Going ultralight on an overnight Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. Twenty-four hours on my feet, with a six pound baseweight.
I spend a great amount of my time getting ready for my backpacking trips. I trail run to build endurance and proprioception. I workout at the gym to build up strength. I pour over maps, looking for new routes to conquer. But just like everyone else, I also tinker with my lighterpack.
For those not in the know, lighterpack.com is a website where you can categorize your gear and analyze the weight of your pack across those different categories. The purpose of the exercise is to critically contemplate your gear, and identify where you could shave weight from your pack, and thus provide a lighter carry when backpacking.
Garage Grown Gear has grown exponentially over the past five years. So much so, that it could outfit a backpacker with a completely empty gear closet, to having a full kit ready to hit any of the Triple Crown trails and beyond. To prove it, I made two different lighterpacks.
As the names imply, the first is a spartan gear list made for the purist ultralight backpackers who only take what they need, and absolutely nothing else. The second is for the ultralight curious backpacker who is interested in making their pack lighter, while still retaining their creature comforts.
Both lists stay under the ten pound ultralight threshold; both lists offer bug and weather protection; both lists offer warm clothing; and both lists practice safe and fairly reliable bear and mini-bear food storage (with the exception of those places that require a bear can, in which case, you should absolutely substitute the Ursack for a BearVault).
What these lists perhaps don’t offer is staying within your comfort level. What I find comfortable may be different than what you find comfortable.
Let's be clear: these lists aren't meant to tackle every situation. You shouldn't use either of these gear lists on an expedition to Denali in Winter, or on a fastpacking race across Death Valley in July.
They're meant to serve as a thought experiment — what could be a possibility on a typical three-season backpacking trip. They’re a way for you to reflect on your own gear and backpacking strategies — perhaps test your boundaries, and perhaps ask yourself the question “do you really need that?”
The Volpi Ultralight 45 might be one of the last true ultralight packs on the market. Frameless yet durable, it has just the features you need and nothing else. Having put it through its paces in a variety of places, on trail and off, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach for it when packing for my next adventure. It even has a padded hip belt for heavier carries, and a cavernous interior for multi-day trips.
However, I know many backpackers balk at the idea of going frameless. I see and hear you. Worry not, because you can still dabble in the ultralight mentality.
The Volpi 45 outperformed all my expectations on its maiden voyage.
The Bonfus Framus 48 weighs around one and a half pounds, but with many of the same features an ultra-heavy pack would have. Of special note are its aluminum frame stays, which transfer weight to the padded hip belt, and can be either molded to perfectly fit your back, or to increase ventilation, similar to the trampoline-style suspension system that modern traditional packs have.
The Framus is made mostly with 200 Ultra and 400 Ultra fabric, making it extremely durable. The fabric also allows the seams of the pack to be taped, making the Framus 48 perfect for off-trail excursions, or long thru-hikes.
I have long been a proponent of tarp and bivy setups, as it was one of the first changes I made to my kit when I began rediscovering my love for the outdoors. Besides being the lightest setup a backpacker can have (other than cowboy camping), they are extremely modular. You can leave the bivy at home and pack an ultralight groundsheet instead, when you know ahead of time that the bug pressure will be low on an upcoming trip.
The Pinon Bivy does a great job at keeping weight down, while still implementing many desirable features. Its sizable bathtub floor has kept me dry from rain splashback on several occasions. While the Gossamer Gear Solo tarp is the lightest shelter on the Garage Grown Gear website.
Maybe the idea of a bivy makes you feel claustrophobic, or maybe you want to increase the ease-of-use factor when it comes to setting up your shelter. The One is as easy as it gets. Insert your trekking poles, stake out the corners, and voila! … a one-person, bug-proof and waterproof tent in under two minutes. I use the Two whenever my wife joins me on trips, and it has stood the test of time for us.
Sleep systems can be complicated and incredibly personal. How you rest at night can affect how you perform during the day, so it's important to nail down your perfect system. However, our sleep systems are usually the heaviest section of our gear list, giving us an opportunity to really shed some weight off of our backs.
I know that sleeping on a ⅛” closed-cell foam pad like I prefer isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of comfort, so I completely eliminated those off the list, and instead focused on inflatable pads. Inflatables have the added benefit of offering a higher R-value as well, meaning they tend to be warmer.
