Joe's Ultralight Backpacking

Common Items and Potential Ultralight Solutions

(NOTE: Sleeping Bags section to be added someday. No, really!)

Disclaimer: What follows are my observations/experiences with ultralight backpacking techniques and philosophies, and are not meant to be comprehensive. Clearly they're not the only way, nor perhaps the best way, but they work for me. I feel it's a great starting point for you to drop pounds while preserving function and comfort. From there, you can start exploring other options that may better suit your personal needs/goals.

Gear Page Index

The Umbrella

Believe it or not, a good lightweight umbrella can be one of the most useful pieces of gear your pack. A good umbrella is a marvelous piece of gear, particularly if you choose the rest of your clothing layers to compliment it. Because all of my clothing is synthetic (right down to the nylon t-shirt), I use the umbrella to keep the driving rain off of me and my pack. Any moisture that manages to sneak through is easily ignored since the synthetics absorb very little water and keep me warm regardless.

In the blazing sun, my umbrella gives me a greatly appreciated bit of mobile shade, priceless for those long climbs on hot summer days, or taking a lunch break on an exposed section of trail. And unlike a hat, the umbrella allows the air to circulate freely around my head, and shades much more of my body as well. Just try a hiking through the Grand Canyon with one on a hot day and notice all the envious looks you get.

After a few years of using "Office Depot specials" ($10 light but somewhat delicate compact umbrellas), I ordered a new 2001 GoLite Dome. They finally started producing them in a nice neutral sand color and redesigned it for greater strength (though adding a few ounces - well worth it). Decided the time was right. It's turned out to be an excellent piece of gear, in my opinion. Very happy with it.

Used correctly, a light yet sturdy umbrella is an excellent piece of gear that can save you plenty of money and weight. For many folks I'm convinced it can replace that 1.5-lb. Goretex jacket in most circumstances. Again, assuming the rest of your clothing is chosen accordingly.

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Travelling ultralight means you can safely get away from those nearly-10lb/4.5kg behemoth packs, but you should always be sure that your chosen pack will carry your load comfortably. Whether that means a heavier suspension system with lots of padding, or a home-made rucksack hung over one shoulder like Santa Claus, it's up to you. You can save POUNDS of weight by carefully selecting the right pack, but it still has to be comfortable for YOU. Like footwear, don't mindlessly sacrifice personal comfort for raw weight savings. That can quickly prove to be false economy.

Having said that, the ultralight approach leads to a wonderful situation. With a lighter base load, you can select a lighter pack. Since you're carrying only essential gear, you can also go with a smaller pack. Smaller, lighter, it all adds up to pounds of saved weight on the pack alone! I'm confident that any ultralight backpacker would have no problem fitting their weekend load into a 3000ci/49l pack, and in my opinion that's an excellent size to start experimenting with.

So what packs am I using these days? Frankly that shouldn't matter much to you. :-) But I'll list my inventory and thoughts in case it helps you come up with some ideas.

Based on the packs I've seen, inspected and used, I give high marks to Gregory, Mountainsmith and Arc'Teryx for overall quality and design (with a special nod to GoLite and the GVP G4 below). All three manufacturers produce quality gear, comfortable, functional and durable. Gregory's suspension system has always been a work of sheer beauty to me (still miss my Gregory Gravity...). Doubt you could go wrong with any of those brands. Doesn't mean other brands aren't good, but I know I can trust these manufacturers. As always, your mileage may vary. Try as many as you can and come to your own conclusions! I've been told by various women that Dana Designs makes great packs tailored for the female form, but of course I can't offer much data there. :-)

The GoLite Breeze is in a class by itself. If you're travelling ultralight, it's an awesome pack in my opinion. The lack of many "standard" features worried me at first, but after 500+ trail miles with it, GoLite's philosophy and design have been proven to me. At only US$80, it's also a steal, and another excellent case of ultralight being less expensive than "conventional" gear. Priced the same as the Breeze, the GVP G4 has a strong following among ultralight trekkers as well, and for good reason. Look forward to finally trying one out!

The new Kelty Satori 4500 is worth a peek if you're looking for a modular lightweight pack. Still a bit steep at US$250 though.

