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Tyson Gillard | 06.24.2014

This is the first video in CleverHiker's Lightweight Backpacking Foundations video series - Lightweight Basics. This series will help you learn how to backpack lighter and will cover a wide range of equipment options for ultralight backpacking. CleverHiker also provides a full Gear Guide on their site to help you find the best lightweight tools on the market.

Lightweight Backpacking Basics

Let’s start off by taking a quick look at the 3 philosophy points behind this video series.

  1. You can do this. Ultralight backpacking is not exclusive, it's not highly specialized, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
  2. There is no perfect backpacking style. There will be pros and cons with all equipment choices and we’ll help you find what’s the best fit for you.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It's easy to spend a lot of time focusing on equipment and it can easily become overwhelming. To start out, focus on your heaviest items and then work your way down to smaller gear. Remember, even the lightest pack won’t do you any good sitting in storage, so get out there and have an adventure.

What is Ultralight?

One of the main reasons to minimize your pack weight is to maximum your freedom on the trail. Backpacking with a lighter pack will reduce stress on your body, give you more free time on the trail, and allow you to hike farther with less effort. Hiking lighter will make the hiking part more fun, and that can be a huge game changer for your backcountry trips.

Lightweight and Ultralight backpacking are really the same thing, just with different weight ranges. A lightweight pack has a base weight (pack minus food, water, fuel) of 20 pounds or less and an UL pack has a base weight of 10 pounds or less, but the concept is the same.

Many people have heard about ultralight backpacking because of thru-hikers. Thru-hikers hike long trails from one end to the other, often covering thousands of miles over many months. Thru-hikers often average around 20 miles of hiking a day in order to complete the trail in a single hiking season.

You might think that thru-hikers must have extreme strength to complete that type of expedition, and they are very tough, but the key is in pack weight reduction. The less weight you carry on your back and feet, the less energy you use on the trail. Having more energy means more flexibility and more free time. Thru-hikers use that energy to hike more miles, but you might choose to chill in camp, go for a swim, explore an off-trail area, or read a book.

Many people also believer that buying ultralight equipment is an expensive commitment. It's true, there are a lot of spendy UL tools on the market, but you don't have to shell out a ton of money to go ultralight. A lot of UL tools are built by small, specialized companies that aren't selling in large outdoor retailers, so they can pass the savings on to you. We've built a gear guide to help to recommend great ultralight tools that are well worth the investment.

Another nice benefit to lightweight backpacking is that it gets easier as you get into it. For example, if you start by leaving some unnecessary gear at home and replacing your heavy shelter, you'll have a lot of space in your old backpack. Now you don't need that heavy, rigid pack to carry all your gear, so you can switch to UL pack and save even more weight. After that, your pack will be light enough that you won't need those heavy boots for ankle support, so you can switch to lightweight trail runners for more comfort and efficiency.

Now that you're sold on backpacking light, how do you get started?

Get Started

The best ways to save weight are by:

  1. Cutting out the things you don't need.
  2. Replacing the heaviest gear in your pack.
  3. Using one piece of gear for multiple purposes.

A great place to start can be by finding the current base weight of your fully packed backpack. The base weight of your pack is the total weight of everything you're going to carry on your back, minus food, water, and fuel, which are variable items. Once you know your current base weight, you can set a goal for what you'd like your pack weight to be. A small digital scale will help greatly as you start to compare and contrast various gear choices. And no worries if you're new to backpacking. You can just start out light from the beginning and save yourself the trouble of blisters and backaches. 

  • Cut out what you don’t need.
    • Many backpackers bringing a lot of unnecessary items. A lightweight backpacking checklist will help you to focus on essential items. You can download our lightweight backpacking checklist by clicking here.
  • Next, you should focus on lightening your heaviest gear: the big three.
    • Your shelter, backpack, and sleeping bag will generally be the three heaviest items you cary in your pack. They present the best opportunity for weight savings, especially when you're starting out. When I switched out my traditional big three for an UL big three, I saved over 15 pounds. No joke.
    • Remember, when buying lightweight gear you’ll often have to choose between adding a few ounces here and there to save a little money or increase in-camp comfort. Those choices will depend on your goals, but be careful. A few ounces here and there can add a lot of weight in the end.

Hopefully this introduction will help you feel more comfortable about the basics of ultralight backpacking. In no time flat you'll be on your way to becoming a lightweight pro. The rest of the videos in this series will take an in depth look different equipment options on a range of topics including shelters, backpacks, sleeping bags, stoves, clothing, water purification and a whole lot more.

As you dive deeper into lightweight backpacking don’t forget the three philosophies points of this series:

  1. You can do this.
  2. There is no perfect backpacking style.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Hike Light, Hike Smart, and Have Fun

The Entire Lightweight Backpacking Foundations Series:


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