These days, you’ll hear a lot of different opinions about base weight and camping essentials, but it’s important to remember that even in ultralight backpacking, your packing list should be individualized. You know what you want—which is separate from your needs—and you know how much you can carry. But what are those needs? Let’s break it down and go over some of the wants and extras as well.
So, what should you pack for ultralight backpacking? You’ll need really light forms of the essentials—shelter, food, water, backpack, clothes—and a couple of other items that will make your journey go as smoothly as possible. Make sure you know your base weight—what you can carry—and pick items that fit within that range.
So what do you need to pack for an ultralight backpacking trips? The heaviest items you’ll take with you are your backpack, your shelter, your sleeping bag, and your sleeping pad. These are only some of your needs, however, as the rest of the list for basic survival includes ways to gather or store food and water as well.
We’ll start with:
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You need a container for all the things you’re going to carry, and lucky for you, there are plenty of lightweight backpack options intended specifically for the ultralight trip you’re planning.
An actual ultralight backpack will weigh under 2 pounds. In fact, the cutoff should be 3 pounds, so if it weighs more than that, you don’t have the right backpack for an ultralight backpacking trip.
There are two ultralight fabrics: cuben fiber and nylon. Cuben fiber is generally more expensive as it’s stronger, lighter, and waterproof. Nylon is much more affordable and still maintains itself just as well—you’ll just want to be aware of all the details before purchasing the right bag for your trip.
For a little more information on the best backpacks and why, look here.
Tents: You can find one to two-pound tents with mesh and rain cover options if you prefer the weather defense a tent provides.
Tarps: You could also just bring a tarp, which would allow you to make your shelter look, however you want. You can drape it over a branch or rope to provide a tent-like roof, or you can lay it out on the ground to avoid getting your sleeping bag or pad unnecessarily dirty. For more tarp ideas, visit the link here.
Hammocks: A hammock is also a really great option. Granted, you’ll want to make sure you’re hiking somewhere that allows you to hang the hammock; desert hiking, certain stretches on the PCT, etc. might not allow for the ease a hammock can bring. If you are going to a place that can easily support a hammock, however, you can find some great, really low-weight hammocks that may also provide a bug shield or rain cover.
Bivy sack: Another quick option is a bivy sack, which is a thin waterproof layer that you can put over you in your sleeping bag at night. It will also protect you from windchill but it might be difficult for more claustrophobic users.
There is a lot that goes into picking the perfect sleeping bag for ultralight backpacking. You’ll want to consider length, width, material, temperature, and of course, weight. There is also a difference between sleeping bags and sleeping quilts, though both are fine options for backpacking.
Quilts are lighter, but they don’t wrap around you like a sleeping bag does. If you choose to go the quilt route, you’ll want to have a nice sleeping pad to make up for having a little less coverage. However, quilts usually have a cinchable top or bottom so that you can attach it to the sleeping pad beneath you.
A sleeping bag comes in many forms—mummy, rectangular—and they also come in different sizes. Sleeping bags are also easier to set up than quilts, but quilts allow for more movement if you are a restless sleeper.
Either option will get the job done, but just be sure you’re picking the right model for your trip. Think about the pros and cons of each model compared to the weather you’ll encounter, or the places you’ll camp along your trail.
The best sleeping pads for ultralight backpacking range anywhere from 8 ounces to 16 ounces. Depending on how much weight you have available, you can be a little more flexible with these options.
While price can vary, you actually don’t have to spend too much to get a really good sleeping pad. You can pick between air pads and foam pads, and there are pros and cons to both. Foam pads are cheaper generally and more versatile, whereas air pads are often a bit more comfortable.
Make sure to pack a repair kit if you pick an air pad. I’ll go over more of the tools you should bring a little further on in the article.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually best to bring two water bottles to balance out your backpack. Water can get heavy, of course, so you’re always welcome to modify this suggestion by balancing out your backpack using different items that equal the weight of your full water bottle.