Backpack Survey, 2000-5600 ci (33-92l), Under 6 lbs, Listed by Weight

(Updated July 2002, stats based on size Medium where possible. I'm not necessarily endorsing the following packs, I'm simply providing raw data for you to consider.)

0lb 14oz / 3750 ci (61.5l) / GoLite Breeze (My workhorse pack)
0lb 14oz / 4600 ci (75.4l) / GVP G4

1lb 2oz / 3500-4500ci (57.4-73.7l) / Kelty Cloud 4500 *Rucksack configuration*
1lb 4oz / 4800 ci (78.6l) / GoLite Gust

2lb 1oz / 2320 ci / Arc'Teryx Khamsin 30
2lb 2oz / 4500 ci / Kelty Satori 4500 (modular components, size/cap vary)
2lb 4oz / 2400 ci / Kelty Breeze 2400
2lb 6oz / 3100 ci (50.8l) / Mountainsmith Ghost
2lb 6oz / 2800 ci / EMS 2800 Long Torso
2lb 7oz / 2750 ci / Arc'Teryx Khamsin 38
2lb 7oz / 2320 ci / Arc'Teryx Bora 30
2lb 12oz / 2900 ci / Kelty Tempest

3lb 1oz / 2500 ci / Gregory Fury
3lb 2oz / 3000 ci / The North Face Prophet 45
3lb 5oz / 2900 ci / Kelty Gale
3lb 7oz / 4200 ci (68.8l) / Mountainsmith Auspex 4000
3lb 7oz / 2400 ci / Lowe Vision 40
3lb 8oz / 3000 ci / The North Face MG 45
3lb 9oz / 4000 ci / Serratus Icefall (Thanks to George for the info!)
3lb 9oz / 2800 ci / REI Talus 35
3lb 10oz / 3720 ci / Arc'Teryx Khamsin 52
3lb 10oz / 3200 ci / Kelty Moraine

4lb 0oz / 4330 ci / Arc'Teryx Khamsin 62
4lb 4oz / 4300 ci / The North Face MG 55
4lb 5oz / 5600 ci (91.8l) / Mountainsmith Specter (My winter backcountry pack)
4lb 5oz / 2700 ci / Gregory Chaos
4lb 6oz / 3300 ci / Arc'Teryx Bora 40
4lb 6oz / 2850 ci / Gregory Banshee
4lb 14oz / 3850 ci / Gregory Gravity
4lb 14oz / 4350 ci (71.3l) / Gregory Reality X

5lb 3oz / 4350 ci (71.3l) / Gregory Reality
5lb 3oz / 3780 ci / Arc'Teryx Bora 60LT
5lb 6oz / 5100 ci (83.6l) / Gregory Forester

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Bear in mind the core purpose of a backpacking shelter: To keep the elements off of you and your sleeping bag. Other factors do matter of course. If you're holed up on a snowy mountain, waiting out a howling blizzard, seemingly insignificant issues such as tent color can become important (not just for safety but for mood as well). Or maybe you really want to have a roomy "home away from home" to hang out in. It all boils down to deciding what is reasonable and necessary for your particular needs. Given that, it can't hurt to check out all the options, as well as perhaps re-examining exactly what you need and want out of a shelter.

For the Summer of 2005 I've put together a list of shelters that I like. Just something to use as a starting point. I left out my favorite shared-load tent, my Sierra Designs Clip3 CD, because they apparently no longer make it. Classic case of my favorite gear disappearing. A 3-person tent that two could share for 2.5lbs each, gobs of space for two. I call it the Backcountry Palace.

The three core types of backpacking shelters you'll find are tents, bivy sacks, and tarps. These days for 3-season use I prefer to use a combination of a 8'x10' Siltarp and A16 Bug Bivy. The combo gives me all kinds of flexibility and has served me well. I revert to a tent for snowcamping trips (though lately I've been digging my own snowshelters for fun), or when I'm trekking with folks who want to share one. Sharing a lightweight tent can be a great option, be sure to consider it when planning a trip with others.

