What is ultralite backpacking anyway?

If you have stumbled across my blog, and are not already a lightweight backpacker (hi mom!), you may be wondering what the heck this ‘ultralite’ business is about. My first official blog post is for all the non-hikers out there, or hikers stuck in the ‘traditional’ practices of backpacking.

Wikipedia defines ultralite backpacking as a “style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip”.

Probably the most important concept when it comes to ultralite and lightweight backpacking is base pack weight (BPW). A hiker’s BPW includes the weight of their backpack, and all of the gear inside or outside of it (excluding consumables such as food and water).

In the U.S., ultralite is officially defined as having a BPW of less than 10 pounds, while a BPW of less than 20 pounds is considered lightweight. If you have ever experienced what is called ‘traditional’ backpacking, you may notice that these numbers are significantly lower than the weights typically carried. Ultralite backpacking is a relatively new phenomenon, and many long-distance hikers of yesteryear (aka the 90s and earlier) would cover hundreds or thousands of miles with pack weights of up to 50 pounds or more.

In order to get pack weights so low, ultralite hikers can go to quite a lot of effort. EVERY. OUNCE. COUNTS. For an ultralite backpacker, the weight of a piece of gear is arguably its most important attribute. This makes the already complex process of gear shopping require even more research, as the weight of each item must be carefully considered. Ultralite backpackers can spend a lot of time and energy trying to find the lightest possible version of each item of gear. (Remember when I said I was planner? Yeah, days of research went into my gear list).

One of the more sophisticated shelters used by lightweight backpackers (from tarptent.com)

Another important consideration is foot weight. You may not know this, but weight carried on the foot requires 4-6x as much energy to move as the same amount of weight carried on the back. For this reason, many long-distance hikers choose to forgo heavy hiking boots in favour of lighter trail shoes. You may be thinking ‘no hiking boots?! what about ankle support?!! what about all the injuries?!?’ It turns out that for an active, healthy person with no existing ankle issues or injuries, hiking boots are likely just unnecessary weight. After all, thru-hikers routinely cover thousands of miles in running shoes.

One of my favourite parts about ultralite backpacking is the minimalism and simplicity of it all. Ultralite backpackers do without many ‘luxury’ items that may be used by traditional backpackers or campers (for example, having multiple items of clothing is considered a luxury..). Ultralite hiking is truly living the simple life.

What it all boils down to is that going ultralite makes backpacking a healthier and more enjoyable experience. The reduced weight allows hikers to cover longer distances with much less wear and tear experienced by the body, and any hike will be made more enjoyable by eliminating back pain and blisters (see chart).

packweightchartIllustration by Mike Clelland

I am aiming for a base pack weight of 13-15 pounds for my trips this summer, meaning I will not officially be classified as an ultralite backpacker. Becoming truly ultralite will be a cool goal for me to work towards as I progress in my journey, but I don’t think that official classification is the be-all end-all of long-distance backpacking. For me, it’s about experiencing nature in a way that is as safe and comfortable as possible. For now, I am looking forward to a summer spent in simplicity.

2 thoughts on “What is ultralite backpacking anyway?

  1. Great blog! Thanks for the tip on weight on the feet vs back! I was just wondering whether I should pack my heavy-duty hiking boots or wear them when I walk to the train station today to end my hiking in the UK holiday. BTW: LeJOG not on your dream list?


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