Ultralight backpacking tips, straight from the trail to you. We tapped our local, national and international crew of collaborators for this collection of insights, tips, hacks and tricks that make going lighter—longer—easier. From Triple Crowning thru hikers to expert alpinists, ski mountaineers to packraft toting desert rats on fat bikes, they’re here to help you maximize your fun and mileage, ideally all at once.
Looking to lighten your load? Thinking of trading your tent for a tarp? Wondering where the line between “essential” and “excessive” actually lies? It’s always our goal to break ultralight backpacking down to its essence. It’s our hope that these tips help to cut out the background noise, so that anyone experiencing the outdoors with the help of our gear can focus on the task at hand. Simplicity can be complicated. While we may not have all of the answers ourselves, we have great faith that, with the swift current of expertise that runs through our community, together we can get where we need to go.
One of the biggest differences between mainstream brand backpacks and ultralight backpacks is the amount of bells and whistles. Removable brains, sleeping bag compartments, built in rain fly, and trekking pole carry straps might work for some people, but for a lot of backpackers, these features are over-designed and under-used, which in turn becomes unnecessary weight. Each extra zipper adds grams and another weak point for water to enter the pack, which is why a weather-resistant, roll-top style pack is the preferred design for a growing number of hikers. With only one entry point at the top, gear can be a little harder to organize but there are some tricks to make packing easier.
From deep in the Grand Canyon backcountry, ambassador Rich Rudow demonstrates his preferred way to mix up some ultralight margaritas while offering personal speculation into what ancient agave roasting in the region was really about.
No Matter Where You Are. Every Piece of Gear Matters.
A perfected ultralight set up results in more time to enjoy the experiences of your endeavor. Our Dyneema® Composite Fabrics (formerly Cuben Fiber) Stuff Sacks and Pods let you achieve that perfection with myriad ways to dial in, organize, protect, and even lighten the system that works best for you. Every piece of your kit is as important as the last. Pack discipline starts here.
Taking care of and storing our outdoor gear is an art we’re still trying to master. After all, outdoor gear is an investment, and for the sake of the environment (and your bank account), you want it to go the distance to avoid repeatedly replacing items. Here’s a break-down of a few of the essential things we consider before packing gear away for the season.
For me, not every trip needs to be epic, #sponsored, or Type 2 fun.
In fact, they rarely are.
Often just being there, outside, feeling small and exposed to the elements, with nothing more than the belongings on my back, is all I need to be filled with satisfaction. I’ve been lucky enough to spend months in the wilderness, both domestic and abroad, all months of the year, and now I’ve developed a strong infatuation for my backyard. Some of my favorite trips include nothing more than a Daybreak daypack filled with the essentials, a headlamp, and 12 hours. I wish I had weeks, months, years to wander, but the critical part is that I still wander.
Stripped Down Backpacking Stuff Sacks for Waterproof Redundancy & Organization
Most backpackers and thru hikers use stuff sacks, sometimes almost by default. A lot of gear comes with them—tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and even stuff like stoves. More often than not, what comes straight from the manufacturer is more of an after thought than anything else. Most backpacking stuff sacks are out of the technological orbit of the products they are made to contain. Cheap-o nylon, poorly constructed, outdated: they aren’t as light as they could be or as water resistant as they should be.
So I always recommend that people who are just getting started with ultralight stuff sacks begin by replacing the less-than-ideal standard stuff sacks they’re already carrying. It’s a great way to drop sometimes up to a pound of weight, just by switching materials from nylon to Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF, formerly Cuben Fiber). If you’ve already invested in a high tech product like an ultralight sleeping bag, quilt or pad, why not protect it from the elements and wear-and-tear with an equally high tech product that is lighter, waterproof and will also last longer than any other alternative?