Besides those three, there is yet another option: A tent hybrid called "fastpack" configuration. This usually involves pitching the rainfly only over the poles, which in turn fit into a groundsheet. Think of it as a "super tarp". Sierra Designs and Marmot are the two manufacturers I know of who have actively boasted of such a feature. In the case of the Sierra Designs Clip 3 CD (3-person, 3-season, my tent of choice when called for), the Fastpack option weighs in at around 3lbs 3ozs, barely over 1lb per person sheltered! Note that such fastpack configuration usually require the use of a custom grommetted ground sheet. That will no doubt be heavier than the equivalent amount of Tyvek.

The Bivy Sack is essentially a glorified cover for your sleeping bag. As such, it serves only the most basic requirement of a shelter (keeping the weather off of you and your bag). It takes up much less space that nearly any tent, giving you many more options of where to set up camp for the night. If your body will fit there, so will your bivy! For example the uphill side of a large fallen tree, where pine needles have collected. Once you develop the knack for it, finding well-sheltered nooks for your site is easy. You don't want to set up your bivy in the middle of a meadow during a driving rain! Think like the animals and find some natural shelter that works to your advantage. A bivy will provide you with unique opportunities to do exactly that. Just be sure the spot you pick hasn't already been chosen by another furrier mammal. ;-)

Naturally your gear may not fit in most bivy sacks. You can cover your pack and hang it from a tree, bringing in only the gear I'll need for the night (flashlight, TP, etc.). "But what if it's raining for a week and you're stuck the in bivy?" Then get out! :-) Use your umbrella and do some exploring, find a nook in some dense trees to sit under. Find a way to enjoy the outdoors you traveled so far to be in!

The Tarp is a wonderful piece of gear if you're in tune with what it offers. It takes a bit of practice and experience to learn to pitch correctly to keep the elements out. The advantage over a bivy sack or tent is that a lightweight tarp can be had relatively cheap, can be nice and airy or buttoned down depending on how you pitch it, can be pitched over awkward terrain that might otherwise be a problem for tents, and is easily replaced. Many people use tarp shelter variants for their Pacific Crest Trail and other thru-hikes. My own tarp + bug bivy + EPIC-shell sleeping bag combo have been serving me well in my travels (and my John Muir Trail thru-hike, through rain and some snow).

Before trusting your trip to a tarp shelter, my advice would be to bring a tent/bivy as backup and use the tarp for the trip. If the scat really hits the fan and you find it just doesn't work for you, you can safely scamper into your more conventional shelter with no harm done. Otherwise when you feel you have it nailed, ditch the tent/bivy and enjoy!

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Sleeping Pads

A Cascade Designs Ridgerest 3/4-length sleeping pad is cheap, effective and the lightest I've found (that meets my needs), weighing in at 9 ozs (avg). They are also among the cheapest ($12 US at REI). A win-win deal! REI also sells something called a "Standard Blue Foam Pad" that weighs 7.5 ozs, but is much thinner than the RidgeRest. Not for me, but perhaps it could work for you. Some folks make their own from various materials, but $12 isn't much to fuss over, and lighter materials probably don't insulate as well. The Ridgerest has worked well for me.

"But Joe" you ask, "how can I get away with a 3/4-length pad? I want to insulate my legs and feet from the ground." Easy. Use an old trick - you carry a pile jacket of some kind, right? Or other similar item? You probably don't wear it while you're sleeping, so fold it up and put it under your legs! Your pack can work well for this too. Remember one of the Mantras of Ultralight - "Strive to make every item in your pack serve more than one use."

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Tyvek is the way to go for groundsheets. Extremely durable yet very lightweight. I received some Tyvek from Niel (thanks!) in December '98 and started playing with it. It is now my groundsheet of choice. I'd made a small vestibule with some of it (grommets on the corners), but Tyvek is very loud when it blows in the wind or gets hits by rain. If you want to annoy your fellow campers, I recommend a Tyvek vestibule in rough weather. ;-)

4 mil plastic sheeting works well too, though not nearly as tough as Tyvek. Check the painting supplies section at your local "fix-it" store. It comes in big rolls, and you can custom cut the size you need, for as many tents and bivies as you own! And it's dirt cheap! The 4 mil plastic is reasonably rugged yet very lightweight. It won't disintegrate on you, so it's friendly to the backcountry too. (I HATE finding shredded plastic during a hike - an eyesore, plus you've got to retrieve it and pack it out.) Save money, save weight. Another clear win-win situation.

