Ultralight Hiking - The Ultimate Guide For Beginners
What is ultralight hiking? Well, in short, the name kind of hints whats it all about, going hiking with ultralight gear. And you achieve this by bringing only what’s really necessary for your current conditions and really lightweight versions of all gear.
Going ultralight is considered to bring more feeling of freedom into hiking since you are not carrying any heavy loads or huge backpacks.
And also, the pressure on your body is lower as well with the low weight compared to traditional hiking.
There is no official weight that is considered ultralight, but 10-15 pounds or 5-7 kilos is a usual goal base weight to achieve.
So get ready to lose a lot of the traditional stuff you may think you need for a hike, and try the freedom of going ultralight!
Going Ultralight With Your Essentials
One of the fastest ways to save weight for ultralight hiking is to go ultralight with your essentials or “the big four” which are referring to your backpack, shelter/tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
These four items are your most essential, but can also add a lot of weight if you are not mindful when making your choice. So let’s break down what you should be thinking about for each item.
Ultralight backpacks are quite similar to traditional ones. However, the biggest difference will be in the frame of the backpack (if there even is one), the materials of the backpack, the simplicity of the backpack and the load it can carry.
It’s not unusual for a traditional pack to weigh around 6-7 pounds (3 kilos), but you can easily find an ultralight pack that weighs only 1-2 pounds (0.45-0.9 kilos) and even less.
With thinner materials, you save a lot of weight but sacrifice a bit of durability compared to a traditional pack. Though with that said, they are not sensitive in any means,so, take good care of it and it will last you for many hikes ahead.
Difference ultralight bag VS traditional hiking bag
The frame might be the biggest difference in what you feel when wearing the pack. The frame is what you feel against your back and what gives support while carrying the backpack.
The traditional backpack has a thick frame to give a lot of support while carrying heavier loads. Now, we do not want to carry heavy loads, so the frame is a great way to save weight.
Ultralight backpacks range from a thicker frame all the way down to no frame at all. If you want to save a lot of weight, you can go without a frame. Just pack your sleeping pad closest to your back and it will give a bit of support against your back.
There will be less capacity and functions on your ultralight backpack. To save weight, you will have one big compartment, usually top loaded, for all of the gear and maybe a few mesh pockets on the outside.
50-60 litres is a great range to aim for when looking for an ultralight hiking backpack.
An easy way to lose weight fast is to save shelter weight. A traditional shelter can easily weigh around 7 pounds (3 kilos) or more, whilst an ultralight one usually comes in at around 2 pounds (0.9 kilos) or less.
Shelters for ultralight hiking save weight with simple designs and high performing lightweight materials.
The more comfort you are willing to sacrifice, the lighter your shelter will be.
A comfortable choice could be an ultralight double layered tent. It gives good protection against weather and bugs, and it is easy to set up. The downside is weight, price and volume compared to other ultralight options.
A single layer tent saves a lot of weight compared to a double walled one, whilst still giving you good protection against weather and bugs.
It saves weight on fabric, and minimal tent poles. However, it will need to be staked down and breathability will be less than a double walled tent which may cause condensation on the inside of the tent.
Tarp And Bivy
Tarp and Bivy combo can save a lot of weight compared to the above options if you are ready to sacrifice a bit of comfort (some consider this combo more comfortable compared to a single walled tent, you will understand why further down in the text).
You use your hiking poles and stakes to set up your tarp, which gives protection against the rain. A bivy bag is basically extra weather protection in which you but your sleeping bag.
Be sure to bring your mosquito protection, because you will be a bit exposed to bugs, and there is the risk of curious critters coming to visit your camp.
This option is a bit harder to set up as well but just give it some practice before heading out.
Be sure to choose a sleeping bag that is made for the type of climate that you will be hiking in. Carrying a sleeping bag that is too warm will not only add weight but will also be unpleasant to sleep in.
And remember, you can always use a sleeping bag liner or go to sleep wearing some clothing to increase the warmth at night if needed.
Down VS synthetic bags. A down bag will save weight compared to a synthetic sleeping bag with the same temperature rating. But the synthetic one will save your wallet some instead.
Also, be sure to choose a bag that is of the correct length for you. Having a bag that is too big will have a negative effect on warmth. And having a sleeping bag that is too small, well that is obviously not going to be nice.
Sleeping pads will give you comfort at night and insulation from the cold ground. A thicker pad gives more comfort and more insulation, at the price of higher weight to carry. There are two main types of sleeping pads, air-filled and foam pads.
