ultralight backpacking gear tips

leaving home for 12 days with about a 20 pound pack

in my opinion ultralight backpacking is one of the more fun things you can do in the mountains.  the experience of feeling light and free rather than slow and encumbered is the best.  my first real experience with backpacking in this style was a fast, solo, post-season (early october) hike of the John Muir Trail.  completing this mountainous 210 mile trail was an incredible experience that opened my eyes to how fun going light can be.  here are my 10 gear tips for having fun ultralight backpacking.

1:  stovedon’t bring a stove.  the weight of the stove, a pot (or jetboil), and the fuel is just too much.  to stay warm, eat meals on the move (an hour or so after leaving camp or before arriving at camp for the night).  this means you won’t be cold eating food after dark or before dawn.  if you wake up and immediately start moving, you’ll find within a few minutes you’ll be toasty and comfortable.  this is actually way more pleasant than spending your morning freezing and fiddling with a stove, only to hit the trail 2 hours later.  more miles and more warmth: not bringing a stove is a no-brainer.

inadvertantly showing off my scarpa trail running shoes on top of forrester pass

2:  footwearhiking boots are ultra heavy.  lifting your feet thousands of times a day with heavy hiking boots on is an exhausting chore.  a good pair of lightweight trail runners are plenty sturdy and durable, and you will use much less energy when walking around in the mountains.  my go-to shoes for trail-running, backpacking, approaches, and even mountain biking are the scarpa rapid lt


3: count calories.  precisely pre-planning your meals means you can carry no more and no less than you need.  on the jmt, this meant carrying 10 days worth of food which weighed in at 15 pounds.  a miscalculation could mean lugging around a bunch of extra weight or risking energy deprivation.  favorite trail foods for the jmt:  pro bars, nut butters, granola, crackers, almonds, dried fruit, chocolate.

minimalist tarp+hammock shelter doing pretty well in a snow storm near the san joaquin river on the jmt

4:  minimalist shelterin a dry climate like the high sierras in the fall,  carrying a tent is major overkill.  finding good natural shelters protected by rocks and trees, combined with a minimalist tarp shelter makes for comfortable nights with just a fraction of the weight of a tent.  after being caught in a snowstorm on my first night out, I also learned the value of planning to finish the day at a low elevation.  this yielded warmer temperatures and more stable weather.  minimalist tarp-based shelters have the added bonus of being extremely affordable.  my tarp+hammock shelter for the jmt ended up costing around 100$, way less than even the crappiest tent.  i used the hammock bliss sky bed, which has a nice feature of being able to slide in a air mattress for additional insulation.

5:  pack. a modern internal-frame backpacking pack weighs in at just a couple of pounds.  old fashioned packs are more than double this.  this is a very worthwhile expense.  try on a whole bunch of them to find the most comfortable.  i'm a big fan of black diamond's packs, mostly due to the simple lightweight design and excellent active suspension.  

6: one dish to rule them all.  a titanium mug is the only dish you need for ultralight backpacking.  you can use it to eat granola, mix up some trail mix, and drink water.  on the jmt, I was fortunate to spend several nights below the restricted elevation for camp fires.  this meant I could build a mini stove from some rocks, and make a tiny cooking fire.  some powdered soups fortified with dried veggies and a cup of tea is an incredible luxury made possibly by carrying a tiny titanium mug.  snow peak makes a really good titanium cup that I like.

7: chill out on the gadgets. electronics and batteries are super heavy.  a camera, cellphone, and a headlamp are in my opinion the only true essentials.  I feel like everything else is superfluous weight.  also, please don’t become the person with a speaker attached to their pack playing music in the wilderness.  

8: manage water weight. water is extremely heavy.  using a map to pre-plan areas with sure water, and carrying the bare minimum water in those areas can make your pack pounds lighter.  most of the time on the jmt, I ended up having only a half nalgene of water in my pack.  the other bottle remained empty except at camp.

9: go fast. a huge amount of weight you carry is food.  being out for 5 days rather than 10 days means substantially cutting down the weight of your pack.  not only does this lighten your load, but moving quickly can give you a safety margin in the mountains.

10: have fun! hopefully you end up thinking going light is super fun.  you’ll quickly come to enjoy comfortably cruising up mountain passes rather than sweating and straining your way to the top.

toiling up muir pass would be way more hateful with a heavy pack

the rock rack

here's what we might bring for a day of cragging in joshua tree, or maybe up a multi-pitch on tahquitz or in the sierra.   always a work in progress.  gear is so rad. 

get. the. gear. 

  • 10 alpine draws - bd dyneema shoulder length slings with petzl spirit carabiner 
  • 5 quickdraws 
  • 1 set of dmm offset nuts - these things are so useful 
  • doubles bd c3 cams - green thru yellow (singles for the multi-pitch)
  • doubles bd c4 cams to #3 (singles to #2 for multi-pitch)
  • mammut 8.7 serenity dry rope 60 m - light and fast!
  • pair of bd atc guides
  • 5 petzl attache locking carabiners 
  • 8 bd dyneema double shoulder length slings with 1 petzl spirit carabiner each
  • black diamond bod harness - bnna 
  • black diamond aspect harness -bran