Ultralight Backpacking 103: The Skill Set

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.

How is Ultralight Gear Different than Traditional Backpacking Gear?


Gossamer Gear The One | 19.5oz | Retail $399

It can be easy to find ultralight gear and backpacking intimidating. At times the UL gear looks like it belongs on a spaceship, and UL enthusiasts can delve into confusing webs of technical specifications.

In reality, a lot of gear available at outfitters is considerably lighter than the backpacking gear of yesteryear. Lightweight backpacking is, in many ways, a natural progression of backpacking design and technology.

While beginning backpackers may be tempted to start out with the gear they are most familiar with, starting with newer, lighter gear can save them a headache in the wallet later on.

All backpacking requires learning a set of skills. Ultralight backpacking incorporates many of the skills already needed for success such as how to pack a pack, how to choose a campsite, and how to pitch a tent. Using UL gear incorporates the same skills that every backpacker needs to know to be comfortable in the backcountry.

Skill Set


Planning trips sounds simple but is much more complex.

Planning the items you will take with you requires research into the length, weather conditions, and trail conditions of your trip. Planning mileage involves correctly anticipating physical fitness, hiking pace, terrain, and trail conditions. Planning campsites involves anticipating convenient water sources and understanding how geography and elevation effect temperature and weather. Planning food and nutrition correctly requires an understanding of caloric needs.

Solid planning not only makes trips more enjoyable, but is an essential safety measure.

Hikers vary with how much they plan for each trip- here is an example of an Excel gear spreadsheet with items, weight, and quantity.


Some backpackers like to keep things organized with excel spreadsheets. Others prefer backpacking checklists. There are many helpful trail, resupply, and even food guides to keep you organized as well – especially for long trails such as the Appalachian Trail.


Appalachian Trail Food Planner | Weight: 11.52 ounces | Retail: $18.95


Our Gear Guide examined what to pack inside a ultralight pack. Now let’s explore how to pack a ultralight pack.

A traditional framed pack keeps weight balanced and secure over your hips with the benefit of a frame. Frameless packs require the user to balance the load over the hips by packing their heaviest items close to their spine and in the middle of the pack.

Besides good weight distribution, there are many tips and tricks to packing a frameless pack.

Some utilize a sleeping pad as a frame inside of the pack, others use tent poles as a frame inside of the pack. In lieu of a pack cover, consider lining your pack with a trash compactor bag for UL waterproofing.


The frameless Granite Gear Virga 52L (Virga 2 Specs Weight: 19oz Retail: $139.95) loaded up for a long hike.

Why I use this method:

  • I like to pack my sleeping bag at the bottom, which positions my heaviest item (food) nicely in the center of the pack.
  • I use a sleeping pad as a “frame” against my back, and I utilize my extra, packed clothing to keep the food close to my spine.
  • My top layers consist of my shelter and “accessible clothing” and snacks. Accessible clothing refers to clothing I will utilize during the day such as my wind layers, rain layers, or fleece.
  • Additionally, I often keep extra food to replenish my hip belt stores in this top layer.

Although I tweak this system depending on the hike, this general layering allows for good weight distribution and easy access to most needed items.


Every wilderness adventure requires a different level of navigation. When deciding which navigational tools to bring along, consider the region, geographic area, and conditions into which you are heading.

Many people bring a map and compass on every trip. Maps are a valuable navigational tool, showing intersecting trails, water sources, and emergency exit points. A compass will never run out of battery or get bad reception. Maps are always a great resource to have, but if you do not know how to use a map and compass, they are a useless. There are books and courses available to work on this valuable skill

Map and and compass navigation requires practice and know-how. However, knowledge weighs nothing. By utilizing map and compass navigation you save the considerable expense and additional weight of a GPS unit.

On well marked and well traveled trails, it is not necessary to carry traditional navigational tools, opting instead for a guidebook. Remember to use your judgement. If the trail seems at all confusing, bring additional navigation tools.


You won’t see a whole lot of topographical maps or compasses on the Appalachian Trail. You will, however, see a whole lot of guidebooks, such as Awol’s A.T. Guide | 7.8oz | $15.95

First Aid

Lightweight backpacking wisdom denotes, “If you don’t use it – lose it!”

