Ultralight tramping is a style of packing that emphasises carrying the least amount of gear, and lightest versions of that gear, while still being safe in the outdoors. The goal is to optimise comfort, distance, and/or enjoyment of the outdoors.
There's no textbook definition of what defines “ultralight”, but you're generally considered to be an “ultralight tramper” when your baseweight is less than 4.5kg (10lbs).
What is my baseweight?
Baseweight is the weight of your pack itself and all items inside it which remain constant throughout the trip. This includes things like your tent, cooking gear and spare clothing. The clothing you wear daily is considered “worn weight”, and the weight of food, water, fuel and other consumable items are considered “consumables”. Your pack weight is your baseweight plus consumables.
This isn't to say the weight of cloths, shoes, and food don't matter - all weight costs energy to carry. It's worth considering everything: the calorie density of your food, the amount of water you'll carry on average, the type of footwear you use, etc. As they say, a pound on the foot equals 5 on your back.
Why go ultralight?
On a personal level, I choose to travel ultralight because it's more enjoyable. By carrying less on my back, I'm more comfortable while I'm walking and find I'm able to travel further, faster. This means I can see more in a shorter trip than I may otherwise, and explore areas that I wouldn’t feel comfortable travelling with a heavy, traditional load out (think rock scrambling and off-trail adventures). In addition to this, carrying a lighter pack makes me more agile - river crossings, downed trees and avalanche routes all become easier to navigate with a smaller pack on my back. Carrying a lighter pack can also reduce the strain on your body, reducing wear and tear as well as the risk of injury.
I heard ultralighting is unsafe, or that it can't be done in NZ.
One of the biggest hurdles is the misconception that lightweight gear is unsafe, or that ultralighters are unprepared. Lightweight tramping becomes unsafe at the same point any other base weight becomes unsafe - when a tramper goes into the outdoors unprepared or uneducated.
People carry ultralight weight gear all over the world, and at all times of the year. Every year it becomes easier to do, and more start doing it. Why? Progress in materials and design has been rapid, and adoption grows as more options are produced.
There are two sides to this. On one hand, companies are bringing cutting-edge materials to market (such as our suppliers at Rip Stop By The Roll and Challenge Outdoors). On the other hand, you have the innovation happening at cottage companies who couple these new materials with designs that have forever changed the outdoor landscape.
Together this means that you can put together a kit with gear that is far better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Our big 3 (tent, pack, and quilt), only weigh 1.8kg altogether, that's quite a bit better place to start than buying one of those items for that weight from a big box store. Now all you have to do is be equally selective with your clothes, cook system, etc. We have a gear guide all about that HERE.
How can I lighten my load?
Weigh everything you would usually take on a tramping trip. Use a spreadsheet or website such as www.lighterpack.com to organise everything you carry. Sometimes it can be surprising to see how much you're really carrying.
Think about what you can remove from your pack. The cheapest way to lighten your load is to leave things at home. Look at where you have duplicates, and ask if they are necessary. When you come home from a trip, think about the things you didn’t use - could you leave them at home next time?
Try to reduce the weight of what you already have. For example, you can cut off extra straps and leave stuff sacks and storage boxes at home. This extra organizational weight adds up, and if you need more than 2 dry bags you should probably just reduce what you're carrying.
Think about the weight of consumables as well. It can be a good idea to carry a water filter, so you can carry less water and fill up at any stream/lake you come across. Look for foods that have a high-calorie density - getting more energy for less food weight means less weight on your back. You can also look to cut down on the volume of sunscreen, toothpaste, etc (and maybe leave the deodorant at home).
Use multipurpose gear - leave the bowl and mug at home and eat/drink directly out of your pot, use a tent that utilises walking poles as tent poles, etc.
Once you have worked through all of these options, look at replacing your gear with lighter alternatives. Ultralight gear can be expensive, but it can make a huge difference to your pack weight. Look at replacing the things that will have the biggest impact first: typically your tent/shelter, sleep system and pack. Replacing your pack can be a delicate balance, replace it too soon and it will likely be heavier/bigger than you may need in the long term or to light to comfortably carry old gear you're still lugging around!
Here's a typical, ultralight, 3 Season loadout: