. I chose a tent over a tarp, a puffy and a fleece rather than one or the other, and a 40-liter pack with a hip belt instead of a 30-liter pack sans hip belt. Now, having completed a thru-hike, I can confidently state that I wish I had taken the ultralight plunge from the get-go.

Comfort Is Key

Picking berries on the PCT with my 40-liter pack from Superior Wilderness Designs. Photo by Brian Steadman.

Of the people I have talked to who are hesitant to go ultralight, most fear making the transition because they don’t want to give up their comfort. They treasure such luxuries as books, pillows, sleep socks, or a burly sleeping bag, and they think that going ultralight means having to sacrifice these comforts. Not so. When I think about going ultralight, I tie it pretty closely to the concept of minimalism, a lifestyle that entails reducing one’s possessions to only the essentials. It’s not about giving everything away and keeping only those things that you need to survive. It’s about ridding yourself of excess, to lighten your load. What is considered essential or excess is defined by you. If that book in your pack adds to your hiking experience, by all means, carry it.

You don’t need to stick to a rigid sub-ten-pound base weight to reap the benefits of an ultralight kit. Many people use ultralight gear specifically to cater to the desire to carry “luxury items,” like five pounds of camera gear. Five pounds on top of a ten-pound base weight isn’t a big deal. Five pounds added to a 30-pound base weight would make for a pretty exhausting trek. And at the end of the day—literally, as you are limping into camp—nothing matters more than having as little weight on your back as possible.

Shake-Up(?) Hike

Jellybones on our pre-PCT shakedown (shake-up?) hike on the Point Reyes National Seashore.

In the thru-hiking world, you hear a lot about shakedown trips before going on a thru-hike or other backcountry trek. This is when you go on a weekend or short multi-night backpacking trip with all of the gear you intend to use on your bigger trip, to get a sense of what works for you and what doesn’t. The idea is to strip down and dial in your kit to just what you need. What I did before my thru-hike of the PCT was more of a “shake-up” hike (OK, the name isn’t great, but I’m working on it). I had assembled the most bare bones ultralight kit that I could stand, and took that out on a two-night trip to see if I could roll with minimal gear. Although this approach sounds somewhat masochistic, I think you might be surprised at how little you miss those luxuries that you thought you would need. And if you do miss something, you know to add it to your kit for the real deal.

Gear Is Expensive. Period.

Me at the Northern Terminus of the PCT, pack proudly displayed.

Besides not being as comfortable and agile as possible, my biggest regret about not going hardcore ultralight is that now, to go lighter, I’ll need to invest in new gear yet again. And ultralight gear is expensive. That said, most backpacking gear is expensive, regardless of weight. It is possible to find deals on past-season ultralight gear online, like on eBay or gear trading/selling forums. But you should think about your gear purchases as an investment. Good ultralight gear is durable. With proper care, it should be able to withstand at least one thru-hike.

Most ultralight gear companies are cottage-industry manufacturers. That means companies that make the gear themselves rather than having it made by another entity, which in turn means the gear you buy is designed and manufactured by backpackers like ourselves. So your purchase supports fellow hikers who use their backpacking experience to make high-quality, durable, lightweight gear.

Some of the best cottage gear companies are Superior Wilderness Designs, LiteAF, ZPacks, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, ULA, and Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear, just to name a few. You can find and support more great cottage gear companies at Garage Grown Gear. So as you’re saving up for your next adventure, consider saving up a little extra to commit to an ultralight kit. You’ll end up saving yourself time, effort, and money in the long run.

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Comments 15

  • LeoYermo : Mar 14th

    Thanks so much for such a great, well written article.
    I cannot even begin to find fault with anything you wrote.
    This article is also a keeper that I will file and make a favorite.
    • For old guy like me — UL has been a saving grace. I still have a few more years !
    Your advice just as sound and important as Ray Jardin’s, the Guru of ultra lite, and the guy that pretty much started it all.
    His book Beyond Backpacking: Guide to Lightweight Backpacking published in 1992 certainly made a difference.

