10 Tips For An Ultralight Backpack
10 Tips For An Ultralight Backpack

10 Tips For An Ultralight Backpack

Today were going to talk about how to get a lighter backpacking kit!

Obviously not everyone wants a lighter backpack, so why would you?

  • a lighter backpack is easier to carry while hiking since whatever you bring, you then have to haul up mountains for miles and miles on end
  • it’s more comfortable on your back, shoulders, and joints carrying less weight
  • it allows you to do more and see more, since you can walk more freely without pain or stress
  • and in many many ways it helps to avoid potential injuries you might see with people toting a heavier load
Climbing Mt Shasta in Northern California with John Zahorian 2017

baseweight is a term you may be unfamiliar with so we’ll cover that quick, it is the weight of your gear, excluding water and food, since that varies on a day to day basis.

It is essentially as light as your pack will get on a trip, and is a standard for comparison if you’re ever looking at anyone elses kit

I have done almost all of my thru hikes with a 6lb baseweight, give or take

So although I really enjoy traveling super light now, I didn’t always. In 2012 on my first Appalachian Trail attempt I was actually carrying upwards of a 70lb backpack

I had multiple guidebooks, maps for states I wouldn’t be in for months to come, hardcover books that I never touched or read, a 7lb bag of trail mix, three yoyo’s, and the list goes on…

As you can imagine, I had a lot of fun, but I also quickly found myself in a lot of pain from the crushing weight of my pack

Pain that soon became the reason I had to quit and get off trail so early on into my hike

I think this is one of the reasons I’ve since gone so light on all my trips, it’s the prospect of getting injured in a way that can be prevented

In 2016 when I came back to do the Appalachian Trail again my pack was super light, and I walked comfortably the entire way enjoying every moment


You don’t have to go anywhere near as minimal as I did, but I do think it’s good to at least be aware of what you’re carrying because maybe there’s some heavier things you could leave at home and still be just as happy without them

So as you’re going on your shake down overnight hikes near home this is stuff I want you to consider.

A thru hike upwards of 2,000 miles is much more than just a camping trip, in reality its a walking trip.

Often times you have deadlines either set by when you need to be back to work, when you might run out of money, or something every last person has to deal with on trail… when impassible weather is going to roll in and ruin the finale of your hike forcing you to quit

Few thru hikes could you average 10 miles a day and still go the entire distance due to the eventual wall of weather you will face. Thats why most appalachian trail hikers do it in 6 months or less, and most pacific crest trail hikers do it in 5 months or less. If they were to take any more time they would inevitably run into far too dangerous of conditions to continue.

so we hike, day in and day out, waking up near dawn, and stopping near sunset or even after. all trying to race the weather north or south.

This would be made much more difficult with a heavy backpack, so these days most choose and aim for a more ultralight system while thru hiking.

Something to carry more comfortably on their walking trip

There’s loads of information out there on how to lighten your backpack

probably on any hiking blog or website in existance you’ll find various tips of this sort

So I’d like to take a different approach

to give you the tools to do this and understand this yourself

so instead of just going over a hundred items i find worthless that you may really enjoy lets talk about some tools to get you that lighter backpack

since everybody has different needs and desires, and there’s a million different ways to do this anyhow

here are 10 tips from my point of view

1. Use what you have

start with the gear you already own, I know it’s tempting to buy new things but the best way to learn and grow is to simply get out there and try things.

This way you can get a better idea for what you really want when later on if you choose to go and buy some new stuff.

If you don’t currently have gear ask around with friends and see if you can borrow some stuff. This may not be possible but it’s worth a try instead of buying things you may not like, or buying things you would soon want to replace

When you do go out with your gear, take notes on what you would like to be different. Maybe there’s a different tent shape you would prefer, or your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough

Really scrutinize everything you own.

2. Take out everything you have, weigh it, and write it all down

preferably using a website like lighterpack.com with a little kitchen scale

It’s one thing to go backpacking and know that your kit feels heavy, it’s another thing to know exactly where that weight is all coming from.

For me this was a big eye opener as when I went online to look at getting new things I could see exactly how much weight I would or wouldn’t be cutting by spending that money.

With websites like lighterpack you can play around with your setup by removing things, or weighing different things and seeing how that changes your list overall

I had found early on by weighing random things around my house that some simple kitchen pot was lighter than the one I had for backpacking, I found that the warm clothes I had bought many years ago were lighter than what I had been using while being equally warm.

