Introduction to Ultralight Backpacking

What is Ultralight?

In essence, Ultralight can be defined as the process of carrying less weight for your multi-day hiking or backpacking trip, while still remaining safe and reasonably comfortable. It is an ethos that requires planning and preparation and can yield fantastic results.

The below table gives an indication of the sorts of weights that apply to different backpacking weight classes. This is only a guide and does not take trip length and individual needs into account.

Weight Class Base Pack Weight
Traditional > 9.07kg
Lightweight < 9.07kg
Ultralight < 4.54kg

How do I measure weight for Ultralight?

Base Pack Weight (BPW)

This is the weight of everything you’re carrying inside, or attached to, your pack. It also includes the weight of the pack itself. BPW does not include any consumable weight you might carry, such as food and water. This weight measurement system allows you to compare your gear from trip to trip without the numbers being skewed by the duration or type of trip. This makes for more realistic weight saving objectives. A modification of the BPW is the Skin-Out Weight (SOW). SOW is the weight of everything you carry from your skin out. The idea of SOW is to help you avoid carrying items in your clothes (or even extra layers of clothes) to lighten your pack. In effect SOW is anti-cheat.

Consumable Weight (CW)

The CW measurement is an additional metric for all of the consumable weight that you’ll be carrying. This is separated from your BPW or SOW because it varies heavily from trip to trip and diminishes over the duration of your journey. It’s important to remember that the containers, such as water bottles, for your CW must be included in the BPW.

Total Pack Weight (TPW)

This is the weight of everything you’re carrying in your pack, the pack weight itself and anything attached to the pack at the start of your trip. TPW also includes the consumable weight in the total. TPW gives you an overall picture and allows you to consider the comfort of the weight you’re going to be carrying.

"When done the right way, Ultralight can be an amazing way to focus on your surroundings rather than the weight that you’re carrying. The journey will become the reward."

What first steps can I take to start packing Ultralight?

The Ultralight mentality is a long term process which should be built upon as you gain more experience in the outdoors. That being said, there are some great first steps you can take to begin your Ultralight journey or even just to work towards packing more efficiently.

Firstly, you need to weigh all of your gear. This isn’t just the gear you might use for your next trip; this means weighing all of the gear you use across all seasons and all types of trips. Record all of this data into a spreadsheet. You now have the basis for making weight based decisions in an easy to use format.

Make the ‘no brainer’ decisions early. Working towards an Ultralight mentality is a long term process but there are definitely decisions you can make with your kit right now. Take a look at the kit list you’ve just made and look for duplications and non-necessities. Some of the things you can look to cut straight away are excessive electronics, heavy containers (consider switching to a Hydration Reservoir rather than water bottles for example) and non-decanted consumables (food, soap etc. can be replaced into lighter packaging). You can also sort your spreadsheet by weight and work your way from lightest to heaviest questioning the importance of each item.

Planning is 50% of the work. You should consider every aspect of your trip, from start to finish, and consider how each aspect relates to your gear. By thinking about the trip length you can make sensible decisions on your CW for example. You could also cut down on your BPW by packing for the weather you’ll be expecting.

What beginner mistakes should I avoid?

A big assumption is that Ultralight has to mean expensive gear. While ultralight kit can massively help you drop packed weight, this doesn’t mean you should rush out and buy the latest in ultralight technology. Ultralight backpacking is a long term process that you can build upon by making changes on kit but also by making better decisions. If you do want to spend money on ultralight kit you should look at the big three first; your pack, your shelter and your sleeping bag.

If you buy an ultralight backpack and then over pack it, you’re going to have a bad time. Firstly, you will be uncomfortable. You need to ensure that the weight you’re carrying is supported by the construction of your pack. If you’re looking at a base weight of over 10kg then the Exos and women’s specific Eja are great superlight alternatives that still drop the grams but support your additional load. Secondly, having individual pieces of ultralight gear does not make you Ultralight. The grams you save on an ultralight pack will mean absolutely nothing if you’re carrying a 2kg sleeping bag. Work on reducing or replacing the obvious first, then move onto the more specialist kit.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers. First and foremost, your safety and your enjoyment comes first. If you’re not safe and you're not enjoying yourself then all of the ultralight work you’ve put in will become redundant. When done the right way, Ultralight can be an amazing way to focus on your surroundings rather than the weight that you’re carrying. The journey will become the reward.