When you’re first learning the ins-and-outs of how to pack light for backpacking, it’s important to understand that it’s a process. I still constantly refine the gear I take on trips, and learn something new every time I pack my pack. That’s because I aspire to adhere to what I think is one of the most important precepts of ultralight backpacking, one I learned from Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Roman Dial. His philosophy is not just to buy and carry lighter stuff, but rather to travel as simply as possible and use gear for multiple purposes (you can read more about how another of our ambassadors, Forrest McCarthy, applies Roman’s ethic in our previous post, “The Soul of Minimalist Backpacking“).
Generally, the more skill and experience you have, the less gear you need. Similarly, the more information you gather pre-trip, the better prepared you’ll be when you set out. Know where you going and what you’re doing, and you’ll be able to choose exactly the right gear for the conditions (and leave behind what you don’t need). For example, if I’m going for an overnight trip in the fall in New England and the weather is clear, there won’t likely be bugs. So I might not need to bring a shelter, or I might take something very minimalist like a Flat Tarp. It’s a versatile option that can be pitched in an amazing number of configurations, and can also serve multiple purposes. It’s also very, very light (10 oz.).
Over the past several years, we’ve been lucky enough to build a pretty substantial community around Hyperlite Mountain Gear as the business has grown. Making gear that people really connect with has translated to a lot of relationships and a lot of stories—a major side-benefit of doing what we do.
Bryan Carroll, a young guy with a serious bent for getting out and into it, was an early-adopter of our take on ultralight design. He bought a pack early on, and soon the pictures followed. He lives in an adventure-rich zone in the Cascades in Washington, but even people with incredible access out their backdoors don’t do as much as this guy in a given week.
At the same time, it’s been a pleasure to watch Bryan build a professional life for himself, sprouted from his passion for the outdoors. Somehow, in addition to basically living in the mountains, he’s also managed to rack up an assortment of degrees and certifications, plus seven years of experience in his field. At the end of some long hours off-trail and in school, he’s now a Physical Therapist with his own practice. He tailors his services toward holistic, full-body health, using his clinical skills to help active people mend existing injuries and prevent future ones with nutrition counseling and movement therapy. Continue Reading
The essence of going lighter in the woods is not so much about gear, as it is about the adoption of a simpler, less cluttered approach to one’s time backpacking. Insofar as this philosophy relates to shelters, tarp camping fits the bill both tangibly and intangibly.
In the following article I’ll examine the benefits of tarp camping, as well as share some tips and techniques to minimize the perceived negatives. I’ll end the piece with an overview of environments in which the hiker is better off leaving the tarp at home, and going with a tent.
I’d wager that with my 5-6 pounds of ultralight gear I’m more comfortable, sleep better, and eat as well or better than most campers carrying 20 to 30 pounds of conventional/heavier backpacking gear. How is that possible? I’ll get into it in more detail throughout this guide to ultralight backpack, but let’s get things started with the three biggest reasons:
Good camping skills: Good camping skills rule! They are far more important than the weight of my gear for keeping me safe, warm and dry. And I don’t mean fancy skills—just the basic, garden-variety skills that every backpacker probably knows how to do (or should know)—like putting on rainwear or a warm jacket when needed, selecting a good campsite, and doing a decent job of pitching a tarp or pyramid shelter, etc.
Light gear appropriate for the conditions: I pick the lightest fully-functional gear appropriate for the actual conditions I backpack in. E.g. my light down sleeping bag/quilt, down jacket, and 6-8 oz rain jacket work as well as conventional (heavy) gear at 3 times the weight. I take gear that is appropriate for actual conditions for the time of year and location I am backpacking. E.g. I don’t take a 4-pound, 4-season dome tent, a +20F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm May trip on the Appalachian Trail with expected lows in the 60s—you’d be surprised how many people do!
Nutritious high-calorie food: Intelligent selection of my food, gives me 3,000 nutritious and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pounds/day. This is the same number of calories provided by 2 pounds of average backpacking food. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and as much nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying almost twice the food weight.
