Alex “GPS” Brown contributed significantly to this ultralight backpacking gear list.
Ultralight backpacking is a polarizing subject. Some think the ultralight movement is a little extra—I mean, what well-adjusted person spends thousands of dollars on gear that’s less comfortable and less durable, am I right?
But those who embrace the ultralight lifestyle know that it doesn’t have to be a wallet-and-soul-crushing exercise in austerity. While some high-end ultralight gear is very expensive (think of all the ounces you could save by getting rid of your extra Benjamins!), it is still possible to go ultralight on a budget. A simple, minimalist setup can actually save you money while freeing you up to focus on the adventure rather than your aching knees or your inexplicably complicated tent setup.
About Our Ultralight Backpacking Gear List
Because going ultralight can be overwhelming, we’ve created a complete packing list with gear options for all budgets and ability levels. We could go on for days about ultralight gear, but to keep it simple, we’ve limited ourselves to just a few options in each category. If we’ve failed to mention your favorite piece of ultralight gear, please drop it in the comments below so we can make this list even more Ultimate.
Popular luxury items and useful add-ons like sleeping bag liners still have a place in an ultralight setup and are mentioned at the end of the packing list—just remember that these items are very much optional and should only be added to your pack if you have enough room in your base weight budget.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some items on the packing list are made ultralight only by the amount you carry (or don’t). For instance, there’s no difference between “ultralight” hiking shorts and regular hiking shorts. Both types of hiker might wear the exact same brand, but the ultralight hiker would limit herself to just one pair.
Weights and Sizing
Weights listed in this article are the manufacturers’ published weights. In practice, it is a good idea to weigh gear yourself using a kitchen scale, as real-world values can sometimes be significantly different from the published weight (and it can be hard to tell what is included in the published weight in some cases). For apparel, listed weights are based on a size medium unless otherwise stated. Footwear weights are for a pair.
The Ultimate Ultralight Backpacking Gear List
Ultralight Backpacking Gear List Quick Navigation
Socks and Undies
Gloves and Hats
Cooking Gear (Pots/Stoves/Spoons)
Common Luxury Items
Freestanding vs. trekking pole: If you want to go ultralight, forget the freestanding tents and hammocks. Hammocks must be beefy by definition since they have to support the weight of a full-size human, and the poles that come with freestanding tents add unnecessary weight and bulk to your pack. “Ultralight” freestanding tents are usually small and cramped, whereas tarps and trekking pole tents usually have larger footprints with room to spread out. Ultralight freestanding options also tend to rely on relatively delicate, thin fabrics to compensate for the weight of the poles. As a result, they may not be as durable as tarps and trekking pole tents.
For most hardcore ultralight backpackers, a trekking pole tent or minimalist tarp is the way to go.
Double vs. single wall: Double wall tents have an inner mesh component that is separate from the waterproof rainfly. This type of setup is great for minimizing condensation inside the living space, but all that extra mesh adds weight. Single wall tents have just one layer of waterproof material between you and the outside world, except typically for one mesh wall under the vestibule. They are the lighter option, but you must select your campsites more carefully to minimize condensation and be prepared to wipe some moisture off your sleeping bag some mornings.
One person vs. two person: The lightest one-person tent will obviously weigh less than the lightest two-person tent. Individual hikers sometimes upgrade to a two-person tent, despite the modest weight penalty, due to the increased living space. Most of the tents listed below are one-person models, but a few popular two-person shelters, such as the Zpacks Duplex and Big Agnes Fly Creek, have also been included.
Ultralight trekking pole tents by budget:
Freestanding ultralight options (for those who really want dedicated tent poles):
*Weight of this tent includes all stakes necessary to pitch. Note that the non-asterisk tents on this list DO NOT include stakes in the base weight or price, though a few have the option to add stakes to the order.
Shaped tarps are like a tent rainfly without the bathtub floor or mesh. They have sidewalls and doors, providing a little more privacy and protection from the elements, but you will still not have protection from insects or the ground beneath you.
More basic, flat tarp configurations keep the rain off you but don’t provide privacy or full protection from the elements. They are simple to set up and are the lightest and cheapest option of all.
