Article by Tristan Higbee
Ultralight backpacking can broadly be defined as multi-day camping and hiking with a backpack full of gear (your “base weight”) of 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) or less. Base weight doesn’t include food, water, or other consumables—just “gear.” Your shelter, backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothing, and various miscellaneous items constitute your base weight. Yes, it’s absolutely possible for all of that to weigh 10 lbs. or less. And yes, it feels amazing to hike with such little weight on your back.
Tenkara is the perfect complement to ultralight backpacking. They go together like fish and slime. The two pursuits share a common ethos: pare away the non-essential and focus on enjoying the outdoors unencumbered. It’s actually through ultralight backpacking that I first discovered tenkara. I can’t perfectly remember the first reference to tenkara I came across, but I’m fairly confident that it came on the Backpacking Light forums that have been a staple of the ultralight backpacking community for years. I know I’m far from the only tenkara convert to have followed this path.
Apart from the rather subjective goal of “enjoying the outdoors unencumbered,” ultralight backpacking simply makes for more enjoyable hiking. It’s undeniably easier to hike with 10 pounds of gear on your back than 40 (18 kg). You can cover more miles in a day (if you so choose), cover your mileage goal more quickly (leaving more time for fishing or relaxing), or simply enjoy the feeling of walking through the natural world with a lessened level of suffering. If you’ve found that traditional backpacking is too difficult on your feet or joints, ultralight backpacking could be your ticket to opening up the gates of the backcountry (or the woods behind your house) for the first time.
The goal of this article isn’t necessarily to fully convert you to the cult of ultralight. This rabbit hole is long and deep. Several books and innumerable forum threads cover this pursuit and every iota of gear from every conceivable angle. All of that is beyond the scope of this primer. Instead, my goal is to give you some practical, actionable ways that you can shed weight from your camping setup while also giving you a peek at what else you can do once you’re beyond the basics.
The Ground Rules
I’m going to assume that a significant chunk of the people reading this are familiar with camping on some level and even have some camping gear already. So instead of first assembling your mountain of existing camping gear and then deciding what to leave out when you’re packing for a trip, start with nothing and then mindfully choose a single item at a time. Ask “Do I absolutely need this?” and “Will I definitely use this?” for every item. Only take items that elicit a “yes” response to both questions. (Make an exception for a small first aid kit. Hopefully you won’t “definitely” need it, but it’s still something you should have with you just in case.)
You’ll realize that a hatchet, saw, lantern, and even a stove and cooking gear are all things that you don’t absolutely need. You only absolutely need shelter, a sleep system to make sure you don’t freeze at night, clothing, food, water, and a backpack to carry it all. Literally everything else is ancillary and unnecessary. If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be that. While there are plenty of other items that might be nice to have, I can attest to the fact that the ultimate luxury is to not be bent double by the excessive weight of a heavy backpack.
That isn’t to say that you can’t add some comfort items or desired accessories (like tenkara gear) later on—you’re the one who will be hoofing out the miles, after all, and you have final say on what stays and goes—but it’s best to consciously and deliberately add them instead of mindlessly add them out of habit or conventional wisdom. Put another way, taking fewer and lighter-weight camping items means you can throw additional items in if you so choose and not be overwhelmed by the literal weight of it all.
If you are brand new to the world of backpacking and don’t already have a closet full of camping gear, that’s great! You won’t have to deal with the hassle of selling your old gear. Having an ultralight mentality from the start will be kinder on both your back and wallet in the long run.
Consider purchasing a small postage or kitchen scale if you don’t already have one. These are available online for less than $20. While a bathroom scale is helpful when weighing your fully-packed backpack, knowing the weight of the individual items that make up your gear list will give you a greater awareness of just how much each item will cost you in terms of weight and, by extension, on-trail comfort. Weigh every single item you plan on taking. If you can’t leave it behind, can you remove part of it? All of the tiny little weight savings here and there add up.
So now let’s take a look at those items that are absolutely essential, focusing on the “big three:” shelter, sleep system, and backpack. These are the items that make up the majority of your base weight. By focusing on reducing the weight of these items, you will dramatically lower the weight of your full backpack. Let’s start with shelter.
