The Evolution of My Pack: Lightweight or Ultralight?

Hey gear heads! Yep, here’s another post about pack weight and gear. If you read my introduction post, then you know I got my first taste of backpacking in 2012 to 2013. This whole concept of “ultralight” was non-existent to me, and I roughly remember my pack tipped the scale at 45+ pounds (barf). Now I know that there’s some die hard “ultraheavy’s” out there doing their thing. I see you! I’ve seen people haul massive packs with every trinket, pot, pan, fishing pole, camp chair, you name it, and they still make it happen. Kudos to you.

Does some of this look familiar to you? Some old hand me down backpacking relics from the 1900s. In case some of you wanna know, that stainless OLicamp pot comes in at 13.4 ounces! I really thought I needed a plate and bowl in the backcountry.

John Muir Trail

Below, you will see a respectable gear layout. Not too bad for my first thru-hike. I took more than I needed and was not too concerned with base weight. I honestly used to poke fun of “ounce counters”. I had some budget friendly gear and still completed the hike in 10.5 days. In 2020 I didn’t bother to make a lighterpack list because I thought it was unnecessary work and people who did that probably had too much time on their hands. I recently weighed all of my gear I took and my base weight comes in at 22 pounds.

This photo amuses me. The tenkara fishing rod, paper maps, rain suit, pocket shower, and pan. Never used them.

Ruby Crest Trail

That year, I did a quick backpacking trip on the Ruby Crest Trail. Since it was so short (43 miles) I didn’t bother trying to reduce weight and my base was roughly 20ish pounds. I still took that damn pan! Never used it on both trips.

The pan still making an appearance here.

Colorado Trail

Oh, the Colorado Trail. For this hike I had a tight 3 weeks to complete 500 miles plus some peakbagging miles along the way. I was determined to finish the trail within my time frame, so I started a lighterpack right away. The winter leading up to, I got that ultralight ounce-counting bug. I switched out many things and left that pan and pocket shower at home! I whittled my base weight down to 8.95 pounds and saw how I could cut it even more. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

It is very satisfying to the eye don’t ya think?

You see, Colorado during monsoon season does not give a shit if you don’t like hiking in the rain.

I got this heavy weight trash bag near Molas Pass. Life changing.

While I knew it was monsoon season, 2021 was an exceptional year for rainfall. It rained Every. Single. Day. Several backpackers ended up leaving the trail because of it, and everyone I spoke to was sick of the rain too.

A daily routine on the CT. Some days had zero sun.

I learned that “ultralight” means thinner, lighter, less durable, and less waterproof. However, it serves its purpose when it comes to saving weight. One of the biggest factors in me reaching Durango (aside from my will) was my pack weight.

Holla! Me on top of Mount Elbert 14,440 ft with my baby pack. People would say, “That’s smaller than my day pack” or ask, “Are you day hiking or backpacking?”

Every year in my fire refresher course, we watch this shelter deployment video of how ‘you can move up to 30% faster without a pack’. It’s common sense. By reducing my base weight, I have found that I was able to complete multiple back-to-back days of hiking 20-30 miles per day and my biggest was 33.2 in the San Juans. For the FKTers out there, I know that’s chunk change miles. For me, I was very proud of myself. The Colorado Trail made me an official ounce counter and ultralight (UL) backpacker, with some exceptions…

Trying to take pictures by yourself is sometimes challenging. I use two rubber bands and attach my phone to one of my trekking poles that I stick in the ground or use rocks to support. I believe that’s Lake Ann down there.

Tahoe Rim Trail

Last year’s thru of the Tahoe Rim Trail I made some slight adjustments to my gear list. I learned that I needed better rain gear. That’s something that I was not prepared for in Colorado and I never wanted to be that cold, wet, and miserable ever again. I increased my base to 11.05 pounds which included a bear can and swapped my Montbell Versalite for the Black Diamond Stormline Stretch.

I do love a good layout.

My rain jacket might be my favorite piece of gear. It’s all about layering. Sometimes I wear it at night or first thing in the early morning when it’s brisk, but not cold enough for my puffy. It also serves as good protection against Satan’s flying minion’s when trying to eat a meal.

Embracing the suck. I was glad I swapped my rain jacket just before my trip.

Sierra High Route

I won’t be saying goodbye to the Montbell Versalite, as I’ll most likely take it for the Sierra High Route later this summer. I have also added some Body Wrappers dance pants for those chilly mornings and the occasional rain. You know you’re UL if you have the dance pants! I have a good idea of what I’ll be taking and my base weight is coming in at sub 12-pounds including a bear can. You can check out what gear I use by clicking the Gear List tab on my author page.

I’m toying with taking a new pack by Atom Packs-The Atom RE40, but I sure do love my Mountainsmith-Zerk 40. The Zerk 40 is the most comfortable pack I have ever worn. The running style straps distribute the weight differently and I don’t get sores on my back like the one’s I got with the Waymark Gear Co.-Mile 30 (I have the older version). I really wanted to like that pack, but it didn’t work for me.

Atom Packs-The Atom RE40. Excited to test this baby on some shakedown hikes. More to come on that in some later posts.

Lightweight or Ultralight?

It goes to say that you do not need to be “ultralight” (10 lbs or less base weight) to have a successful thru, but it is going to be more enjoyable when you’re not rucking with a heavy pack. I can definitely feel the difference between 22-pounds and 9-pounds.

This strap is for chips.

Nowadays, I am right on the cusp of ultralight and lightweight. It depends on where I’m going and if I need a bear can, so it fluctuates. My base is usually 10-12 pounds and total pack weight is right around 26 pounds when I hit the trail.

The Zpacks-Arc Zip Ultra 62L Backpack. Very comfortable but it’s waaay too much pack for me. Pack weighed in at 39.22 pounds when hitting the trail.

If you’re newer to backpacking, then start with what you have and swap out gear or upgrade as you can. Don’t let that number or labels such as “ultraheavy”, “lightweight”, or “ultralight” hang you up too much or lose sleep over it. Maybe you’re fine with carrying an extra 2 pounds or those camp shoes are worth it. If you’re going for an FKT, can’t carry more than 20 pounds for medical reasons, or you just want to go UL, there’s some great posts out there on how to lighten your pack. I found that Jupiter Hikes has some of the best UL knowledge around. For most of us, just having a successful hike is the goal. Get out and make it happen with whatever gear you have, find what works for you and go have fun!


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Comments 2

  • Dana : May 22nd

    Fantastic article! Loving this move to widen the gap between ultralight and ultra comfort. Setting off on the LT next week right about 22 lb. Happy trails this season!

    • Kellie Dobrescu : May 22nd

      Hey thanks so much, Dana! 22 pounds sounds perfect! Oh my gosh how exciting is that! I was planning on hiking the LT last year but had to switch plans last minute. I am looking forward to your trail updates. Have a great time and get it!!


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