Mastering Ultralight Backpacking: Tips for the Adventurous Minimalist

Published 2024-06-25

By: Andrea Cannon, MYSTERY RANCH Outdoor Ambassador

The very first time I went backpacking was basically a disaster – I understood very little about the importance of a good pack, careful planning, or anything related to being a minimalist in the outdoors. For that trip, we packed up what was essentially a duffel bag with backpack straps and hit the trail – honestly would not recommend it.

However, since making mistakes on that backpacking trip, I have learned so much about backpacking and wanted to share as much as I could about how to make it as fun as possible. One of the best ways to ensure an enjoyable backpacking trip is to focus on making your pack lighter. Going ultralight is an ongoing journey that becomes easier the more you do it. Today, we’re going to discuss some ultralight backpacking tips that I have learned since that first backpacking trip.

1. Think like a Minimalist:

Ultralight backpacking begins with a shift in mindset. This is not everything plus the kitchen sink on your back. You will be balancing a thin line between being underprepared and overpacking. Challenge yourself to think twice about every single item that you pack, opting for multi-purpose gear and leaving behind non-essential luxuries. After you have identified the necessary items, avoid throwing in a bunch of extras at the last-minute thinking “just in case”.

Remember, every ounce counts – in fact ultralight packers are known for the saying that “ounces lead to pounds”. This emphasizes that the small weight adds up. Think about bringing a battery-operated electric toothbrush compared to a travel sized toothbrush that doesn’t have a handle. Will the electric toothbrush itself tip you away from being an ultralight backpacker? Of course not. But by bringing the electric toothbrush and other items that weigh several more ounces than their lightweight alternatives, suddenly you have added a few extra pounds to your pack.

When you get back home after each backpacking trip, assess what items you used and, more importantly, what items you did not use so that with each trip you improve your ultralight skills. Keep notes for your next trip – you might not head out until next season, and you don’t want to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

2. Prioritize the “Big Three” and invest in Ultralight Gear

When aiming for a lighter load, focus on the “big three” items: shelter, sleep system, and backpack. These components typically contribute the most weight, so investing in ultralight versions of the “big three” can make a significant difference in the overall weight that you are carrying. It is important to note that changing out the “big three” items from standard gear to ultralight can be expensive, so it might make sense to do these one at a time.

    • Shelter: This includes your tent, tarp, hammock, or any other form of shelter you choose to carry. Ultralight shelters can weigh significantly less than regular camping tents, but this also comes at a hefty cost. Of note, ultralight tents also tend to be significantly smaller than backpacking tents so if you are sharing, be ready to sleep close to your tentmate.
    • Sleep System: Your sleep system consists of your sleeping bag or quilt, sleeping pad, and possibly a sleeping bag liner or bivy sack. Ultralight sleep systems prioritize warmth and comfort while minimizing weight. Quilts are quite popular among ultralight backpackers due to their lightweight design and efficient insulation. Evaluate the R-value of your sleeping pad to assess its insulation and compare this to its weight. A very lightweight pad with a low R-value probably won’t keep you warm when there is snow on the ground, but it might be the perfect pad in the middle of the summer.
    • Backpack: Your backpack is your vessel for carrying all your gear, so choosing the right pack is crucial. Ultralight backpacks are designed to be lightweight and minimalist while still providing adequate support and comfort. Look for packs made from durable yet lightweight materials, with streamlined designs and efficient load-carrying systems. Often these packs have less pockets and zippers to cut weight as well. A great example of a lightweight pack is the Radix pack by Mystery Ranch.

3. Optimize Your Clothing

Choose clothing wisely to minimize weight while maintaining versatility and comfort. Invest in lightweight, moisture-wicking fabrics that dry quickly and provide adequate protection from the elements. Bulky jackets take up space and weight in your pack. Layering is key for temperature regulation, so opt for garments that can be easily added or removed as needed. For extended trips, consider clothing items that can wash and dry easily while hanging from your pack to help you remain feeling fresh.

4. Streamline Your Food and Water

Your pack and its contents before adding food and water are considered your “base weight”. Many ultralight backpackers aim for a base weight of 20 pounds. Food and water are essential for sustenance on the trail, but they can also add considerable weight to your pack. Plan your meals carefully, opting for lightweight, calorie-dense options that require minimal cooking and packaging. You may want to pack dehydrated meals that only require boiling water to cook which will reduce your need for extra cookware.

Similarly, utilize lightweight water filtration systems and consider carrying only as much water as necessary between refills. Water is surprisingly heavy. However, if you are unsure of where you will find water while backpacking – this is not something to cut weight on and risk your safety.

5. Focus on Skills and Knowledge

Ultimately, the most valuable asset in ultralight backpacking is your skills and knowledge. Invest time in learning essential outdoor skills such as navigation, first aid, and Leave No Trace principles. This is especially important if you are a new hiker or backpacker. Test the items you are bringing with you before you set out. If an item is broken or the instructions are unclear and you are unable to use it on your trip, you will be bringing unnecessary weight with you in your pack. With proficiency and confidence, you can venture further with a lighter pack and truly immerse yourself in the wilderness experience.

6. Practice Leave No Trace Ethics

Leave No Trace is the golden rule of outdoor ethics, advocating for responsible recreation and environmental stewardship. Minimize your impact on the natural world by practicing Leave No Trace principles, such as packing out all waste, respecting wildlife and vegetation, and staying on designated trails. This is not only an important principle to consider when venturing into the ultralight world, it is also a good one to remember for any time spent out in the outdoors.

7. Listen to Your Body

Lastly, listen to your body and prioritize personal comfort and safety above all else. Pay attention to signs of fatigue, dehydration, and injury, and adjust your pace and itinerary accordingly. Remember, the goal of ultralight backpacking is to enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors, so don’t sacrifice your well-being in pursuit of a lighter pack.

Mastering ultralight backpacking is a perpetual journey. By adopting a minimalist mindset and investing in ultralight gear, you can begin to unlock new levels of freedom and adventure on the trail. So, pack light and embrace the boundless possibilities of the great outdoors!