Ultra-light Backpacking Tips


The Devils Path, a 25-mile trail in the Catskill Mountains of New York, is often cited as the toughest hiking trail in the East. Last summer, with two friends I hiked the trail in a bit more than two days. We took an east-to-west voyage that included ascending six major Catskill peaks for a cumulative elevation loss and gain totaling more than 14,000 feet.

We went “fast and light,” banking on minimal gear and simple food. It was a rainy weekend, but I didn’t have a tent. A waterproof bivy sack served as my sole shelter. Trail-running shoes — not boots — let me trek fast both days, including a 17-mile stretch that ate up the meat of the Path on the second day of the trip.

Devils Path Trail Sign.jpg

Brock Foreman near the west end of the Devils Path

Here are a few quick tips and considerations I employed on the Devils Path to make the ultralight backpacking experiment a success.

Shelter. For ultra-light backpacking trips, think first of tarps and bivy sacks instead of tents. For the Devils Path — and on many other adventures — I slept in a silicone-coated nylon waterproof bivy sack from Mandatory Gear, a small company in Minneapolis. It weighs mere ounces and folds up to almost nothing. But it is waterproof and keeps my sleeping bag dry from rain. (The downside and the trade-off is that it doesn’t breathe, and condensation inside moistens your sleeping bag to an extent.) Tents have their time and place in backpacking, no doubt. One person in my Devils Path group brought a lightweight solo tent. The best minimal tents — like the Nemo Nano Elite model or Terra Nova’s Laser series — weigh less than three pounds packed up and poles included.

Food. Bank on dense, high-calorie foodstuffs to go extra light. Nuts, energy bars, candy, peanut butter, croutons, and a couple Boost energy shakes made up the bulk of my food stash on the Devils Path. Rarely will I bring heat-to-eat items or anything canned on the trail. When going as fast and light as I can, I don’t want to deal with heating water or rehydrating packaged food.

Devils Path Trail Photo.jpg

Brock Foreman and Karl Wiedemann on the trail

Footwear. I am a big advocate of NOT hiking in boots. Even ankle-high hikers are often twice the weight of a trail-running shoe. With each step, you’re moving more mass, expending more energy. And your gait is slower in a boot. Unless it’s cold, snowy, or really treacherous, you will find me in lightweight shoes on a trail — no matter the distance ahead.

Clothing. A change of clothes is not an option on a weekend backpacking trip. I start and end with the same stuff on. Often this is a thin merino wool base layer top or a synthetic T-shirt with anti-microbial (anti-stink) properties. For my legs, I wear shorts or tights. Beyond what’s on my back at the trailhead, I bring a mid-layer fleece, a shell jacket (or light rain jacket), and a warm hat to wear at night.

Backpack. A light backpack is key to a light load. I often go with a foam-sheet-frame pack like the Inov-8 Race Pro 30. If the load is under 20 pounds (a good goal), a substantial internal frame is not needed. (On the Devils Path, I was testing the North Face’s Skareb 50 backpack, which weighed about three pounds and had 50 liters of capacity. It was larger than what I would usually take on this kind of a trip, though it functioned well.)

Mindset. More than gear, it’s the can-do mindset of an ultra-light hiker that will get him or her through. It can be scary heading onto the trail with minimal gear — and many miles ahead to travel. But once you’re trekking — feet moving fast, a lightweight pack on your back — hopefully the worries will fade away. On the Devils Path, we covered 25 tough miles in a couple days. It’s a trip that takes some groups four or five days to complete. But our sights were set on making the miles in a shorter amount of time. We did that. And despite minimal gear and simple food, we had fun — and were comfortable enough, as well — along the way.

For a narrative on the Devils Path adventure, check out “2 Days, 3 Nights, on a Path Named for a Devil,” my story on the trail in the New York Times. http://travel.nytimes.com

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. A version of this article appeared originally on VentureThere.com.

Posted by Brock Foreman - 07/07/2010 01:02 PM

Who’s that weird bald dude in the pic!? Heh. Great article, Stephen. That was the lightest I’ve ever hiked, which made it easier (less painful) to cover vast distances over tough terrain. I’m hooked on the minimalist, ultra-lightweight approach.

Posted by EpicGizmo - 07/08/2010 07:42 AM

What kind of hiking poles did you use? I’ve never hiked with any, but saw a lot of people using them on the AT. What’s the ‘real’ pro’s and con’s of them?

Posted by Lance - 07/08/2010 10:35 AM

The pro for hiking poles for me is always being able to keep my balance. Another pro is using it to reach things that are longer than arm reach.

I can’t really think of a CON to hiking poles. I’ve always used them.

I have used Komperdell brand.

These are my current pair: Titanal

Posted by EpicGizmo - 07/08/2010 11:14 AM

Thanks Lance! I’ll research and review some since everyone a lot of people seem to be using them.

Posted by Randy - 07/08/2010 12:16 PM

As far as light shelter options with the Nemo Meta 1p and other similar sub 2lb spacious 1 person tents I don’t see any reason to use a Bivy sack anymore.

Posted by Cameron - 07/08/2010 01:31 PM

Hi guys – what did you do to sterilize your drinking water? Steripen with iodine tablets as a back-up? And when you filled your container up with water how much do you carry? (I assume in the Catskills water is fairly easy to find along the trail, so you carry less water?)

Posted by Stephen Regenold - 07/23/2010 11:22 AM

Lots of water on this trail. I used iodine. Steripen is a common tool for me, too, on other trips. Just had a 100oz. CamelBak bladder. Filled it halfway or less and hiked to next stream/spring for refill.

Posted by Bryan Ross - 07/30/2010 01:06 AM

Wow, that must have been quite a treacherous hike. I’ve mostly done day hikes on trails near town, but I still follow some best practices shared by serious hiker friends of mine.
I usually dress in layers, which makes it easier to add or remove clothes as I get cold or warm. In my daypack go a bottle of water, couple of cans of energy drinks, granola bars, route map, whistle, flashlight, and first aid supply. In fact, I’ve just bought a brand new daypack from the BRX line of Briggs & Riley. I can’t wait to use it on my next trail hike.

Posted by Jared - 03/13/2012 01:26 PM

Sounds like a fun hike. You say you’re a big advocate of not using hiking boots cause of the weight which I partially agree with. I use boots if I have a heavier load (for longer trips) or know I’m gonna hit treacherous terrain, but like the shoe approach because of the lightweight and better maneuverability. What shoes did you use on this hike or what shoes do you tend to recommend? Hike on!

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