I am hesitant to compile a gear list, but I often find that people new to backpacking have no idea where to start when considering the benefits of lightening up their packs. I am a gear nerd and love talking about the latest and greatest in ultralight backpacking. So I am finally putting together my thoughts on the matter.
When I entered the world of backpacking, I had a key advantage in not owning any gear. During college I was a leader for both the Mountaineering and Geology Clubs, so group gear was always at my disposal. Fast forward to post-college life, and I found myself simultaneously interested in backpacking and in need of camping gear. This is my precursory statement to explain why I obsess about ultralight backpacking gear and how I came to acquire my gear. My habits in making big purchases is that I don’t do it. And when I feel like I really want an expensive item, I research every minute detail and reach out to my network of outdoor friends for first hand advice and sometimes the opportunity to try out gear. Then I think about the purchase for a really long time, always viewing a purchase from the view point to make due without until I am fully confident in a decision. And when I finally am convinced, something newer and better has come along, so the process continues. Despite this, I did eventually acquire the appropriate gear for backpacking.
Further, all the gear I am presenting below was purchased fully by my own means. I am not sponsored nor endorsed, have not been provided free gear for review purposes, and am entirely presenting my own views and opinions. I do coupon hunt and have other tactics for getting better deals on gear, but all are self employed.
Discussion points: (link below to jump to text)
Why go ultralight?
The Big Three!
My favorite gear for ultralight backpacking.
Isn’t ultralight gear super expensive?
Companies that cater to the ultralight lifestyle.
Resources from seasoned hikers.
My full gear list.
Why go ultralight?
I find that if you really want to go ultralight, you have to dissect your entire pack. That means literally holding every single item in your hand to consider its true worth and weigh it. That means everything, including those little items that “hardly weight anything at all” like Q-tips, bandaids, and thread. The reality is that those items do weigh something, even if just a small amount, because the more you accumulate items that weigh nothing at all, the more your pack weighs you down. The heavier your pack, to slower you will hike and the more painful hiking will become as you hike more miles. I like to think of what goes into my pack in increments of Snickers 2 To Go bars, which are listed as weighing 94 grams, or 3.3 ounces, at 440 calories total. When I am thru hiking, I eat 100-300 calories every hour (not including meals). That is a lot of food. And food is always the heaviest item in my pack. Therefore the first and most important reason for going ultra-light is to bring more food. 94 grams is about the weight of Yak Traks crampons (97g) or two full bottles of Aquamira Water Treatment (91g) or spandex running shorts (90g) or a ziplock wallet with cash and cards (100g). Hopefully you get my point. All of these little items mean fewer Snickers bars!
All this is so show that even when you have heavy gear, often you can still lighten your pack by rethinking what items are needed versus wanted. When I first do a pack shake-down, or process of going through all the items in someone’s pack to help them reassess their gear, the top mentality I find is that once a pack reaches some critical weight, items start to go in with little regard for purpose, necessity, redundancy, and weight.
My recommendation is to always assess pack inventory before considering buying new gear. If, however, you have had the same gear for years. You know the stuff. Large, heavy sleeping bag that could fit three people, and rolls up to the size of a small barrel. Or that metal framed pack that weighs five pounds when completely empty. And I know that I personally had used more wood or metal framed canvas tents than I did “svelte” silnylon tents before heading to college. Those items will last forever. I know my parents still have camping gear that is almost too burdensome just to take car camping. That is justified for a gear upgrade. If you already have gear that is new and just not lightweight, you can try selling your gear. I buy and sell gear on occasion, and as long as you treat your gear well, this is very reasonable to accomplish. I have only lived in more urban settings when trying to sell gear, so I imagine that would become more difficult.
The Big Three!
After ranting about ounce trimming above, I will acknowledge the absurdity of getting caught up in the minutia of cutting ounces. Yes, I personally cut out my clothing tags, remove unused bungies and clips, and make due with less comfort. But for most people, the goal is not to go hiking for weeks on end, but to simply make smart decisions when updating gear. Gear technology constantly improves, and the once niche concept of ultralight has really flourished in the past decade. So if you are making those first steps towards a lighter setup, the Big Three are often the first items you will buy. These are called the Big Three because they are often the biggest, heaviest, and most expensive items you will buy.
– Backpack = backpack
– Shelter = tent/tarp/bivy + ground cloth + poles/trekking poles
– Sleep system = sleeping bag/quilt + sleeping pad
As I list items below, there are three key vocabulary terms to understand.
