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Basics of Ultralight Backpacking

Do you like to go camping? How about hiking? If you answered “yes” to both of these, then there’s a good chance that you’ll love backpacking. Maybe you’re already an avid backpacker, or you’ve only tried it once — whatever the case, there’s one thing you can do that will make your experience more enjoyable and that’s to carry a lighter pack.

Because backpacking involves spending more than just a few hours in the wild, it’s necessary to carry any essentials you’ll need for eating, sleeping, and “living” on the trail. Even if you’re only heading out for a couple of days, many people tend to overpack their bags with extra luxuries and gear they really don’t need. In fact, most people carry a pack that weighs 14 to 22 kilograms (or 30 to 50 pounds) — and that’s a lot of weight when you’re hiking long distances. It makes things especially difficult when you’re gaining altitude or having to climb over large rocks or logs.

Over the years, companies (like Hennessy Hammock) have learned how to make gear that is lighter and more functional than their antiquated counterparts. This has allowed backpackers to enjoy their passion in a whole new way that is called Ultralight Backpacking.

What Is Ultralight Backpacking?

The term “ultralight” refers to the weight of your backpack when fully loaded with all of your clothing and gear. It is a calculation of the total base weight, which means consumables such as food and fuel are excluded. This is because the weight of these items will fluctuate depending on the length and type of trip. Keeping track of and controlling your base weight is the best way to ensure you’re keeping the total weight of your pack as light as possible.

Although there is no formal definition for the word “ultralight,” there is a general consensus on how much the base weight of an ultralight pack should weigh. Just keep in mind that even that number can vary depending on the country you’re in. Most backpackers in North America use the term to describe a base weight that is at or below 4.5 kilograms (or about 10 pounds). You’ll also hear people using the term light to refer to a base weight of 6.8 kilograms (or roughly 15 pounds).

Benefits of Ultralight Backpacking

In addition to the obvious reasons (you don’t have to carry as much weight), more and more people are making the switch to ultralight backpacking for several reasons, including:

 

  • Ability to travel farther — If you think that you’ve reached your limit on how many miles you can average per day, try carrying an ultralight pack and see how much farther you can go. 
  • Fewer injuries — Your legs won’t tire as easily and therefore you’ll have less risk of tripping and falling.
  • Less wear and tear on your body — Hiking is hard work and it’s even harder when you’re carrying extra weight. A lighter pack won’t put so much stress on your back and knees. 
  • Faster and easier to set-up/take-down camp — If you only have the essentials, that means there will be less that you’ll have to unpack and pack back up each day. 
  • Ability to take on more challenging trails — A heavy backpack can limit you from being able to conquer steep terrain. Even crossing small streams or stepping over logs can be more dangerous. An ultralight pack allows you to be much more agile, so you can go more places. 
  • More enjoyable hiking — If your heavy pack has you feeling painfully sore and exhausted at the end of every trip, it tends to take some of the fun out of it. Ultralight backpacking can make your outdoor adventures so much more enjoyable.

Where To Start?

Making the commitment to switch to ultralight backpacking involves more than just deciding to “pack less”. It requires a careful evaluation of the gear you have to determine what items are essential, which are not, and then weighing each piece to see how much it contributes to your total base weight. If you’re one of those “just in case” kind of hikers who is still carrying a 15-kilo pack because you haven’t invested in a new piece of gear in 20 years, it’s probably time that you took a good, hard look at how much your gear weighs. 

Even if you have the lightest gear, it often takes backpackers months or even years of practice to learn how to pack the perfect backpack with just the right amount of food and gear for their trip. Don’t expect to turn into an ultralight backpacker overnight. The first step is to take stock of what you have, invest in lighter versions of your heaviest items as your budget allows, and make sure that you understand the tradeoffs. Some of the lightest backpacks may not have as many features, and they might not even be as comfortable, but if it cuts your base weight by 20%, it might be worth it. 

Also, look at alternative shelter options such as a backpacking hammock instead of a traditional tent. The ultralight backpacking hammock from Hennessy Hammock, for example, weighs in at less than 1 kilo (less than 2 pounds) and is much more versatile than a tent.   

