The term “ultralight backpacking” means different things to different people, and what is heavy to one person will obviously seem a little lighter to someone stronger. We can instead use the terms “minimalist,” or “primitive,” to describe a backpacking trip on which we survive using the bare essentials. Some guys want to believe they’re hardcore, or extreme with a capital “X,” and that one’s level of hardcore-ness should be measured in proportion to those comforts of civilization he can do without. So, while “ultralight” is just a measurement of weight, the camping gear chosen by the “minimalist,” or “primitive” backpacking fanatic is chosen based on his ego just as much as his strength.
Since the most important thing on any trip into the woods is safety, the most basic essential items one must have are first aid items. A stripped-down kit will do, consisting of bandaids, first aid tape, ibuprofen, tweezers and alcohol pads. Staying warm and dry is also a matter of safety, and right away we must make some critical decisions about the bulkiest items: clothing, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent or bivy sack. Obviously the weight of your clothing and sleeping setup will be determined by the time of year and/or altitude of your campsite. This, and the amount of water you carry will be the two single biggest factors determining the final weight of your backpack. If it’s twenty degrees outside, and you’re camping for three days, a 30-pound pack could be considered “ultralight,” while the same trip in the summer might require only 20 pounds.
A Word about Water
When it comes to water, (the second most important part of backcountry safety, after shelter) you basically have three choices: Carry water, or filter/boil/treat stream water or snow. Boiling water is pretty inefficient, especially if you don’t have a stove, and water treated with iodine tastes terrible and is not always clear of microorganisms. Water filters can be bulky, but are pretty lightweight. I really think the act of working the pump is a hassle. If you’re on any kind of time schedule, or if you’re hunting, filtering water is the last thing you want to be doing with your time, not to mention the fact that you might have to go out of your way to access the water, costing you more time and energy. Your decision to carry water or filter it can only be made when you know where you’re camping and for how long. Generally, if I’m only staying out one or two nights and temperatures are not too hot, I will carry water and no filter. I’ve found that the hassle of using the filter doesn’t become worth it until I’m planning a three-night trip or longer, in which case I can carry less water, and more food or clothing. Also, as a way to save space, I use water bladders (made by Platypus) instead of bottles, so empties can be rolled up and stashed.
Winter Ultralight Camping Gear
I don’t always use a tent or bivy when backpacking in the winter because there are no bugs to worry about, and getting snowed on is not as bad as getting rained on. But a tent can provide an element of warmth and protection from the wind. I used to prefer not using a tent in warm weather when bugs were not present, but I’ve had problems with mice and other rodents, which is why I generally use a small tent in the summer. I’ve tried different bivy sacks and although I like the concept, they never seem to work very well for me because of condensation build-up in the small airspace created. Even well-ventilated models can make for a wet or frosted-over sleeping bag by morning.
Winter camping is the only time I’ll break my own Cardinal rule of never bringing a fly. If I’m using a tent and it’s only supposed to be around 20 degrees, I don’t consider that cold enough to require the extra insulation a fly provides. And since snow doesn’t get your tent wet in temps just below freezing there’s really no need for a fly.
Whether I use many layers, or only a couple thick layers of clothing, I need a bigger pack for my winter camping gear, usually around 3,000 cubic inches.
The type of clothing you’ll need for winter backpacking depends on how fast you’ll be moving, how often. If you’re hunting, but sitting in one place for a long time, you might need insulated pants or bibs. But if you’re moving all day you might want multiple layers for the bottom, which will save weight. In either case, you’ll want a very warm jacket, like a down parka, which doesn’t have to be waterproof, because you’ll have a lightweight shell to go over it. If you’re moving all day, you might not need this warm jacket except for around camp as the sun goes down, but you’ll be glad you have it. I consider my down jacket an essential piece of camping gear pretty much any time of the year (especially in the mountains), because it packs down small and it’s light. It’s also on the borderline between a safety requirement and an unnecessary comfort, but it really depends on your activity.
Hot or Cold Meals?