Lightweight (L) = less than 10 pounds
Ultralight (UL) = less than 5 pounds
Super ultralight (SUL) = less than 3 pounds
These weights are in reference for these three systems, not your total pack weight.
Lightweight (L) packs: Osprey Exos 48L or 58L (2lb 3oz-2lb 12oz), ULA Catalyst (3lb-3lb 4oz), ULA Circuit (2lb 4oz-2lb 11oz), Granite Gear Crown2 60L (2lb 5oz-2lb 7oz), Gregory Zulu 30L (2lb 7oz-2lb 11oz), Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40L (2lb-2lb 4oz), Hyperlite 3400 Windrider 55L (2lb-2lb 2oz), Six Moon Designs Flight 40L FKT (2lb 7oz), Katabatic Gear Helios 55L (2lb-2lb 3oz).
Ultralight (UL) packs: ULA CDT 50L (1lb 3oz-1lb 11oz), ULA Fastpack 35L (1lb 8oz), ULA EPIC 75L (2lb-2lb 2oz), ULA OHM (1lb 11oz-2lb 1oz), Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60L (1lb 15oz-2lb 3oz), Hyperlite 2400 Windrider 40L (1lb 12oz-1lb 14oz), Zpacks Arc Haul Zip 64L (1lb 12oz), Zpacks Arc Haul 62L (1lb 8oz), Zpacks Arc Zip 57L (1lb 8oz), Zpacks Arc Blast 55L (1lb 5oz), Six Moon Designs Flight 30 FKT (1lb 11oz), Granite Gear Virga 54L (1lb 3oz-1lb 4oz), Katabatic Gear Eos 30L (1lb 8oz-1lb 14.5oz), Equinox ARAS Eagle 50L (1lb 5oz).
Super ultralight (SUL) packs: MLD Exodus 57L (1lb), MLD Prophet 48L (1lb), MLD Burn 38L (13oz), MLD Core 28L (7-8oz), Gossamer Gear Murmur 36L (13.2oz), Gossamer Gear Type II Summit 26L (15oz), Zpacks Nero 38L (11oz).
NOTE: Buy your pack size to reflect your trip style. If you are a weekend hiker, you don’t need 50L pack. The larger the pack, the more you will put into it. Even the most extreme SUL hiker will admit that more space equals more weight.
L tents: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1per (2lb 1oz), TarpTent Bowfin 1per (2lb 5oz), Big Agnes Copper Spur HV (2lb 2oz-2lb 8oz), REI Quarter Dome 1per (2lb 14oz), Black Diamond Mega Light Tent 4per (2lb 13oz), North Face Stormbreak 1per (3lb 7oz), Marmot Tungsten 1per (3lb 13oz), ALPS Mountaineering Lynx 1per (4lb).
UL tents/tarps: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV Platinum 1per (1lb 13oz), TarpTent ProTrail 1per (1lb 8oz), Gossamer Gear The One 1per (1lb 3oz-1lb 4oz), Hyperlite Echo II 1per (1lb 14oz), Hyperlite UltaMid 2 2per (1lb 0.5oz-1lb 1.5oz), Zpacks Altaplex 1per (1lb 1oz-1lb 4oz), Six Moons Designs Deschutes + Net Tent 1per (24oz), Six Moons Designs Lunar Solo 1per (24oz), Equinox Myotis Ultralite Tarp 1per (14oz-1lb 5oz).
SUL tarps: MLD Solomid 1per (12.5oz-15.5oz), MLD Duomid 2per (12-18oz), MLD Trail Star 2-3per (12-18oz), Gossamer Gear Twinn Tarp 1-2per (8.5oz-9.5oz), Zpacks Solplex 1per (14.5oz-17oz), Six Moons Designs Deschutes 1per (no Net Tent) (12oz).
NOTE: It is also important to consider associated items such as guy-lines, stakes (aluminum, titanium, steel, iron), ground cloths (Silnylon, Polyro, Tyvek), and poles (tarps often use trekking poles instead of tent poles, reducing extra weight). I listed tent weight maximums for everything that would be included in the purchase. Sometimes that includes the extras, sometimes that does not. Also, note some weights may change depending on the material choice you make. Cuban fiber is waterproof and lighter than Silnylon, Silnylon is more durable than Cuban fiber. I won’t go into the pros and cons here.