The most common type of camp shelter is the tent. Traditional camping tents have a tent body made from mesh with other lightweight materials and a waterproof rain fly that attaches over the outside of the tent body. These standard tents often tip the scales at 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) and just go up from there. As a result, few ultralight backpackers use this kind of tent. Instead, many opt for a single-walled tent.
In place of the two “walls” of a traditional tent (mesh inner tent plus waterproof rain fly), a single-walled tent has just a single layer of waterproof, non-breathable material like silicone-coated nylon or Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF; formerly called Cuben Fiber). A single-person, single-walled tent made out of sil-nylon will weigh in at around 2 lbs. (.9 kg), and one made from the much more expensive DCF will weigh around a pound (.45 kg). Trekking poles (which many backpackers already have with them) are often used to prop up the tent in lieu of dedicated tent poles.
If you already have a traditional double-walled tent and aren’t interested in spending money on a new tent, consider leaving parts of it behind. Do you really need to put a footprint underneath the tent to help protect the floor? Probably not. Do you really need the rain fly? If the forecast is clear, no. Can you leave the tent itself behind and just use the fly, poles, and footprint to set up a shelter? Some tents have this capability.
Tents are not the only option for shelter. Many ultralight backpackers use a tarp. When strung between trees or propped up with trekking poles, a tarp can be an effective, lightweight, and comparably inexpensive method of protecting yourself from wind, rain, and other inclement weather. When pitched correctly and in the appropriate spot, it’s possible to stay as dry as you’d be in a tent. Many will pair a tarp with a bivy sack of some kind. These are essentially cocoons of fabric that fit more tightly around you and your sleeping bag. Some are partially or completely waterproof (useful for keeping your sleeping bag completely dry from water that could make its way under the tarp or splatter its way under the edges of the tarp), while others are made completely out of mesh netting (for keeping mosquitos and other critters at bay).
Indeed, depending on conditions, it is possible and very effective to use a bivy sack without a tarp. This is my favorite way to camp. I have a “bug bivy” that I made entirely out of mesh. It weighs just over 5 oz. (140 g). When used with an ultra-thin and ultralight plastic ground sheet, I have a complete fair-weather shelter system that weighs less than 7 oz. (200 g). Now that is ultralight.
Hammocking is another possible way to lighten your shelter load. When the weather is warm and clear, a lightweight camping hammock is a comfortable, light, and relatively inexpensive shelter. When you add in a tarp for rainy conditions and necessary hammock-specific insulation for cooler conditions, the weight savings can be negligible compared to other forms of shelter, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent shelter if you prefer it. I personally have little experience with hammock camping. I often camp in the desert or above treeline, neither of which is conducive to stringing up a hammock. But those who are into hammock camping are really into it. Hammock campers are a very passionate community that exists strongly on its own both within and beyond the ultralight backpacking world.
Of course, the very lightest shelter is no shelter at all. Some hardcore backpackers practice “cowboy camping” in fair weather. It’s simply sleeping under the stars in your sleeping bag or quilt with nothing but a sleeping pad and ground sheet under you and the great expanse of the sky above you. If rain and mosquitoes aren’t a concern, it’s a magical and liberating way to camp.
The phrase “sleep system” refers to sleeping bag or quilt (more on quilts in a moment), sleeping pad/mattress, and, if necessary, ground sheet of some sort. Many sleeping bags made for traditional camping tip the scales at 3 to 4 lbs. (1.4 to 1.8 kg). An ultralight sleeping bag or quilt, using lighter materials for both the insulation and shell fabric, will weigh around a pound (.45 kg). Are you starting to see now how shaving off a couple of pounds here and there add up to significant weight savings? Is that 10-lb. mark seeming slightly more attainable and desirable now?
Sleeping Bags & Quilts
Sleeping bags and quilts can have two different types of insulation: down and synthetic. Both can be excellent for the ultralight backpacker depending on what traits you value. Down is lighter and more compressible. It is also more expensive and loses much of its ability to insulate if wet. Synthetic insulation is slightly heavier and not as compressible, but it is cheaper and will continue to keep you warm if it gets wet.
