Going Ultralight: It's—Mostly—In The Mind

When most people talk about cutting pack weight they usually start by talking about the Big 3: your pack, your shelter, and your sleep system. But there's another Big 3 that are mental, not physical. And they can be just as important.

Without the right mental headspace, cutting pack weight is very tough to do. As a lightweight or ultralight hiker, you have to be willing change how you approach hiking, what you bring, how you use your gear and how you deal with changing trail and weather conditions. This comes with practice and what I like to call Trail Confidence.

Learning to understand and accept that there will be times when you might be uncomfortable is the key. This is where Trail Confidence comes in. It’s knowing what you can and can't deal with and being secure in your ability to survive with the gear you have. A positive attitude only goes so far. You also must know your limits and leave the bravado at the door. Think you’re ready to tackle the “Mental Big 3”? Read on.

Cutting pack weight takes the willingness to sacrifice. These sacrifices can come in many forms: the size of your pack, how much it can hold, comfort, warmth, dryness, to name a few. Ultralight packs are designed to carry a certain amount of weight. Exceed this and you'll sacrifice comfort. Sacrificing your rain pants might mean wet legs and shorts. A lighter sleeping bag might mean a few freezing nights.

The other thing you have to sacrifice is money. Lightweight gear is expense and most likely you already own a full hiking set up. Replacing the "Big 3" isn't cheap, but can make a huge impact. Personally, I can say any sacrifices I made in what I carry or don't carry haven't been negative. This is because I accepted certain luxuries would be lost in the process. A few cold nights, wet shorts in the morning, a pack that digs into your shoulders, these are all temporary things. Whether or not these things affect your view of your hike is up to you.

Closely tied to sacrifice is compromise. Carrying less means you have to not only be comfortable with your gear selection, but also with how you deal with any situation that might arise. You may have to compromise how you hike.

Sure, you're going to compromise space and comfort with a smaller pack, but with less in it, you also have to rethink how you approach your hike. A lighter pad or no sleeping pad means careful camp selection. If 20 miles is your goal and when you get there the ground is rocky and hard, you better be willing to compromise your plan and move to a softer location. You may have to compromise when you go hiking or what time to start or end your day. For example, with no snow shoes and a snow-covered trail means compromising by getting up in the dark to ensure you can hike on firm snow to avoid post holing. These compromises I'm talking about aren’t terrible. It comes down to a switch of mindset.

You have to be motivated to do anything in life. Cutting pack weight is no different. I was motivated to alleviate the stress on my body that comes with a heavy pack. The idea I could cut my pack weight and be less tired and sore alone was enough. I also was motivated to see more and hike more miles.

Without motivation, I don't believe sacrifice and compromise are possible. It's one's motivation that will give them the ability to make that mental switch I've talked about. The more motivated you are, the more willing you'll be to sacrifice and make compromises with your current set up.

So how do you actually cut pack weight?
As I started this post with, start with the Big 3. Pack, shelter, and sleep system. You can save the most weight with these three. The average hiker can save 10 to 12 pounds with these three items alone. When I hiked the Continental Divide Trail, my base weight was 12 pounds. I met two hikers who carried less than 7.5 pounds.

When was the last time you went for an overnight hike and didn't fill your pack completely? Probably NEVER! No matter the size of your pack, you're going to fill it. So do yourself a favor and get the smallest pack you think you can hike with. If your load is under 20 pounds, consider a pack without a frame. You can use your foam sleeping pad to give it some structure. Look at Gossamer Gear, Zpacks, ULA Equipment, Pa'lante Packs or Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

Shelter set ups can be lavish or nonexistent. Some are fine with just sleeping on the ground. Personally, my shelter is my castle, my safe place at the end of the day. This is one of those areas where personal preference and trail confidence play a huge role in what you carry. Pitched correctly, a simple tarp can be all you need to stay dry on the worst of nights. Look at tents/tarps from some companies like Zpacks, TarpTent, Gossamer Gear, or Hyperlite Mountain Gear. With materials like Cuben Fiber or a single-wall tent you can easily save a few more pounds over your average backpacking tent.

Sleep System
A lot of novice hikers shy away from using a down sleeping bag, afraid it will get wet and they'll be cold. With the proper safety precautions, this is not an issue. I put mine in its stuff sack, then a trash bag, and I use another trash bag as a pack liner. I've never had an issue in 8,000+ miles. Down is warmer, lighter and packs smaller. Also consider going with a foam pad over a self-inflating pad. Foam pads tend to be wider and can't be punctured, making them more reliable in the field. Down bags to look at: Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, Enlightened Equipment, Katabatic Gear and Zpacks.

Cutting Pack Weight in Other Ways

  1. Look through your gear list and see what items are duplicates. An ultralight hiker carries items that serve multiple uses. Example: A cell phone can be your journal, camera, GPS, Map, and Entertainment.
  2. Follow the 1-2 Week Rule: If you haven't used it in one or two weeks (or last two hikes) on the trail, ship it home.
  3. Leave the wind jacket at home, just use your rain jacket.
  4. Go without rain pants or try an option that can double as a ground sheet or shelter.
  5. Look into lighter food options.
  6. Trim excess tags or accessories.
  7. Limit camp clothes to what you sleep in.
  8. Use chemicals, an inline filter or something like the Sawyer Squeeze for filtration.
  9. An alcohol stove or woodburning stove will save weight over mass-produced stoves.
  10. Is your cooking pot bigger than you need? Get the smallest one that will handle your biggest meal.
  11. Consider no stove at all.

The benefits of cutting pack weight are many. It requires less effort, offers a simpler camp experience, and it’s easier on your body so you're able to see more and cover more miles in the same or less time.
Cutting pack weight can take time and lots of miles, but it can also be done before you get on the trail. Starting out as a lightweight or ultralight hiker just takes a lot more research, common sense, confidence and willingness to adapt quickly once on trail.

It all comes down to a mentality. The fear of not being comfortable is one of the biggest reason people resist going ultralight. But with the right attitude and knowledge, ultralight hiking doesn't have to be uncomfortable.