Cam “Swami” Honan’s Tips for Hiking in the Rain (Cold, Sleet, Hail, Snow, Fog and Basically Anything Else Nature Can Throw At You)
Tasmania’s Arthur Range is arguably Australia’s most spectacular mountain chain. Unfortunately for hikers there’s a catch. It’s called the “weather.”
Backcountry trips in the Arthurs are a meteorological roll of the dice at any time of year. When it’s fine you’ll be treated to sublime views of jagged quartzite peaks, hanging valleys and glacier carved lakes. If a big storm front rumbles through, all you will likely see is horizontal rain, thick fog and the brim of your baseball cap pulled all the way down over your forehead.
When coupled with the fact that much of the hiking is done on open rocky ridges exposed to the full brunt of the Roaring Forties (i.e. gale-force westerly winds found in the Southern Hemisphere, generally between between 40° and 50° latitude), the Arthurs is not a place you want to be without good backcountry skills and the right equipment.
If faced with these sort of extreme conditions, a hiker’s #1 priority should always be safety. Preset itineraries and/or mileage objectives should run a very distant second.
In such circumstances, I try to focus on core temperature management and sound choices. In regards to the latter, I find it helpful to put myself in the role of “objective observer” rather than “subjective participant.” In other words, take emotion out of the decision making process. Admittedly, this is sometimes easier in theory than it is in practice, however, in my opinion it represents one of the most important, as well as most overlooked, wilderness skills that a hiker can develop. Click here to learn about Cam Honan’s tips.
Editor’s note: Hyperlite Mountain Gear also sells Dyneema® Repair Kits (formerly Cuben Fiber Repair Kits) which we recommend for patching a hole in a Hyperlite Mountain Gear backpack or tarp/shelter. By using the Dyneema® tape, you maintain the strength of the pack because you are using the same lightweight, ripstop and waterproof fabric as the pack itself. To properly use one of these kits to repair a pack or shelter, follow the same instructions as below, but don’t complete the third step. The powerful adhesive on the back of the tape means that the Seam Grip is not necessary, saving you a step and a sticky mess. If you can’t get your hands on a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Repair Kit, we recommend that you follow these directions on how to patch a backpack written by Chris Atwood.
Chris Atwood On How to Patch a Backpack Deep in the Backcountry
After 57 days in the Grand Canyon backcountry, my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 4400 still looks great. It saw the spectrum of conditions, literally every type of weather imaginable below the Canyon’s rim, yet never failed to protect my kit. It carried very well, proved elegantly functional with its minimalist design and came to Pearce Ferry in great structural condition.
However, the outback of Grand Canyon is tough on gear. Most routes, in addition to being choked with poking, clawing and slicing flora are themselves composed of carnivorous limestone, eager to nibble any exposed flesh or backpack side pocket that wanders into the kill zone. We sometimes willingly drag and scrape our packs along such routes, hauling precious drinking water from deep within slot canyons. With this type of abuse, a thru hiker is bound to get a few holes in her/his pack. Fortunately, repairs in the field can be easy if done right. Here’s how to patch a backpack. Read More
Matt Jenkins and Elyssa Shalla, backcountry rangers at Grand Canyon National Park, have been exploring the deserts of the southwest together since they met in 2008. The couple’s next adventure will combine many of the backcountry routes near their home on the Coconino Plateau into one, extended, mostly trail-less adventure. Their plan, a winter thru hike of the Grand Canyon from the Grand Wash Cliffs to Lees Ferry, will take place over the 2015-16 El Nino season.
As rangers, Matt and Elyssa constantly seek ways to share their passion and enthusiasm for traveling lightly and efficiently through wild places. In this article, the pair explore ideas that have made ultralight winter backpacking more fun and comfortable for them in the vast wilderness that is their backyard.
