Ultralight backpacking has a kind of cult following akin to disciples of Marie Kondo. It’s not feasible for every trail, but investing in ultralight gear can improve your speed and comfort on a trek.
Fastpacking is getting increasingly popular, a hybrid between trail running and hiking. If I’m pressed for time and trying to do a multiday hike in significantly less than the recommended time, I lighten the load I’m carrying.
It's easy to overpack — we've all been guilty of it. Understanding what gear is and isn't ultralight will go a long way to making your thru-hikes and treks more enjoyable and easier (on your back).
Things to know
How much should my backpack weigh?
Bear in mind that your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 20 percent of your body weight on a multiday trip. I’m short, and I’ll admit that’s something I struggle with on a long expedition, particularly if water sources are scarce and I need to carry plenty with me. A day pack should typically not weigh more than 10 percent of your body weight.
If you’re going fastpacking, try to keep your pack to between six and 17 pounds. You’ll want a backpack with a capacity of anything between 12 and 30 liters, depending on whether or not you’re carrying a tent and/or food.
How do I start going ultralight?
Ultralight gear undeniably comes with a price tag, unless you’re prepared to sacrifice comfort and pack a wafer-thin sleeping bag that leaves you shivering all night. As you go on more and more thru-hiking trips, you’ll discover where you want to spend your money. If you regularly hike in cold environments, this might be a super warm, ultralight sleeping bag. If where you’re going rains a lot, a lightweight tent might be a better option than a tarp or hammock.
Check the weight of the backpack itself, you don’t want the pack to be heavy before you’ve even filled it.
How should I prepare for my first fastpacking trip?
Fastpacking requires a good level of fitness, but since you go at your own speed, there’s no reason why someone who regularly thru-hikes can’t take to fastpacking quickly. I recommend trail running without a backpack before your first trip, and choosing a shorter, accessible route initially, preferably with plenty of water sources along the route.
If you’re fastpacking a route with regular refuges or towns, consider leaving your stove and meals behind. Is your route suitable for fastpacking? A multi-month trail with scarce water sources and violent temperature extremes probably isn’t one to fastpack.
Change your footwear. If you’ve never tried to run in hiking boots, I don’t recommend it. Swap them for trail running shoes, and wear lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing that dries quickly. Merino wool is one of the best options.
Trekking poles are handy on any hike, but fastpacking puts extra strain on your joints, so get a decent, lightweight pair.
There’s something immensely satisfying about living off the bare minimum, so if you’re ready to run up mountains feeling light, free, and unencumbered, here’s the gear you need.
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The heaviest part of your tent is usually the poles, so eliminate them and use a tent that is erected using your trekking poles. The Zpacks Plex Solo Tent weighs 13.9 ounces, so if you’re not prepared to camp with just a tarp or hammock, this is one of the lightest options around. It’s spacious, well-ventilated, and suitable for three-season camping.
To minimize weight, the Feathered Friends Vireo UL Sleeping Bag doesn’t have a hood or a zipper. It’s filled with 950+ goose down and the lower half of the sleeping bag is warmer than the upper half, meaning it’s designed to be worn with a down jacket or thermal layer on your top half. At an extreme temperature, it’s suitable for as low as 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with comfort temperatures as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It weighs just 14.4 ounces.
With a 1.1 R-Value (read more about how to understand R-Values here), the Sea to Summit Ultralight Air Sleeping Mat inflates quickly and uses a single layer of cells. It comes with a repair kit, stuff sack and pump, and weighs 14 ounces.
The Osprey brand is synonymous with great-quality hiking backpacks. The Osprey Talon 22 Men’s Hiking Backpack is a good size for day hikes, or for minimalist fastpackers. There are stretch mesh pockets on either side of the pack to increase the capacity, two zippered hip belt pockets, and a trekking pole attachment for quickly stowing your trekking poles on the move. The pack itself weighs just over two pounds.
Much lighter than hiking boots but with much more grip than road running shoes, the Salomon Women’s Alphacross 3 Trail Running Shoes allow you to significantly increase your speed on a fastpacking trip. The fabric is really breathable and the trainers fit snugly to hold your feet in place as you push off of uneven ground.
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Trekking Poles are made from lightweight carbon fiber, are adjustable, and come with moisture-wicking straps and foam grips. They’re just 16 ounces, and you can use them with your Zpacks Plex Solo Tent.
I’ve tried a lot of Merino wool T-shirts, but this one packs a punch. Moisture-wicking and extremely odor-resistant, you can sweat into the Ibex Women’s 24 Hour Short Sleeve Scoop Neck Merino Top for days while still smelling fresh. It’s made using a steaming process which makes the material feel cooler to touch — appropriate for both warm and cool climates.
Made from recycled polyester and Spandex, the Patagonia Men’s Nine Trails Running Shorts are moisture-wicking, breathable, and stretchy to allow for a range of movement. There are three pockets for valuables (two large zippered pockets and the front and one at the back), and the shorts have been treated with a water repellent finish.
Your feet are doing a lot of work when hiking or fastpacking, which means they can sweat quickly. Damp feet result in blisters and chafing, so invest in some good socks, like the WrightSock Double Layer Merino Trail Runner Sock. The double-layer construction wicks moisture and prevents blisters.
If you’re fastpacking a route with regular pit stops for food, you might want to ditch the stove, but for more remote areas, the Jetboil Stash Ultralight Camping Cooking System is a solo adventurer’s best friend. It comes with a small gas canister, sufficient for a couple of days of adventures, a cookpot, lid, stabilizer, and titanium burner. Best of all, it weighs a mere 7.1 ounces.