For both gear lists, I went with different versions of the Thermarest X-Lite. Its 4.2 R-value can cover most three-season situations, while still being reasonably comfortable.
In the Ultralight Gear List, I went with the short version for several reasons. It takes up less room in your pack, it takes less breaths to inflate and, of course, it saves on weight. When I sleep with short pads, I often use my pack as a pillow for my legs, which props my legs up and bends my knees, bringing much relief to my legs at the end of the day, while also insulating my lower half from the ground. For seven additional ounces, though, you can treat yourself to the 25-inch wide version of the Thermarest, which fully insulates your body from the ground.
For both lists, I went with the tried and true Katabatic Palisade as the quilt of choice. Prolific ultralight backpackers have been using this quilt for nearly a decade. I put my own Palisade through the wringer for years, including an early June high snow year entry into the Sierra Nevada on the Pacific Crest Trail, and it never failed to keep me warm. Even though it's been around for a while, the Palisade is still one of the top quilts on the market.
Katabatic uses a Pertex Quantum shell that is highly water resistant, and does a reasonable job at keeping the down feathers in the quilt. The Palisade comes in a variety of high fill power down variations, as well as down that has been treated to be resistant to moisture.
Katabatic was one of the first ultralight companies to adopt a differential cut to its quilts, making sure the quilt naturally wraps around you, as well as saving weight on shell material. Their unique pad attachment system and draft collar also make it incredibly hard for chilly air to leak through while you sleep.
When it comes to ultralight backpacking, you’re either a cold-soaker or you’re wrong. I’M KIDDING! I can hear your keyboard angrily typing out a reply from all the way over here. But the issue is a hotly debated topic among the backpacking community.
The gist of the argument revolves around which form of food preparation carries the most weight. When you cold soak, you often pick up a light plastic jar, even lighter than a titanium mug, pair it with a spoon, add some water to a dehydrated meal, and call it a day.
Those who choose to cook their food say that although cold-soakers are carrying less gear, and that gear tends to be lighter, when they add water to their food and then continue hiking, they end up carrying more weight overall. Plus, the weight penalty for a good warm meal at the end of the day, or a hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning, is well worth it in their eyes.
Then there are the no-cook people, like me, who have tried both methods and concluded, “I’m too tired to care. I just want the calories.” So we eat snacks all day, and occasionally make wraps instead of scarfing down another bag of peanut M&M’s. The weight savings here is only beneficial if you take energy-dense foods, like cashews or dried food.
Both the cold-soakers and the cooks are represented in the Ultralight and Ultra-Comfort lists, respectfully.
Much like sleep systems, the amount of packed clothes, and the type of clothes packed, are dictated by personal preferences and environmental needs alike. When backpacking in humid East Texas in scorching July temperatures, you’ll notice a complete lack of cold-weather gear, like a down jacket, in my pack. Yet add 12,000 feet of elevation, and suddenly I’ll need to wear every layer I own, when starting my morning from camp.
On most trips, I carry a clothing mixture from both lists. Very rarely do I bring rain pants or camp shoes on my trips, but I’ll more than likely bring my down jacket, as I like to take breaks at the top of mountain passes and peaks.
My only note with packed clothing is that ultralight clothing is a lot more durable than people give it credit for. I have literally bushwhacked through thick thorns while wearing an Alpha Direct sweater and lived to tell the tale. I’ve owned only one pair of wind pants for the last five years; they have gone on every trip with me, and they’re still going strong.
The limiting factor for YOUR clothing system will be your personal comfort, and the conditions on the ground for your trip.
My kitchen scale is my number one backpacking item. Of course, I never take it on any trips, but I can accurately measure the weight of all my items, and gauge where I need to shave weight off of my pack.
Honestly, as long as you're critically analyzing your gear for every trip, you're leaps and bounds ahead of the average backpacker, and will walk away with a lighter pack overall.
My parting thought to you is this: know thyself. If you know where your boundaries are, what you can tolerate, what brings you discomfort, and what you can live with, you will be well on your way to being an ultralight backpacker.
Do not use these lists, or any other backpacker’s list, as a measuring stick. At the end of the day, ultralight backpacking is about taking only what YOU need, and nothing else.
Rafael is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instagram, or read more of his work over on his website.