Air pads are easier to pack and tends to weigh a little bit less than a foam pad. It comes down to preference what you think is more comfortable, but in general, the foam pad gives more comfort at night. Just be sure to bring a repair kit, air-pads can puncture.
Foam pads have more areas of usability. You can use it to sit on and as a frame in your bag. But, it is bulkier to pack compared to an air-pad. And if you do not want to use it as a frame, it can be a bit harder to pack.
Water, Fuel and Food
Water and food do not count as your base weight. After you pack this, the weight of your pack usually doubles. But, let’s cover how to get the most out of your added food weight.
There are a few different mentalities when it comes down to food as well. Food is basically fuel, and that is a quite common mentality for ultralight hiking. Food is fuel. Which means that ease to prepare and calories/weight are more important than nutrients and taste.
Whilst some do not mind to put more effort to get nutrients into their hiking food and you can do so with pre-cooked meals or even dehydrate your own food.
Your most important thing to carry, but also the heaviest. You are of course not able to bring all the water you need, so you need to know where your water sources will be throughout your trail.
Make sure to bring a bit more than you think you need until your next water source as staying hydrated will make your hike much more pleasant and safer.
A good tip is to drink a lot of water at your source.
Here comes a few different mentalities again, drinking straight from the stream or purification of water. This also differs a bit on where you are hiking as some areas have generally very pure water whilst some needs purification.
However, it is generally recommended to purify your water to avoid sickness while hiking. You can do so either with pump filter, gravity filter or chemicals.
Chemicals are the lightest and easiest option and the most popular for ultralight hiking.
Fuel, Stove and Cookware
Treating yourself with a cooked or warm meal at the end of the day is not to be underestimated, in fact, it might be the highlight of your day.
So bringing something to enable you to cook (rehydrate food) will be worth it, and there are of course some alternatives that go well with ultralight hiking. Most of the food you are bringing should be dehydrated so it does not need cooking, just rehydration.
A liquified gas stove is a popular and easy to use choice. The cooking time is amongst the fastest and it works well in all conditions, it is though one of the more pricier alternatives and also heavier than other options.
Alcohol stoves are pretty much the lightest and cheapest alternative you can find and are the most common choice amongst ultralight hikers.
The cook time is a bit slower and they can be a bit harder to light up in cold or windy weathers.
There are other options like a wood stove or solid gas stove, but we would really recommend going for one of the two stoves mentioned above instead for various reasons.
Since you more or less just rehydrate food, cookware should be kept to a minimum for weight saving. Lightweight stove, Cookpot, Camp cup and a Trail spoon is all you need really. And the cooking pot is also what you should be eating out of.
Bring Nutritious high-calorie foods
It is important to have a good weight to calorie ratio whilst still having variation and nutrition in your diet. What you want to do is to bring foods that are high in calories, low in weight and with a variation between fats, carbs and proteins.
And of course, easily cooked!
Foods like nuts, dried fruits, chocolate and peanut butter have great calorie to weight ratio. Foods like fresh fruit and vegetables have a poor calorie to weight ratio.
Since you want nutrients as well, you will need to bring some food that has a poor ratio. Just make sure to have your calorie need largely covered by food with a good ratio, and then add food that has good nutrients. (Yes, some with the “fuel is food mentality” sacrifice nutrients to save weight)
Save food weight
Stay away from food that are packed in cans, they are generally low in calories and you will also need to carry the weight of the can.
Not to mention that you need to find a place to dispose of it or carry it with you.
Instead, go for dried foods which you can pack in your own zip bags or that are already packed in a vacuum sealed bag.
Make your own high calorie mixes for snacks. When you hike, you burn calories so you will need snacks throughout the day.
When it comes to snacks, the food is fuel mentality is a good way to think. Blends of nuts, raisins and chocolates is a great way to get a lot of calories at a low weight.
So how do you maintain nutrition in your food without carrying a ton of extra weight?
Well, for starters saving weight on everything else is a great way to be able to bring a little extra weight of high nutrition food.
A good and easy meal can be for example a sandwich with fibres, peanut butter is great to add more calories and the side of foiled tuna or smoked tofu with some salad adds nutrition.
If you have cookware, foods like dried potatoes, dried soups and pasta are other good options and accompanied by proteins like dried or hard meat or smoked tofu etc, make up a good meal.
