What is Ultralight Hiking?

There is an old saying among the Amish about how to be frugal. It goes like this, “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” This has become a lost art in our culture of disposable everything. However, many people are noticing the build up of stuff in their lives. It explains the popularity of the Konmari method and the trend in learning to declutter. There is a category of hikers who have decluttered their backpacks and know how to hike on a shoestring. They are the ultralight hikers.

There are three weight classes in hiking; like boxing but without getting punched in the face. A traditional backpacker would carry a base weight of thirty or more pounds. Base weight is calculated by the weight of the backpack plus any gear. Consumables such as food and water are not counted because the total fluctuates throughout the trip. The goal base weight for a light backpacker is 10-15 lbs. An ultralight hiker wants a base weight of 10 lbs. or less!

The First Ultralight Hikers

A segment of the backpacking industry sprang up around ultralight hiking after American mountaineer Ray Jardine published a guidebook about his first ultralight hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. He carried a base weight of 13 lbs. with a homemade pack. 

The original in ultralight hiker is said to be Grandma Gatewood. Her story brings us back east to the Appalachian Trail. She began her hike in 1955 carrying a duffle bag containing a tarp to keep her dry and wearing Keds canvas sneakers. She told her children she was “going for a walk” and became the first woman to complete a thru hike of the AT. She was 67 years old at the time. 

How Can You Lighten Your Pack?

So how can you put a toe in the waters of ultralight hiking? You follow Grandma Gatewood and the Amish. You use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. You cut back the base weight in three main areas; your backpack, your sleeping gear, and your shelter.

Your Backpack

An ultralight backpack is one piece of special equipment you probably want to invest in because it is so different from a traditional backpack. These packs are made of special lightweight fabric coated in silicone. They are made with much lighter frames or no frame at all. A traditional pack will be made of heavier material, have more heft in the straps and waistband, and a heavier frame. 

selective focus photo of red hiking backpack on green grass
Traditional pack. Photo by Ravindra rawat on Pexels.com

Your Sleep System

Ultralight hikers will often choose lighter materials for their sleeping arrangement as well. They will carry a foam pad rather than a self-inflating mattress. They’ll also likely have a mummy style sleeping bag. It sounds morbid but it only describes the shape. Regular sleeping bags are rectangular. A mummy bag tapers at the feet, is wider in the shoulder area, and tapers again where your head goes. A mummy bag is made of less material and rolls up smaller than a traditional sleeping bag. 

Your Shelter

Last of the big three for hikers is shelter. There are ultralight tents available on the market. Some have no tent pole and you use your trekking pole to prop them up. However, many ultralight hikers will simply use a tarp to create a lean-to or sleep in a bivy. A bivy is the same shape as a mummy bag but is waterproof. 

blue dome tent near mountain
Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com

Your Skills

As you can see, ultralight hiking has more to do with the second half of that Amish saying. UL hikers definitely “make do” and “do without”. They carry much less gear or gear that has been modified. They also build skills that can replace the need to carry supplies such as building fires to cook over rather than carry a camp stove and fuel. 


Ultralight hiking sounds like an interesting challenge for any avid hiker to take on. As for Trail Families, there are great lessons to learn from “making do” and “doing without”. You have to become flexible in your thinking, tough in difficult circumstances, and appreciative of the comfort most of us enjoy on a daily basis. These are just a few of the benefits of cultivating a trail family lifestyle. 

Categories Appalachian Trail, Gear, hiking, Trail townTags ,

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