Backpacking quilts are basically trimmed sleeping bags. They lack the hood that sleeping bags have (the notion being that you instead will use the warm hat you likely already have with you). They also lack insulation on the bottom side of the quilt. Instead, the edges of the quilt wrap around your sleeping pad, and it’s the sleeping pad itself that provides insulation and warmth. The idea behind quilts is the realization that your body is just compacting the insulation underneath you in a sleeping bag anyway (rendering it far less effective because insulation needs pockets of air to be effective). If that insulation is less effective, why even include it? Many quilts include straps that keep the quilt in place around the sleeping pad. As their name suggests, some (but not all) quilts can unzip/unclip/unbutton completely to form a warm, flat, quilt-style covering.
Not every ultralight sleeping bag or quilt is wholly a sleeping bag or wholly a quilt. There is a spectrum. Some sleeping bags geared toward ultralight enthusiasts have 360-degree insulation like a traditional sleeping bag but lack a hood. Some quilts can actually join together to give you a more or less fully insulated tube to sleep in, not unlike a sleeping bag. The sleeping bag versus quilt debate is one largely of personal preference. Broadly speaking, quilts are lighter than sleeping bags, but sleeping bags have more features. One might also fit your sleeping style better than the other.
Regardless of the type of insulation you choose and whether you go with a sleeping bag or quilt, temperature rating is something you’ll have to consider. I’ve found that a 20-degree (−7-degree Celsius) rating is sufficient for most of the 3-season camping I do. If temperatures will be lower, I’ll sleep in long underwear. If they’ll be higher, I’ll leave the sleeping bag’s zipper unzipped and cover only my torso.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to your existing sleeping bag to make it lighter if you don’t want to shell out the considerable amount of money for a new one. A quality sleeping bag or quilt is an expensive piece of gear, but a good one will last years and years and is worth the investment.
The other major piece of the sleep system puzzle is the sleeping pad. These range from ultra-thin slices of foam no wider than a skinny teenager’s shoulders to thick, luxurious mattresses that would have indulged the most persnickety of ancient emperors. Comfort comes at a cost, however, in terms of both weight and expense. Thin foam mattresses are lightweight and inexpensive but not terribly comfortable. Thick inflatable mattresses with additional insulation inside are comfy and warm but heavy and expensive. Some air mattresses are thick enough to be comfortable and light enough to tempt even the ultralight zealot, but they’ll set you back a couple hundred dollars. As with most backpacking items, you can have a low price, a quality piece of gear, and a low weight, but you can’t have all three.
A standard foam sleeping pad designed for camping is a relatively cheap (sub-$30) piece of gear that will be much lighter than any self-inflating sleeping pad and most non-self-inflating air mattresses, if much bulkier. It is a good way to lighten your load without breaking the bank.
The final part of the sleep system is the ground sheet or cloth. This is not usually necessary if you use a tent (ground sheets made to fit specific tents are called footprints) but is if you sleep with a tarp and can be nice to have or essential if you use a bivy sack. It’s basically a thin sheet of fabric or plastic that goes under your sleeping pad to protect it (and you) from damp ground and sharp objects. A common one of these used by ultralight backpackers is a very thin sheet of plastic cut to size. Googling “ultralight plastic ground cloth” will yield a handful of helpful results. A two-pack of these will run you the low, low price of around $10. They weigh less than 2 oz. (60 g) each.
Tyvek, the material traditionally used to provide a vapor barrier on the outside of plywood walls of houses under construction, is another popular and inexpensive ground sheet material. It’s not as light as the thinner plastic material but is more durable.
If you are dead set on wanting a footprint of some kind under your tent to protect the tent’s fabric floor (unnecessary in most conditions if you choose a site without sharp rocks or twigs), a thin plastic or Tyvek version will be cheaper and lighter than the pre-made fabric ones.
The final of the “big three” is the backpack itself. Gone are the days when a 6-lb. (2.7-kg) backpack was the norm. Newer materials and a focus on only the essential features mean that a backpack sufficient for multi-day hiking today can weigh between 8 oz. and 2 lbs. (.2 kg and .9 kg). Those on the lighter end of the spectrum will essentially just be basic tubes of material with shoulder straps and a couple of buckles. The heavier ones will include a frame, a larger capacity, more pockets, more straps, and additional features.
