Ultralight Backpacking 102: The Gear Guide

The following series on ultralight backpacking is brought to you by Gossamer Gear, a leading UL gear manufacturer since 1998. Gossamer Gear is a small, passionate company whose mission is to improve your experience with backpacking with the best ultralight products.

If you missed the first installation in this three part series: Intro to Ultralight here’s a quick fix to get you up to speed. In the first part we talked about how to get into the mindset of a lightweight backpacker. In this installment, we’ll demystify core lightweight gear that is often found in the packs and on the backs of lightweight backpackers.


My Trail Co Backpack Light 50L Weight 33.5oz Retail $149


Think Big; Shop Small


When budding hikers start their backpacking journey, they often want to invest in familiar brands and shop at familiar places. In these big stores there are plenty of items with flashy words like “lightweight,” “ultralight,” and “superlight” plastered across their packages.

The average hiker can achieve an ultralight pack at these big-box outdoors stores by simply choosing the lighter end of the spectrum of “traditional” style packs.

But stepping out of the florescent lights of these large stores, there are many more ultralight options that have been developed for hikers, by hikers.

These smaller (but increasingly popular) lightweight and ultralight backpacking brands are often similarly priced or even more economically priced due to the simplicity of design and materials. If you spend any time on the epic long trails of the United States you will see the small but simple packs of these manufacturers bobbing from the backs of determined thru-hikers blazing their way up the trail.

According to our 2016 research of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, these smaller gear manufacturers were well represented on trail. So be adventurous – go beyond your local gear shop or big chain backpacking store and do some research. Compare weights and prices – you might be surprised at what you find.

Big Three

You can spend a fortune on odds and ends, but your biggest make-or-break items in terms of price and weight come down to three items – colloquially known as the Big Three.

Traditional backpacking wisdom denotes each of these items–the items that can weigh the most in a hiker’s packs–should each weigh under three pounds. Even if each of these items weighs three pounds that is almost ten pounds already – leaving little room for necessities such as clothing, food, stove, fuel, etc.

Backpackers looking to transition from traditional to lightweight or ultralight backpacking can often shed the most weight from their gear list by carefully considering their Big Three, which is a hiker’s sleep system, shelter, and pack. 

Sleep System

A traditional sleep system includes a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Maybe you’ve noticed your boxy synthetic bag takes up half  the volume in your pack. Maybe you want more comfort than a simple foam pad at night. Or maybe you’re lugging around a 2.5 pound air mattress.

Sleeping bags

Ultralight options for Sleeping Bags include different fill materials such as synthetic and goose or duck down. There are many articles to help decide on the correct sleeping bag for your needs.  But the big differences are: down filled bags are more compressible than synthetic materials. However, synthetics do a better job of insulating when wet.


For those looking to really pare down their sleep system, sleeping quilts are a popular choice among ultralight hikers.

Quilts work are much like your down comforter at home –  insulating the sleeper from above while a mattress insulates the sleeper from below. Backpacking quilts are used with a sleeping pad, thereby eliminating excess insulation, fabric, and weight from compressed insulation beneath the sleeper. Although quilts can be opened up and lay flat, many quilts also have a shaped footbox, providing insulation for often chilly toes.

A few good sleeping bag + quilt options:

Sleeping pads

Choosing between sleeping pads can seem intimidating at first. There are many types, sizes, and materials from inflatable to foam. Consider your needs: are you three season camping, out for a few nights or a few months, how tall are you? Simple, lightweight, and inexpensive foam pads are a staple of ultralight backpackers. However, there are a myriad of inflatable pads that are lighter than foam pads, although they are more expensive.


A few good sleeping pad options:


The ultimate camping image is of a tent placed somewhere high, preferably with a blazing sunrise/sunset slowly fading behind the tent.

In reality, a tent is only one of a variety of options for backcountry shelters. And open, exposed camping spots aren’t always the best choice for a good night sleep.

Shelter weight includes the combined weight of the shelter system. This could include the groundcloth, tarp, hammock, tent, stakes, guylines, and poles. If you choose an alternate to a freestanding tent, you can save a good amount of weight by losing the tent poles.


Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2 Person Weight: 16.04 Ounces Retail: $695 | Gossamer Gear Polycro Groundcloth Weight: 1.6 ounces Retail: $9.95 for Pack of 2 | Gossamer Gear Tite-Lite UL Stakes Weight: .2 – .52 ounces Retail: $2.50 – $4.75 each | Z-Packs 1.3mm Z-Line Slick Cord Weight: .03 ounces per yard Retail: $6.95/50 feet

Free Standing Shelters

Freestanding shelters are traditional tents. They are completely enclosed shelters with a bathtub floor that protects campers from the elements of wind and rain. Most often they include  double-walled construction (made up of a tent and rainfly) supported by a system of rigid poles. These shelters can be popped up and placed anywhere. The advantages of a freestanding shelter is that they are easy to set up, stabilized by the poles, and they achieve a taut pitch every time. Because these shelters are completely weatherproof, they offer excellent protection from the elements.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 1 Weight: 40 ounces Retail: $379.95

A few good freestanding shelter options:


On distance trails, especially along the east coast where myriad trees invite campers to hang above the wet ground, hammocks are growing in popularity. Hikers looking to hammock camp will need much more than just a hammock and some straps for three season conditions and beyond.

Three-season hammocking requires not only a hammock, but some sort of tarp or cover to keep the camper dry, and in some geographies and seasons, bug netting to protect the camper from biting bugs. When it gets cold, underquilts or a sleeping pad are necessary to prevent drafts from beneath the hammock.


A couple good hammock options:

  1. Hammock Gear Incubator 0 Weight: 26.4 ounces; MSRP: $279
  2. ZPacks Standard Hammock Tarp Weight: 7 ounces; MSRP: $249

Non-Freestanding Shelters

There are many options for backcountry shelters beyond the often touted tent, hammock, or a tarp system.

The most identifiable non-freestanding shelter is the tarp. Tarps come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and cuts. What they have in common is that they are non-free standing shelters. They are held in place with a system of rigid poles, trekking poles, sticks, and guylines for support. Because tarps are non-free standing, they take a little more skill to setup, making guyline adjustments to achieve a taut pitch. Tarps are not completely weatherproof because they are not fully enclosed. Because they are not fully enclosed, they take more skill to pitch, including adjustments for wind and weather. However, tarps are arguably the lightest and most versatile shelters for backcountry use.



Some good tarp options:

Often a tarp will be used with a bivy, or bivouac sack, to provide a more coverage from bugs and from the elements.

Borah Gear Ultralight Bivy Weight: 6.5 ounces Retail: $79.99 | Mountain Laurel Designs eVent Soul Bivy Weight: 13.5oz Retail: $345 | Katabatic Gear Bristlecone Bivy Weight: 7oz Retail: $155

Some good bivy options:

Don’t ignore the variety of shelters that fit into multiple categories. There are many non-freestanding tents in every style you can imagine, some which utilize some sort of poles and many that do not. This compromise between tarps and tents often includes the weight-saving benefit of a tarp while allowing for the comfort of a tent.


Some good non-freestanding shelter options:


Pack weight refers to the weight of the empty pack.

There are several different types of packs: external frame, internal frame, and frameless.

In general, the frame of the pack helps balance the load and prevent the weight from flopping away from your back, which in turn pulls on your shoulders.

Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40L Weight: 33.6oz (M) Retail: $245

Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40L Weight: 33.6oz (M) Retail: $245


External Frame Packs are most often represented (notable exceptions include the ZPacks Arc Blast) by the old-school packs that Cheryl Strayed rocked in “Wild”. Their frames are visible on the outside of the pack.

Model: Kelty Trekker 65 Weight: 85 Ounces Retail: 179.95

Example of a popular external frame pack:

Internal frame packs are what we most commonly see out on the trail. Internal frame packs are a general category, and there are many different subcategories. These range from heavier, fully framed packs to lightweight aluminum stays that greatly reduce the weight of the pack. What they all include is some sort of suspension system to help keep weight balanced over the hips and close to the spine.


