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9 Essential Ultralight Backpacking Skills

9 Essential Ultralight Backpacking Skills
9 Essential Ultralight Backpacking Skills

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

The most important part of any UL backpacking trip is trip planning because it dictates what environmental conditions you need to cope with and the gear selection-skill tradeoffs required to cope with them.
The most important part of any UL backpacking trip is trip planning because it dictates what environmental conditions you’ll face and frames the gear selection-skill trade-off decisions required to cope with them.

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

The gear you own may not satisfy all of the requirements of your intended route. While you can compensate by buying new gear (costly), often you’ll need to replan your route or learn new skills to mitigate a lack of proper clothing and equipment. Picture by Sebastian Bönner.
The gear you own may not satisfy all of the requirements of your intended route. While you can compensate by buying new gear (costly), often you’ll need to replan your route or learn new skills to mitigate a lack of proper clothing and equipment. Picture by Sebastian Bönner.

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.

3. Thermoregulation

Thermoregulation or the ability to stay warm and cool in different weather conditions is an essential skill when you carry less clothes. The best way to stay warm is often to keep moving, layer up, eat fatty food, and stay well hydrated, or to pitch your shelter and crawl into a sleeping bag/quilt until you warm up again.
Thermoregulation or the ability to stay warm or cool in different weather is an essential skill when you carry less clothing. For example, the best way to stay warm is often to keep moving, layer up, eat fatty food, and stay well hydrated, or to pitch your shelter and crawl into a sleeping bag/quilt until you warm up again.

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

Skilled campsite placement can reduce the impact of cold temperatures and wind, help eliminate any chance of being flooded out by heavy rain, and reduce any danger from falling widow-makers.
Skilled campsite placement can reduce the impact of cold temperatures and wind and help eliminate any chance of being flooded out by heavy rain.

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

High calorie food and removal of excess packaging can significantly reduce the weight of the food you need to carry.
High calorie food and removal of excess packaging can significantly reduce the weight of the food you need to carry.

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

Changes in cloud formations or a shift in wind direction often indicate changes in the weather pattern, for good or ill.
Changes in cloud formations or a shift in wind direction often indicate changes in the weather, for good or ill.

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

When backpacking in wilderness areas, you need to be able to choose a path that conserves your energy, while avoiding natural hazards. This is especially critical if you are travelling solo.
When backpacking in wilderness areas, you need to be able to choose a path that conserves your energy, while avoiding natural hazards. This is especially critical if you are travelling solo.

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

Survival skills, such as knowing how to start a campfire, can save your bacon when weather conditions turn for the worst and exceed the temperature rating of your sleep system
Survival skills, such as knowing how to start a campfire, can save your bacon when weather conditions turn for the worse and exceed the temperature rating of your sleep system

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 is far less durable than heavier clothing and equipment and often requires some element of repair on strenuous trips.
Ultralight backpacking gear is far less durable than heavier clothing and equipment and often requires some element of repair on strenuous trips.

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


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16 comments

  1. You missed fitness and ensuring it is in the scope of the aims of your trip. No matter what planning you do, a trip is ruined if you’re not fit to undertake it so your comfortable with the daily millage and enjoying it day-in-day-out.

    • I deliberately bundled it in with Trip Planning, as a factor you need to consider when planning a trip. Perhaps I should call it out more though since people’s goals are often such a poor match for their physical capabilities. .

  2. Great list, I would love to see a zipper repair post! I’m at the point where I actively buy gear with fewer zippers just to avoid the issue.

  3. Maintenance is something that is often overlooked. I got caught out a few weeks ago on a trip where I needed some duct tape only to find the tape on my hiking pole, which was a few years old, had permanently adhered to itself. Fortunately it wasn’t a major emergency but it reminded me I needed to go through my kit and repair or replace stuff a little more often.

    • I’ve never been a fan of storing my duct tape that way for just that reason.

      I spend a considerable amount of time maintaining my gear – drying it, washing, lubing, patching, removing mildew when it occasionally appears, refilling, cleaning, etc. You really have to do it to keep things in working order if you hike and backpack a lot. Not that I really mind….:-)

  4. It was not Philip’s intention, but this post perfectly demonstrates why it never should have been called “ultralight backpacking.”

