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 – What am I talking about?
The term “ultralight” has been appearing more and more in the outdoor industry lately. The time when equipment was comparatively crude and massive is long gone. Nevertheless, more and more outdoor enthusiasts are turning to even lighter alternatives. There is no definitive definition of what exactly is meant by ‘ultralight’. As a rule, however, one speaks of ultralight up to a pure equipment weight (without food, water and fuel) of approx. 5 kg. In the range of 5-9 kg, the term ‘light trekking’ is used.
The advantages are obvious: if you only have to carry a small amount of weight, you not only travel more easily, but you also reach your destination faster or can cover longer distances. In addition, the joints and back are spared. Pain or signs of fatigue do not occur at all or at least much later.
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 actually has nothing to do with ultralight equipment. I simply took a look at my packing lists and critically reviewed them. The main aim was to find things that are included on every tour but are never actually used. I’m not talking about equipment like a first aid bag, which you never really need but should have with you on longer tours. Rather, you have to consider whether, for example, you really need three packs of spare batteries, the fifth extra survival knife and the fat extra torch for a three-day tour through the local mixed forest.
Cut down your packing list and take a smaller backpack
All items that are deemed useless, superfluous or have never been used in this way are simply left at home without replacement for the next tour. If you still tend to pack too much, you can outsmart yourself with a simple trick: take the smallest possible backpack! Because if you have a lot of space, you also pack a lot. In addition, larger backpacks are usually heavier than smaller ones.
Weight optimisation – targeted selection of equipment
Once you have trimmed the packing list down to its essential components, it is helpful to take a closer look at the remaining equipment. Often things come as standard in the luggage that, objectively speaking, are total overkill for the planned tour. Considerations such as “Do we really need the thick winter sleeping pad model ‘Princess and the Pea’ for a three-day tour in summery Central Europe?” can be helpful here. Equipment adapted to the tour always depends on the length, terrain and weather. So if I’m on the road for three days in August in the local low mountain range, chances are good that a down jacket won’t be needed. In this case, you can also safely choose a lighter (and therefore perhaps less warm) sleeping bag.
Identify what you can safe
If the forecast for the weather is good and stable, you can certainly save a little on rain gear and spare clothing. Especially on tours in winter or in high alpine terrain, the packing list looks different. But even here, with a certain amount of discipline, you can save quite a bit of weight.
Wherever possible, you should therefore try to replace a heavy item of equipment with a lighter one during this phase. Especially with heavy and large items such as backpacks, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and tents, you can save a lot. It is also worth considering whether some items of equipment can be left off the packing list altogether. The tent in particular is a much-discussed item. Alternatively, taking a lighter tarp or bivouacking in the open air could 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
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.
The big four
Here, my experience certainly reflects reality. Because the first items of equipment that are usually swapped in the direction of ultralight are the so-called ‘big four’. That is, backpack, sleeping bag, tent and sleeping pad. In the field of backpacks, for example, there are models that easily undercut the 1-kilo mark if they are big enough.
When it comes to sleeping bags, there is usually no way around a down sleeping bag. This is simply because down sleeping bags are significantly lighter than their synthetic-fibre-filled counterparts with the same level of insulation. The choice of sleeping bag is always strongly dependent on the area you are going to, the expected temperatures and your personal feeling of cold.
But even here there are heavier and lighter models with comparable values. Three-season sleeping bags manage with a weight of less than 800 g as an ultra-light version. If you only travel in summer and therefore don’t need an excessively warm sleeping bag, you can easily find even lighter models here.
Do you really need a tent?
As already mentioned, in the field of ultralight hiking / ultralight trekking there is always a discussion about whether a tent is needed at all. The idea behind this is simply that a tent is actually superfluous for tours in good weather and in the warmer season and can therefore be replaced by a much lighter tarp or even a suitable bivouac sack. However, everyone has to make the decision for themselves, as it depends heavily on personal preferences and needs. Ultralight tents weigh less than 500 g and thus offer a considerable weight saving compared to their conventional counterparts.
The field of sleeping mats is also highly competitive. It is not uncommon for foam mats to be used in the ultralight sector. Mats of this type usually weigh around 400-500 g. The special advantage is that they can be used to stiffen the backpack. The particular advantage is that they can be used to reinforce the rucksack and can therefore be stowed not only safely but also sensibly. But if you want to make it even lighter, you should go for an air mat. Mats like the NeoAir Xlite from Therm-a-Rest, for example, weigh a good 100 g less than their foam counterparts, depending on the size.
If we roughly add up the weight of the ‘big four’, we arrive at a figure of not quite 3 kg. If you combine this with the method of limiting yourself to the important items of equipment and not taking any unnecessary frippery, you can get by with a pleasantly light weight even for multi-day tours. If this is still too much of a burden for you, you can of course go on to optimise other items such as food, cooker and clothing in the direction of ultra-light. What makes sense, how and when, and where the tricks of the trade lie, are explained in separate articles on the various outdoor disciplines.