Sleep System Strategies for Ultralight Winter Backpacking
Wherever you’re headed, planning a trip during the winter requires couples and teams to re-evaluate every piece of gear in their standard ultralight set up. That means considering a given piece of equipment’s purpose in relation to efficiency and weight with extra scrutiny. Sometimes this results in more questions than answers for people who are new to winter backcountry travel: What are you bringing, should I bring one too and who gets to schlep this heavy thing around!?
In this post, we will briefly discuss some key tweaks we’ve made to one system of the “Big Three”– our winter sleep system. Our approach is the result of an evolution over time and many trips, and we hope you’ll find it useful as you head outside this winter. Read more…
Ambassador Samuel Martin talks ultralight photography in the backcountry.
Samuel Martin maintains he’s an adventurer first, photographer second. His stunning landscapes and surreal trail photos bring the wilderness to life and show his love for the outdoors. However, ultralight photography is not something that truly meshes with lightweight philosophy. Heavy camera bodies and lenses only serves one purpose, so ultralight photographers often find themselves facing the choice between sacrificing the quality of their photos or bringing along extra pounds. Martin has found a sweet balance between going ultralight and bringing backpacking photography gear, producing photos while still being efficient and mobile. We caught him between adventures and asked him a few questions.
Do you leave other things behind so that you can bring more photo gear?
I definitely make sacrifices so that I can carry my camera gear. For example, on my recent thru hike of the John Muir Trail I ditched a second short sleeve shirt, a pair of pants, a pair of gloves, and many small miscellaneous items to make room for my gear. Personal preference and needs play a large part in what I leave behind. On some trips I don’t need a lot of warm clothes, so those get ditched. Other times I don’t need warm food, so the stove gets left behind. It’s important to evaluate the needs of each particular trip and go from there. Read the rest of the article.
Editors Note: NOLS instructor Andrew Altepeter regularly contributes educational articles to our blog on how to teach ultralight backpacking skills. We got the chance to chat with him about his personal transition to lightweight, techniques to lighten your pack weight, some of his favorite equipment and the inspiration he continues to find as a instructor. Read Altepeter’s other articles here.
Andrew Altepeter fell in love with the outdoors at a young age after a transformational hike up to Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range. Pushed past his limits by his father, incredible views of the northwestern Wind River Range awed him. He was hooked. This passion stayed with him through four years at Whitman College, where he regularly participated in the school’s outdoor program. Next came work in the energy industry as a drill-site geologist, but still he managed to find time to adventure when not at work. However he soon moved on, taking an instructor course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). There, he started to learn about lightweight hiking. “By summer of 2010 I had worked a few courses, and I was hooked,” he says. And five years later he shows no signs of slowing down. He says the the chance to be an instructor has “provided an avenue to support transformational experiences for others” and helps him appreciate the importance of the wilderness. Plus it has given him the opportunity to hone his ultralight hiking skills and how he teaches these skills to others.
What do you appreciate most about your transition to ultralight backpacking? My first experience with maximizing efficiency of all systems involved with backcountry travel was in 2009 on the instructor course that I took at NOLS Southwest. The instructor team that facilitated the course emphasized lightweight hiking principles to help us think critically about everything we put in our packs and on our bodies. What I love about going light is the mindset of thinking systemically about the group and personal gear that you bring. This practice of being hyper-aware of your abilities, yourself, the group, the environment, and what you have with you to make it all happen is very satisfying and translates into rich experiences. Read the rest of the article here.
A National Outdoor Leadership School Instructor (NOLS) for five years, Andrew Altepeter has taught hiking, lightweight hiking, climbing, mountaineering, canyoneering and skiing courses. Always looking to optimize his adventures, he modifies everything from his backpacks to his cooking kit and toiletries. He also carries the lightest gear he can find. As a NOLS instructor, he has the opportunity to share his knowledge of ultralight hiking with his students. Here are a few Lightweight Backpacking Tips ideal for students or any aspiring thru hiker or backpacker:
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska is a special place. A large and diverse ecosystem of rivers and spruce forests exists on the south side of the Brooks Range, while glaciated peaks lie in the heart of the range, and the coastal plain expands to the north, with rivers draining into the Arctic Ocean.
