What You Need to Know When Packing or Shopping for Ultralight Gear
The goal of ultralight hiking is to carry the minimum amount of gear you need to be safe and comfortable in the outdoors. It's a minimalist approach that can make your tramping experience more enjoyable by reducing the weight on your back, making it easier to move faster and farther while allowing you to experience nature more intimately and without the discomfort of an oversized traditional pack.
In this blog post, we discuss the planning of a gear list based on ultralight principles while highlighting important things to keep in mind for each category of gear. You can also see the checklist in the image for a quick reference of the gear we'll cover.
If you're wondering, "Why go Ultralight?", you can check out this article on our website describing what it is, why to do it, and see a real example ultralight pack list: HERE
3 key concepts to always keep in mind:
Safety is always first. No matter how light you want to go, you should never compromise your safety. This means making sure you have the appropriate gear to protect you from the elements, such as a shelter, quilt/sleeping bag, and appropriate clothing layers. It also means carrying a first aid kit, the ability to make fire, and having the necessary knowledge to handle emergencies in the wilderness.
Less is more. The ultralight philosophy is all about carrying the least amount of gear possible while still being safe and comfortable in the outdoors. When planning your gear list, think carefully about each item and whether you really need it (have you used it recently or ever?). Consider the weight and bulk of each item and look for lightweight alternatives wherever possible. Remember, the less you carry, the more enjoyable your trip will be. Minimalism is the key.
Hike your own hike. Just because someone else swears by a particular piece of gear or has a certain packing strategy, doesn't mean it's right for you; nor is what you use the obvious choice for others. Everyone's needs and preferences are different, and it's important to find what works best for you. Experiment with different gear and packing strategies, and don't be afraid to break from convention if it means a more enjoyable trip. After all, the most important thing is to have fun, enjoy the great outdoors, and return home safely.
When it comes to buying ultralight gear, it's typically said that you can only have 2 of 3 from the following options: light, cheap, or high quality.
You don't want to sacrifice quality or safety for the sake of saving money, but you also don't want to spend a lot of money on gear that is heavier than necessary. Buy once, buy right, and think carefully about the uses of everything you carry, going with multipurpose gear everywhere you can. Don't buy gear just because a particular shops sell it.
Let's start with the "Big 3", your Pack, Tent, and Sleep System. These 3 categories should comprise most of your weight, will likely include most of your cost, and could be considered the base around which you build your kit. As a rule of thumb, keep each of these 3 categories under 1kg and you will off to a great start.
The pack is one of the most important pieces of gear you'll need, but it's best to leave it until last once the rest of your kit is dialed in. Only buy a pack that's big enough to fit your gear, or you'll fill it up unnecessarily. 30-50 liters should be enough for all your gear once you have completed your ultralight kit (but this is why we recommend saving it until last).
Ultralight backpacks prioritize weight reduction over extra features, but that doesn't mean they skimp on support or comfort. The lightest packs usually have simple or minimal internal frames, or no frames at all, and may rely on a foam back pad or a sleeping pad for extra support. Some packs even allow you to remove internal frames to reduce weight further.
Most packs in the 0.3-.75kg range have a single main compartment and a roll-top closure, with thinner straps and fewer pockets. At the lowest pack weights, many trampers will forgo a hipbelt as well. Remember, the key is to prioritize weight reduction while still maintaining the necessary support and comfort for your individual needs - these will change dramatically as your continue to reduce your total carry weight. Many people will start with a pack like the Osprey Exos 45 which comes in just under 1kg and still has an internal frame, but allows you to remove various bits as you reduce your overall kit size.
A heavy-duty plastic bag liner (such as the simple Black Sack) can be a cheap and effective alternative to a pack cover. In fact, we prefer this option as it's the most bomb-proof method for keeping water off your gear. In a heavy downpour, even the best pack cover will fail. Plus, pack covers are heavier and more expensive.
Kiwi Ultralight's Tui 42 frameless pack is a great option for those already ultralight but looking to perfect their kit. It's been designed with only the essential features, a removable hipbelt for those who want to push for the lowest weight (resulting in a 300g pack), and a range of patterns that will make your tiny kit stand out among the rest.
The sleep system is made of 2 critical components: a pad to sleep on, and something insulating to sleep under.
Kiwi Ultralight started as an ultralight quilt company, so you won't be surprised to hear us suggest quilts over sleeping bags. Here's why we only make quilts (and why you should consider using a quilt over a sleeping bag):
Down keeps you warm due to its loft. Any down that's underneath you is squashed, so it doesn't provide any loft/warmth, making that extra material nearly useless. On the other hand, a quilt is designed for maximum weight efficiency by putting the down where it works best. We also suggest using pad straps with a quilt, which we include with our quilts, as this will assure the insulation of the quilt is continuous with the insulation from the pad below you.