L bags: Mountain Hardware Phantom Flame 15deg (2lb 1oz-2lb 4oz), Marmot Helium 15deg (2lb 1oz-2lb 4.5oz), Kelty Sine 20deg (2lb 5oz-2lb 9oz), NEMO Sonic 15deg (2lb 6oz-2lb 9oz), North Face Hyper Kazoo 15deg (1lb 15oz-2lb 1oz), Hyke and Byke Eolus 800fp 15deg (2lb 8oz-2lb 12oz), Hyke and Byke Quandary 15deg down (3lb 2oz-3lb 4oz), Teton Sports LEEF 20deg (3lb 8oz), Teton Sports Altos 20deg (2lb 5oz).
L pads: Klymit Inertia O Zone (12.5oz), Thermarest Neo Air (15oz-1lb 4oz), Sea-to-Summit Comfort Light (1lb 3.5oz-1lb 8.5oz), Big Agnes Insulated Air Core (1lb 4oz-1lb 9oz), NEMO Astro Insulated (1lb 3oz-1lb 7oz).
UL bags: Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20deg down (1lb 3.5oz), Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20deg down (1lb 2oz), Feathered Friends Flicker UL Quilt 20deg (1lb 10oz), Feathered Friends Egret UL 20deg (1lb 12oz), Western Mountaineering UltraLite down 20deg (1lb 13oz), Zpacks 900fp down (standard girth) (1lb 1oz-1lb 7oz), Marmot Phase 20deg (1lb 7oz-1lb 11oz), Nunatak Arc UL 20deg (1lb 0.5oz-1lb 11.5oz), Nunatak Super UL Nano Blanket (8oz-1lb 6oz), Nunatak Arc Alpinist Quilt (1lb 9.5oz), Katabatic Gear Alsek 22deg 850-900fp (1lb 4oz-1lb 11oz), Katabatic Gear Flex 22deg 850-900fp (1lb 5oz-1lb 12oz).
UL pads: Klymit Inertia X Frame (11oz), ThermaRest ProLite (8oz-16oz), ThermaRest RidgeRest SOLite (9oz-14oz), ThermaRest NeoAir XLite (8oz-16oz).
SUL pads: Klymit Inertia X-Lite (8oz), Gossamer Gear Nightlight Torso (5oz-6oz), Gossamer Gear Thinlight Foam 1/8″ (2.4oz-2.8oz), Gossamer Gear Thinlight Foam 1/4″ (cut in half) (4.5oz-13.2oz).
NOTE: I often add a couple items to my sleep system weight such as, sleep socks and stuff sack to make a pillow. I have dedicated sleep socks so my feet are always warm and dry in my bag. My gear stuff sack often doubles as a pillow at night, crammed with any relatively soft items. I also only listed 20deg or warmer bags. The weights vary dramatically once you take into account degree ratings. I also preference down with high fill power (fp).
My personal Big Three system comes in around 4 pounds, with my whole pack weight and worn gear around 10 pounds. Fully loaded down with food and water, my skin out weight is about 25 pounds at the maximum.
My favorite gear for ultralight backpacking.
I plan to eventually provide full reviews of all the gear I use. So stay tuned. Until then, these are my absolute favorite gear items:
- Altra Lone Peak shoes
Since your feet take the majority of wear while hiking, and it just happens that I am super passionate about the shoes I wear, it is not a coincidence that I am listing my preferred shoes first. I got into running in 2013. I have always been super active, but I literally never ran more than three miles until 2012. I had just returned from a year traveling around South America, and I was in the worst shape of my life. This is when minimalist shoes was really taking off (at least in Kansas), and I bought a pair of Merrill Pace Gloves. I actually still have these original shoes and still trail run in them. I had been working my way to running a couple miles when I bought them, and despite the recommendation being to not run a long distance with them the first time, I ran 3.7 miles. The suggested concern of calf and shin problems when switching to minimalist shoes never affected me. Instead something amazing happened. For the first time my body didn’t feel like it wanted to die while running. The first time I ever ran more than three miles was that first day I wore minimalist shoes. I then moved to Colorado and decided to take up ultra-running (record of that here). In about two years I went from thinking a mile was a long distance to running a 50 mile ultra in the Colorado mountains. This coincided with taking up thru-hiking
- Luna sandals
From years of sandal wearing for summer days as a child, boat wear for canoe and rafting trips, town shoes while thru-hiking, and all the millions of times I wanted light weight and durable sandals to slip on, I have never been satisfied. At some point I bought Teva sandals (something between Terra-Float and Tirra from 2017 options). They were ok. I liked the closed toe, but then sand bits were always trapped in my sandal. A constant hate-relationship that usually resulted in cheap flip-flops because what really is the difference if you are getting blisters and ripping through shoes regardless the price? Well, Luna Sandals is the answer (link here).
