Light & Fast: 14 Ultralight Backpacking Tips

For backpackers, going ultralight is easier (and less expensive) than you might expect. Our contributor stepped back to give tips on reducing pack weight for weekend backpacking trips and thru-hikes alike.


Every ounce you cut from pack weight will make you faster and more comfortable on a backpacking trip. But switching to a lighter setup can be daunting, and commercially made ultralight gear is not cheap.

After years honing my kit, I have a few ideas on what to bring (and what to leave behind) before hitting the trail.

Skip The Stove, Eat ‘Cold’

The easiest way to drop weight from a “kitchen” setup is to simply leave the stove at home. In summer, it’s not that bad. Eat cold food, including reconstituted meals like oatmeal or simpler items including summer sausage, hard cheese, nuts, and even packed sandwiches. I drink coffee cold, too, using Starbucks Via packets in a mug.

Tip: Those “add boiling water” dehydrated food pouches? Many can be prepared with cold water; you simply need to let the H2O sit for 30 – 45 minutes inside the packet to slowly “cook” the meal.

Or, Use Minimalist Alcohol Stove

Not ready to leave fire and warmth behind? Search the recycling bin for another option and turn a soda can or cat food can into a mini stove. (See instructions to make ultralight alcohol stoves at pages like and

You can purchase these simple stoves for about $15 as an alternative to making them yourself, including stoves like Mechanic Mike’s Side Rivet and Trangia Spirit models.

The author's lightweight backpacking gear
The author’s lightweight backpacking gear

Backpacking Stove

Add a few ounces (but a lot of convenience) with a made-for-backpacking ultralight stove. I like the Ion Micro Titanium Stove and MSR’s Pocket Rocket. You need to bring a fuel canister and a small pot, but these setups get your food warm fast without much of a weight penalty.

Skip The Cooking Pot

Heating or boiling water does not necessitate a traditional cooking pot. I put my 600ml Snow Peak mug, which is made of titanium, right onto the stove flame. I then can heat water and drink or eat from the same small vessel. A cheaper option, for less than $10, is a Grease Pot from Wal-Mart.

Ditch the Nalgene, Go With ‘Disposable’ Bottle

Though standard on many trails, a 1-liter Nalgene bottle weighs 6.3 oz. empty. A lighter option is 750-ml plastic bottle from your local gas station; it weighs a mere 1.3 oz. Powerade or Gatorade bottles work great, too; they have wider mouths and are a bit sturdier (but also a bit heavier). You can use these “throw-away” bottles dozens of times.

Upgrade to a Platy Bottle for the commercial option — these 2-liter soft bottles have a threaded cap and weigh almost nothing in a pack.

'Grease pot' from Wal-Mart (left) and Snow Peak Titanium mug
‘Grease pot’ from Wal-Mart (left) and Snow Peak Titanium mug

Water Filtration Options

My two favorite options for getting water outdoors include the Sawyer Squeeze, which gives immediate access to drinkable water (either straight from the Sawyer or as an in-line to a bladder), and Aquamira tablets, which require a brief wait time, but no squeezing. Potable Aqua is another good option.

Tip: If you choose the Sawyer Squeeze, get rid of the pouches (hard to fill and tear easily) and replace with a light plastic bottle for straight-from-the-bottle drinking.

Clothes… One Outfit Only!

Extra clothing weighs many backpackers down. Wearing a good top and bottom layer for hiking, and packing some “sleep clothes” (which double as cold-weather layers) means no need to pack multiple outfits. Include a mid-layer, rain layers, and a light down jacket for a three-season kit. Add a light fleece hat or Buff, too, to keep your head warm at night.

2 Pair Of Socks

Two pairs should do the trick. Keep one as your hiking pair and one as your camp/sleep pair. I like merino wool.

Trash Bag Trick

A pack cover is not necessary to keep my gear dry. Instead, I use a trash-compactor bag, which cost just a couple dollars per box. Put one in your pack for all of your “must not get wet” items, twist it closed, and done. Cheap, waterproof, and durable.

Tape Stick

You don’t need the whole roll. Take what you need and wrap it around a cut-down straw.

Ground Sheet

Tyvek, a thin industrial tarp material obtainable on Amazon, makes for a great barrier between you and the ground for sleeping (tent or bivy) or simply sitting. Strong, lightweight, and cheap.

Ziploc Bags

A cheap waterproof option? Look no further than a Ziploc bag if you need to protect a phone, key, ID/bank card, or cash (no need to carry your whole wallet).

Basic First Aid

No need for one of those premade med kits with 30 things you’ll never use. Grab a Ziploc bag and head to the pharmacy section. Pick out the items important to you, often including ibuprofen, stomach medicine, medical tape, and other blister treatments.

Safety On The Trail

Going lighter doesn’t have to mean sacrificing safety gear and essentials. In fact, going lighter will wind up improving balance and take pressure off of your joints and bones, not to mention decrease muscle fatigue and conserve energy.

Go with lighter shoes (trail-runners as opposed to hiking boots) and you’ll have a better feel for the terrain and a decreased chance of blisters. You’ll also have an easier time hiking to safety with a lighter pack when that unexpected thunderstorm is bearing down.

Follow these tips to keep the wind in your sails and the weight out of your pack.

–Caitlin Quinn is based in Vermont. Find her on the state’s trails with her pup, Vaida, who she wrote about earlier this month in the article “Canine Companion: Hiking Big Miles With Dogs.”