Ultralight Backpacking Questions and Answers
By Steve Gillman
Having had this site up for more than seven years now, I get
a lot of emails from visitors and from subscribers (when I used
to give away the book Ultralight Backpacking Secrets a chapter
at a time). Here are some of the questions people have asked
over the years, along with my best shot at an answer that makes
sense (at least to me).
Do you have to go without a tent?
The short answer is no. You can cut the weight in other areas.
Many ultralight backpackers go with just a tarp to save weight,
and some go with bivy sacks. I have done both. But there are
enough lightweight tents available that you can still keep your
pack weight down and bring a bug-proof shelter (and that protection
from bugs is the biggest advantage that I see).
At the moment I have a screen tent with a nylon bottom that
weighs just seventeen ounces (a GoLite "nest"--not
sure if they still make it). When I pitch that under my 16-ounce
tarp I have a complete shelter system that comes in at close
to two pounds. Some complete rain-proof tents are around three
pounds now, which is another option.
Is there any reason the weight has to be below a certain
Yes, there actually is a reason that you need to get your
total pack weight down to a certain level to truly benefit from
going light. It has to do with how your entire backpacking system
functions together. If you have too much weight on your back
you not only have that additional weight, but you will probably
need a bigger, heavier pack to carry everything and you'll want
hiking boots for the ankle support.
This isn't an exact science, but to look at it from the other
direction, when the total weight of your stuff other than the
pack and footwear drops from around 25 pounds to about 20 pounds,
you can replace your four-pound frame pack with a one-pound frameless
one, so saving five pounds really saves eight. More than that
though, you drop a pound off of each foot when you can then convert
to running or trail shoes instead of hiking boots. Since it is
estimated that a pound on the foot equals about five on the back
in terms of energy expended while backpacking, this is a huge
difference. You'll be much more comfortable once you drop to
the truly ultralight range for your total backpack weight.
What about water weight?
I would always push the limits of the pack with the water
carried if I was hiking in a true desert and was unsure about
where there would be water available. Water is just too important.
In other environments I have found that I can get by with two
pounds of water in the form of two plastic pop bottles. While
one is being treated (it takes thirty minutes for water purification
pills to work), I can drink from the other.
If I plan well, I always have enough water (I ran out once--for
a couple hours). The key is to always drink your fill when you
arrive at a water source, and then fill the bottle or bottles.
If you are making a longer stop, wait until a bottle of water
has been treated, drink that, and fill it again before returning
to the trail.
Is a frameless pack hard on the shoulders?
It's true that with a good frame pack you can shift much of
the weight to your hips using the hip belt. This can help save
wear and tear on shoulders, and allow the air to cool your back
a bit. But if you go light enough your shoulders should never
get too sore from a frameless pack, and you can swing it from
one to the other shoulder on smooth stretches in order to cool
What's the single biggest reason to go light in your
Probably the freedom it allows you. Hitting the trail with
less weight is much more comfortable and enjoyable, but the freedom
to go where you want or change your plans makes the biggest difference
for many of us.
For example, people used to carry "summit packs"
with them if they planned to run or climb to the top of any peaks
while backpacking. This was used to carry a jacket, water and
snacks while going for the summit, and the big backpack was then
left somewhere down below during the attempt. Of course that
meant that after reaching the top (or giving up), the hiker had
to go back down the same way to retrieve the big pack.
Imagine you are in this situation and you see a great little
valley down the other side of the mountain. Wouldn't it be nice
to just head on down to camp there for the night? If you have
everything with you the choice is easy. Going light enough makes
it possible to bring everything to the top of the mountains and
so to leave options like that open. Also, the fact that you can
go twenty miles in a day when going light, and as easily as going
ten when traveling with more weight, means you can decide to
take a side-trip or change your route. Freedom is the biggest
advantage of ultralight backpacking for myself.
Keep sending in those questions, and watch the homepage for
announcements of more "q and a" pages like this.