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Just how much light do you really need? As usual each of us will have a different answer, but at the least enough to light your camp activities plus any nighttime travel contingencies. The options have greatly increased with the advent of the super-bright LEDs over the last several years. Your lighting system can now be both brighter and lighter than ever.

For years I used a pair of Photon LED flashlights exclusively for 3-season travel. Awesome little buggers! About the size of a quarter and built around a low-wattage yet very bright LED, all for a weight of 0.2 ozs! I've hiked trails on many a dark night with my Photons, including a moonless descent from Whitney. One note: Get the model with the on/off switch! It's a drag having to squeeze the non-switch models, almost impossible over hours of night travel on a trail.

Once I started thinking of backcountry travel with the kids though, I wanted to expand my options. Sure my two Photons worked great for me personally, but what if I was out with the kids and needed more? Like a driving rainstorm during a nighttime evacuation? I could do that solo without a hitch, but leading the whole crew quickly and efficiently? More light was needed. So I swapped one of my Photon LEDs for a Princeton Tec Impact II LED (2.8ozs incl. 4xAAA batteries). It has a burn time of over 75 hours, plus it has a focused lense that casts a bright beam of light a solid 50m ahead. I originally bought this for rock climbing - self-rescue, looking for rap bolts and walk-offs when caught in the dark, etc. This thing fits the bill, rather amazing for the weight.

Headlamps using the same LEDs are very popular now, and with good reason. The light is always aimed where your head is pointed and it's hands-free. There are some extremely lightweight ones as well.

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Sometimes you need a high performance stove (like an MSR Whisperlite) but how often do you REALLY need it? (Well if you're snow camping you probably require one but ignore that for now...) Are you spending hours at your campsite? Did the fact that the water boiled in 3 minutes instead of 10 minutes truly make a difference? Consider some of the alternatives. The best 3-season gas stove today (in my opinion) is the MSR Pocket Rocket. Check one out and you'll see what I mean. I first saw one in action when Jas & Chris shared theirs on our 2002 High Sierra trip. No windscreen or base reflector weight, plus it boils fast and can easily simmer - something I cannot do with the Esbit or Whisperlite! The only drawback is that the Pocket Rocket uses gas cartridges - if the cartridge gets extremely cold you're not going to get much out of it. It's also tricky to tell how much fuel is left in one. Otherwise it's a fantastic item. You may also want to look into the Peak 1 Micro.

If you're of the experimental kind, try the Mini-Trangia No. 28 alcohol stove or the Esbit Pocket stove and its solid fuel tabs. (The Mini-Trangia is available at both REI and Campmor , the Esbit I've only been able to find at Campmor.) Note that the Trangia (with pot and lid/pan) sells for a mere $25 US, and the Esbit sells for $10 US. Another case of ultralight saving you money, not just weight!

Some folks build their own stoves for the best weight/money savings. An excellent rundown of stove construction tips (and ultralight backpacking stoves in general) can be found at Fallingwater's KISS Stove Page. Also, reader Dale submitted a quick-and-dirty solution to building your own fuel tab stove. See the Gear News section of this site for details.

Lately the MSR Pocket Rocket is my stove of choice for 3-season trips. It's compact, clean and convenient, and the stove itself fits nicely in my 1.3 liter pot. I still like my Esbit, but for group trips the Pocket Rocket makes more sense to me. For solo trips it's a toss-up, often depending on which stove I happen to have fuel for at the moment.

The Esbit Pocket Stove is a nice minimalist stove. It's made of stamped metal, and folds up to literally the size of a deck of cards, and weighs a trifle 3 ozs or so. It uses Esbit-brand solid fuel tabs, and takes about two tabs to boil one liter of water (don't forget your homemade folded aluminum foil windscreen!). For snow camping I still use my MSR Whisperlite. In the snow, the faster you can get a hot meal, the better! Plus melting snow with an Esbit would pretty much suck....

Two notes about the Esbit fuel tabs. 1) They're a bit pricey - $6 US for a refill of 12, or about $1 every time you boil a liter of water. 2) They weigh 1/2-oz each, which can add up fast if you plan to boil lots of water (for melting snow and/or purifying drinking water). Work out the numbers to see what makes sense for your needs.

