The Top 5 Tips For Better Ultralight Backpacking

By Michael Lanza

I field a lot of questions from readers about gear and backpacking, and I find the conversation often boiling down to one issue: how much weight they have in their packs. The biggest lesson I’ve drawn from more than three decades of backpacking—including 10 years as a field editor at Backpacker magazine and another 10 running this blog—is that a major factor dictating my enjoyment of any hike is how much weight I’m carrying.

If I could convince my readers who backpack to follow one piece of advice— no matter your age, how much you hike, or how fit or experienced you are—it would be this: Lighten up. You’ll make backpacking more fun.

This article shares my five most effective tips for accomplishing just that.

The good news is you don’t have to embrace extreme measures or compromise safety or comfort—in fact, I’m convinced my strategy has made me more comfortable and safer than when I routinely carried a much heavier pack. Among many examples I could offer, when three friends and I backpacked the Grand Canyon’s remote and very rugged Royal Arch Loop, we moved more safely and confidently through its very rugged terrain because our packs were relatively light (even though we carried extra water). Other benefits include being able to hike farther, less likelihood of an injury, and just feeling much better at the end of every day on the trail.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


My story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” goes much deeper into why and how I’ve greatly reduced my pack weight. (That story requires a paid subscription to read in full, but if you’re not a subscriber, you can purchase a downloadable copy of that story, my e-guide “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.”)

But here are my five most-important tips as you set out on—or continue down—the path toward lightening your pack. Please share your thoughts on them, or your own favorite tips, in the comments section at the bottom of this story.

Take the first step. See my picks for the best ultralight backpacks.

A backpacker in the Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

#1 Start With Nothing

The best way to fail at lightening up your pack is to start with your old gear list and remove items one by one. Don’t begin from the presumption that every backpacking trip requires the same gear and clothing. Instead, start with nothing on the list and add only what’s necessary for a particular trip. See my blog post “Ask Me: An Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.

A backpacker above Toxaway Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
My wife, Penny, backpacking above Toxaway Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

#2 Weigh Everything

I mean literally put everything on a scale, from gear to clothes and food. I do it all the time. It may sound a little too obsessive, but this helps you assess the value of everything you carry—it motivates you to downsize when you see exactly how much weight each item adds to your pack. It makes you scrutinize everything that’s potentially superfluous and helps you establish a ceiling weight for your backpack.

A person can’t lose weight without stepping on a scale. The same rule applies to a backpack.

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Grand Teton, Yosemite, and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

#3 Don’t Be Miserable

I don’t sleep on a bed of leaves, harvest wild edibles or starve, or live in one pair of socks for days on end. I won’t use a wafer-thin foam pad or sleeping bag, because the energy saved through reducing my pack’s weight by a few ounces of mattress comfort would be eclipsed by the energy sacrificed to sleep loss.

Customize your own gear kit to suit your needs—but don’t lose sight of the goal, which is to end up with a much lighter pack.

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide!


Mark Fenton staying light on Clouds Rest during a three-day, 65-mile hike in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton stays light on Clouds Rest on a three-day, 65-mile hike in Yosemite.

#4 Plan Your Water and Food Precisely

Water and food are heavy: The average person eats two pounds of food and drinks eight pounds or more of water every day in the backcountry. Don’t subscribe to some antiquated rule about a minimum amount of water you must carry, or hauling around far more food than you will eat.

Ask yourself: What’s the walking time to the next expected water source, and the likelihood of not finding water at it? What are the real chances of running out of food long before finishing the hike?

I plan exactly how much I’ll eat every day, carrying very little extra food, and I haven’t starved yet. I guzzle water at every source (better to carry it in your belly than on your back) and carry only what I’ll need to reach the next reliable water source.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.

#5 Replace Old Gear

This is my only tip that costs money, and it won’t be feasible for everyone—or not immediately for everyone. But new gear is generally lighter—and more comfortable, and sometimes even more durable—than old gear. As you can afford to, replace heavy, bulky, old gear with new stuff. Consider it an investment in your personal pleasure.

See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

See also my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and all of my reviews of backpacking gear and ultralight backpacking gear.

You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there. Join now and a get free e-guide!


Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

The post The Top 5 Tips For Better Ultralight Backpacking first appeared on The Big Outside.

The Top 5 Tips For Better Ultralight Backpacking