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Ultralight Ultra-fast Backpacking Makeovers

Ultralight ultra-fast backpacking makeovers-2

A few years ago, ultralight backpacking used to require a religious conversion or at least a change in your packing “philosophy.” Those days are over. You don’t need to learn new skills or take a mentored backpacking trip if you already have some backpacking experience. Today, if you want to go light, toss out your old gear and just start from scratch. As long as you do a few low-risk shakedown trips before taking a more committing route, there’s little downside to jumping in with both feet.

The Big Three

When it comes to weight reduction, the biggest weight reductions come from lightening the big three: your backpack, shelter, and sleep system, including a sleeping pad and whatever insulation you prefer, i.e. a sleeping bag or quilt. You’ll be well on your way to ultralight nirvana if all you do is swap out your heavier kit for lighter weight versions of the same items.

Here are three suggested makeovers for these items to give you a feel the weight reductions that are possible at different price points. None of these items require much in terms of additional skill development.

For example, I’ve only listed tents that come with floors and bug netting and not floorless pyramids, flat tarps or other more extreme UL shelters like poncho tarps. If you switch from a sleeping bag to a quilt, you don’t have to worry about a sleeping pad attachment system because the tent walls will block any drafts. Finally, all of the packs below have internal frames and should be easy to switch to if you already use an internal frame pack.

Why isn’t hammock gear listed below? If you haven’t used hammocks before they do require a significant amount of new skill development and the learning curve can be expensive. People who hammock are also generally more interested in comfort and less obsessed with gear weight. They still care about it, but not to the degree that conventional ground sleepers do.

Inexpensive Ultralight Makeover ($) – 96.2 oz for $623

Moderate-Priced Ultralight Makeover ($$) – 73 oz for $1017

Expensive Ultralight Makeover ($$$) – 64 oz for $1435

Ultralight Economics

While can spend a huge amount of money to swap out your existing backpacking gear for lighter weight alternatives, you don’t have to. Granted, the $623 dollar (96.2 oz) Inexpensive Ultralight Makeover above isn’t chump change, but it’s a lot more affordable than the $1435 dollar (64 oz) Expensive Ultralight Makeover list. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth spending $812 dollars to reduce the weight of your gear list an additional 32.2 oz (2 lb 0.2 oz). Just remember, a liter of water weighs 32 oz.

Furthermore, besides weight, there’s no huge functional difference between the items on all three of these lists. While it is fun to get the lightest weight gear, there are quickly diminishing returns for your money. There’s very little incremental value in buying the most expensive, lightest weight, backpacking gear, because the less expensive stuff listed above, will work just a well.

Now stop obsessing about your gear weight and go hike somewhere! The point is to get out and have adventures, not sit around indoors and surf lightweight backpacking web sites.

The most expensive gear is gear you never use. 

Updated 2018.

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24 comments

  1. Philip, I think you will find that UL gear is really not that expensive. While some is, for example a good sleeping bag/quilt, most items are relatively cheaper. For example a grease pot is far cheaper than a titanium pot and actually works a bit better. Sleeping systems are another story. A cheap 2.5oz canister stove works well with a piece of a dollar aluminum tray as a wind screen. Alky stoves are even cheaper…and lighter. Shelters are fairly expensive if you need a floor and an interior bug screen, but UltraLight means a tarp which is lighter and just as functional when coupled with a small piece of polycro and head netting. The weight difference is about half. Closed Cell Foam pads are quite a bit less expensive than a NeoAir. And a cheap rain jacket doubles as a wind jacket for less than $35 and is genuinely water proof… But, you make good points about the makeovers. And, Thanks for listing these…newcomers are never fully equipped, it seems.

    • I agree with most of what you said, add in a cat can stove made from a $0.79 can of cat food, making your own stuff sacks, or not using them at all. However, pitching a weather worthy tarp would most likely require more than just basic skills.

  2. Have you ever reviewed Hammock Gear’s quilt? How does it compare with Enlightened Equipment?

    • I’ve had both. If you are a hammock camper, get the Hammock Gear, a ground camper, get the EE. Reason is the HG does not have a very good pad attachment system. Also, IMHO, the EE is a warmer quilt.

      • EE has many different models. Regardless, it shouldn’t matter which cottage quilt you get if you’re in a tent. It does if your under a tarp, but with walls and a floor there’s not any significant difference in performance.

  3. Could not agree more with the last statements of this article on the most expensive equipment!!! In my search for a lighter pack, I have purchased packs which ultimately did not fit or were unsuitable for my needs, very expensive decisions. Reviews from folks following similar objectives are always helpful and this site provides exceptional advice to a large segment of backpackers . Ultralight trolls and evangelists offering trail advice to backpackers carrying heavier equipment do not always consider the larger picture.

  4. Once again, you have given short shrift to hammock campers. Here is my list:

    Item Weight (oz) List Price
    Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 Size L 35 $345
    Dream Hammock 11 Foot Darien 19 135
    Hammock Gear Burrow Econ 30 19 158
    Hammock Gear Phoenix Econ 30 16 138
    Hammock Gear 12 Foot Cuben Fiber Tarp w Doors 13 335
    Total 102 $1,111

    Not cheap, and you sacrifice a little on weight, but I sleep so much better in a hammock that it’s well worth it.

