Today we want to take a look at the topic of ultra-light walking and ultra-light trekking. We’ll take a look at how I came to explore this topic, what entering into the ultra-light touring world looks like and what you should consider when doing so.
Ultra-light – that’s what I’m talking about
The term ultra-light has recently become increasingly common in the outdoor industry Large, bulky equipment is a thing of the past and now more and more outdoor enthusiasts are turning to ever lighter alternatives. The term ‘ultra-light’ is not conclusively defined. As a rule however, a pure equipment weight (without food, water and fuel) of approx. 5 kg is spoken of as ultra-light, whilst equipment weighing 5 – 9 kg would be term lightweight trekking.
The advantages are obvious: if your luggage is light, you not only feel freer on the move, you also travel more quickly and can cover longer distances. It also protects your joints and back, so pain and fatigue don’t occur or take much longer to set in.
The first step – a lighter backpack
In recent years I have suffered from severe back problems. This was partly due to my build, but also due to bad posture that I developed in my youth. Since then, I have managed to keep the problem under control through targeted training, but there is one thing that hasn’t changed: I can’t carry heavy backpacks. It’s not that I immediately collapse under the load of a 15 – 20 kg backpack, but I sometimes have to end a tour after just a couple of days because of the pain. So, for me, there’s one logical conclusion: I need a lighter backpack.
My first step was not anything to do with ultra-light equipment. I just took a look through my packing list and checked it critically. The main aim was to find things that I took on every tour but actually never used . I’m not talking about pieces of equipment like a first-aid kit, which you rarely need but you should always carry on longer tours. It was more a case of leaving behind the three packs of spare batteries, the fifth spare penknife and the huge spare torch.
All these useless, surplus or unused items can just be left at home on your next tour. If you still tend to pack too much, there’s a simple trick: take the smallest backpack possible! The more space you have, the more you pack. Also, larger backpacks are also heavier than smaller ones.
Weight optimisation – targeted selection of equipment
Once your packing list has been trimmed down to its essential items, you should also take a look at the remaining equipment a bit more closely. There are often items which are total overkill for your planned tour. Do you really need that thick winter sleeping mat for a three-day tour in summer in central Europe? Equipment required for the tour should always suit the length, terrain and weather conditions. So, if I’m on the road for three days in August in the local low mountain range, the chances are that I won’t need a down jacket. I can also opt for a lighter (and less warm) sleeping bag.
If the weather forecast is good and stable, you can leave some of your rain protection and spare clothing at home. Tours in winter or in high alpine terrain require a different packing list. However, even here, discipline can save some weight.
Wherever possible, you should try to replace a heavy piece of equipment with an (already owned) lighter piece. With large, heavy things like your rucksack, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and tent, there’s a lot to save. It’s also worth considering whether equipment can be completely removed from the packing list. The tent is a common point of discussion in this regard. A lightweight tarp or bivouac could also be an option.
Once you have optimised your equipment in this respect, it is time for the scales and a first test run. For me, this phase was the decisive one as it allowed me to considerably reduce the weight of the equipment I was carrying with just a few targeted measures and at no additional cost.
Ultra-light equipment – the featherlight alternative
However, depending on the equipment you have, there are areas where you can save a little weight. For me, this was my sleeping bag. I have an extremely warm, and correspondingly heavy, down sleeping bag for the winter as well as a second model for the summer. This one is older and made of synthetic fibre, but is in no way inferior to the “Camping in winter in the North Pole” gear. As for the backpack itself, I was able to find comparatively light models in my personal inventory, but I discovered that by replacing it with an ultra-light model, I could save even more weight.
My experience reflects reality here. The first pieces of equipment that are normally swapped for ultra-light alternatives are the so-called ‘big four’. This is your backpack, sleeping bag, tent and sleeping mat. In terms of backpacks for example, models such as the Ultra Tour by Montane, which offer plenty of space at under 1 kg.
For sleeping bags, there is often no way round a down sleeping bag. This is because down sleeping bags are significantly lighter than their synthetic fibre counterparts, while providing the same level of thermal insulation. The choice of sleeping bag is particularly dependent on where you’re heading on your tour, the expected temperature and your personal feeling of warmth.
However, there are heavier and lighter models with comparable values. Three-season sleeping bags such as the Hitchens UL 20 by Big Agnes come in ultra-light versions weighing less than 800 g. If you only tend to travel in summer, so you don’t need an excessively warm sleeping bag, you can find even lighter models.
As mentioned, in terms of ultra-light hiking/trekking, the question of whether you really need a tent is often discussed. If you’re heading out in good weather in the summer, a tent may actually be superfluous and could be replaced with a much lighter tarp or even a suitable bivvy bag. However, this decision has to be made individually, as it depends strongly on personal preferences and needs. Ultra-light tents such as the Laser Ultra 1 by Terra Nova weigh less than 500 g and therefore offer considerable weight-savings over their conventional counterparts.
The sleeping mat sector is also highly competitive. It is not unusual for foam mats to be used in the ultra-light area. This type of mat usually weighs around 400-500 g. The advantage of this is that they can be used to stiffen the rucksack, allowing them to be packed away safely and helpfully. If you want something even lighter, you should take a look at air mats. Mats like the NeoAir Xlite by Therm-a-rest weight a good 100 g less than their foam counterparts, depending on their size.
If we add up roughly the weight of the ‘big four’ now, we get to a value of just less than 3 kg. If we combine this with the method of limiting ourselves to only the most important pieces of equipment and not taking any unnecessary items, we can enjoyed multi-day tours with very little weight. If this is still too much of a burden, you can move on to optimising other items such as food, cooker and clothing. What makes sense, and what the tricks of the trade are, is explained in separate articles for the various outdoor disciplines.