But what about first aid kits? Luckily, backpackers don’t sustain injuries every day, so first aid items will not be used regularly – right?

The secret to a safe, ultralight, and useful first aid kit  is a combination of multi-use items and the knowledge to know how to use it.

Too many backpackers haul along large, expensive first aid kits with bandages still pristine in their cellophane wrappers. Rather than purchase a one-size-fits-all first aid kit, truly consider each item in your first aid kit.


Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight .7 | Weight 10.4oz | Retail: $26.95

What is your length of trip, experience level of companions, availability of front-country medical care, known allergies, or medical conditions?

For example, my medical kit for guided backpacking trips with nine beginning hikers is quite different from my first aid kit for a solo trip.

There are multiple ideas for lightweight or “ultralight” backpacking first aid kits. These are good places to start – however, first aid kits are most effective, lightweight, and safe when personalized.


The second portion of my first aid kit is made up of multiple use items. Although these items have first aid capabilities, they have a different primary use. Therefore, their weight is counted elsewhere in my gear list.

Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder courses are available from a variety of outdoor and outdoor medical schools.

Campsite Selection

Photos of tents pitched majestically on open cliff faces or mountain tops make for pretty Instagram posts. But campsite selection can make the difference between a cold and windy night on top of an exposed cliff, or a warm and comfortable night protected by rocks and trees.

When choosing a campsite, it is to adhere to both safety principles and Leave No Trace principles. That means camping at established campsites whenever possible.  When choosing a non-established campsite, it is important to keep a few things in mind:

Choose a campsite with durable surface. Not only does this protect the fragile flora underneath the campsite but it also decreases the chance that your campsite will flood in the event of adverse weather. The campsite should also be at a slight elevation from surrounding topography. If adverse conditions arise you could find yourself in a pit of water instead of the nice flat campsite you’d imagined.

When using non-freestanding shelters, there are a few other important aspects to keep in mind. While some of these shelters offer complete weather protection, often the lightest options do not. When pitching tarps, utilize surrounding topography to retain optimal protection from the elements.


Tarp Camping using surrounding topography as a wind break

When using a three-sided tarp, determine which direction the wind is blowing from. That way the shelter can be pitched to either block the wind or to catch the wind to provide ventilation.

In adverse conditions, it is possible to utilize surrounding structures such as rocks to add a fourth side to shelters.

Leave No Trace

The most important skill any and every backpacker needs to learn is Leave No Trace. Leave No Trace is a set of seven principles that help guide people who recreate in the outdoors toward responsible and sustainable practices in the outdoors.

I’ve heard Leave No Trace described a couple ways – sometimes as  Take Only Picutres Leave Only Footprints (but please do not take selfies with Bison). Really, LNT means to leave the trail just as you found it, or even better than you found it.

There is nothing more indicative of a novice or disrespctful hiker as a fresh fire ring smoking with the remains of the cans and aluminum foil from the night before. Or a tent set up on top of the fragile alpine environment. Or a toilet paper flower blooming too close to a water source.

Leave No Trace is the indispensable backcountry skill.

Further Reading

Andrew Skurka: The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Pioneering long distance hiker Andrew Skurka breaks down gear and the skills needed to use it in this classic guide

Bob and Mike Burns: Wilderness Navigation: Small, simple, and well written, the book integrates helpful exercises with straightforward explanations and makes navigation skills easy to learn.

Justin Lichter: Ultralight Survival Kit : The best twelve dollars you’ll ever spend and 4 oz. you’ll ever carry. PCT winter thru hiker Trauma shares practical tips and tricks garnered over his many thousands of miles.

Mike Clelland: Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips and Tricks: Don’t be fooled by the one liners and illustrations – this book has some valuable ideas for reducing pack weight while remaining accessible and understandable

Ray Jardine: Trail Life: Ray Jardine’s Lightweight Backpacking : Updated version (2009) Ray Jardine’s classic Beyond Backpacking 

Tarp Photo Credit to Joseph

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 2

  • George Turner : Dec 27th

    Liked this series a lot!

  • TNdirtbag : Jan 8th

    LNT should = Leave a Negative Trace. Take out MORE (trash) than you brought in and leave the wilderness a better place than when you arrived. We can all aspire to poorly immitate the “pack it out” crew


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