The nice thing about the Esbit is that you can store up to four fuel tabs in the stove when it's folded up. I often eat two cooked meals a day (breakfast and dinner), so for a weekend trip, my ENTIRE stove/fuel system takes up no more space than a deck of cards and weighs a mere 5 ozs or so! Can't beat that! Also with the fuel tabs you're never left guessing how much fuel you have left, unlike a cartridge stove. It takes one fuel tab and around 8-10 minutes for the Esbit to bring 1/2-liter of water to a rolling boil, but I'm rarely in a rush at meal time. You get some strange looks from your fellow campers when you pull it out and set it up, but that also makes it a great way to start a conversation. *8-)

The Mini-Trangia Stove/Cookset Combo burns denatured alcohol and takes longer to reach a boil (7 minutes is the claim). Some folks swear by them, other swear at them. Total claimed weight is only 11.6 ozs (INCLUDING the stove, 0.8 liter pot, lid/frying pan, windshield and pot lifter, but not fuel storage container). Total cost is also light - only $25 US. Easy on the back, easy on the pocket book! If one of these meets your needs, it seems like a good deal. (I've never used one myself, only read/heard other's comments.)

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Cooking Pots

When the ol' USSR folded up shop and the new nations of Russia and other former Soviet regions needed to raise some hard cash, titanium started finding its way into sports gear instead of attack submarines. Call it the Peace Dividend for backpackers. :-)

In recent years, titanium pots and pans were the royalty of ultralight. Strong, exceptionally light, and... EXPENSIVE! But if you really wanted to shave off the ounces, titanium was the way.

MSR has introduced their BlackLite series of cookware. Claiming to be sturdy, extremely lightweight, and non-stick, it's worth a serious look. I have yet to try using any of it, but the few reports I've heard were favorable. Cheaper than titanium (plus it includes two pots), and I'm guessing the 1.5 liter pot (w/ lid and lifter) weighs no more than 9-10 ozs. Right in the ballpark of the 6 oz. Evernew Titanium 1.3 liter pot (w/ lid, built-in handles).

Titanium still has the edge here (by a few ounces), but for the first time you can get very close to titanium weight without the price. Not sure about durability yet. Time will tell.

Also, don't forget about the Mini-Trangia stove/cookset combo. If you don't mind an alcohol stove, the entire setup (stove, 0.8 liter pot, lid/frypan, shield and pot lifter) weighs in at a mere 12 ozs. I still need to verify the weight, but it could be a good deal for you. Very cheap stove/cookset solution!

I'm staying with my titanium pot, but if I was new to the ultralight market, I'd be taking a hard look at the BlackLite series. Leave the extra pot at home for ultralight trips, bring it along for those multi-course gourmet weekends.

Evernew Titanium Pot     - $40,  6 ozs (1.3 ltr. pot, lid, folding handles)
MSR BlackLite Cook Set   - $33, 18 ozs (1.5 and 2 ltr. pots, lid, pot lifter)
Mini-Trangia Cook System - $25, 12 ozs (0.8 ltr. pot, stove, lid/pan, lifter)

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This topic has been done to death, so all I'll say is a quick rehash of the common ultralight wisdom. The old Army saying states that "one pound off your feet is like five pounds off your back." In other words, it pays to take a hard look at just how light a boot or shoe you can safely and comfortably get around in.

Without a heavy load on your back, your need for heavy boots may well vanish! You need to CAREFULLY determine your own needs, but most ultralight hikers use either lightweight boots, trail-running shoes, or even regular running shoes/sneakers. Ultra-ultralight PCT thru-hikers Ray and Jenny Jardine were the first (AFAIK) to widely promote the use of running shoes for long-distance ultralight backpacking, inspiring others to experiment.

My all-time favorite footwear is the Lowa Tempest Lo. I'm not the only one either - at the Feb 2000 REI Members Only used gear sale, several folks (including myself) came wearing our dusty Tempest Lo's, and were looking for (you guessed it) a cheap slightly used pair of Tempest Lo's. Most comfortable footwear I've ever worn. No break-in period, no "hot spots", never given me a blister despite many long, rugged trail days. For snow camping and snowshoeing, my mid-weight nordic skiing boots get the job.

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More items to follow...

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