Many attempt lengthy thru-hikes that take them miles and miles on typically one-way routes through cities, states, and even entire countries. But not all make it, as the heavy pack they carry quickly becomes too much of a burden. The key, then, for longer, more enjoyable treks is ultralight packing.
But this is easier said than done, and if you do some research online, you’ll find the subject is often rife with misconceptions. If you’re looking to shed some pack weight before your next adventure, here’s how to do it right.
Make ultralight gear swaps
Sibley “Possibly” Brown was on the trail for nearly six months, everything she needed to survive—16 pounds of clothing and gear, plus food and water—loaded into the pack on her back. If anyone knows how to pack ultralight, it’s her.
There are plenty of tips ultralight hikers will offer, but some are downright ridiculous, Brown says. A popular example is the suggestion to cut your toothbrush in half to save a few grams. But this won’t make much of a difference, especially when you’re ignoring heavier, bulkier items in your pack.
If you really want to cut weight, focus on the big four—your tent, sleep system (i.e. your sleeping bag and pad), shoes, and backpack.
Select ultralight versions of every item to save the most weight. Think lightweight sleeping pads and bags, and frameless packs, which can be several pounds lighter than their heftier counterparts. After all, a three-pound tent will cancel out any weight savings you’ll scrounge by sawing the handle off your toothbrush.
Also, keep in mind that ultra-luxe gear tends to be heavier and bulky. Brown says she once saw a backpacker ditch full-size pillows and twin-sized sleeping pads with integrated foot pumps only after a few days on the trail. You don’t want to have to do that.
Next, consider what you put on your feet. According to Brown, many people start a long hike with heavy-duty hiking boots, but only a few days into the trip, most are ready to swap them for lightweight trail runners like those from Altra or Hoka. It might not seem like it to more inexperienced hikers, but after a few days on rugged terrain, heavy footwear starts to feel like they are slowing you down.
Finally, move on to swap smaller gear for lighter alternatives. Trade in your Nalgene for a disposable SmartWater bottle or a collapsible water bottle. Consider going stove-less in warmer months to save yourself from carrying fuel canisters. Instead, pack ready-to-eat meals like tortillas or tuna, and foods you can cold-soak, like noodles or couscous. Just a few smart swaps like these could save you ounces or pounds instead of grams.
Pack only what you need
After cutting weight on the big stuff, consider your packing list carefully. Brown’s advice: ditch everything you “might need.” It’s tempting to bring extra clothing, water bottles, hatchets, and more, but if there’s a chance you might not use them, it’s not worth carrying them around on your back. Brown’s method for singling out these items is simple.
“Go out for three days with what you think you need,” she says. “Then, for your actual thru-hike, leave behind anything you didn’t use.”
The same basic principle applies when you’re out on the trail—if there’s any piece of gear you didn’t use in your first three days, Brown recommends ditching it at the next hiker box or town.
The next step is to keep pairing down your weight by eliminating duplicates. You probably don’t need more than one cup or spoon, and when it comes to clothes, Brown recommends bringing just one of everything—t-shirt, shorts, pants, mid-layer, jacket, and hat. Don’t worry about getting them dirty or stinky: it’s going to happen no matter how many times you change, and you can always wash clothing and gear at camp or in towns you may pass through on your way.
Still, Brown still finds it useful to pack a simple, compact outfit for days in town. She prefers an ultralight sundress as it’s just one garment. This extra outfit will give you something to change into when dining out, shopping, or doing laundry.
Don’t worry about being underprepared. On many thru-hiking trails, there is often relatively easy and semi-frequent access to towns with outfitters or even hiker boxes of left-behind items at hostels and stations. If there’s anything you decide you can’t live without, you can find it there or have friends and family ship you gear to depots along the way.
Choose gear wisely
But it’s not just how much you pack—it’s also what you pack and where you’re backpacking.
Choose the right gear for the specific hike you’re doing, so as to avoid having to ditch much of it along the trail. Reflective umbrellas, for example, can be hugely useful on desert sections of the Pacific Crest Trail to keep the sun off your shoulders. But if you’re doing the Appalachian Trail, your umbrella won’t fare as well as trails are narrow and covered by canopy, making that particular piece of gear little more than dead weight.
Another example is going for a lightweight tarp or tent fly instead of a fully-enclosed structure. It can be a great swap if you want to go really ultralight, but in buggy regions prone to mosquitoes, this may only result in a lot of sleepless nights.
Ultralight packing is all about bringing the right gear—and you don’t have to splurge if you don’t want to. A tip from Brown: “Don’t invest a lot of money in an expensive rain jacket when Frog Togs are light, cheap, and easily replaceable.” Your best bet is to shop smart and talk to people who have more experience on the trail in question before you go off on your own adventure.
Hike your hike
Some think ultralight backpacking is uncomfortable by definition, but you don’t have to leave everything that brings you comfort or joy behind.
“If it improves your hike, bring it,” Brown says. “It comes down to finding what you need as an individual.”
That goes for major gear like sleep systems but also items like books or mementos. For example, while some hikers are willing to rough it out on hard surfaces to cut the weight of a sleeping pad, Brown says she’s not willing to make the sacrifice. That’s why a sleeping pad is worth the weight to her. Likewise, while a frameless pack may be lighter, they are often not as comfortable, so consider whether the trade-off is worth it for you.
Food is another item that’s worth the weight—at least for Brown. A warm meal, hot coffee, and your favorite snacks or healthy foods can make carrying heavy loads for long distances much more enjoyable.
Ultralight packing doesn’t come naturally to most and doing it well doesn’t happen overnight. Experience will tell you what gear is indispensable, what isn’t, and what you actually need to be comfortable and enjoy your time outdoors.
Alisha McDarris is a DIY contributor at Popular Science. She’s a travel lover and true outdoor enthusiast who enjoys showing friends, family, heck, even strangers, how to stay safe out there and enjoy more time in the wild. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, or road tripping.