Speaking of which, the sleeping pad is a critical and often underestimated piece of gear. You can find both inflatable and closed-cell foam versions, but the critical aspect to consider is the "R-value". A higher R-value indicates better thermal resistance and insulation capabilities of the product. As a rule of thumb, we would recommend getting the highest R-value-to-weight ratio you can find while never going below a rating of 2. If the manufacturer doesn't list or know the R-value of their sleeping pad, it likely provides little or no insulation from the ground and should only be used in the warmest months (your money would probably be better spent elsewhere).
Here's a general R-value range based on when you plan to use your sleeping pad:
Summer: 1 – 3
3-Season: 3 – 5
The final components of your sleep system are optional, but usually included even in ultralight kits. They include an inflatable pillow and either a sleeping bag liner (usually made of silk and designed to keep your sleeping bag clean) or a Kiwi Ultralight Fitted Sheet if you sleep in huts. Check back in the second half of 2023 for the release of our fitted sheet designed for inflatable sleeping pads!
Remember, try to keep all pieces of your sleeping system under 1kg when added together.
Tent or emergency shelter
We're firm believers that trampers should always carry emergency shelter. This is another area where ultralight gear shines, as we can carry our full tent and sleeping pad at less than 1kg total weight. Totally worth it if you get caught in an emergency situation, or if the hut is just too full!
For the absolute lightest option, you could consider using a bivy bag and/or tarp instead of a tent. On the heavy end of the spectrum, hammocks are often used by those who cannot comfortably sleep on the ground. However, the majority of readers will prefer sticking to a tent due to its balance of high shelter and low weight.
Here are a few things to consider when picking a tent:
One- or Two-Person Size? Consider that sizing varies widely even within these categories and use them only as guides for how much gear storage you're likely to have inside the tent. For example, you may find there's space at the head, the feet, both, or only in the vestibule. Do you want enough room in the tent to change clothes? Consider that you may also end up cooking in your tent in particularly bad weather or bugs (which is generally considered unsafe and tent manufacturers, including us, officially recommend against it).
Single- or Double-walled? Double-walled typically have a mesh inner body and outer rainfly, and generally offer better ventilation and condensation prevention. Single-walled tents, on the other hand, offer the same protection as traditional tents, and are lighter weight; but much more care is required in site selection and manual ventilation to avoid condensation issues. If you find yourself bumping the tent walls, we suggest you stick with double-walled tents.
Trekking pole placement? Truly ultralight tents are not free-standing and often use trekking poles for structure. The placement of these poles will largely determine if you have vestibule space or, alternatively, how much internal volume you have. We prefer tents that use only as many trekking poles as there are people in the tent and don't require extra struts. However, you may prefer the increased ventilation and head space you get with strut-containing tents. As with all these design options, there are the obvious tradeoffs of weight vs space.
Features? Vestibules, multiple doors, and vents. We suggest using the vestibule only for shoes and wet gear to keep dirt, bugs, and condensation inside the tent at a minimum. You may also cook in your vestibule in bad weather. Vents will also help keep condensation low.
Leave the ground cover or ground sheet at home to save additional weight, it isn't going to meaningfully impact your experience or the life of your tent considering the tent floor is designed to be against the ground and has increased insulation and water resistance.
If you've made it this far and have your Big 3 for under 3kg, you're well on your way to having an ultralight kit. From this point, the deciding factors are a minimalist mindset and dedication.
The concept of layering is essential for ultralight backpacking. You'll need to think about the climate and conditions you'll be facing and pack accordingly.
Here's how we recommend thinking about layering your clothes:
Baselayer: The layers against your skin, including shirt and shorts/pants matching the climate, as well as an ultralight long sleeve top and pants/leggings (or thermals) for shoulder months and/or alpine climates, plus socks and underwear. The main considerations are chaffing and smell, plus a base level of warmth, and merino wool is one great option to solve these issues and still works great while wet. We prefer to use toe socks to prevent blisters (Injinji brand is our long-time favorite). These can also be found in sock liner weight to go inside a wool hiking sock if you prefer boots (this is one of the best blister prevention methods we know for boots).
Mid layer(s): Carry 1 or 2 of these depending on the weather and climate. Synthetic fleeces, wool, and synthetic puffy jackets are all great options. Down jackets are a lighter option than synthetic, but are better used in camp rather than an active layer as they do not perform when wet. Select your mid-layers depending on when you expect to use them and keep them as light as possible.