More Tips On Shopping For New Gear

If you’re going to invest in some new gear, you want to make sure you’re getting the most for your money. Here are a few tips to consider when shopping.

Look For Lighter Versions of Your Heaviest Items 

When you take inventory of the gear you have, you might discover that some items are really weighing you down. Usually, the heaviest items are your backpack, sleeping bag, and shelter. As you start shopping for lighter versions of these necessities, you’ll notice that the cost tends to go up as the weight goes down, making switching out all of your gear at once for newer, lighter versions cost-prohibitive for some people. That’s why you should pick one priority piece at a time and then work toward replacing the others. 

 At Hennessy Hammock, we believe that high-quality, durable equipment shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg, which is why many people are surprised to learn that our backpacking hammocks — including our ultralight and hyperlight versions — are much less than many tents you’ll find. 

 Many people love the versatility and added functionality of a backpacking hammock. For one, you don’t have to worry about finding flat ground. Second, they’re much more comfortable because you aren’t laying on the cold, hard ground. And finally, with a Hennessy, you’ll get the added benefit of our smart design features. Hennessy Hammocks are not only bug-proof and wind-proof, they also include a waterproof rainfly that will always keep you dry.

Look For Items That Can Serve Multiple Purposes

 When you’re trying to keep your stuff to a minimum, it’s great when you can find an item that serves multiple purposes so you only have to pack one instead of three or four. Some examples include multi-tools that contain a knife, screwdriver, bottle opener, pliers, and other essential tools in one compact little item. Another example is convertible hiking pants. When you’re weighing every ounce in your backpack, the last thing you want to do is add more weight with unnecessary clothing. Convertible hiking pants let you go from pants to shorts with just one zip. 

What To Pack

 Once you’ve invested in any new gear that you’re going to get for your trip, it’s time to lay everything out and start evaluating what is really necessary and how much each item weighs. That means you’ll need to invest in an accurate scale that will allow you to measure your goods down to the ounce. Some serious ultralight backpackers will even create spreadsheets to keep track of the weight of their gear so they can easily put together a virtual packing list and know how much their pack will weigh before they physically pack it.

Shelter

 There are many different types of shelter such as tents, tarps, and backpacking hammocks. When choosing a shelter it’s important to consider the following:

  • Weight
  • Comfort
  • Ability to keep you dry
  • Ability to keep out flying insects and other creepy-crawlies
  • Ease of setup and takedown
  • Any additional gear needed to make it functional

 There are so many types of shelter and they can vary widely in price, weight, durability, and functionality. How do you know which one to choose? Tents have been the traditional shelter of hikers for many years. They’re portable, offer relatively good protection from bugs and rain if you buy the right one and, in recent years, they have been made lighter in weight. However, the ultralight versions will cost you, and there’s still the problem of having to find the right place to pitch your tent. There are many places that are just not practical for tent-camping and many people don’t like the cumbersome task of having to put them up and take them down. That’s why tents are quickly being replaced with more comfortable, lightweight backpacking hammocks that are easy to set up. 

Sleep System

Your sleep system is what you use to stay warm and comfortable in your shelter at night. It can include a sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, sleeping pad, or a blanket or quilt. The sleep system you use will depend on the sleeping conditions you expect to encounter and whether or not you tend to get cold or hot while sleeping. 

 Like your shelter and other gear, you’ll want to choose the right items for your needs — and avoid taking too much. If you’re going to be camping where the nighttime temperatures will be quite cold, investing in a cold-weather rated sleeping bag and insulating pad should provide you with ample warmth. Sleeping bags are rated to keep you warm at certain temperatures, and if you tend to get cold, choose one that is rated for 10 degrees colder than the coldest temperature you plan to experience. 

 A sleeping pad is also a good item to carry as it will help to provide extra insulation. Simply place it inside your sleeping bag or if you’re using one of our Hennessy backpacking hammocks with a double layer bottom, you can clip it in place so it won't move around at night.