You can always add bars or nuts and similar after your meal to get more calories.
Ultralight Hiking Gear Breakdown
So, let’s dig in a bit more in what gear you should bring, what gear not to bring and what to think about.
Bring light gear appropriate for the conditions
Be aware of which conditions you are hiking and pack with that in mind. It is easy to overpack or bring clothing that is too warm.
A properly planned clothing system will work for most conditions, more about that soon.
But the conditions you are hiking in should affect how you pack.
Essential Items & First Aid Kits
There are ultralight first aid kits to be found and you should always bring one for obvious reasons (your safety, if not obvious enough!).
Safety whistle, some backpacks might have it on a strap, but if not you should have one around your neck or within easy reach.
Navigation system consisting of a map, compass and a GPS device.
A small bottle of sunscreen should be amongst your essential safety items. In sunny conditions, you will spend many hours in direct sunlight, avoid getting burnt.
Bring a light weight headlamp, preferably a really simple one because they tend to be much lower in weight. Some people even go for kids-headlamps to save a bit of weight. Be sure to charge or change your batteries just before you leave so you do not have to bring any extras.
Ultralight Clothing & Rain Gear
This is probably the point where most people bring too much or unnecessary gear, so let’s break it down a bit to save a lot of weight, and add comfort.
Generally, you should be looking for clothing that is made out of a lightweight and quick-drying synthetic material. And everything cotton should be left home.
Synthetics perform well in most conditions, and especially when wet compared to cotton.
Layering is another important part of your packing strategy so you can remove one layer if you are warm or put another layer on if you are cold. Never pack two items that have the same purpose, just don’t.
So what clothing should you bring?
A lightweight rain jacket should always be with you on the trail. No matter how good the weather looks. If the weather looks bad, you should bring pants that can take a drizzle as well.
Your jacket can in many cases be the same as your rain jacket. A thin waterproof and breathable shell jacket that also protects against the wind. You can also bring for warmth, a down jacket you can use in combination with your shell jacket in case of bad weather.
You should bring a pair of lightweight hiking pants, preferably some that have zip-off legs so you can use them as shorts also when warm. Some also like to bring a pair of lightweight training shorts for those warmer days.
HATS AND GLOVES
Nights and mornings can usually be really cold, bringing a beanie and a pair of gloves will be a nice addition for evenings and can also be used to keep warm when sleeping if needed.
If you are hiking sunny areas a sun cap or hat are recommended.
Here you have some options, short sleeve, long sleeve or both. No matter which option, it should be synthetic for better performance.
Shortsleeve have the obvious advantage of being breezier, whilst the long sleeve will protect better against the sun and bugs.
UNDERWEAR AND SOCKS
Firstly you can wash them in a water stream and leave them to dry on your pack or similar, since you are bringing synthetic underwear and not cotton (right?) they will dry quickly. And you should not bring more than 3 pairs, even on long hikes.
Same goes for socks, around 3 pairs of synthetic socks will be enough.
On warmer trips, you might not want to bring your base layer pants and shirt, but on most trips, they are a good addition to regulate body warmth and are also great to sleep in if its cold at night.
Ultralight Footwear & Trekking Poles
When talking about footwear for hiking it is easy to think of the traditional hiking boots. But, you do not really need the little extra support they give. Especially since you are not carrying heavy loads on your back.
Weight carried on your feet consume up to 5 times more energy compared to weight carried on your back. So it is in our best interest to save weight here.
TRAIL RUNNING SHOES
The best option is to go for a pair of lightweight and durable trail running shoes. Look for a shoe that has a thick sole with good traction.
It is nice to have on wet trips, but in most cases, a luxury that is not really needed. But if you have space, bringing an extra pair of camp shoes to get out of your hiking shoes at the end of the day is comfortable.
We would not consider this being essential, but poles definitely have some benefits. They increase your balance and will in some cases easy knee pain in steep terrain. You can also use them to build your camp if you are using a tarp as shelter.
On the other hand, they will also add extra weight and your hands will be occupied, which some people do not like.
If you want to have poles though, they should be lightweight. Consider carbon fibre poles, they are more expensive and a bit less durable but weigh much less than the alternative which is aluminium.
Keep your gear dry
The best way to avoid wet gear is to never get it wet in the first place, easier said than done maybe. So let’s dig into some tips on how to not get your gear wet in the first place.
To avoid wet clothes, be sure to put your rain clothing on before it actually starts to rain. This will avoid your clothes getting wet.