The lighter and more basic the rest of your gear is, the lighter and more basic your backpack can be. For this reason, it’s best to buy a new backpack last, after you’ve already bought everything else. If your shelter and sleep system are relatively heavy, you’ll need a relatively heavy backpack with more padding and a more substantial frame to make carrying that load less of a chore. Food and water also weigh a lot, so if you’re going to be out hiking for days at a time, a more substantial backpack capable of carrying the heavier food load will be worth its weight.
You need far less clothing than you think. On my 13-day hike of California’s 211-mile-long (340-kilometer-long) John Muir Trail, I wore the same clothes every single day. They were my only set. In addition to the pants, t-shirt, underwear, and socks I wore, I had just two extra pairs of socks. Yes, I wore the same underwear for 13 days. Yes, I smelled bad. But you know what? Everyone else out there did too. And taking a dip into an alpine lake every couple of days kept me from getting too crusty and took the edge off of the body funk.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure your clothing selection can handle various weather conditions. On my John Muir Trail hike, I also took a long-sleeved shirt, a down vest, and a waterproof shell jacket. I used my spare socks as gloves when needed and wore a thin beanie when sleeping. Simple and lightweight. What more do you need? Well, you don’t need anything else, but it sure is nice to have clean, dry shorts and a t-shirt to change into at the end of a long day. These are luxury items that I often take. But that’s really the essence of ultralight backpacking. You get rid of everything you don’t absolutely need and then willingly add a few things back in if you choose to do so.
Let’s touch briefly on hiking footwear. Unless you have weak ankles, you don’t need boots. I and most other ultralight backpackers and long-distance hikers wear trailrunning shoes. These are basically lightweight running shoes with more aggressive tread on the sole. They come in waterproof (e.g., Gore-Tex) and non-waterproof versions. I prefer and currently wear non-waterproof ones. This is because when my shoes do get wet, they mostly dry out within an hour or so just from my continued hiking, and I like that any water that gets in my shoes can drain out easily. When I used to wear waterproof hiking shoes, I found that when water got in through the top of the shoe, it would to stay there. It didn’t drain out nearly as fast as a non-waterproof shoe. But this is a personal preference, and your hiking conditions or preference may be different.
What if I told you that you don’t actually need to cook on a backpacking trip? I’ve hiked thousands of miles all around the western US and can count the number of times I’ve lugged a stove along on one hand.
Again, this is largely a matter of personal preference. I don’t care what I eat when I’m hiking. I just need fuel in me so I can continue hiking (or fishing, etc.). I’m more than happy to choke down nuts, seeds, bagels, peanut butter sandwiches, tortillas, protein bars, chips, crackers, cookies, olives, candy, chocolate, dried fruit, jerky, hard cheeses, and summer sausages. One step up from this is to rehydrate dehydrated beans, soups, and other dinners using cold or air-temperature water in an emptied and cleaned peanut butter jar or similar container. This gives some semblance of eating like a civilized human while negating the need for a stove, fuel, and cookware. But I challenge you to camp without a stove. I find it to be freeing. Your mileage may vary.
If you simply can’t go without your hot evening meal or morning coffee, the lightest option is to go with a DIY stove that runs on denatured alcohol. There are countless tutorials online about how to make these stoves out of cat food cans or soda cans. These stoves are lightweight, fuel efficient, and inexpensive. Pair them with an ultralight windscreen and small titanium pot and you’ve got an ultralight cooking kit.
With food comes the need for water. When I used to go camping with my family as a kid, I remember my dad having a large, pump-action water filter. Those are still around and still useful for certain situations, but they’re also still heavy and bulky. You don’t need ‘em. Instead, go with either the new breed of ultralight water filter that screws onto the end of your water bottle (1-liter “disposable” plastic water bottles are cheap and the lightest option for carrying water) or use chemical water treatment. I prefer using chemical water treatment tablets or drops over any other method because they are the lightest and fastest way to get water.
When I come to a stream, I fill up my bottles, drop the chemicals in, and continue hiking. The water is purified and safe to drink within 30 minutes. No need to constantly pump or squeeze to get water, and that leaves more time for hiking, eating, resting, or, indeed, fishing. Some chemical treatments leave the water with more of a “chemically” taste than others. In my experience, the liquid drops are preferable in this regard.