    • Madeline Newel : Mar 30th

      Thank you very much! I’m very familiar with Ray Jardine and his ideas, but I haven’t read his book yet. Maybe now is the time!

  • Kin Brown : Mar 14th

    Great post, What pack did you use for your PCT thru? thanks

    • Madeline Newel : Mar 30th

      Hi there! I used a 40L pack from Superior Wilderness Designs. I also took it on the AT, so it has now survived two thru-hikes! I recently sent it in and had it repaired and spiffed up for my (now cancelled) CDT thru-hike. All in all, it was very much worth the investment and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Andrew Carter : Mar 20th

    Very important advice which I agree with totally. I’m 62. I through-hiked the AT in 1977 with 50 lbs. on my back. It was no fun then. It would be absurd today given my age and all the great equipment which now exists. I plan to attempt the PCT next year. I will definitely be below 30 lbs. fully loaded with water and one week’s worth of supplies. And my goal is 25, half of what I carried 40 years ago.

    • Madeline Newel : Mar 30th

      Wow, I commend you! You’re tougher than me, that’s for sure!

  • Hotwire : Mar 23rd

    With great amounts of money comes very light equipment.

  • HillSlug98239 : May 21st

    I’m still working on whittle down my base weight, but I’m chuckling along with you when I consider the huge pack I used to use. I haven’t drummed up the courage to let her go as we had some good times, but I see pictures of me carrying it & it looks like I’m carrying a small person on my back. I’m currently using a 4-pound external frame pack I bought at thrift store years ago, and because I really like external frame packs I’m cutting weight elsewhere until I’m ready to make the jump to a 2-pound pack. Given that I’ve switched from sleeping on the ground to sleeping in a hammock to now sleeping in a different hammock set-up, I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble by paying the higher price tag on the first go-round. On the plus side, someone will benefit from my selling my “gently used” gear I no longer need.

  • Tim M : Mar 28th

    Great article. Like everything I guess it takes balance. For sure it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach either. I started with some used gear from a friend who had extra from experimenting. It let me get in cheap then slowly dial in based on my own experience.

    I also like Dan Becker’s reminders for the many of us who are bonafide weekend warriors. It’s easy to over do ultralight based on hype. And to be sure, lighter makes all trips more enjoyable.

    Do you need to get under ten pounds for a three or four day trip though? Probably not. I’m at about 13 pounds with all but food and water. I’m very comfortable with my gear and enjoy my short trips. Wouldn’t change a thing, though I watch for sales on a couple things still.

    But also, having dialed that much in, the distance to doing a longer trip doesn’t seem that intimidating either. The more I do longer overnights with more serious distance packers, the more achievable it now seems.

    • Madeline Newel : Mar 30th

      Good points! When you’re getting started, borrowing gear is the way to go. I also wouldn’t recommend buying ultralight gear outright to anyone who isn’t sure if they like backpacking yet. I wouldn’t recommend buying any gear at all! To that crowd I would recommend borrowing or renting, if possible.

      I agree with you on going heavier for shorter trips. I definitely do that. My ultralight kit allows me to hike faster and farther, and helps to mitigate the damage that long-distance hiking does to my body. Those benefits aren’t necessary for a more laid-back, short-term trip. Although the weight I add on shorter trips usually comes more from food luxuries than gear luxuries!

  • Renae Cummings : Jul 18th

    What shelter do you use? I don’t believe it was on your lighterpack.

    • Madeline Newel : Jul 18th

      Hi there! I have tweaked my lighterpack a bit since this post, and it isn’t currently up to date. But for my thru of the PCT I used Gossamer Gear’s The One! It was great for the PCT, and I still use it and love it. I did not take it on my thru of the AT as the single wall did not do well in the humidity/rain. On the AT my boyfriend and I shared a Big Agnes Copper Spur HVUL2 and split the weight. We are both big people and it was plenty of room for us, and we never got wet!


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