You never know the types of things you may find and be able to replace.

Categorizing things in this way gives you the ability to scrutinize further, and often times for free, lighten your backpacking load

lighterpack.com is a wonderful tool for any backpacker looking to step up their game. Looking for other peoples gear lists you’ll surely being seeing this website a lot.

3. Everytime you go out, reevaluate your gear

So you’ve got a day here, or a day there off work where you can go on an overnight trip…

Take as many of these as possible, and everytime you come home, really think over your trip, and reavaluate the things you brought.

What did you use, what didn’t you use, can anything be changed.

Did you love something but felt it could be lighter weight, did you hate the design of something but still feel at its core it’s necessary but could replaced for something better with the ame function

Everytime you go out, pay close attention to how you’re doing things, and do this over and over and over again

the only way you’ll figure this stuff out is by doing

Before hiking the appalachian trail in 2016 I had already done about 2,000 miles worth of hiking trips near home. Learning, growing, changing, and refining. I learned more on those trips, than I ever have since on any thru hike I’ve ever done.

4. Make a distinction between what is actually necessary for your survival and comfort, and what is purely luxury

then decided if that luxury is something that you would even use

often you get out there and find you’re too tired to read at the end of the day, or like me on the florida trail with the fishing pole I carried for 1,100 miles, I only used it once

Remember in many ways thru hikes are more of a walking trip than anything else.

It’s good to make this distinction so you know exactly what you can leave behind and not truly suffer for it

Have fun and use those luxuries on shorter trips with friends, and have fun on your thru hike by carrying less and walking up that mountain more freely

But this doesn’t only apply to items like books, or fishing rods, this applies to everything

If it isn’t purely for your survival then at least for the thought exercise, consider it a luxury, and that it could be left behind

5. Modify everything

This is pretty common when trying to push the limits of what you carry. To go through all your items and see if you can modify them in anyway to be lighter. Are there any unnecessary features you can cut off

You’ve probably seen people cutting their toothbrushes in half, or even smaller. And that’s the idea. Do you really need a full handle on your toothbrush? Do you need those random straps on you backpack? Do you need an  entire bottle of sunscreen or could you package it in a smaller bottle. Modify everything

This is awesome to do because again, its free! And you’re actively making the gear you already own lighter in the process.

6. Find the value in the absolute bare minimum, and then add back things you want from there

In the world of backpacking there is the term, shakedown. Generally refering to shaking out all the unnecessary gear in someones pack, and seeing what sticks.

You could perform a shakedown hike yourself, like we talked about in some of the last steps with little overnight trips, or you could have someone more experienced go through your pack, and give you a shakedown from their perspective. What you need, and what you could leave behind, in an effort to lighten up.

When people ask me for a pack shakedown I make a point to show them what the bare minimum is with the gear they have. The least amount of items they need to survive, and then let them add back things from there that I had removed.

I think it’s extremely important to know what just how little you could get away with, to make a true distinction between luxury and survival.

So that’s what I’ll ask you to do, find the bare minimum, the least amount of things you need to survive, and then add back from there

I encourage anyone that wants to, to take a trip near home with that extremely minimal kit, and see what it’s like

See what you miss, and what you didn’t

Personally the things I’ve added back into my kit have been a camera and a yoyo since those items really help to keep me going on long days

My gear from the Pacific Northwest Trail

7. Campsite selection

Good campsite selection means you can get away with less gear

replacing that gear with knowledge and skills

for instance you have less need for a full tent and can get away with a tarp if your campsite selection is good or you know the trail you’re hiking has a lot of vegetation to shield you. Thus saving a lot of weight with a smaller shelter.

Same goes for warmth, if you’re constantly setting up in really exposed areas, near water, or at the tops of mountains then you would need a lot more insulation than someone who is being more choosy about their campsites.

If you’re able to find campsites with really plush ground like grass, leaves, or pine needles you can get away with a much lighter and more minimal sleeping pad while retaining that natural comfort

This is how I’ve always been able to go so light. I am extremely choosy with where i camp, and I don’t let what others are doing dictate how I do things.