If you don’t want to bring a water bottle, you can consider bringing a water pouch that easily hooks onto your backpack and allows you to drink while hiking. The way these pouches are set up can be more balanced than bottles as well, depending on where the pouch is placed.
Most often, there are maps of your trail that tell you where you’ll find water and the type of water you’ll come across. Be sure to be extra knowledgeable of these different forms, as it will affect what water purification tools you’ll need to bring.
Your first option is purification tablets. These are easy to use—you just plop them in your bottle, wait until the pills have taken effect, and then drink. Purification tablets can also come in powder or liquid form. The only downside to this option is that it sometimes has an interesting aftertaste.
Your second option is to bring a water filtration system. There are a lot of lightweight versions of these, and they are the most reliable for getting the cleanest water possible.
In either case, these options will work if you choose to bring a bottle, or if you choose to bring a pouch.
Try to carry only about a liter and drink a good amount before you leave camp and when you refill as well. That way, you carry less, but you are still hydrated.
If you want some great information on how to purify water, you should read our article Purifying Water While Camping ( 11 must know ways to do it )
The best options for lightweight food are dehydrated and freeze-dried foods. There are plenty of exciting new meals available to you in your local camping goods store—anything from fruit to pasta.
You’ll also want to stock up on granola bars and nuts—again, light and nutritional options. Make sure you are reaching the recommended calorie weight for your body type and to make up for all your physical movement from day to day. This should be about 3000-4000 calories.
Depending on your trail, you may come across towns or outposts where you can purchase more food and supplies, so don’t forget to bring money as well.
We have some great information on how to preserve food for camping in this article How To Preserve Food For Camping ( Don’t let your food spoil )
If you are planning on bringing dehydrated food, you really only need to boil water, but you are welcome to bring stoves if you’re okay with a little more weight. As for containers, you can always double up—a titanium mug can also be a pot, and you could bring a spork instead of a spoon and a fork.
As with most of your gear, you have options; stoves come in many different forms. You could try a tablet fuel stove, which means you’ll have to bring fuel tablets (one per meal) as well as the stove. You could also try an alcohol stove, which is obviously fueled by alcohol and will require a bit more weight.
You could also try a canister stove or an integrated canister stove. These will typically weigh more as they require different parts to make them work fully. You can learn more about stove nuances here.
Want to check out one of the most popular backpacking stoves. Read this article What is a Jetboil Stove (We answer all your Jetboil Questions here)
Depending on the length of your trip, you really could get away with bringing only one change of clothes. Things might not smell very good, but if you want to pack the lightest possible, this might be your best option, especially if you’re going on a shorter trip.
It would be wise to bring both shorts and pants, though you can usually opt for two short sleeve shirts if you’re going somewhere warm, as you should have a jacket to combat the cold. You should also look for sun blocking clothing regardless of weather.
As for jackets, I would suggest bringing an insulated rain jacket in case your path becomes stormy. The nice thing about jackets is you don’t have to pack them into your backpack if you don’t want to—you could tie them around your waist and avoid the extra weight.
An alternative to a jacket—especially if you’re entering a desert area that is really unlikely to receive rain—is to bring a simple hat. The hat can keep water from your eyes, as well as protect your head from the sun.
Overall, though, a jacket is still recommended even in a hot area. If your hike takes you to the top of a mountain, for instance, you might be surprised at leftover snow and significantly dropped temperatures. Check your trail map and pack accordingly.
Always make sure that your shoes are broken in long before you embark on your trip. Thick socks will help combat blisters, but you don’t want to have to deal with blisters on a trip that mostly involves walking or hiking.
Of course, your clothes will vary greatly depending on where you plan to hike. If you are hiking in the winter, you’ll want warmer items compared to the summer. Be sure to adjust any of this advice to what will fit your trip—and your base weight—best.
You just never know what’s going to happen out there—best to, as the Scouts say: always be prepared. You want your Band-Aids, your gauze, your wraps, your moleskin, and your medicine. Insect repellant would also be helpful.