Outer layer/Rain shell: We recommend rain shells over raincoats for a few reasons. They're lighter, they don't hold water weight, they can be worn in any temperature, and they pack better. Some people swear by pit zips to increase ventilation and, they argue, to reduce moisture buildup inside the jacket. In our experience, hiking in a rain jacket leads to sweating regardless of ventilation so keeping entirely dry is less the point than finding a comfortable middle ground.
Essentially, you build up from your baselayer depending on the weather. Wear everything at once, including your thermal layers, gloves, fleece, and waterproof layer if you need to.
As for redundancies, this is where many begin to add on unnecessary weight. By using the best materials in your first set of clothes, you won't likely need multiple sets for most things. For instance, synthetic thermal layers keep you warm even while they're wet. Merino does as well, with the added benefit of being odour resistant.
Based on the above guidelines, and assuming you have good materials and know how to dry them out well, we recommend only 1 alternate pair of underwear, socks, and shirt. Use one set while the others dry from rain or washing. You can get away with only one pair of shorts if they dry quickly and you also carry an ultralight set of windpants, tights, or thermal leggings (one or the other is standard in our kits for increased warmth in alpine sections). No other clothing redundancy should be required.
Cook System and Food
Your cook system will depend on your preferences and the kind of trip you're taking. Consider cooking VS hot soaking VS cold soaking. The first 2 options are similar and require you to carry a cooker and fuel (extra weight and cost), while cold soaking does not. For hot food, we recommend eating out of the pot and carrying a lightweight spoon (titanium gear by Toaks, including their 500ml pot, is highly recommended).
Cold soaking is widespread in the long-distance community and involves using foods that rehydrate well even at lower temperatures. This includes pasta and ramen, soups, and other simple meals that can be prepared at home. Most of these take between 15-30 minutes of soaking, which can be done right in their storage bags if you use ziplock-style meal storage.
We have a whole article on food selection and ideas here.
Health & Hygiene
You'll need a first-aid/med kit that includes a minimum of painkillers, anti-diarrheal medication on long-term trips, antihistamine if you have any allergies, leukotape (best tape we have found, stays stuck for 2 weeks plus while thru-hiking), and something for chafing if you're prone to it.
You should also consider wilderness first aid training and have information about terrain, expected travel times, major landmarks, and the direction of travel. This knowledge will serve to find your way back from being lost better than a map or compass could (though you should have a map too). For the worst-case scenarios, we recommend always carrying a PLB (personal locator beacon).
For personal hygiene, consider sunscreen, lip balm, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. We do not recommend soaps and detergents (keep these out of rivers and even hut sinks where the water drains onto the ground outside), or deodorant which will likely prove ineffective in short order.
Water is essential for tramping, but it's also heavy. We recommend refilling often, and based on your knowledge of the area and the amount of water you will find, carrying only limited amounts between sources. Lightweight plastic bottles, typically 1L or 750mL each, are a great option.
Water treatment is critical for safety and we have an entire article on various water purification methods and why you would want one over the others here.
Long story short, filters such as the Sawyer, Platypus, or Katadyn BeFree are the most common options, along with boiling or tablet-based purification. If you read the above article, you will see why we also recommend using a charcoal/carbon filter in addition to these other methods. You can do this relatively simply, and it really should be used everywhere (even when rainwater is your water source).
Electronics and Dry Bags
You might want to pack some electronics such as a battery charger (10,000 KWh should be sufficient, Nitecore and Anker brands are highly regarded), a cellphone, and a lightweight headlamp (Black Diamond, Nitecore, and Petzl are all great brands well-tried and tested).
The only dry bag we use in our kits is specifically for electronics and the med kit items mentioned above. It's best to cut down on the number of bags and dividers as each of these adds weight. It's worth noting we also forgo stuff sacks for quilts, preferring to just stuff them into the bottom of the big black sack with the spare clothes.
Carbon fiber poles with flick locks, instead of twist locks, are recommended for safety and durability. As they say, "Two poles are a tool, one is a toy". If you use your poles correctly (by threading your hand up through the strap, then placing weight down on the strap rather than gripping the pole directly) you can reduce strain on your back and legs and improve your stability and even speed.
Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, or their Distance Carbon Z, are great options that we have been using for many years.
When planning a gear list based on ultralight principles, it's essential to prioritize lightweight gear without compromising safety. Consider all the gear categories mentioned above, buy gear that is lightweight and of good quality, and only buy what you need. With practice, you can remove all the excess and really dial in your kit by removing unused items and unnecessary redundancies. With careful planning and preparation, you'll be able to enjoy a safe and comfortable adventure with minimal weight on your back.
Here's that checklist again to help you keep things simple. Note that even ultralight kits contain what we would call "luxury items". Just keep your luxury items in check or you will quickly go from ultralight minimalist to glamping, and no one reading this should want that!