Also, be sure to keep your rain gear close and not in your main compartment of the bag if the sky tells tales about rain. Not only will you reach it faster, but you will avoid getting your other gear wet by opening your main compartment in the bag in case of rain.
You should also go for a bag that can handle bad weathers and that is made of water-resistant fabric.
Most likely, you will not find a waterproof bag. So if there is a chance of really bad weather, use lightweight waterproof sacks to pack your sensitive gear such as your sleeping bag. You can also pack this in a plastic bag.
Sweat makes you wet
Your clothes can get wet even in the dryest of climates, not due to rain, but sweat. And sweat does just as good of a job as rain when it comes to making your gear wet.
Avoid this by not overdressing, and dress in layers so that you can remove one layer if you start to feel warm.
If you are using a tent, condensation can be a problem in many cases. In rainy weather, a tent will in most cases get you wetter then a tarp would. This due to condensation, which does not exist in the same way with a tarp. Have this in mind when considering which shelter to go for.
Also, a good thing to keep in mind is that you will most likely experience morning dew that covers most of your gear. Try to get them dry before packing them up.
How to keep warm ultralight hiking
Keeping warm but not sweaty is what you want to do when hiking, and there are some good ways to achieve this.
Do not dress too warm, that might be tempting if you are feeling a bit cold, but if you start to sweat, you are in for a lot of cold times ahead. That sweat is going to make you cold.
Dress just enough to be able to stay warm when moving.
Always keep moving, if it is cold, non-stop movement will get your body’s internal heater going. Just keep it at a pace you can be consistent with and if you need to stop for breaks, you are walking to fast.
When you do need to stop in cold weathers, quickly put on another layer like a down jacket and take it off again just before you start moving.
Your sleeping bag should be warm enough for the climate, your tent does not keep you warm, just protected against rain and wind. Your sleeping bag and clothing keeps you warm at night.
Additional Ultralight Hiking Tips
How to pack for current weather conditions?
A great way to start your planning is to look at average temperatures and weathers back in time. This will give you a good idea of what you can expect and how you should pack. When your trip is only a day or two away, look at the current weather forecast and finetune your packing thereafter.
What's the worst case scenario and how to pack for it?
Actually, you should avoid just that. Packing for the worst case scenario is a common trap, and you will just end up bringing a lot of gear you never needed.
Instead read up on your current conditions and what you can expect on this trail, and pack accordingly. With that said though, always pack your safety gear.
How to set up a tent or tarp?
Make sure that you know how to do this before you head out, it’s not hard but can take some practice. Make sure to get this practice done before you head out, read up on the manufacturer’s instructions or find a good tutorial online and practice before your trip. You want this process to be streamlined when you’re out hiking.
How to select campsite?
You should look for areas that are protected against the wind and preferably 100 metres or more above the lowest point in your area.
Amongst trees are a great campsite, they offer protection against the wind, they are great anchors for your tarp and usually, there is less dew where there are trees and therefore less condensation.
It’s useful in many areas, and of course also in ultralight hiking. But you do not want to bring a full roll of tape. Instead, tape a bit around your poles, water bottle or similar. That saves weight and space.
What makes for a good ultralight pillow?
The best ultralight option is to make your own by stuffing a sack with some spare clothing. The sack of your sleeping bag for example. This way you have a pillow without any extra weight.
There are also blow ups to find that pack super small and light.
Hike your own hike
It’s easy, especially in the beginning to try and adapt or conform to someone else’s hiking standards and thoughts. Do what feels good for you and keep in mind that there are probably as many ways to have a great hike as there are hikers.
Stretching when ultralight hiking?
You should take some time for stretching, your body is under huge pressure when hiking. Take some time in the morning, evening and during breaks to stretch.
Calves, quads, and hamstrings are amongst the most important parts to stretch and will ensure a better overall experience. Even though stretching can feel like a heavy load after a full day of hiking, it’s worth it.
Ultralight hiking sharing load?
If you are hiking in a group or with a partner, you can easily save a lot of weight by sharing the load and leaving items at home. For example, if you are two, you will not need two tents, two tarps etc.
Find out what items are not needed in doublets and save a lot of weight.
What water bottle to use when ultralight hiking?
The best is actually to use a plastic bottle 1 or 1.5 litres. They are lightweight and durable.