First Aid kits are usually light, but regardless, this is something you shouldn’t compromise on. Make sure you have the medical necessities no matter what they weigh.
Along with the First Aid kit, you should also bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun protective clothing. Having sun protective clothing will also prevent you from using too much sunscreen so you won’t have to bring as much. And don’t forget sun-blocking lip balm!
Here is an article we wrote all about choosing or creating your own first aid kits. Camping First Aid Kit (Packing List, Necessities, Safety)
Multi-Tool and Other Gear
A knife can help with a lot of things: building a shelter, adjusting First Aid items, helping open different packages you may have packed, etc. In any case, a knife will help you with both expected and unexpected events.
Along with the knife, you’ll want some sort of gear repair kit. Your gear should be well made, but you never know what will happen. And, of course, there are lightweight options for gear kits and knives, too.
Just in case, it would be best to bring fire starting helpers, like matches or tinder or a lighter. Even if you are an expert, which I’m sure you are, bringing help will be a big stress reliever. Plus, these items barely weigh anything.
You’ll want a map and a compass. Topographic maps are easy to come by for trails that are well known. If you are going somewhere less traveled, it’s even more important to find a map and bring a compass.
You could bring a GPS system or a personal locator, but these aren’t as essential compared to the map and compass. Plus, you’ll have to bring extra batteries for most models, so that will add extra weight. They are very safe, however, and really helpful, especially if you’re alone.
If you are traveling somewhere where the elevation changes dramatically, you could also consider bringing an altimeter watch to keep track of your elevation.
In order to conserve, you could wear a headlamp. It will keep your hands free, and the light always follows your line of vision.
Of course, if a headlamp isn’t your jam, you could also bring a simple flashlight. For both options, don’t forget to bring extra batteries.
As a general rule for extras, you’ll want to bring one day’s worth of these items:
Emergency shelter: there are ultralight options like a tarp, a bivy sack, a quilt, or even just a trash bag. Even if your tent is still at the campsite and you think you’ll make it back in time, you might not! Best to have something with you, just in case.
Extra food: It’s always smart to bring at least an extra day’s worth of food, sometimes even when you’re not camping! If you don’t want to worry about bringing another full meal, you can also bring extra granola bars, dried fruit, jerky—anything that doesn’t have an upcoming expiration date.
Extra water: It cannot be said enough. You need a lot of water. If you end up with any leftover weight after packing all the essentials, you should fill that weight with more water. Bring the purification tablets, bring the filter, make sure you’ve got a stove to melt snow water…the list goes on. It will take some calculation, but you’ve got to be sure you have enough water to make up for your physical exertion.
Extra clothes: Even though you can make it with only a couple items of clothing, it is smart to bring more if you can carry it. An extra hat, gloves, socks—the smaller items you might not initially think about will go a long way. And at night, temperatures can drop quickly, even in a desert. Make sure you have those extra layers for unexpected weather.
Sometimes you’ll get the smaller stuff (purification tablets, first aid, etc.) in heavier containers than you want for backpacking. Remember, you can always switch their container to a plastic bag or something similar to decrease your weight.
Depending on how long your trip is, you have options for your item sizes! If you’re only going on a one-day trip, you could bring a really small First Aid kit. If you’re going on a longer trip, you’ll want a bigger one. Most often, this larger/longer rule applies.
Remember to replace your older gear with new, lighter gear. As the years have gone by, designs have become lighter and more foolproof. This can get expensive, so plan ahead! If you know a big trip is coming up, you can buy these items over time, not necessarily all at once.
And just remember, for ultralight backpacking, backpacks and sleeping bags and sleeping pads are likely to be a little less durable just based on the type of fabrics they have to use to be lighter. That’s the tradeoff for a lighter experience!
Always be sure, again, to bring things made for your specific hike or specific location. Every trip is an individual one—you never know what you may encounter. Bring the general needs and decide what specific needs will fit you. You’ve got this.