Is Ultralight Backpacking Taking Hold in Europe?

Brett "Grandpa" Kretzer


If you’re on this website, chances are you’ve at least heard of ultralight backpacking - or the art of taking less. There are a myriad of reasons someone might choose to backpack ultralight, whether it’s to make higher mileage days possible, as a more compassionate choice for the bones and joints, or to free up more time and energy to spend snapping photos, taking dirt naps, detouring spur trails, or just smelling the wildflowers.

In the United States, ultralight backpacking is rapidly gaining momentum towards becoming the norm, and one may go as far as to say it’s the most logical and obvious choice. We even have a plethora of cottage gear companies dedicated to sharing the joy of shedding weight. However, not all backpacking communities may be so hip to this new age trekking culture. 

In the summer of 2023, I spent 5 weeks backpacking across the Spanish Pyrenees. Donned in my usual sub 10-pound base weight pack, I regularly shocked European hikers when they learned that I was wild camping most nights. Most of my fellow backpacker cohorts that I met were either carrying a day pack, connecting the dots between regularly spaced mountain huts, or they were lugging something like the classic 70L Deuter pack, stuffed to the seams with heavy gear. In fact, the handful of European ultralighters that I did meet either had experience hiking in the U.S., or were infatuated with the U.S. hiking scene. I’m certainly not trying to claim anecdotally that the United States is leading the world in ultralight backpacking, so I reached out to a few European ultralight gear manufacturers to see if I could get a pulse on the ultralight community across the pond, and to see if my observations held any real world truth.



Cumulus is a cottage ultralight company through and through. Founded in Poland by Zdzisław Wylężek in 1989, they have been dedicated to making high quality ultralight gear for decades. So I asked them…How is it going over there in Europe, and where are things headed?

“UL gear comes from smaller brands. In Europe, the outdoor market used to be dominated by big brands like The North Face, RAB, Marmot, Arcteryx, Deuter etc., which weren't heavily involved in UL gear for a long time.

While big brands still influence general trends with their hard and heavy style due to visibility and marketing, smaller UL brands are gaining recognition among advanced and semi-advanced outdoor enthusiasts."

-- Grzegorz Ozimiński, Marketing Specialist at Cumulus 

It’s wonderful to hear that small, independently owned companies are leading the way in UL backpacking in Europe. Cumulus’s production, for example, is entirely based in Poland where it maintains high ethical standards and is run by people who are passionate about nature and the great outdoors. However, limited availability and cost isn’t necessarily what is causing hesitancy in Europeans’ switch to going ultralight...

“Each country has different public and private land regulations, and hiking from one camping spot to another isn't straightforward from a legal perspective either. For example, in Poland, wild camping is not allowed; camping is permitted only in designated campgrounds or on private property. Public forests, national parks, and national forests do not generally permit overnight camping. In Polish mountains (such as the Tatra Mountains, Beskidy Mountains, and Sudetes), people usually engage in day hikes only or stay in serviced huts/refuges (similar to the serviced huts in the White Mountains), which operate year-round. However, there is hope for the future in Poland, thanks to new regulations.

-- Grzegorz Ozimiński 

Grzegorz sheds light on an issue that we in the U.S. may be completely ignorant of. The fact that we can pitch a tent virtually anywhere in any national forest or BLM land is a privilege that most backpackers take for granted.

Wild Sky Gear


Skye McGregor has been making handmade, Dyneema® ultralight gear in the U.K. since 2019. It began as a means to shed weight from his own pack during his winter hike from Land's End to John O'Groats, and now he sells his gear worldwide. Here’s what he has to say about the ultralight mindset in Europe…

“UL backpacking is thriving in Europe. When I’m hiking I routinely see Wild Sky Gear, as well as American UL brands being carried by other hikers. Europe is aging, and ultralight gear has been instrumental in allowing retirees to stay outdoors when previously heavy base weights would have forced them to hang up their hiking boots. From birds having hollow bones to animals storing energy in lightweight fat not heavy starch, evolution favours the light. Europeans are rapidly realising that cutting their base weight is not some frivolous act of pedantry but rather the single most consequential decision they can make to have a better time outdoors.”
-- Skye McGregor, Founder of Wild Sky Gear
Skye’s perspective on the logic of going ultralight is apt and strikes a chord with everyone who’s heart lies in the hills. We’re all getting older, and with age comes fragility. Going ultralight is the key to ensuring longevity and maintaining an intimate connection with nature well into our senior years. It’s not just a fad; it’s an evolutionary necessity!

Atom Packs


Atom Packs is the success story of Tom Gale, from Keswick, England. Like the best of all UL origins, Tom’s start came from his own DIY ambition to fill the void left by the gear he was currently able to get his hands on.

I’ve been hiking long trails in the US since 2009 and was amazed at the different options for gear over there that simply weren’t available in Europe, from the then Cottage Companies like ULA and Zpacks to established brands like Big Agnes. A lot of European countries have fairly punitive import tariffs for importing US goods so niche UL gear ends up both hard to get and very expensive.

When I walked into a major UK hiking store in 2008 and told them I wanted to hike 2200 mi on the Appalachian trail, I was handed a 90L canvas bergen that weighed 8 lbs empty (I promptly put it back!). Now that same store sells much lighter sub 3lb options and some stores might even recommend our backpacks, or similar.

I feel like there is definitely a change underway, as European cottage makers are popping up and specialist gear becomes more readily available, although what percentage of the overall market we are talking about I have no idea! 

Perhaps the lack of true multi month distance trails reduces people's exposure to lighter hiking styles, especially when you consider the popularity of the PCT vs the GR11 and the accessibility of those trails to major urban centres and that has led to a slower uptake. The more people who are exposed to people skipping happily past them with tiny sub 40L UL packs, the more people will realise that there is a different way to 'the old school.'

Ultimately I think it comes down to exposure. Until recently there haven't been UL or even Lightweight items to buy, nor the US style distance trails on which to see them, so the conversations have not started. Now that Europe has a few small cottage companies plus some resellers of niche US brands, along with some thriving online and social communities, I think the process of lightening up has definitely begun. Reported sightings of our own products used to be once or twice a year, now it seems fairly commonplace to bump into someone wearing something of ours on any popular hike locally. 

The culture of Thru-hiking is definitely developing also, as the towns along the distance trails we do have realise the money to be made by slowing down and providing for the hikers which, in turn, causes the hikers to bunch up and unite, talk about their gear choices, other trails and maybe even this radical company in Keswick, England making custom backpacks!

Long may it continue!"

-- Tom Gale, Founder of Atom Packs 

Well summarized, Tom! It seems that a common denominator amongst each of these UL companies is that it comes down to exposure and accessibility. Europeans have a long history of mountaineering, and they are experts at doing things the classic way. As UL communities blossom, conversation happens, and availability increases, we are indeed seeing Europeans make the shift. 

Final Thoughts

Although the United States may be a little further along with the ultralight movement, we are ultimately a part of a global backpacking community. So, next time you are looking to upgrade your kit, consider supporting a European cottage company.


Brett is a bluegrass musician, outdoorsman, and writer currently based in Golden, CO. He's backpacked thousands of miles in the U.S. and Europe and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. When not behind the writing desk, you can find him bagging peaks, climbing rocks, shredding powder, or jamming at a bluegrass festival.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published