  • Look for areas that are naturally sheltered from wind
  • camp away from water as those areas are always colder
  • find a spot with good tree cover above you to avoid condensation and provide warmth
  • don’t camp on the tops of exposed mountains or in the bottoms of valleys
  • find a spot that has good natural cushion for ground

doing all of this whenever possible and you’ll be amazed at how little you can carry and still remain comfortable

of course you don’t need to do each and every one of these things every night but pick and choose depending on the weather you’re going to experience

Sheltered from wind, plenty of extra cover from trees, and a relatively comfortable ground to sleep on. This was a very fine campsite

8. Use others as inspiration for your own gear choices

This is something I do constantly, searching online for others that have been successful on their thru hikes, and comparing their gear to mine, or taking notes on what they use and why it would be helpful to me

Is it lighter weight? Is it going to keep my warmer or dryer? Is there some special reason they chose what they did instead of something else?

and of course, is this a person who had highly scrutinized their own gear choices that I can actually trust with my own

Looking for ways I can lighten my own kit with theirs as inspiration, or ways that I could live more comfortably on trail

Don’t just do this with one person, look at many different folks out there and take notes. This I find is an incredible way to learn whether you’re a beginner or an expert

Though you can look at any gear list ever for this type of inspiration it is helpful to specifically look at soeone who is hiking the same trail you’re going to hike. As things like warmth, shelter, water capacity, and rain protection can vary wildly from trail to trail

9. Spending money

Lets say you know you really love backpacking, and that maybe you’re looking to spend money, and are wanting to make an investment to many trips in the future…

the biggest area to save weight is probably by replacing what is known as your big three

Your shelter, your sleeping bag, and your backpack

This will undoubtedly cost you and may not be money you need to spend when all these other tips are pretty much free

but you can almost certainly shed some pounds with lighter gear, instead of just becoming a minimalist

Something you may notice about this list is I hardly if at all mention that you need to go out and buy something lighter, I think really the trick to a lightweight kit is skills and learning, rather than spending a fortune. Realizing what you don’t need instead of replacing everything you have with a fancy new version.

Enlightenedequipment.com makes great quilts

Zpacks.com makes great tents

Palantepacks.com makes great backpacks

All off this is an exponential process. As you lighten your pack further you’re then able to use lighter and lighter gear made to carry less. So by taking steps towards a lighter kit you can then use a lighter backpack for instance

So these three places, your shelter, quilt, and backpack are where the biggest weight savings can come from by spending money. But be sure you’re aware of how much the gear you already have weighs, and consider if any of this is actually worth the money to you to save that extra bit

10. Don’t pack your fears

research, plan, and understand how you can overcome your fears

a game i would play with my mom was using her fears of what i would run into on a thru hike, and how i would deal with it to my own learning advantage.

I’d ask her what she was afraid of happening to me, as there were always so many things she was afraid of, and then i would explain to the best of my ability why that wasn’t a problem because of this technique, this understanding, or the gear i was bringing and how i am using it.

if you can’t explain it to her or don’t know yourself then it’s a topic you need to research and learn about.

Often times the fears she would have were not even sort of applicable to the trail I was hiking, or time of year i was hiking, but you need to know that. What the temperatures are like where you’re going, and how your gear will work with that. Animals, bad weather, everything pertaining to the trail you’ll be on.

The fears you have, the fears your friends and family have are often times very valid and real. That’s why we play this game, to learn, and find new things to prepare for

the more you understand your fear, the less frightening it becomes, and instead turns into a strength

Remember it may seem silly to save an ounce here or an ounce there, even fractions of an ounce, but you do that enough and you suddenly have shaved pounds off your back.

*Bonus Tip*

The biggest area I see where people carry to much is clothing. The fear of being cold, the fear of being dirty, or not knowing what will be warm enough. Studying what others have used before you, or using your own personal experiences is important here.

So those are my 10 tips and one bonus!

That’s all I have for you today, I’ll catch you in the next episode of the how to thru hike series where we’ll dive deeper into more specific gear categories, and things to prepare you for your long walk!

super ultralight with a bear can even


    1. Sharon Hurley

      I love your videos and introspective thoughts and awesome presentation, i wish you would include the quality of water sources and the resourcefulness of the towns where you resupply in.and your actual campsites. Where they are (mile markers) would also be nice to know. Not that we could ever keep up with your mile pace (ours might be half). It would be nice to know if a resupply stop or a campsite would be worth planning or looking forward to.

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