Ultralight backpacking requires an extreme form of self-reliance where backpackers compensate for bringing less gear by having more advanced backcountry skills. While many other backpackers and day hikers have these same skills, “going ultralight,” or the less extreme “lightweight” is more committing, since ultralight backpackers carry less navigational, comfort, and convenience items in their packs.
For instance, if gear weight considerations make it infeasible to carry a GPS w/ extra batteries or a shelter with a built-in floor, you need to be able to compensate by using lightweight navigation tools like map and compass and possess better campsite selection skills to offset adverse weather.
1. Trip Planning
Detailed trip planning is the most important skill that ultralight backpackers should cultivate. Planning a trip requires a lot more than just deciding where to go and when. It usually requires researching seasonal weather conditions, planning a route, estimating travel times, addressing logistic issues such as transportation and resupply points, determining water availability, identifying hazardous plants or wildlife, learning new skills you will need, assessing your physical fitness relative to your distance goals, group management considerations, contingency planning, and risk management.
2. Equipment and Clothing Selection
Once you’ve planned the route and environmental requirements of your journey, you can select the clothing and equipment required. If the gear you own doesn’t satisfy your trip requirements, you may have to buy more appropriate clothing and equipment or change your route to lower your level of risk.
In order to plan the right clothing for a trip, you need to understand how your body reacts to the temperatures and weather you are likely encounter, and how your metabolism, clothing selection, and activity level can be used regulate your body temperature. Called thermoregulation, it takes practice to understand how to regulate your metabolism and dress to prevent hypothermia or heat related illness.
4. Campsite Selection
Ultralight tents and shelters are less weather resistant than heavier three season tents. Good campsite selection and orientation skills can identify campsites that are better protected from the wind, cold air pockets, or groundwater, while minimizing your impact on plant life and animals.
5. Nutrition and Food Preparation
The heaviest item in an ultralight backpacker’s pack is likely to be food. Eliminating excess packaging and knowing how to select foods high in calories and nutritional value can lower the weight of your food bag significantly.
6. Weather and Environmental Awareness
Weather changes can have a greater impact on ultralight backpackers depending on the shelter and amount of clothing they carry. It’s important therefore to develop an awareness to changing weather conditions and take mitigating actions. Seeking shelter, forest cover, or changing your route can reduce exposure to high winds, hail, heavy rain, or other environmental factors such as flash floods or forest fires.
7. On-Trail and Off-Trail Navigation
On trail and off-trail routes often require different levels of navigational expertise, but being proficient using the simplest tools, such as map and compass, can eliminate the need to carry much heavier navigational aids such as GPS units and the extra batteries or power packs that they require.
8. Survival Skills and Wilderness First Aid
Solid survival skills and wilderness first aid enable one to use natural features and resources to compensate for the lack of gear in survival situations. While these skills are taught for use in emergencies, they can also be used to increase your comfort when the weather or conditions exceed the capabilities of the ultralight gear you’ve decided to bring on your trip.
9. Gear Maintenance and Repair
Ultralight backpacking gear can be quite fragile and must be treated with care to make it last. This can include field repairs such as fixing a broken zipper or sewing torn fabric, which can put gear or clothing out of action, unless you can patch it up on the spot.
Recommended Skills Books for Ultralight Backpacking
- Backpacker’s Field Manual
- Andrew Skurka’s The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide
- The Esssential Wilderness Navigator
- NOLS Wilderness Guide
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