Ultralight Backpacking Basics and Pros & Cons

Ultralight backpacking is increasingly becoming popular among outdoor enthusiasts, from beginners to experienced hikers. This type of backpacking emphasizes simplicity and a better appreciation of the scenery and the adventures during the trip. Without the pains and aches due to heavy packs, ultralight backpackers cover longer distances in a shorter time.

Before ditching your gears, you need to know the basics of ultralight backpacking. What does it entail? And what are its pros and cons? Read on to find out.

What is Ultralight Backpacking?

There is no technical definition of ultralight. And many backpackers say that it is a backpacking lifestyle and frame of mind more than anything else. The ultralight movement focuses on getting by with less gear.

That means ultralight ultimately depends on you. You can find your perfect pack weight anywhere between 12 lbs. to 30 lbs. With less gear, you will have to rely on your experience and skills in the wild, especially when it comes to safety and survival.

In other to prepare for ultralight backpacking, follow these steps:

  1. Establish your pack’s base weight. Grab a luggage or kitchen scale and measure the weight of your current gear to determine your entire pack’s base weight. This includes everything that you carry aside from water, food, and fuel (consumables). Most hikers aim for a base weight of around 10 lbs. to 20 lbs.
  2. Determine the tradeoffs. Part of going ultralight is sacrificing some of the creature comforts that you are used to in camping. Ultralight gear may not be as comfortable or as durable compared to its conventional counterparts. Additionally, letting go of some equipment means you will have to rely on your surroundings.
  3. Slowly, but surely. Shifting to ultralight is much easier on your pocket and yourself if you make gradual changes. Lighter and more premium gear are usually pricier. So, aim to replace one major piece of equipment at a time. This also allows you to adjust to the difference of backpacking with fewer gears.

The Basics of Ultralight Backpacking

The easiest way to shave off pounds from your back is by replacing one or more of the following gear: backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent.


Typical camping backpacks weigh around 3 to 5 lbs. with around 65 liters of capacity. Ultralight options will bring you down to about 45 to 55 liters capacity, which is usually frameless. That means they only weigh about 1.5 to 2 lbs.

These ultralight packs are also minimally padded, which means you need a better packing configuration to ensure that you are still comfortable while carrying the backpack.

Tents and Shelters

Your tent is potentially one of the heaviest gears that you have. Luckily, there are ultralight tents that provide all the basic protection that you will need. There is a variety of affordable backpacking tents available for your weekenders, and casual trips. If you are planning on longer trips or expecting extreme weather conditions, then investing in a premium-grade ultralight tent is a must.

There are also other ultralight shelter options that are viable for most 3-season adventures. You can set up a decent shelter that can protect you from the rain using ultralight tarps. And, with guylines, stakes, and trekking poles, it can even last through windy conditions.

Bivy sacks are also great for solo adventurers. They generally weigh about 1.5 lbs. for a waterproof shell. Ultralight hammocks are also becoming a popular option as well. Some models come with rainfly or bug nets for extra protection.

Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad

Fill down is a popular option for lightweight sleeping bags as they are considerably lighter and more compressible compared to synthetic fill. Newer models of down sleeping bags have water-resistant treatment, so you do not have to worry about wet conditions. Down bags are around a pound or two, depending on their size.

Additionally, choose air pads over self-inflating pads to save on a few ounces. Full-length pads are around one pound and offer decent insulation and tons of cushion. Or, choose closed-cell foam pads if you value durability. You can save a few more ounces if you cut down the pad to torso-length, depending on your comfort preference.

Pros of Ultralight Backpacking

More than the pack weight, ultralight backpacking brings numerous advantages, such as:

  • More energy during the trip. The less weight spent on carrying your pack, the more energy you have for longer trails. You can even explore side trails while you are at it.
  • Tackle challenging routes. Traditional packs are difficult when taking on technically challenging treks. A lighter pack expands your route options to more difficult trails. It also allows for greater agility when crossing rivers, climbing steep trails, and more.
  • Better for the body. Your knees, back, and shoulders suffer significantly when lugging around heavy backpacks. Lighter weight means you do not have to worry about long-term injuries in your joints and muscles.
  • More room for specialized items. Ultralight is also an opportunity for you to bring luxury items. With more weight allowance, you can bring your fishing gear, a camp chair, or even games to play at the campsite.

Cons of Ultralight Backpacking

Just like any type of outdoor activities, going ultralight comes with a few downsides, like:

  • It takes time. As you remove gear and shed off pounds from your pack, you also need more skills to ensure that you can survive during your trip. For instance, you need to get better at finding safer and more comfortable campsites as your tent or shelter may not last through heavy downpours.
  • A slight sacrifice on durability. Ultralight materials are thinner, so you may need to replace them sooner. However, you can expect your gear to last for several trips or more with the right maintenance and care.
  • It is expensive. Ultralight equipment is usually much more expensive as it is crafted using the latest lightweight technologies. The price points also increase as the durability gets better. However, by taking ultralight backpacking gradually (as mentioned above), you can slowly build your UL pack without breaking the bank.


Ultralight backpacking is becoming a viable option for many adventurers. With minimalism at its core, adventurers get to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings better. They also get to apply and practice their outdoor and survival skills without the need for heavy equipment and gear. Just like any changes, take it slowly but surely to get the most out of ultralight backpacking.