    In every other outdoor sport, better gear — i.e. not just lighter, but stronger, more weather-resistant, longer-lasting — would just be considered evolution and progress. Do you hear skiers saying that so-and-so is a “shaped ski skier” or, among cyslists, that so-and-so is a “carbon bike frame cyclist”? No, of course you don’t, because these technologies were recognized as being better and were widely embraced. Instead, in backpacking, 2-lb packs that carry loads just as well as 7-lb packs from 20 years ago are considered only for those “ultralight backpackers” who are in the pursuit of having a base weight of less than 10 pounds. What BS!

    A great analogy is the business traveler. If you don’t travel often, it’s likely that you carry too much (due to concerns about “what if,” “just in case,” and “I don’t know, but…”). It’s also likely that you are relatively inefficient or unskilled in getting through security, getting your car rental, checking into your hotel, finding good eats, and going for hikes or trail runs in the best local spots. In comparison, there is George Clooney’s character from “Up in the Air,” who is a master traveler and is superbly skilled at it. But you don’t hear people calling him an “ultralight business traveler.” No, he’s just a really skilled one. As someone who does a moderate amount of business travel, I admire him. I don’t dismiss what he has to offer because I don’t also consider myself an “ultralight business traveler.”

    So too it goes with backpacking. The nine skills that Philip discussed are absolutely not exclusive to “ultralight” backpackers. They are skills that EVERY backpacker should attempt to develop. These skills will not make you an “ultralight” backpacker — they will make you a BETTER backpacker, and when you are better you can rely more on what’s between your ears to keep you safe and comfortable instead of finding security in the motor home that you carry on your back.

    But even if your trip objectives are not of the variety in which a lighter kit is advantageous, or may even be damaging (i.e. if your focus will be more on camping, in which you’ll hike in just a few miles to a pretty spot and then engage in some extra curriculur activities like birding, photography, and fishing) these are still critical skills to have, as they will also improve your safety, comfort, and fun on those outings as well.

    • Completely agree! My intention was to clue people who carry ultralight backpacking gear into the skills they ought to develop in increase their safety margin, pleasure, and comfort levels. Being able to buy ultralight backpacking gear doesn’t necessarily mean that you can pull off a trip using it.

      As for the term “ultralight backpacking,” I think we’re stuck with it.

    • I was going to say that I call people with carbon frame bikes “elite” or “professional” but then I saw the comment was from Andrew Skurka, so I’m not going to argue with the guy! (Mainly because he is more elite and professional than I am! :} )

  5. I would like to know/see/read more about the “route sheet” pictured.

    • It’s basically a time control plan for a 200 mile backpacking trip I did across Scotland in 2013 with Martin Rye in the TGO Challenge.
      It lists the major daily waypoints we pass by, total distance and elevation, by day, as well as foul weather re-routes as needed. The waypoints are encoded using the British equivalent of UTM coordinates.
      You can hike/camp on private property in Scotland, so you can do proper off-trail hikes that run through private estates and wilderness areas.

      Here’s are a few links to get you stated reading about the TGO Challenge and how to plan your route.
      http://sectionhiker.com/scotlands-tgo-challenge/
      http://sectionhiker.com/tgo-challenge/

      • Thanks Phiip. Reading of the hike was interesting, however, it is the document itself I was interested in as a planning resource. Do you make that document available?

      • I don’t have the document anymore, but you can probably find the template if you search for it on the web – its the route sheet for the TGO challenge…

  6. Great article with much needed information. I’ve been learning a bit on my own how to pack a little less stuff on every backpacking trip, or having the right material. My first 11 mile hike on Kauai to Kalalau Beach hurt my back considerably more than the second time I did it, and it was all about the lbs I was carrying.

  7. I love the picture at the start, I showed it to some friends of mine when I was describing my next walking weekend. They all made horrible moaning and freezing noises. It cheered me up no end to think I was going out to do something slightly crazy in the eyes of many people. But first, before I go I must practice with my new stove! Even if I’m bundled up I want to be able to make a cuppa!

  8. Green Global Travel

    I love camping but don’t feel I have the confidence of skills to go ultralight yet. However, I do always remember air-sealing the food into ziplocks like in the picture when I was younger! So many great memories. -Dana

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