On my first ski expedition to the high peaks of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in 2014, my eyes were constantly drawn north. In that direction, the glaciated peaks of the Brooks Range transition to the open coastal plain and the Arctic Ocean beyond. I knew I wanted to go there someday.
Just over a year later, I found myself walking across the Refuge’s coastal plain, en route from the south side of the Brooks Range to Beaufort Sea. My three partners and I were traveling by packraft and foot, linking four rivers over 12 days. Our goal was to explore a vast, pristine landscape, while minimizing our impact by following the 7 Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.
In this video, CEO Mike St. Pierre illustrates the A-Frame setup for Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s 8.5′ X 8.5′ Square Flat Tarp.
Step 1: Start with the ridgeline tie outs of your Square Flat Tarp. Place your trekking pole with the back of the rubber handle down on the ground. Utilizing your guyline, attach the tarp tothe pointy end of your trekking poles. Use a clove hitch knot.
Step 2: Stake out the ridgeline; use a trucker’s hitch knot to attach the guyline to the stakes, roots or rocks.
Step 3: Tighten the ridgeline guylines so the tarp stands on its own.
Step 4: Stake out all the corners. Start with the four corners and adjust until your tarp set up forms an A-frame that is uniform and taut.
As an Outdoor Education teacher at a school in Australia I often get asked by parents as to what is the best pack to buy for their teenage son or daughter. My response is typically exactly the opposite of what they want to hear.
There are those who want me to name a particular brand and exact model (usually the one with the most bells and whistles on it that looks really fancy and goes by a cool name of an impressive Himalayan mountain); and then there are those who want me to reassure them that buying a cheap pack is totally okay and justifiable. Instead I explain what not to buy, and I often discourage parents from buying anything–that is until they can be sure that they are spending their money wisely and that it is a pack that is going to be of significant benefit to their teenager.
Simple Is Best
Lightweight backpacking for teenagers isn’t about buying bells and whistles; it’s about keeping it simple. The more compartments, pockets, zips, straps and accessories the item has, the less I endorse it. All these “extras” complicate packing and waterproofing of gear and add up to more things that can go wrong and obviously also add up to unnecessary additional weight. Likewise, only carrying the essentials makes life on the track much less complicated. Teens love living simply. Sometimes they do need to be reminded of this and it takes a little time, but ultimately it is less stressful for them and reminds them of the truly important things in life.
Go Light, But Go Durable
My primary goal when teaching youth and leading them on two-week expeditions is to have them develop a passion for the natural world. The easiest way to put teenagers off enjoying the outdoors is to strap ridiculously heavy packs on their back and march them off into the distance. I have certainly made this mistake during my career, but it is something I try really hard to avoid these days. Having a very specific equipment list can really help here as it helps avoid the situation of well-intentioned parents and nervous students throwing all the superfluous “just in case” items in that are actually not necessary. Read the rest of the article here.
Stripped Down With Guest Blogger Annie MacWilliams. This is the last in Annie’s blog series of thru-hiking tips & tricks for women.
Bring Your Brain: Really, most backpacking and thru hiking gear is gender neutral–tents, sleeping pads, cook gear, etc. But with each other these items, it’s important that you choose the right gear for you. Your brain is the best piece of gear you can bring, so know everything about your gear before you head out. Learn how to pitch your tent in different ways, in the worst conditions you can practice in. Anyone can pitch a tent in their grassy lawn on a sunny day, but a rocky hillside in sideways freezing rain? I failed that test on the Pacific Crest Trail and ended up getting a new tent shipped to me while on the trail. I needed my gear to work in the worst conditions, and user failure resulted in a very cold and wet night. Can you patch a leaky air mattress? Fix a zipper? Tweak a broken stove? If not, learn how. Read the rest of Annie’s final post!