Some good internal frame packs:

Frameless packs do not include a frame. The frame is often replaced by a rigid foam pad such as a sit pad or a foam sleeping pad. These packs are often the lightest weight because of their lack of rigid frames, thus what the majority of the UL community uses. However, they do require some skill to pack, ensuring the weight is closest to the body so that the pack does not flop backwards.

Model: Gossamer Gear Kumo 36L Weight: 21.65 Ounces Retail: 155.49

Core Gear Directory

Thinking of investing in, or replacing your Big Three? Here is a short list of small manufacturers that produce the most popular core UL gear on trail.


Appalachian Ultralight: Affordable and innovative ultralight gear made in Pennsylvania

Equinox LTD: Ultralight Gear Manufacturer best known for their unique lightweight packs

Gossamer Gear: Popular lightweight packs, shelters, and accessories

Granite Gear: Best known for their tough-as-nails frameless packs and accessories

Mountain Laurel Designs: Ultra lightweight gear manufacturer known for their packs and ultra lightweight shelters

My Trail Company: Resurrection of popular lightweight gear manufacturer GoLite

Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA): Best known for their ultralight and ultra durable packs

Sleep Systems

Enlightened Equipment: Made to order and off the shelf speciality down and synthetic quilts

Feathered Friends: Legendary down sleeping bags, quilts, and assorted down wearables

Jacks ‘R’ Better: Innovative cottage manufacturers of ultra lightweight multi use gear

Katabatic Gear: Manufacturer of lightweight quilts and sleeping bags, based out of Colorado.

Nunatak Equipment: Manufacturers of lightweight quilts, sleeping bags, and down garments

Western Mountaineering: Prolific manufacturer of down sleeping bags, quilts, and garments


Gossamer Gear: Popular lightweight packs, shelters, and accessories

Hammock Gear: Hammock Tarps, Top and Underquilt, and Lightweight Hammock Accessories

Hyperlite Mountain Gear: Cuben Fiber and Cuben Fiber Hybrid Shelters and Packs

Lightheart Gear: Best known for lightweight Made in the USA trekking pole supported tents

Ray Way Products: DIY Kits for everything from shelters to quilts from the father of UL backpacking

Six Moons Designs: Affordable and innovative packs, shelters, tarps and lightweight gear accessories

Tarptent: Legendary innovative lightweight single wall shelters

Yama Mountain Gear: Quality lightweight non-freestanding shelters and DIY kits

ZPacks: Popular Ultra lightweight Gear Manufacturer known for their use of Cuben Fiber. Popular Shelters, Packs, and Quilts.

gossamer-gear-logoThis UL series is brought to you by Gossamer Gear, a leading manufacturer of UL packs, shelters, sleeping pads, and more.  You can keep up with their latest products, ambassadors, and deals by following Gossamer Gear on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Comments 3

  • John Eden : Dec 22nd

    Great articles and beautiful gear thank you. I have a couple of tips that work for me and maybe of interest to others. Firstly it’s not vital to cook. I have gone several days with nothing more glamorous than water, a salami and lump of bread. I also ditched my traditional pack for a vest style pack ultra runners use. This puts the water at the front for better balance and it’s easy to sew on some elastic ties to the outside for carrying the bulkier items. In my case this means carrying the tarp across the shoulders, sleeping mat and bag at the sides. If it’s going to rain they can each have a waterproof bag around them. A base weight of 3 kilos can be achieved for camping here in Australia for 3 seasons, night temperatures down to 5 degrees C. As the weight is so low you cover greater distances, typically 30 to 50 km’s a day which means you come across water and food supplies more frequently and don’t need to carry so much of those either. The biggest problem with this setup is I am now so used to the light weight I wouldn’t go back to even a 10 kilo setup which limits me to shorter trips.

  • Brian : Jan 5th

    If I would have read this before I started getting into backpacking lighter I would have saved hundreds of dollars and tens-of-hours of time do this same research myself. Nicely done article and rather thorough for its brevity.


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