What To Pack For Ultralight Hiking - Summer vs Alpine
In summer, be ready for high temperatures and a lot of sunshine, generally, in summer you can save a lot of weight on sleeping bags and leaving the warmer clothes at home.
Be ready to tackle hard winds and cold temperatures when Alpine hiking. The challenge is to be dressed warmly without breaking a sweat. Layers will be your friend for Alpine hiking.
Ultralight Bags -Summer vs Alpine
The backpack should, as usual, be an ultralight backpack, preferably weighing in at around 0.5-1kg (1-2 pounds). 50 litres is a good size for ultralight hiking in the summer and 60 litres for winter.
Shelter - Summer vs Alpine
Your shelter needs to breathe well to avoid condensation in the morning. Preferably, if you feel comfortable with it, go for a tarp and bivy combo on warm summer hikes
The Tarp and Bivy combo are not recommended. Instead go for a super lightweight tent, preferably double walled and sturdy design so it can handle strong wind.
Sleeping Bag - Summer vs Alpine
A really thin sleeping bag is what you want. Look up your current conditions. In really warm climates and lower altitudes, I personally skip the sleeping bag and use just my liner as a sleeping bag.
A Down bag will be your best choice. It will add more warmth per volume than a synthetic bag would.
Summer puts less pressure on the pad. Go as lightweight as you are comfortable with, either blow up or foam.
A bit thicker pad that insulates more against the cold underneath you is recommended. Either blow up or foam. Just do not go too heavy here, keep it lightweight.
A good size for a water bottle is 1-1.5 litres. You might need to bring an extra bottle if your hike has a big distance between water sources at some point.
It is deeply recommended to always hike with a way to purify your water to avoid sickness. Either with a filter or chemicals.
Go for one or two 1.5litre plastic bottles.
Most likely, you will not have any problem finding water. Since you are basically surrounded by frozen water. Snow. It melts fast on your stove, turning into water.
If you always boil your water before drinking it, purification is not needed. But bring at least chemical purification, anyway.
Stove and cookware
Bring a lightweight stove and one pot that you use for both cooking and eating. Also, bring a fork or a spork.
For alpine hiking, a gas stove is to be recommended. Alcohol can be harder to light up in cold temperatures and high wind.
Bring a lightweight stove and one pot that you use for both cooking and eating. Also, bring a fork or a spork.
Lightweight first aid kit.
Compass and map.
Lightweight first aid kit.
Compass and map.
Beacon or transceiver if you would hike where there is even slightest risk of avalanche.
- Bug spray.
- Ducktape (Roll it around a water bottle or pole to save weight and volume)
- Light source. Lightweight, of course.
- Toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste.
- Pretty much the same, but you can skip the Bug spray for Alpine hiking.
- Rainjacket. Breathable and lightweight, this should be your only jacket.
- Pants. You can go for a pair of pants that zips to shorts or bring a pair of shorts as well.
- Sunhat or cap. Great protection against sun in the face.
- Long sleeve shirt. Preferably breezy, so it protects well against the sun without being to warm.
- Synthetic underwear and socks. No more than 2-3 of each.
- Shell jacket. Your shell jacket should be a high performer in terms of waterproofing and breathability.
Down jacket. Bring a down jacket or a synthetic down jacket that adds warmth. Make sure that it breaths well.
- Pants. Go for a pair of breathable and water resistant pants without insulation and with ventilation pockets.
- Cap and hat. Bring a cap in case of direct sunlight, and a hat or beanie for cold.
- Gloves for cold.
- Base layer. Both pants and shirt.
- Synthetic underwear and socks. No more than 2-3 of each.
Go for a pair of trail running shoes. They are lighter in weight and breaths much better than a pair of hiking boots.
And since you are not carrying heavy loads, you do not need the extra ankle support the boots offer.
Go for a pair of warmer hiking boots with breathability. The more the marrier.
If you get sweaty feet from bad breathability, you will get cold. Really cold.
Bring if you feel like it. They should be brought if you are using a tarp as shelter though since you need to use some sort of pole when setting up the tarp. Trekking poles are great for this.
How about some additional reading about hiking? Here are two articles that might be of your interest if you read all the way down to here. Or maybe the Travel section of our magazine have some articles for your taste buds.
Hello, I am a semi-homeless, extreme sports enthusiast bum, born in Sweden. I produce content for Ridestore, both written and film.
Thanks to the remote working lifestyle, I do not have to sleep outside anymore while travelling, cheers!