Savings You Can Feel: Tina Currin's Top Tips For Getting Ultralighter on the Cheap
Words and Photos by Tina Currin
If ultralight backpacking has a reputation for anything, it's tiny gear at a hefty price. Dive into any heady discussion with ultralight enthusiasts and you'll eventually find someone running calculations of cost per ounce; that is, how much they're willing to spend to reduce their load by negligible amounts. And they're not necessarily wrong. After all, as the saying goes: "grams become ounces, and ounces become pounds."
But the process of going "UL" can be an intimidating, if not limiting, factor for folks who are just beginning to build a lightweight kit. You don't have to stuff your absurdly light quilt with leaves to survive a cold night, drop $1,000 on a new cell phone to shave a few grams, or subsist entirely on cold oats (all things I've seen) if you don't want to. That's why I've made a list of easy, inexpensive, and trail-tested ways to cut your base weight.
To refresh: base weight is the total weight of your gear, excluding consumables and worn wear. If it goes on your body (daily hiking clothes) or in your body (food, water, toothpaste) it's excluded from this specific calculation; however, weight is still weight, so most backpackers consider the implications of everything they carry, including clothes, food, and water, too.
With this in mind, backpackers can generally be sorted into a few different styles:
Conventional backpackers often carry loads of 25 pounds or more.
Typically defined by a base weight under 20 pounds.
Typically defined by a base weight under 10 pounds.
SUPER ULTRALIGHT (SUL):
SUL backpackers carry a scant 5 pounds or less.
This list is intended to help backpackers move from a traditional or lightweight setup towards a more UL base weight. Already there? Drop us a line with your favorite tips and tricks.
CONSIDER THE BUFF, THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF CLOTHING | 1.4 oz. / $24
One Buff— yeah, that thing you always see on Survivor—can replace a bunch of other fiddly items you're probably carrying, including a dedicated (and single-function) beanie. This basic tube of synthetic fabric serves not only as a winter hat, but also as a makeshift mask in town, a pot holder for moving hot food, a soft pillowcase wrapped around an inflatable pillow or a puffy jacket, a balaclava when it's cold and a sweat catcher when it's hot, a tent rag for condensation, an ear- and eye-mask in noisy hostels, a towel for those times when you stumble across an unexpected swimming or shower opportunity, etc.
LIGHTEN YOUR LIGHT | 1 oz. / $36.95
Coming in at less than an ounce, we like the Nitecore NU25 headlamp around here. But if you've already got a headlamp that you like, you can still drop an ounce or two by swapping out the unnecessarily bulky headband for a piece of shock cord, braided elastic, a sport-style headband, or even (gasp!) clipping it onto your Buff.
CUT IT OUT - SAVE SEVERAL FREE OUNCES
Lean into the ultralight stereotype by removing your gear's extraneous cords, tags, and straps. Items like tents, packs, and bags often come loaded up with all kinds of accessories that you might need for different conditions that you might face. That doesn't mean that you should carry them all. Think for a moment about what you use, and then get rid of what you don't. Never use an ice axe? Lose the loop. Don't need compression straps or daisy chains? Bye. Already know how to wash your shirts and underwear? Cut the care tags. Don't ever cinch a particular material? Take off the toggles. Never use a hydration bladder? Later, interior mesh. You'll be surprised by how many ounces you can shave just by removing these dangling extras.
SWAP SLEEPING SOCKS FOR SLIPPERS | Save 1.5 oz. / $60 to $70
We're not going super-ultralight here, so I still recommend carrying a dedicated something to put your feet in at night. A pair of camp socks will help to keep your sleeping bag tidy while also serving as a critical piece of warm, dry gear to protect and insulate your weary feet, which were probably exposed to dirt, sweat, and grime all day long. A ubiquitous pair of Darn Tough socks clocks in at 3.5 ounces and doesn't compress at all. For something that's lighter, warmer, more packable, and more comfortable, consider upgrading to a pair of down or synthetic booties. With proper care, they should last a lifetime, too.
DITCH THE NALGENE | Save 3.5 oz. / $2
The Nalgene is a car-camping classic for good reason. But there are cheaper, lighter, and all-around better bottles for backpacking. A Nalgene weighs a whopping 4 ounces (!) and isn't compatible with the most common filtration device, the Sawyer Squeeze. Tucked inside the pack of most every thru-hiker is at least one 1L Smartwater bottle, which weighs next to nothing, mates perfectly with the Sawyer, and can be replaced at most gas stations with spare change, if necessary.