    • Yeah, but this violates the premise of this article which is gear replacement without needing to learn new skills. BTW you left out the webbing straps, guylines, staked, and Dutchware needed for this setup. That adds about 100-150 to the cost.

  5. Not to be a heckler, but how about a women specific backpack? My son got the Zpacks one last year and I wanted to like it but the shoulder straps were just too wide. Do any of the cottage manufacturers make women’s? I ended up getting a Granite Gear Crown 2 60 in women’s and dropped 2 lbs from my pack so was happy in the end.

  6. OK. So I have to relate a cycling story.

    I used to hang with a guy who was training for the trans america race. We were having lunch in the corporate lunch room and the table behind had two guys talking (very loudly) about their road bike upgrades…titanium this and carbon fiber that when one guy pulls the best: “I’ve replaced the air in my tires with helium and saved <OK I can't remember, but some small number of grams" and then went on to complain that it was hard to keep it in the tubes and he had to keep refilling. Charlie rolled his eyes, leaned back in his chair and said, "Hey buddy…"

    When Charlie had their attention, he picked up Helium Boy's plate of french fries just a smidge off the table and dropped it so rattled as it settled and said, "That's less than one plate of these."

    The whole room erupted with laughter.

  7. Thank you for providing examples of 3 different price ranges and pointing out that there is little actual gain in performance as the prices rise except for the weight savings. I work in the outdoor retail industry and try to educate people on the benefits of carrying a lighter load and misconceptions about what most people actually use on a 3-5 day trip. People that are just getting into backpacking or are getting back into should really borrow gear and find out what works before investing in gear that they will want to upgrade after a few trips. Most people of the people I encounter are driven by price and seem to be comfortable with main stream manufacturers that most often cost more and offer less than the cottage manufacturers.
    I try to turn these people onto websites like yours, Blackwood press, adventure alan etc and recommend researching before purchasing most items. No one enjoys carrying a heavy load unfortunately many people still don’t realize how easy it is to go lighter. Thanks for continuing to provide great information for people that love to get out into the back country.

  8. Leachymo, Well, you can feel that way if you like. Personally, I have been looking for lighter gear for more than 40 years and hiking for close to 50. I don’t like to carry more than I need because I am not a macho he-man. I would rather simply hike some miles (I would guess I have hiked more than a few miles) and enjoy the trip rather than slog the whole way. I usually carry about 23-25 pounds out for a couple weeks. Tents are what you make of them, having used some that leaked out of the box and some cheap tarps that never leaked.

    I own Cuben/DCF ones but rarely use them. Like you, I feel they are too fragile having damaged every one on a trip..

    I have some 70”s packs and some newer packs from cottage manufacturers. These are not what I would term purchased from rich people.

    As far as Philip and his web site, he does well. I disagree with a lot of stuff he does because his gear is soo heavy. But, I read here anyway because he does well. Unfortunately, I have not heard the term hipster in several years. I don’t think good gear necessarily equates with ex[pensive gear. Ultralight packing is a philosophy of bringing what you need. So, it changes with the seasons, though. You have to be adaptable, a fairly “open” thinker, and have a minimal supply/purchase behind you and on your back. I do not believe this is trendy hipster, rather very conservative in outlook. Conservative with food. Conservative with water. Conservative with fuel. Conservative with my body. Hardly radical, though as you make it out. Carry what you will. I’ll see you down the trail.

  9. A liter of water has a volume of 32oz but weighs a bit over 2 lbs.

  10. Shouldn’t the price of the Mariposa > 225 due to hip belt?

    • Yeah, that’s odd, they changed the purchase process. When I bought my Mariposa about 3-4 years ago, the belt was part of the package price, now you buy the pack and belt separately, so it’s $225+45 = $270…

    • I swapped out a mariposa for the Crown 2 – very similar backpack – and to address the male/female issue raised by another readers, since a true female version of the Crown 2 is also available. It also drops the price of the least expensive tier some.

  11. “Now stop obsessing about your gear weight and go hike somewhere! The point is to get out and have adventures, not sit around indoors and surf lightweight backpacking web sites.”

    This is the best advice ever posted on an outdoors website.

  12. The Zpacks Arc Blast is not an internal frame pack.

    Other than that, for the uninitiated a decent, quick overview that doesn’t cause the eyes to glaze over with a wall of words.

  13. As a geezer I need UL gear.

    TENT-> Tarptent Moment DW (uses modded under-the-fly X-ing pole for winter)
    PACK-> Osprey EXOS 58 (W/side pockets added)
    SLEEP SYSTEM-> Western Mountaineering Megalite (overstuffed to 15 F.) and Prolite mattress (soon to be REI Flash Insulated)
    STOVE-> Brunton CRUX (butane) or Trail Designs ti Sidewinder cone (ESBIT but can take alcohol or wood) 3 cup pot

    So UL, but not even close to SUL. (Can we start a GO-FUND-ME for a TT Notch Lithium tent? ;o)

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