There’s one on every multi-day walk: the scissor-happy hyper-minimalist who’s lopped the end off their toothbrush, cut the tags off their clothes – yes really – and done unspeakable things to an exxy backpack just to shave a few milligrams off their load. They may spend their Friday nights analysing spreadsheets and mutilating their belongings, but it’s hard not to be curious about those gram-counting folks bounding cheerfully up the hill when, under the weight of over 20kgs, you’re experiencing jelly knees and foot fatigue.
Going light, ultralight or at the most extreme end, survivalist, is a game of trade-offs. Do you value the ease and efficiency of your camp stove more than the weight savings of cooking with a DIY tin-can job that weighs 2 grams? (Yes, people actually cook this way.) How light can you go without compromising your personal comfort, safety and, in the case of those who go without toilet paper, hygiene standards? Whether you’re aiming to cut back three kilos or 300 grams, the end game is always the same: the less you carry the further you can go and the happier you’ll feel on the trail.
How light is light?
There’s no hard and fast rule. For most people scaling back their stuff is, and should be, a gradual and on-going process. With each new trip you become more familiar with what you can and can’t get by without, what works and what doesn’t, what you do and don’t like. You’ll also grow more confident in your wilderness knowledge and skills, and find that you slowly move away from your rookie ‘kitchen sink’ ways – y’know, packing for a long list of unlikely what-ifs and ending up carrying a slew of unnecessary stuff – we’ve all been there.
These variables along with the very personal nature of backpacking are why you won’t find an exact weight you need to hit in order to join the lightweight or ultralight elite. But a general guide used in the hiking community states that a base weight (all your stuff except food, water and fuel) of around 9kg is considered lightweight while 5kg or under is considered ultralight.
Spend vs sacrifice
If you’re in the market for all-new hiking gear, choosing ultralight (UL) products from the outset will do heaps of the weight-trimming for you – though as with anything state-of-the-art, products flagged as UL aren’t for those who’re watching the hip pocket.
Purists would argue that the lightweight lifestyle should be more about resourcefulness and simplicity than about maxing out credit cards on spiffy new gear – their role models are more likely to be indigenous groups travelling immense distances with little more than an animal hide and a spear than product designers engineering the next frameless pack or technical fabric for big brands.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll probably fall somewhere in the middle. Upgrading to lighter models as your existing gear wears out, combined with more inventive methods such as dehydrating your own food, splitting up equipment among your group (poles for me, tent for you), perhaps hacking the odd pocket or buckle off your pack, or quite simply identifying what you can go without.
One of the core strategies of going lightweight is to measure the value of each item by the number of purposes it serves, which helps to identify redundancy in your packing list. That’s why we’ve rounded up a few of our own double-duty discoveries that have so far worked really well for us. They’re in no way likely to suit everyone’s needs, but these (scissor-free) hacks are a good jumping off point if you’re looking to have the weight lifted, quite literally, off your shoulders.
Down jacket + stuff sack = pillow
There’s no substitute for good sleep, not even 12 coffees. Which is why we’ve always taken either a miniscule blow-up pillow (which slides around and feels a bit like sleeping on a pool toy) or a compressible filled pillow (which is insanely comfortable but unfortunately the size of a 3L milk bottle). Enter the down jacket. Pop it inside your sleeping mat’s stuff sack and voila – instant feather pillow. You can also add/remove spare clothes to increase/decrease firmness.
Water reservoir = less comfy pillow
A water bladder is lighter, holds more and delivers hands-free hydration so we’d be surprised if you weren’t already carrying one. And if for some reason you had no other pillow alternative, you can always blow it up. We’re not claiming it’s comfortable but it beats sleeping with your head in a ditch, or worse, on rocks.
Cooking pot = bowl
The camp kitchen is full of opportunities to weed out double ups. The first and most obvious would be to simply eat straight from your cooking pot. In the same vein, many rehydrated backcountry meals and instant oats can be eaten straight from their packaging. Which leaves only one question: why do we keep carrying a bowl?
Titanium mug = cooking pot and bowl
For an ultralight, minimalist cooking system, all you need is a simple gas canister burner and a single-wall metal mug that can be used for boiling water, eating and drinking from. We wouldn’t suggest trying to cook actual food in it, but for just-add-water meals it’s a no-brainer.
Spork = fork, spoon, knife (defence against dangerous critters… maybe not)
These things are dirt cheap and weigh nothing, though they do tend to get lost easily in messy packs. Short of learning to be more organised (yeah, nah), getting a bright colour will go some way to remedying this. And as for the gear savings, we reckon the spork speaks for itself.
Foam sleeping mat = comfy campfire seat
Yes they’re bulky, but they don’t weigh a lot and are easy enough to strap to the outside of your pack. A foam sleeping mat also racks up a lot of points in the multi-use department. Sun-lounger, seat, buoyancy device, kneeling pad, riverbank slip ‘n’ slide, footrest… you get the idea. The fold-up ‘concertina’ type tends to be slightly more practical than the roll-up type, but both will get the job(s) done.
Sleeping quilt = cosy cape
For wilderness cosplay if that’s your thing, but also for rugging up outside of the tent in extra chilly conditions, like watching sunrise or shooting pics of the night sky. Unlike a bulky sleeping bag, a quilt wraps around your shoulders quite comfortably, and being around half the weight of a sleeping bag, offers big weight savings in its own right. You do give up some of the cocooning goodness of a bag, however quilts are designed to cinch around your sleeping mat to trap warmth and eliminate drafts. In summer you get the added benefit of being able to easily throw a limb out if you’re overheating without contending with zippers.
Headlamp + half-filled water bottle = lantern
We’ve been umming and ahhing over getting a compact lantern to hang inside the tent or use outside if we’re still pottering around after dark. But we always arrive at the same conclusion: bringing a lantern for the sake of diffused rather than targeted light felt a bit precious and excessive when we already have headlamps. Turns out we already have the makings of a lantern: Half fill a water bottle and shine your headlamp into the mouth and you’ve got yourself a decent light source that won’t blind your fellow campers every time you turn around.
Swear by any of your own lightweight hiking hacks? Maybe you’ve figured out how to save 200 grams by ditching all your gear’s stuff sacks, or maybe you’ve got a sweet minimalist sleep system involving a hammock, tarp and some string. We’d love to hear about it – leave us a comment with your tried-and-true hacks!
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