I think these sandals can speak for themselves, but I will give a little background anyway. In 2006, Barefoot Ted McDonald — yes, the guy from Born to Run by Christopher McDougall — went to the Copper Canyons in Mexico and ran a 50 mile ultra-marathon with the legendary Tarahumara natives. Ted became friends with Manuel Luna, who made Ted’s first pair of traditional tire “huarache” sandals that the Tarahumara people wear and are famed for being the fastest runners. Ted became hooked on the idea, started experimenting with designs, gained business partners, and voilà! Luna Sandals, a Seattle-based company, was born.
These sandals are designed with running in mind, and I will confirm that they are light weight, durable, comfortable, and my favorite (and only) brand of sandals. The sandals come with a removable top strap that I like to use while running or hiking, but usually leave off for day to day wear. They are a perfect blend of stable on the foot and light weight. My feet don’t slide around on them, and I have never gotten blisters wearing them. Which is important to note, because no matter how callused my feet are from other activities, my pampered feet love to blister. They are also completely customizable for the fit because the strap is a single continuous piece that loops through the whole sandal. So all three “segments” (along the foot ridge, around the heel, and up the arch) can be adjusted to your specific foot dimensions. At first I remember they felt snug, but after a little tweaking of strap placement and a little wear, I went literally over a year without needing to adjust the straps. Considering I wear this shoe 50% of the time I wear shoes (including working out), I think that is a pretty darn reliable design. I have the 2015 Leadville Trail, 2016 Origen Flaco, and 2017 Oso 2.0. My Leadville’s are still hanging tough, but I bought the Oso’s to have a second pair around. The beach is about 400 meters from my desk, so it never hurts to have a spare swimming suit and sandals readily available. After two years of wear, there is still plenty of cushion in the Leadville’s, and even with the tread wearing away, the grip is still really good. I love these so much I literally own no other sandals. I will admit that despite my passion for Luna Sandals, I do not actually like my Origen Flaco set as much as the Leadville and Oso ones. This is because I haven’t found the leather top or straps to be as comfortable or flexible as the Performance Laces. Which let’s be honest, are so amazing that Luna Sandals patented the revelatory Performance Laces. So my standards have been set high.
- Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid Cuban fiber tarp
I don’t have enough words for how much I love this tarp. I have the InnerNet bug netting liner and bottom too. Seriously one of my favorite pieces of equipment. This will become too long if I start describing all the reasons why I love it, so please just out my review.
- Gossamer Gear closed-cell foam sleeping pads
I am not a high maintenance sleeper, but I am a side sleeper. For me, that means that I need a little extra at my hip sometimes. That said, I still go very minimal on the sleeping pad compared to many thru-hikers that I know. I am also not the most minimal of thru-hikers that I know. All that aside, I find the Gossamer Gear closed-cell foam sleeping pads to be my most most comfortable, convenient, and economic of sleeping pad options. I hiked the Colorado Trail with only the 3/4″ thick torso length NightLite (gossamergear.com/nightlight), but added the 1/4″ thick full length ThinLite (gossamergear.com/thinlight) underneath for the Pacific Crest Trail. The combo of the two keeps me super toasty at night while protecting my tender feet from the ground. However, do note that I typically expect to sleep with my feet on top of my pack and whatever few items are not involved in my sleeping setup.
My favorite traits of these pads is the closed-cell foam. This material is incredibly light, my two pads come in at a combined weight of 7.3 ounces! And they double as the frame for my frameless pack. Further, they are super durable. I put these things through the wringer and am still using the original ones I purchased. You can cut, puncture, twist, squish, and beat them up, and they are still good to go. The best part is that you can do all that, and it won’t hold any water! Finally, they are really efficient at maintaining warmth. A common misconception about sleeping pads is that they are only used for ground padding, but they are also key in warmth while sleeping. Sleeping pads do not generate heat, they trap air beneath you that your own body heat warms up. What is so amazing about closed-cell foam is that it is really effective at trapping the heat you generate. this is so true that I often don’t need a jacket on cold mornings because hiking with my back against my pack, where the pads are folded as my pack frame, are keeping me significantly warmer than packs that let air flow freely between. There are pros and cons to that setup, so a debate for another time.
