The Ultra Lightweight Backpacking Philosophy

To hike the Colorado Trail within the time limit I have I needed to go lighter and faster than I have ever gone before. Well that isn’t entirely true. I have gone lighter and faster before, just not for this length of time. In fact, whether I was going heavy or going light, I have never gone on a backpacking trip this long.

The natural way of thinking would be to say that a long trip should equal a lot of gear, but the reverse is actually true. To travel a lot of miles you need to travel as light as you can. Many people would say that you need a lot of gear for all the different conditions you will face, and you will need a lot of food for all those days out in the wilderness. Well that isn’t true either.

No matter how long your hike is you always need to come back to civilization to resupply. This usually happens every 3-4 days and no more than a week. The more often you resupply the less you need to carry a ton of food.

For a very long time the whole backpacking industry was based off of what the military was doing. Taking long expeditions into foreign territory carrying all kinds of gear ranging from guns to radio equipment. And so the backpacking industry took a very similar “expedition” style approach. Gear was made heavy and durable to follow suit. What you ended up with was fully loaded 50-60 pound pack for a week long adventure.

Ultra Lightweight Backpackers (ULB’s) often talk about the Big 3. These are the heaviest items that you carry and they are your pack (carrying system), your sleeping system (sleeping bag, bivy, pad, etc.), and your shelter system (tent, tarp, hammock, etc.).

Notice that each is called a system. ULB’s have what is called a systems approach to backpacking. Everything must work together as a system. The most important system is your sleeping system. A well thought out sleeping system can count as a shelter system as well (ex. hammock with tarp, or sleeping bag with a bivy).

When I first started backpacking my Big 3 added up to about 22 pounds. I had a 7 pound expedition style pack, a 9 pound shelter system that included a heavy tent, and a 6 pound sleeping system. I now have a 3 pound pack, a 2 pound shelter system, and a 4 pound sleeping system giving me a total weight of 9 pounds. Big difference right?

I also learned some other ways to cut weight…

I had an eating system (stove, mess kit, etc.) that weighed over 3 pounds. I even had a fork, spoon, knife set that was made of stainless steel. I certainly wasn’t thinking about reducing weight at all when I first started. Some people are so minimalist that they don’t even take a stove or anything. They only eat foods that don’t need any cooking, or rely on fire when they can make one. Some take an alcohol stove which is really light. I prefer to stick with a canister stove, a titanium pot, and a cheap plastic spoon that weighs over a pound when the canister is full of fuel, and will weigh less than a pound as it empties.

I have heard that a lot of ultralight backpackers don’t filter or treat their drinking water at all. They simply choose their water sources wisely. Some are lucky, and some aren’t. Many people take either iodine or chlorine dioxide tablets. These are really great to use, but I haven’t decided yet if I want to take tablets or my trusty Katadyn water filter that weighs a pound.

Shoes are another big choice to think about. I made the graduation from hiking boots to running shoes a few years ago just out of experience. Trail runners work great, are much lighter, and much more breathable than hiking boots. The only advantage hiking boots have over trail runners is that they last a lot longer. All shoes will only last a certain number of miles though. 500+ for trail runners. 1000+ for hiking boots.

Tents are just plain heavy. Tarp Tents are a great move in the right direction. Remove some of the heavy poles, heavy wall material, make the roof tarp like, make the walls mesh, and the floor minimal and you have a nice light tarp tent. Well designed ones are expensive though so I bought a simple 8×10 urethane nylon tarp. Silnylon (silicone impregnated nylon) weighs about half what the urethane nylon does, but it also costs twice as much.

Which brings us to the real problem with always striving for ultra lightweight solutions. Currently the hottest lightweight material out their is cuben fibre. This is literally lighter than anything else on the market and is just as durable. The problem is that is costs anything from double to triple what similar gear would cost made out of other fabrics like silnylon.

So you can almost always go lighter than what you have, but it starts costing a lot to do so. My simple and cost effective solutions have been to buy a pack for $79 that weighs 3 pounds (GoLite Quest), buy a lighter 3 pound sleeping bag (Featherlite 20 degree) that cost $40, and buy a $45 8×10 tarp system (Etowah) that weighs 24 oz (about 1.5 pounds).

For comparison, if I wanted to spend the money I would buy the Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus pack for $170 that weighs just under 1.5 pounds.

A lot of ultralight backpackers use quilts in place of sleeping bags. A quilt is basically a sleeping bag that still has a footbox but it has no zipper or hood that a lot of sleeping bags have. Instead you would use some type of hat or headcover when sleeping in colder weather. I would buy the GoLite 3 season quilt for $229 which weighs about 1.5 pounds, try to find a similar quilt on sale, or make my own. A common acronym in ultralight backpacking is BYOG (Build Your Own Gear).

Finally I would either buy a silnylon (around $100) or cuben fibre (about $200) tarp (8-13 oz) or splurge on the TarpTent Double Rainbow for $275 which weighs about 2.5 pounds.

So my new gear cost $165 versus the $675 I could potentially spend.

As of right now my gear choices aren’t solidified because I still plan on testing a few things out on weekend backpacking trips, but they are pretty darn close.

The only other piece/s of gear I haven’t discussed is the clothes I will be wearing. And they of course deserve their own article…

This is part of the “Thru Hiking the Colorado Trail” Series…