Three years ago, backpacking gear made my head spin. I was totally lost as I looked over the infinite options for the precious few items I would be bringing with me on my Appalachian Trail thruhike. But over the past few years and 5000 miles on trail, the greatest lesson I’ve learned when it comes to gear is that Every. Ounce. Counts. Every single item you hit the trail with is your responsibility to carry. What are you willing to haul over mountains?
When it comes to gear, I understand that backpackers have a TON of questions. Today, I wanted to discuss the importance of building a ultralight backpacking kit from the beginning and how to achieve that goal.
Plain and simple, this is one of the most important aspects of lightening your load. Every ounce you carry on your back takes a toll on your body. Carrying less weight puts far less strain on your muscles which can cause discomfort or injury. Additionally, cutting the weight and balancing your pack correctly will help minimize the risk and damage done by a bad step or a fall.
The more weight you carry on your back, the more work and energy it takes to hike the trail. Try to take only the things you need into the backcountry with you. I’ve seen people bring whole rolls of duct tape, multiple outfits, and who knows what else on short backpacking trips. Typically, they get to camp and start mumbling profanities about how much they hate their pack. Truth – the weight of your pack can make you miserable. Would you rather carry 50 lbs or 20 lbs over a mountain? Trust me, getting your pack weight down will make your trip so much more enjoyable.
I’m sure that it’s no surprise that carrying less weight means you can travel faster. If you want to increase your daily mileage, cut your pack weight! You’ll be amazed at how much faster and freer you can walk.
Going ultralight isn’t just about buying the top gear brands (though if you can, send it). It’s about truly embracing minimalism. What do you really need out there? Answer = not very much. Try to keep it to the essentials with one or two “luxury” items. Check out our full PCT gear list here. (This is a Google spreadsheet and is easiest to view on a desktop.)
This one is a little tricky to get right, but be careful not to over pack on food when you hit the trail. A good rule of thumb is 1.5 lbs per day. Check out my article on our PCT Food Strategy which includes full lists of our favorite trail foods.
If you’re going on an overnight trip, you’re going to need a way to purify water. We prefer the Sawyer Squeeze filter method as the filter only weighs 3 oz. (I recommend the full size Sawyer as the mini has a ridiculously slow flow rate.) Water weighs 2.2 lbs per Liter so it’s important to carry only what you need. Every adult should be drinking 2 L per day and more for rigorous activity. We plan on at least 1 L for every 4-5 miles hiked. We do our best to “camel up” while we’re at the water source to ensure we are fully hydrated before we walk away. Always err on the side of carrying too much water than carrying too little. With practice, you will find the right amount to carry for your individual needs.
Most backpacking beginners have the tendency to over pack when it comes to clothing. All you need is one outfit to hike in and one outfit for camp plus some warm layers. Oh, and don’t forget your rain jacket! Even if it looks like sun, always be prepared for shifting weather – especially in the mountains.
Hiking Outfit = Pants, Shirt, Underwear, Socks, Shoes, Gaiters, Brimmed Hat
Camp Outfit = Shirt, Thermal Top, Shorts, Thermal Tights, Thermal Socks, Beanie, Gloves, Thermal Jacket, Camp Shoes (optional)
When shopping for your backpacking clothes, keep in mind cotton is not the fabric of this life. Not only is it a poor choice for exercise clothing, it’s also heavy and bulky to carry as camp clothing. Focus your clothing choices on synthetic materials, down, and wool. Bring a synthetic or down jacket and leave the cotton hoodies, ponchos, or sweatshirts at home to minimize weight and volume. Consider the weight of the clothing, rain jacket, and thermal jacket you will be carrying on the trail.
Many people automatically think about boots when it comes to hiking, but I encourage you to check out some good trail runners instead. Trail runners are lightweight and dry out quickly while boots are heavy and clunky and can take forever to dry out if they get wet inside. I swear by Salomon trail runners and have hiked over 5000 miles in them. I’m already stocking up for our Continental Divide hike (3100 miles) next year.
Camp shoes are something I have decided not to carry any more to save weight. This might be a hard sell for some, but even lightweight Crocs, which are popularly used as camp shoes, can weigh a pound or more depending on the size. Since we wear trail runners, I have ditched the camp shoes and just loosened the laces when I get to camp. I will admit, it is nice to have a dry pair of comfortable shoes to put on at camp. But do I really need to carry that extra pound?
Don’t forget to add in the weight of your empty backpack to your total base weight. For a lightweight option, I recommend backpacks between 50-70 L that are under 4 lbs. For the ultralight option, look for a pack that is under 2 lbs made of Dyneema (water resistant material). If you are considering an ultralight bag, make sure you have other ultralight equipment to go in it. Many of the ultralight bags have a load carrying capacity around 35 lbs. Anything over that will not ride as comfortably as a standard backpack.
Investing in a high quality sleeping bag can make the biggest difference in your pack. I carried a synthetic North Face sleeping bag on the Appalachian Trail that weighed 3 lbs and took up a third of the volume of my pack. I upgraded for the Pacific Crest Trail to an Enlightened Equipment (EE) Enigma down quilt, and it made a HUGE impact on my setup. Not only did I shed 2 lbs of pack weight, the quilt takes up significantly less space in my bag. Without switching to a down quilt, I would not have been able to upgrade to an ultralight backpack due to the volume of the synthetic sleeping bag.
I know a lot of backpackers are on a tight budget, but this is the one thing I would recommend spending the extra money. Truth, my EE quilt cost about $300, but I’d pay it all over again if I had to. It’s that important – less weight, less bulk, SO comfortable. Check out my full review here.
Do you really need that bulky solar charger strapped to your pack? I do bring my smartphone backpacking which serves as my phone, camera, and guide book. I rock it in airplane mode and battery saver mode and can ration my battery for over a week. Portable and solar chargers really make up unnecessary ounces in your pack. Disconnect. It feels awesome.
Yes, every ounce counts – even the sacks you use to organize your things. We use separate Dyneema stuff sacks from ZPacks for our food, clothes, and misc. items. Dyneema is an ultralight plastic material that is also water resistant. We have the fleece lined roll top bag for clothes which doubles as a soft pillow at night.
You don’t need them out there! Embrace the one place in life where you don’t have to dress to impress or cover up your natural odors. I do not bring deodorant, soap, shampoo, or any makeup into the backcountry. In fact, many of these products are often damaging to water sources, plants, and wildlife. Why carry it? Embrace your inner stinky self. It’s fun! Less stuff, less weight on your back. I’d rather be smelly than carry more things. Seriously.
I keep two things in my first aid kit. Ibuprofen and Bandages. That’s it. My repair kit has a needle and thread and a small amount of duct tape wrapped around my trekking poles. Everyone’s kits are going to vary as to what is essential to each individual, but keep in mind, you aren’t in the woods forever and all of town’s necessities are usually not that far away. Remember, only carry what you need.
Look, I know that people don’t necessarily enjoy being told what they should or should not carry. By all means, hike your own hike. Bring whatever you like. In my experience, however, backpacking with less weight is significantly more enjoyable. If you’re still picking out items for your pack, my biggest recommendation is to buy the lightest weight item you can afford. Yes, ultralight gear isn’t necessarily the cheapest, but it can be done on a budget. Check out this impressive article from The Trek that assembles an ultralight pack for $1000. I’ve seen tons of hikers get out there, realize they want something lighter, then they buy a replacement product essentially buying the same item twice. Do it right the first time if you can!