DROP THE CROCS | Save 8 oz. / $5
See above, and then consider something like a cheap EVA foam flip-flop (3.5 oz), Xero DIY sandals (5.4 oz), or even these super fancy socks (5.3 oz). The more comfortable you get outside, the less you may rely on a camp shoe. Until then, drop the Crocs.
LIGHTEN YOUR FOOTWEAR + ADD GAITERS | Footwear Varies; Gaiters 1 oz. / ~$15
Head onto any popular long trail these days, and you'll see one thing on hikers of all stripes: trail running shoes. The reason? They're lighter, more breathable, dry more quickly, and are often more comfortable than their bulky leather counterparts. If you've ever logged distance on a fitness tracker, you know that big-mile days can equate to 50,000 steps or more. That's why the saying "a pound on your feet equals five on your back" is especially apt here. Trail runners typically weigh 10 to 16 ounces. Compare that to 3 pounds or more for a leather hiking boot, and it's an easy way to get a lot of UL bang for your buck.
If you're blister-prone or have trouble keeping debris out of your trail runners, consider adding a pair of lightweight gaiters to your lineup. These one-ounce beauties will help keep dirt and sand out of your shoes, the main culprit for the friction and abrasion that can lead to blisters. One ounce of prevention could save you several more by limiting the amount of Leukotape, Moleskin, and sundry other first aid items needed to baby blistered feet.
STUFF YOUR PILLOW | 1 - 3 oz. / $35 - $50
Like shoes, pillows are incredibly personal things, and there are a million different opinions about carrying one (or not carrying one) on a backpacking trip. At 1.7 ounces, my husband has nothing but good things to say about this Hyperlite stuff sack pillow, which has a soft fleece exterior and a zippered pocket for storing clothes and belongings. I am partial to this down pillow, which operates much the same way, but uses ultra-plush, ultra-compressible down as padding on top of your clothes, which are stored in the back pocket. In our lineups, both get UL points for serving more than one purpose (stuff sack + pillow).
DON’T PACK IT OUT | Bidet: 0.4 oz. / $9.99 | Cup: 0.5 oz. / $35
While toilet paper doesn't weigh much, packing out bathroom supplies can be a bulky and burdensome (though totally necessary) process. Eliminate the need to haul any dirty items at all by switching to a backcountry bidet, like the Culo Clean. It's tiny, durable, ecological, hygienic, likely compatible with the water bottle you're already carrying, and you won't have to steal toilet paper from the local gas station—or offload your used paper in their garbage bin.
For backpackers who menstruate, the same concept applies to a menstrual cup, which eliminates the need to carry multiple disposables, generates no waste, and is often considered much more comfortable during exercise (and in daily life, too.)
ONLY CARRY WHAT YOU NEED
This rule applies to everything always, but this particular reminder speaks to food and water. Focus on choosing nutritious food with caloric density. 100 to 150 calories per ounce is a good rule of thumb. Olive oil, nuts, dried fruit, salami, Nutella, cheese, and peanut butter are your new best friends.
Water might end up being the heaviest thing that you routinely carry (2 pounds for each liter!), and on a trail like the Appalachian Trail, it's so plentiful, too. Check your app or map and get used to taking the minimum amount necessary to safely get to the next source. Don't be dumb about it—always carry enough for an emergency—but hiking out of camp with two full liters when the next stream is two miles away probably isn't the best idea.
By making thoughtful decisions, you can lighten your load without sacrificing comfort or quality—and you don't have to break the bank to do it.
Tina Haver Currin is writer, activist, and outdoors enthusiast based in North Carolina. From 2016 - 2018, she lived in a Sprinter with her husband, two cats, and a dog, climbing as many mountains, running as many trails, and seeing as many National Parks as humanely possible. Whether climbing in the Rockies, bushwhacking through Arctic backcountry, hiking deep within the Grand Canyon — or, most recently, thru-hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails— she discovered the variety of experiences one can have in our wild spaces and the joy of sharing what she has learned with others. Tina currently spends her time writing, hiking, eating, and planning her next trip.