Pack Like a Pro: Ultralight Backpacking with Scott Robertson
Pack Like a Pro: Ultralight Backpacking with Scott Robertson

Pack Like a Pro: Ultralight Backpacking with Scott Robertson

Written by: Scott Robertson

First, let’s get a few things straight. This post is about ultralight backpacking, but at the end of the day, if you wear a pack and sleep in the dirt, you are backpacking. Some like it heavy, some like it light. The key is to find a system or style that enhances your experience. It’s a lot more fun that way.

I started going light in the backcountry about 15 years ago, not quite Ray Jardine status but I’ve learned a few things along the way. At the time I was also getting into ultrarunning, and it seemed logical to blend the two. If I carried less, I could go further, see more. Also, I’m a dork. I like my gear list spreadsheets, creative product designs, and most of all, problem-solving. I carried the UL ethos into the three seasons I spent as a wilderness and off-highway vehicle ranger in Central Washington as well. Now, working at Osprey, I had the opportunity to watch the creation of the Levity/Lumina Series and see it come to life.

Going light does not need to include suffering, but if you don’t do it right, it very well might. During my journey, I’ve gone too light, spent cold nights out that weren’t dangerous, but weren’t fun either. Lightweight backpacking challenges the user with creative problem solving instead of sheer effort.

Potential Benefits of Going Light:

  • Less wear-and-tear on your joints, muscles, and tendons = less chance for injury
  • Less caloric expenditure means you don’t have to carry as much food
  • Maybe you backpacked in your early years, but it’s been a long time and you’d like to get back outside; going light makes it easier no matter how many miles you’re hiking

What is your pack of choice?

What’s the perfect pack? There isn’t one, just the perfect pack for you, and that’s something you have to figure out over time, by yourself.

I used to carry a frameless pack and removed the foam padding to boot. I’d tell people it was great, just as great as their cushy backpacks from bigger brands. I also used to carry a ¾ length sleeping pad… To be clear this is just my experience and if you like to pack your gear inside a Thermarest inside a frameless pack that’s awesome. But when I started working at Osprey, I picked up an Exos 38 and headed into the desert with debilitating food poisoning and an urge to explore that I couldn’t ignore. Once fully loaded, I shouldered my new friend and exclaimed a few profane words, astonished at the comfort I’d missed out on for 10 years. The Exos (and now women’s-specific Eja) are perfect if your base weight clocks in around 15 lbs and your total weight is below 40, but the new Levity/Lumina is a special beast.

Lately, around the office, we’ve been saying “if you have to ask, it isn’t for you,” but we aren’t trying to be arrogant; the Levity/Lumina demands a specific user. 25 lbs is the limit, so your base weight should be no greater than 10 lbs. Right now my current 3-season base weight is right around 8.8 lbs. That’s only when the weather forecast is good, the temps reasonable, and depends on the commitment level of the trip, i.e. are there any points on the trail where you could cut the trip short due to weather, injury, etc.? You see, going light isn’t just about weight, it’s about using your brain to figure out how to get more out of less, and not being foolhardy, or “stupid light.” If I took this kit out in the winter, I’d probably suffer dearly or worse. If it’s going to rain like crazy, I’ll probably forego my tarp for a freestanding ultralight tent. It just depends.

My system is just that, my system, and may look wildly different than yours. In our region (SW Colorado/SE Utah), I have the luxury of worrying a lot more about where to find water than when it’s going to rain, in general. If I’m heading to more alpine environments in shoulder seasons, I’ll probably bring a warmer sleeping bag, adjust my clothing, pack choice, food and probably more.

Before the Levity/Lumina, the Talon 33 was my favorite pack for 3-4 day trips, especially if the goal was to move fast and cover miles, which it sometimes is. My last trip with it was a 42-mile jaunt through Cedar Mesa while it was still technically part of Bears Ears National Monument. The Talon 33 and 44 are great in that they really hug your body during dynamic movement, but lack the incredible Levity/Lumina ventilation.

10 Essentials For Ultralight Backpacking

Use Your Head – going light means being smart, doing your research, dialing in your kit and executing. What’s the weather forecast? How far between water sources? These are always good questions to ask on any backpacking trip and even more so when you bring “just enough.”

Plan Ahead and Prepare – if you pack too light, weather comes in, and you end up having to build a shelter out of trees and have a massive fire to stay alive, what was the point? (see Leave No Trace Seven Principles, #1)

The Big Three – These are obvious for any trip and are where you can save the most weight: your pack, sleeping bag, and shelter. Spend your dollars here first.

Reduce Redundancy – pillows are great for car camping, but why not use the clothes you aren’t wearing and shove them in a stuff sack and call it good? Why bring tent poles when trekking poles can provide the same benefit and make the trek easier? I don’t bring extra pairs of underwear; I wear running shorts with a built-in brief. It works for me. I’ll shower when I get home.

Coffee – I drink way too much coffee at work, and the same goes for backpacking. Alpine Start makes a great product, and there’s always Vias from you-know-who.

Lightweight Stove/Cookset – I love the simplicity of an alcohol stove. Mine weighs one ounce, and I don’t mind a slow boil in the afternoon – I’m at camp! I literally want to be there and nowhere else, hopefully forever. I love early mornings and 10 minutes to boil water for coffee isn’t going to ruin the day’s objectives.

Food – I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to my backpacking meals; I prefer “just-add-water” meals and things that don’t require cooking for lunch on the go. Learn what your body needs based on the goal at hand, keep it simple. It’s more fun when you are well fed, and safer too.

Hot Sauce – So critical, this necessity makes even a dehydrated meal you’ve eaten for however many nights in a row seem appealing.

Candy – pick your poison. Be it chocolate bars or my favorites, watermelon-flavored Sour Patch Kids or Haribo Gummy Bears; it’s always nice to have dessert after a long day.

Do Your Research – there are ten thousand sources online where you can figure out the best way to do whatever it is you want to do, or what to eat, what kind of shelter or quilt is best and more. You’ll find everything from “stupid light” advocates to people who might actually take the kitchen sink, and everything between. Try things out. Learn through experience, and above all, be safe.

Pro Tip

If you’re new to backpacking, ultralight might not be the right place to start. You can buy a lot of gear at most retail stores now that used to belong in the ultralight niche, just ease into it and learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

Adults Only:

The Ultralight Cocktail: Best for more casual, communal trips. While you can use denatured alcohol for your fuel, you can also use Everclear (190 proof) as well. Sounds gross, right? Well, add a bit of cold water from a nearby stream (filtered of course), and half of one of those little single-serving lemonade packets and boom, backcountry vodka lemonade. If you’ve put in the miles that going light can enable, 1 oz. will probably put you straight to bed and weighs less than a 16 oz IPA.