Staying psychologically positive when it’s very cold is a critical element of staying safe, and there’s nothing like hot food and hot coffee or tea to lift your spirits when you’re siting under a pine tree in the dark, in the middle of nowhere. The military knows this, and they’ve spent a lot of money developing ways to heat MRE’s without fire. These chemical heaters work well, but they stink, and it’s, well, a bunch of stinky chemicals in a little bag you’ll have to carry around. There are lightweight stoves that take up very little space, but you’ll still have to carry a small bottle of fuel, plus a pan to heat your food in. All of it takes up some space, costs money, and weighs something. The Jet Boil system is pretty cool and I’ve used it many times, although it’s narrow shape can make for sketchy situations when heating certain things, so you must pay attention. I had a pot of hot coffee explode in my face one night while camping out in the snow.
The simplest, cheapest, lightest option is to bring no stove at all, no fuel and no pans. You’ll be forgoing a major source of comfort, but you’ll be saving weight and space. Of course, you can (though not always) build a fire to heat water and food, but you still need a pan for that and . . . I guess I’ve just gotten used to not having fires. So what the heck do you eat in the woods if you can’t have a cappuccino with your pancakes?
Bring dried items like apricots, bananas and beef jerky, but don’t bring DEHYDRATED things, which usually require hot water. Bring high-quality carbs; Simple sugars weigh too much and won’t pay off for you. Your protein can come in the form of peanut butter (almond butter, if you’re allergic) and dried meats. When I don’t have a stove I eat peanut butter and honey sandwiches, almost exclusively, from morning until I go to bed, occasionally snacking on energy bars and jerky.
Not having a stove won’t be as big of a deal in the summer (even though it’s hard for me to forgo my morning Joe no matter where I am), nor will the lack of tent. If you’re planning to sleep on the ground OR in a tent you must have a sleeping pad (foam or Therma-Rest style, which I prefer) both to protect your bag and to stay warm. Anytime you spend the night in the woods without a tent, there are no guarantees you won’t have mice, raccoons or bears walking right up to you while you sleep. I’m assuming you’ve already accepted this risk by the fact that you’re going camping in the woods, so for big animals I don’t have any advice other than maybe you should carry a small container of mace or, in grizzly country, a large container of hardcore, SWAT-Team pepper spray . . . The most annoying creatures you’ll encounter will be mosquitoes or other bugs, so when going without a tent, at least bring a five-foot square section of insect netting. There are various ways to rig the netting up, but you want to make sure none of the netting is directly against your skin, or you’ll get devoured by the little bastards.
A lot of people like hammocks for getting themselves off the ground to avoid creepy crawlies (although you’ll be at buffet-height for bears), but I’ve had bad luck with them. I can never get my pad straight under my bag, I can’t toss and turn very easily, and my back always hurts in the morning. But they’re great for lounging around camp during the day, and if you can sleep soundly in one, then I highly recommend a compact hammock. They weigh less than a tent, and they solve the rodent problem (pretty much).
My summer ultralight backpacking setup often includes the same 3,000 cubic in. pack I use in the winter, just compressed down smaller. But if I want to shave a couple of pounds from that setup I can get all of my warm-weather gear into something closer to 1,600 cubic inches. That’s no tent, a compact down bag rated to about 50 degrees, and a 3/4-length pad strapped on the outside.
In summary, I’ll say that what goes in your backpack and how much it all weighs should be determined mainly by the “where, when, and for-how-long” factors, but the most important thing is how you’ll camp. Be ready to NOT have coffee. Or beer. If you normally play horseshoes while camping, just visualize yourself NOT playing horseshoes on this trip, and take that ten pounds of iron out of your pack. Then go through each piece of camping gear and ask yourself the same question: Will search-and-rescue have to be called if I’m in the woods without this item? Don’t ever set an arbitrary goal by saying “I’m going backpacking this weekend with no more than 16 pounds of gear,” because, when you’re out there all by yourself, who’s going to care anyway? You won’t be very proud if your realize you brought the wrong 16 pounds of gear, or that you really needed 17.5 pounds of gear. If you remove everything from your pack that your really, really don’t need, your pack will be light.