UL Backpacking Tips: Ditching That Extra Load For the Long Haul

If you’re new to the long distance hiking game, I’m sure you’ve heard the term “UL” (short for “ultralight”), floating around in the discussion. Being UL generally means backpacking in the lightest and simplest way possible. It’s not for everyone, but those that keep their weight to a minimum often wear it like a badge of honor. Below, I’ve provided some tips and suggestions on how to keep your pack UL. Everyone has different preferences, budgets, and goal weights, so feel free to pick and choose what works best for you. Hike your own hike, buddy!

Rules of the Game:

Before I share those tips to help you begin your ultralight journey, it’s important to note that it takes a certain mentality to get the ball rolling. This likely won’t come naturally, and you might need to get some backpacking experience under your belt before you’re willing to make the proper sacrifices to get your pack weight down. In the beginning, you’ll probably have a “Just in case” attitude when it comes to your gear purchases, and your excuses for why you keep unnecessary items around. If you center your concentration on the essentials needed to keep you alive, rather than focusing on all the possible scenarios that could go wrong and cause discomfort, you’ll be on the right track for UL success! Being UL is all about necessity, and less about amenity and luxury.

“If It is Something, It Weighs Something”:

Pay attention to the specs before purchasing items. Is there a more lightweight option available? Is there a DIY option for that particular item? Later on in this post, I’ll share some pointers to take some of the guesswork out of this, but when it comes to buying a new piece of gear, avoid doing an impulse buy and look into your other choices. If you already have a few items in waiting, use a small postal scale to keep track of your load.

Purchasing Your “Big Three”:

Your “Big Three” is a term used to categorize your pack, sleep system, and your shelter. Your weight is not limited to all the things you put into your pack, but also includes the pack itself. If you’re carrying a lot of things with you, you’re obviously not going to want to get a lightweight pack that can’t handle the load. This will likely result in not enough room for your stuff, or will put you at risk for tearing your pack on the trail. I’ve seen a couple hikers have to lug their heavy backpack by hand over several miles when their straps failed them. Not a good time. However, when done right, having a smaller liter pack can help by forcing you to bring fewer items with you to begin with.

As far as sleeping bags are concerned, down is usually more lightweight than synthetic. The degree of your sleeping bag will alter the weight as well, (ie. a 15 degree F will be significantly heavier than a 30). If you have the right clothing, you should be able to stay warm with a higher degree bag. I hiked the AT with a 35 degree Western Mountaineering Caribou sleeping bag and had no issues.

Sleep mats come in several varieties. If you prefer the comfort of an inflatable sleep pad, there are UL options out there, but they’ll be on the pricier side. There are plenty of roll-out or fold-out sleep mats available too which are usually lightweight and more affordable. If you go with this option, you have the option to trim it as well.

There are a number of options for shelters: from tents, to hammocks, to bivies to tarps. If you’re just looking for something small enough to cover you and only you, you can go with a bivy or tarp. Hammocks are an option too, but they’re usually on the heavier side of the spectrum, and aren’t suited for everyone. Tents can be lightweight and small enough for just you, or large enough to fit you, another person and both your backpacks! It just depends on how much space you’d prefer and what price tag you’re willing to accept.

Stuff You Can Do Without:

  • Duplicates of Clothing – However, I would recommend keeping an extra pair of socks to keep your feet happy, but I have hiked with some people who only have the ones on their feet.
  • Deodorant – Your whole body is going to smell bad, not just your armpits. So you might as well embrace the stank, and leave that “pit stick” at home.
  • Compression Sack – Especially if you’re using a down sleeping bag. You can just punch it into the bottom of your pack without the extra weight of a compression sack.
  • Stuff Sacks to Organize Your Pack – In comparison to plastic baggies and the compactor bag method (read below), they’re just unnecessary added weight. If you pack your bag right, you won’t need all of them to keep you organized.
  • Camp Shoes – I ditched mine the second time around. Instead, just loosen the laces to your hiking shoes/boots when you’re done for the day, or go barefoot.
  • Trekking Poles – This sacrifice isn’t for everyone. I’ve hiked both ways and although it takes some practice adjusting to, I preferred hiking without them and felt like I was hiking stronger.
  • Electronics – Another touchy subject. Unless you’re using a smart phone as a multi-use tool, there’s no need. Hiking is more beneficial without the music and distractions. Unplug yourselves people!
  • Books and Journals – So many people lug a library of books and journals along with them. This is another object you can use your smart phone for, if desired. In my experience, I never felt like doing much of anything, especially journal, after a long day of hiking.
  • Extra Batteries – You can avoid the necessity of spare batteries for your headlamp by using brand new ones before you start, using long lasting lithium batteries, and using the energy saving “red light setting” more frequently. Batteries are good to have, but you shouldn’t need to carry them the entire beginning of your trek.
  • Trowel – Before you jump on me about the “Leave No Trace Principles,” you can use a rock, stick, or even your trekking pole to dig a cat hole instead. If you prefer a trowel, there’s the Deuce of Spades which only weighs 0.6 oz.
  • Toilet Paper – I like having this “luxury item” around, but plenty of hikers use smooth rocks, leaves, snow and sticks instead. Just make sure you’re not using poison ivy!
  • Camp Stove – I hiked “stoveless” both years on the AT and will continue to do so. Hiking without a stove means hiking without carrying stove fuel or additional water for cooking, makes hot meals that much more appreciated, and also means no waiting for your food to cook once you get to camp.

