A hunter wearing camo and a pack demonstrates the art of ultralight backpacking.

The Art of Ultralight Packing: Tips for Backcountry Hikes and Hunts

Planning your next ultralight backpacking trip? Learn how to cut down on weight and increase efficiency when you’re packing light for the wilderness.
11 Survival Skills You Need to Know for Surviving in the Wilderness Alone Reading The Art of Ultralight Packing: Tips for Backcountry Hikes and Hunts 8 minutes Next How the Speedgoat Knife Got Its Name

Former U.S. president and military officer Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

The same is true about planning a backpacking trip, especially when you’re packing light. Planning is an exercise that helps you think through all the situations that may arise on a trip and what you’ll need to get where you’re going.

When I plan a trip, I think about the place I’m going, what the terrain is like, and how the weather will be. I think about the length of the trip; how long it’s going to take. I think about the environment and what equipment I’ll need to sustain myself.

Some time ago, I hiked to the top of Mount Timpanogos in the Wasatch Range in Utah. Facing an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet and a length of 14 miles, I knew I had to get an early start, so I left around 4 a.m.

It was freezing when I left. On such a morning, you might be tempted to choose clothes just by looking out the window. But because I thought ahead, I knew I would be wearing shorts by the time I reached the summit and planned my clothing accordingly. I dressed based on anticipated temperature changes over the course of the day and the variations up the mountain.

I also thought about how much water I would need and what resources there might be along the way that I could tap.

Another thing I did — which I do before any trip — is lay out every single bit of my gear in a flat lay — my jacket, extra socks, pack, water bladders, etc. It helps me visualize and take stock of every item, which is especially important in ultralight backpacking, where every ounce counts.

If there’s a component that needs testing, like a flashlight or GPS unit, I’ll check the batteries. If there’s a firearm, I’ll make sure it’s loaded.

In fact, I’ll double check all the equipment I’m bringing into the field, including things like my stove and fuel canisters. I’ll press check not just my firearm but every bit of my gear as well.

Dizzy yet? This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you really want to enjoy a successful ultralight backpacking trip, follow the rest of my tips below.

Packing Light for Backcountry Hikes and Hunts: The Essentials

Infographic: The Art of Ultralight Packing: Tips for Backcountry Hikes and Hunts

Establish a Communication Plan

I never embark on an ultralight backpacking trip without establishing a communication plan. Your cell phone usually won’t get service out in the wilderness, but a two-way radio or satellite phone will work fine.

There are other, more desperate options to think through. How far will your voice travel if you have to yell? How effective is your signaling device? If you’re bringing a whistle, will it sound like a distress call or will it sound like a kid playing around?

There’s a big difference between a signal and mere noise. If you become injured and can’t self-rescue, how do you communicate with someone who can help?

Watch Your Weight

On average, backpackers can carry no more than 20% of their body weight. So at 210 lbs, I can carry a maximum of 42 lbs.

Now, you may be planning to pack out animals, which obviously makes packs heavier. But if you’re just backpacking or overnight camping, the lighter your bag, the better.

That said, remember the old adage: Travel light, freeze at night. And always manage your expectations: You can go ultralight, but you won’t be ultra comfortable.

Some hikers go ultralight to show off. Personally, I would rather carry more weight if it means adding a bit of comfort and warmth, especially when I know there are chilly nights ahead.

Consider Individual Gear vs. Group Gear

Hiking in a group? You’ll need to distribute the weight of the common gear among everyone. Of course, each person will carry the items only they will use, like clothing, but shared items, like the camp kitchen, can be split up. One person might carry the stove, while someone else carries the mess kit, and another carries the food.

In this case, you’ll need to have enough room in your backpack to carry both your stuff and some of the group gear.

If You’re Packing Light, What’s Necessary?

When you’re planning an ultralight backpacking trip, how do you determine which items are absolutely necessary and which are not?

Deciding what to bring is often a personal choice. Something that might qualify as a necessity for one person might be superfluous for another.

For example, I often see people backpacking with guitars so they can play by the campfire at night. (Somehow, the people who bring guitars don’t usually end up playing them that well, I’ve noticed.)

Personally, I’d much rather have a good ground pad. In fact, I would buy a good ground pad rather than a sleeping bag. I can always improvise warmth by building a fire or wearing warmer clothing, but I have less control over the ground. Sleeping on the ground can be painful, cold, and downright demoralizing.

Make these decisions with all your gear laid out in front of you. If you’re at 55 lbs and need to get down to 40, it’s time to start making some difficult choices.

Most people try to match their level of comfort at home to the level of comfort on the trail, but it’s okay to make sacrifices. For example, you’re allowed to have a lower standard of cleanliness in the wild. You don’t need to bring multiple changes of clothes, or four stainless steel water bottles.

People often overestimate what they need. The best training you can get is limiting yourself to smaller items and getting by with less. You don’t need to use a new coffee mug every day. Reuse the same one, and don’t be afraid of that coffee ring.

The fact is, we go into the wild to get away from comfort, not to bring it with us. Yet I always see people bringing way more than they need and way more than they end up using. Keep it simple and light.

Quote: The Art of Ultralight Packing: Tips for Backcountry Hikes and Hunts

Select Versatile Equipment

Multipurpose gear is the secret of ultralight backpacking. For example, you could clip a flashlight to the brim of your baseball cap rather than carrying a dedicated headlamp. The flashlight serves both purposes and cuts down weight.

Another multipurpose item might be a bandana. You can use it to remove a pot from a stove, or as a bandage. You can use it as a rag for cleaning, or as a headband to keep sweat out of your eyes.

Rather than matching every scenario with a separate item, look for multipurpose gear that saves weight and space.

Create a Gear List That Meets Your Needs

Before you venture into the wild, take your pack for a dry run in your neighborhood. In my opinion, this is the most important and most overlooked stage of the planning process.

Try walking around with your backpack. Is it too heavy? How do the straps ride? Is any part of the pack rubbing uncomfortably against you?

Practice scenarios like cooking dinner or setting up to sleep. Remove your pack and go through the steps you would take in the wild. You might find something is missing, or buried too deep.

Chances are, if you can’t do what you need to do in your own backyard, you won’t be able to do it on the side of a mountain or in the dark. Dry runs provide the opportunity to course correct before it’s too late.

Ultralight Backpacking: Final Thoughts

Whether you’re a novice or lifelong hiker, planning is the key to packing light and enjoying a successful ultralight backpacking trip.

If you’re interested in packing light, be smart, be safe, and follow the tips above. They may be the difference between a relaxing weekend on the trail and a nightmare in the wild.


by Josh Smith, Master Bladesmith and Founder of Montana Knife Company

with Kevin Estela, Best-selling Author, and Director of Training for Fieldcraft Survival