Clothing

Packing the right clothing is essential not only for your comfort but for your safety. It can help to protect you from extreme weather and drastic changes in temperature — two very real dangers of backpacking in the wilderness. When you consider what type of clothing you should pack, think of layers. 

 Base layer items are those that are next to your skin and they should be breathable and lightweight. What you decide to wear over your base layer depends on the conditions you’ll be experiencing, but common choices are t-shirts, nylon pants that can be converted to shorts, and possibly a lightweight fleece if it’s chilly. Insulating and protective gear like rainwear, a warm hat, socks, and gloves (if temperatures get below freezing) are also necessary to have. Most people tend to pack too much and it can take some time to learn the art of packing the right essentials for your trip. 

Food

Although you won’t be including your food in the base weight of your pack, it’s critical that you put the time and effort into planning the perfect amount and type of food to bring. Backpackers need a variety of food that is lightweight, easy to prepare, and won’t spoil. You also need to consider that you’ll need calorie-dense, nutritious foods that will fuel your body on long, arduous hikes. 

Before you load your pack with energy gels and protein bars, take a step back and think about how satisfying they really are — especially after a long day on the trail. You should enjoy your backpacking experience, and part of that enjoyment should come from your food. Avoid packing a bunch of the same thing or food items that you know you don’t like just because other backpackers have said you should bring them. 

The best piece of advice on packing food for an ultralight trip is to try to get the most bang for your buck. In other words, pack foods that are both lightweight and calorie-dense. Some examples include nuts, dried fruit, hard cheeses, and jerky. Dehydrated meals are another great option as they only require water to prepare and can provide a rich, satisfying meal. The only downside is that they can be expensive and take up quite a bit of space in your pack. 

A good rule of thumb for determining how much food you’ll need to pack is to aim for approximately 2,500 to 4,000 calories per person, per day. This may sound like a lot, but many people easily burn this many calories during a steady day of hiking. Keep in mind that packing based purely on the number of calories you’ll need without regard for the weight of the food can leave you with an ultra-heavy (instead of ultralight) pack. Your daily food allowance should weigh less than a kilogram (or approximately 1.5 - 2 pounds)

Water

Water is heavy to carry, but it's also something that you can’t do without. There are several ways to stay hydrated on your ultralight backpacking trip without carrying extra unnecessary pounds. First, load up on water while you’re at home or before you leave your camp. About a half liter (or around 20 ounces) should do the trick. Then, take only what you need and bring along your preferred water filtration device so you can refill your water bottle throughout the day. 

Planning is another key factor in making sure you have enough water — without having to carry a lot with you. If possible, only carry about a liter at a time. Of course, you’ll need far more than just a liter for a day’s hike, so do your homework ahead of time and locate the lakes and rivers that will be along your route. If water sources are scarce, you’ll either need to carry the water you need or look for another route.  

Essentials

Once you pack your clothing, shelter, sleep system, and food, it might seem like you have everything you need to survive a trip into the wild. But don’t close up your pack just yet — there are plenty of essential items that every hiker and backpacker should bring. Don’t try to skimp in this area. You can still make smart choices that will add little weight to your pack. The following is a list of just some of the essentials you should always carry with you:

  • Illumination (a small headlamp is usually best)
  • Map and compass
  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Sunglasses
  • First aid kit
  • Knife
  • Matches

Ready To Start Planning Your Ultralight Backpacking Trip?

Backpacking allows you to go on an adventure beyond your car and campground. Using ultralight packing principles can make your trip more enjoyable and propel you to reach places you never thought you’d be able to see. If you’re planning to experience ultralight backpacking for the first time or you’re in the process of investing in better, lightweight gear, we recommend that you take a look at Hennessy Hammock. 

For years, we’ve worked to engineer the absolute best lightweight backpacking hammock possible. We’ve designed it to be easy to put up, bug-proof, rain-proof, and significantly more comfortable than the competition — and we offer it all for a very reasonable price. If you’re looking for the ultimate shelter for your ultralight backpacking trip, shop Hennessy Hammock today.  


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