You’ll need a headlamp, small first aid kit, basic toiletries, and the like. Just try to make everything else as small and light as possible. Replace the big headlamp that requires 4 AA batteries with one that requires just one. Pare down that first aid kit to items you are most likely to use and, more importantly, know how to use. Bring that mostly-empty travel-sized tube of toothpaste instead of a brand new larger one. Cut the handle off of your toothbrush. Be ruthless about cutting things down to size and leaving items behind. Weigh everything.
MYOG: Make Your Own Gear
If you are money-poor but time-rich and are able to watch a few YouTube videos about how to sew, consider making your own ultralight backpacking gear. I’ve made my own backpacks, sleeping bags, tarps, bivy sacks, gloves, shorts, and various other small items. If you start with something small and easy (e.g., a stuff sack) before moving onto the more complicated projects (e.g., a backpack), it’s not too bad. There are plenty of instructional articles, YouTube videos, and online forums out there dedicated to making your own ultralight backpacking gear. You can even buy kits of materials that come with instructions. It’s certainly not for everyone or even most people, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention this option.
I have no vested interest in what you carry on your back when you go out into the woods. It doesn’t affect me at all. Use what is best for you. You’ll have a memorable time regardless of what gear you have. But I found that I enjoyed my backpacking adventures so much more—and was able to do more of them—when I went ultralight. That’s why I’m passionate about spreading the ultralight gospel. It has made a big difference in my enjoyment of the outdoors, and it can do the same for you.
Ultralight backpacking is a more accessible form of backpacking. You don’t need to be a Navy Seal to heft an ultralight backpacking kit. Kids and out-of-shape adults can do it. I believe that everyone who enjoys hiking and camping can benefit from some ultralight backpacking fundamentals, even if they don’t fully commit to the dogma.
One of the best things about ultralight backpacking is how it opens up the door to other multi-day outdoor pursuits. Once you’ve gotten your gear down to a small, lightweight bundle, you can use that same bundle for packrafting, kayak camping, bikepacking, bicycle touring, motorcycle touring, and even car camping. Just grab your gear and head out the door.
So where do you go from here? You’ll notice that I have refrained from recommending specific brands. If you have a passing familiarity with the world of camping gear, you’re likely familiar with big brands like Kelty, Marmot, Osprey, Patagonia, and REI. For each of these bigger brands, most of which make good gear that can fit the ultralighter’s purposes, there is a smaller, independent company that makes up the ultralight backpacking cottage industry. A handful of these companies to set you on your Googling way are ZPacks, Tarptent, Mountain Laurel Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear, and Enlightened Equipment. Be prepared for sticker shock. Some of this stuff, especially the items made from the lightest and most space-age materials, is wickedly expensive.
You don’t have to do everything I’ve talked about here all at once. If you already have camping gear, try to take as little of it as possible out on an easy overnight backpacking trip. When you come home, make note of what things you did and didn’t use. What can you leave behind next time? Make a game out of getting away with as little as possible. Don’t be stupid and leave behind life-supporting items, but deprive yourself of one or two little things you thought were essential. You’ll be surprised to find out just how little actually is.
If you’re of the nerdy persuasion, create a spreadsheet with all of your gear and each item’s weight. Make another with ultralight gear you’re considering buying or making and see just how much weight you can save by replacing one, two, or all of your current camping items. Once you’ve gotten your camping gear down to the ultralight essentials, you can start adding back in some items that will add more meaning to your adventures. For many ultralighters, that takes the form of photography equipment, a cushy pillow, or a camp chair. For all of us reading this magazine, it will include tenkara gear. A rod, a couple of lines, a spool of tippet, a small fly box, nippers, hemostats, and a quart-sized Ziploc bag to carry everything all weigh in at roughly 6 or 7 oz. (170 or 200 g).
Tenkara is to western fly fishing what ultralight backpacking is to traditional backpacking, and the two are an ideal pairing. Remember, the lighter your pack is, the easier it will be to get to that distant thin blue line that you won’t have to share with a soul. If that’s not sufficient motivation for the tenkara angler to go ultralight, I don’t know what is.
Tristan Higbee is a tenkara addict living in Idaho. He makes weekly tenkara videos as Tenkara Addict on YouTube and posts photos of his fishing adventures to Instagram (@TenkaraAddict). He also makes and sells car camping accessories (with tenkara accessories coming soon) at KamchatkaGear.com.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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