- Enlightened Equipment down sleeping quilt
For all the reasons I love the closed-cell foam sleeping pads, I have grown to really love my down quilt. As a side sleeper, I move a lot at night, so much so that I often find regular mummy bags too constricting. Further, with a zipper on the side, it means I either have a draft on my back or on my front. Since I move so much, that usually means a draft on my back, which leads to poor sleep as I shift and have a chill run up my back. For me, quilts changed the game. I can sleep soundly against my pad and tuck my quilt around my sides, so my quilt stays put on top while I can shift freely underneath. My toe box is sewn so I don’t thrash too much, and I have been having better sleep on trail than I get in a bed. Seriously. Game changer. On really cold nights, I often tuck one side of the quilt under my hip, then wrap the other side around like a snuggly blanket so my face can peak out and prevent condensation build-up inside my bag. Oh yeah, did I mention that with a quilt I no longer stifle myself during sleep when I turn? I dream of sleeping on trail. It’s that good.
Isn’t ultralight gear super expensive?
The reality is that gear is expensive, period. Light weight gear is no more expensive than “regular” gear. More and more companies are trying to strike a balance between reducing weight and cost at the same time. Companies like Hyke and Byke directly cater to making lightweight gear more accessible and cheap.
My opinion is that ultralight gear can end up cheaper, because those products have less gimmicks and extra features. The goal with lightweight gear is simplicity, quality, and durability. It is not extra buttons, pockets, whistles, and bells. Further, many companies that actually have lightweight gear are boutique companies. Part of costs staying down is from these being small operations, everything hand sewn and individually quality-controlled, and products promoted by dedicated customers and word of mouth. In some of my favorite ultralight companies, I have watched the transition from unknown, cheaper, amazing gear, to increasing prices as demand increases and suddenly work-power, supplies, advertisement, etc. goes up.
Companies that cater to the ultralight lifestyle.
AntiGravityGear – www.antigravitygear.com
Appalachian Ultralight – www.appalachianultralight.com
Bear Paw Wilderness Designs – www.bearpawwd.com
Big Sky International – www.bigskyinternational.com
Black Rock Gear – www.blackrockgear.com
Brasslite Backpacking Stoves – www.brasslite.com
Bushbuddy – www.bushbuddy.ca
Cooke Custom Sewing – www.cookecustomsewing.com
Dirty Girl Gaiters – www.dirtygirlgaiters.com
DIY Gear Supply – www.diygearsupply.com
Elemental Horizons – www.elementalhorizons.com
Enlightened Equipment – www.enlightenedequipment.com
Equinox LTD – www.equinoxltd.com
Feathered Friends – www.featheredfriends.com
Flat Cat Gear – www.flatcatgear.com
Four Dog Stoves – www.fourdog.com
Gossamer Gear – www.gossamergear.com
Goosefeet Gear – www.goosefeetgear.com
Hammock Gear – www.hammockgear.com
Hennessy Hammock – www.hennessyhammock.com
Hyke and Byke – hykeandbyke.com
Hyperlite Mountain Gear – www.hyperlitemountaingear.com
Integral Designs – www.integraldesigns.com
Jacks R Better – www.jacksrbetter.com
Katabatic Gear – www.katabaticgear.com
Lawson Outdoor Equipment – www.lawsonequipment.com
LightHeart Gear – www.lightheartgear.com
LW Gear – www.lwgear.com
McHale Alpine Packs – www.mchalepacks.com
Moonbow Gear – www.moonbowgear.com
Nunatak – www.nunatakusa.com
Mountain Laurel Designs – www.mountainlaureldesigns.com
Outdoor Equipment Supplier LLC – www.outdoorequipmentsupplier.com
Out Gear Recreation – www.outgearrec.com
Oware – http://shop.bivysack.com
Packafeather – http://packafeather.com
Purcell Trench Grills – www.purcelltrench.com
Purple Rain Adventure Skirts – www.purplerainskirts.com
Ray Jardine – www.rayjardine.com
Ruta Locura – www.rutalocura.com
Simblissity – www.simblissity.net
Six Moon Designs – www.sixmoondesigns.com
Solo Stove – www.solostove.com
Suluk 46 – www.suluk46.com
TarpTent – www.tarptent.com
Titanium Goat – www.titaniumgoat.com
Trail Designs – www.traildesigns.com
Ultralight Adventure Equipment – www.ula-equipment.com
Underground Quilts- www.undergroundquilts.com
Warbonnet Outdoors- www.warbonnetoutdoors.com
Water Road Outfitters – www.wrogear.com
Western Mountaineering – www.westernmountaineering.com
White Box Stoves – www.whiteboxstoves.com
Zpacks – www.zpacks.com
Resources from seasoned hikers.
Erik the Black’s Hiking Blog – blackwoodspress.com/blog/
Paul Magnanti’s Outdoor Rambling’s, Journeys, & Photos – www.pmags.com
My full gear list.
Pending! To be updated soon!
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