Take This, Not That:

  • Synthetics instead of Cotton Clothing – It weighs less than cotton, is moisture wicking, and dries faster. Cotton can also put you at higher risk for hypothermia when you get wet.
  • Trail Runners instead of Hiking Boots – Some people don’t count the weight they’re wearing, but most trail running shoes weigh less and will dry faster if they get wet. If you get the insides of your Gore-tex boots wet, those suckers will never dry!
  • Plastic Baggie/Spare Clothes instead of a Travel Pillow – Some people will blow air into a plastic baggie or bunch spare clothing to use for a pillow. Others choose to opt out of a pillow altogether. Hey, it’s better for the spine!
  • Plastic Bottle instead of Nalgene/Camelpack/etc. – You’ll see tons of hikers carrying SmartWater bottles on the trail since the popular Sawyer Squeeze fits right on top of it. Plus, replacement bottles can be found in just about any store. There are of course other brands, but just make sure it’s the right size for your Sawyer before purchasing.
  • DIY Soda Can Stove instead of Other Camp Stoves – There are several websites out there with instructions on how to make your own DIY Camp Stove, and they’re by far lighter than most camp stoves you’d purchase. Denatured alcohol (ethanol and HEET) is cheap and is also common to find in trail towns.
  • Talenti or Peanut Butter Jar instead of Stove – If you want to try hiking “stoveless,” you can always try cold soaking your food. All you need is a sealable jar of proper proportion to toss your ramen/couscous/instant potatoes in and let it absorb.
  • Titanium Cup instead of Camp Stove – If there isn’t a fire ban, you can use this cup to cook over a small fire. It can also be used for cold soaking your food if cooking isn’t an option. However, I’ve tried this and the cups can get a bit gunky, so I returned to hiking without a stove altogether.
  • Compactor Trash Bag instead of Stuff Sack – It’s a cheaper and more lightweight way to line the inside of your pack to keep the contents inside dry. You can also trim it to better fit the inside of your backpack.
  • Tyvek instead of Ground SheetTyvek is not just good for lining houses, it’s also a cheaper option for a footprint for your tent. Just make sure it’s cut large enough to extend passed the base of your tent, and if it’s too big, you can cut it smaller to fit.
  • Baking Soda instead of Tube Toothpaste – I’m not experienced in this swap, but it’s an available option worth trying. You can always carry a small amount in a plastic baggie.
  • Travel-sized instead of Full-sized – If you prefer toothpaste over the baking soda option, there is no need to carry a huge tube of it, or any regular-sized toiletry for that matter. There are miniature-sized everything available in most stores. If there is only full-sized available, you can always squirt/dump the contents in a plastic baggie.
  • Emergency Essentials instead of Carrying a Pharmacy – You won’t be needing that huge first aid kit. You won’t really be needing to buy any first aid kit for that matter. Just pack a small fraction of the essentials in one or more snack-sized plastic baggies. Aside from prescribed medications, the only things I might carry in addition are a few of each: “vitamin I” (ibuprofen), anti-diarrheal, Benadryl (Diphenhydramine), and a small blister kit.

Gear Alterations:

  • Duct Tape Storage – Wrap duct tape around your water bottle instead of carrying the whole roll.
  • Trim Your Toothbrush – Shave off your toothbrush handle.
  • Trim Excess Straps – Remove excess straps from your pack. Just make sure they’re not ones that your body requires for proper support.
  • Trim Your Sleep Mat – This doesn’t work with inflatable sleep mats, but if you have the roll out kind, cutting it back to torso length is all that is really needed.

Keep Your Weight Down While You Hike:

  • Camel up! – Plan your breaks around water sources and get properly hydrated before continuing on. If you’re less thirsty, your body will require less which also means less to carry.
  • Keep Your Gear Dry – Find some sunshine during your lunch break or take a zero or nero day to dry recently rained on gear. Wet gear can weigh you down.
  • Share the Weight – If you have a hiking partner, one can carry the tent while the other carries the poles.
  • Keep It Moving – You won’t miss books, electronics, and other luxury items so much, if you have fewer breaks to mull over them. You also won’t need as many layers of clothing if your body heat stays up throughout the day, and you’ll be snug in your sleeping bag when you’re all done.
  • Cold at Camp? – Keep your body temperature up at the end or beginning of your hike by doing jumping jacks, crunches, or push-ups. That way you won’t be missing all those extra layers.

If you’re a hiker who’s learned a few UL tricks of the trade or have any questions, feel free to share them in the comments below. Although I’ve made some changes to my gear list since, you can check out what I hiked the Appalachian Trail with by looking a my 2017 Gear List. For more details, you can go to my posts on my Big Three, Clothing & Footwear, Food/Water & Heath/Hygiene Items, and my Accessories and Luxury Items.

Happy Trails!

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