For those with sewing skills, you can even make your own DIY tarp.
Ultralight tarps by budget:
Bug protection in a tarp:
In buggy conditions, you can pair your minimalist tarp with a bivy sack such as the Katabatic Bristlecone Bivy (7 oz) for added protection. Hyperlite and Six Moons both sell mesh inserts (14.4 oz and 11 oz, respectively) that pair with the tarps listed above.
READ NEXT – The Best Tents for Thru-Hiking
Ultralight Tent Stakes
Note that many tents, especially in the cottage industry, do not include stakes with the purchase, and stakes are typically not included in the published weight of the tent. You can also set your tent up stake-free by anchoring it with large rocks or roots using extra cord.
Ultralight Tent Footprints
Tarp users will want to bring their own groundcloth (as will many tent users) to protect their sleeping pads and other gear from ground moisture and stabby things. DCF (1.75 oz), Polycro (1.2 oz), and Tyvek (4.5 oz) are all popular ultralight material choices for groundcloths.
When choosing a pack, pay attention not only to the weight of the pack itself but also to the weight and volume of gear the pack is rated to carry, the suspension system (how the pack rests against your body), and the materials it is made from.
Most ultralight backpacks consist of little more than a main compartment with a roll-top closure and shock cord compression straps, a mesh front pocket, and side water bottle pockets. Many ultralight packs don’t even come with hip belt pockets anymore (though you can always accessorize with after-market pockets or a fanny pack instead).
Framed vs. Frameless: Most packs these days have an internal metal frame that gives the pack structure so that most of the load is transferred to your hips rather than dragging on your shoulders. The frame adds weight to the setup, though. Frameless packs are lighter, but you must pack them carefully so that your gear itself gives the pack structure. Frameless packs are generally most comfortable with a sub-20-pound total pack weight. As a result, you probably want a frame for hikes requiring long food/water carries or specialty gear.
Ultralight packs by budget:
READ NEXT – The Best Packs for Thru-Hiking
Quilts are the ultralight alternative to traditional mummy sleeping bags. Quilts are open at the back and lack a hood and zipper. They use much less material than mummy bags and are correspondingly lighter and cheaper. They are also far less constricting than traditional bags, making for a more comfortable night’s sleep.
Synthetic insulation will be cheaper than down and performs better in wet conditions, but down is far superior for ultralight purposes: its compressibility and warmth to weight ratio are unparalleled.
There are some very warm quilts on the market these days, but the warmest quilt will still be draftier than the warmest mummy bag. If you’re planning a winter expedition (or you just run really cold), the most ultralight setup may not be the right choice for you.
Ultralight quilts by budget:
Here are a few relatively lightweight mummy options for those of you concerned about warmth:
Sleeping Bag Liners
A sleeping bag liner is optional but is a decent way to boost the warmth of your sleep system while protecting your quilt/bag from your body oils and odors.
Ultralight liner recommendations:
READ NEXT –
Foam vs. inflatable: Foam sleeping pads are the least expensive and are very durable, so your minimal up-front investment will almost certainly last for years. They are not as warm or as comfortable as inflatable pads, and they weigh a lot in relation to their low R-value.
R-value: This is a measure of the pad’s warmth/insulation ability. Foam pads and summer weight inflatables have R-values around 2—enough to keep you warm in summer and moderate spring/fall conditions, but not adequate for cold sleepers or true shoulder season/winter conditions. An R-value of 4 is comfortable for most thru-hikers across a range of conditions, and an R-value of 6 or more (the high end for backpacking sleeping pads) is a good choice if you run cold or plan to camp in wintry conditions.
Length: Regular-size pads are typically around 72 inches long by 20 or 21 inches wide. Short or three-quarter length pads are around 60 inches long and weigh less since they use less material. Tall hikers can simply put extra clothing and gear (or even their entire backpack) underneath their lower legs, where they hang off the end of the pad. Many inflatable pads come in a rectangular or mummy configuration. The tapered shape of a mummy pad uses less material and weighs less than a rectangular pad.
Ultralight sleeping pads by budget:
Supplemental pad: Many hikers use a thin foam pad, such as Gossamer Gear’s 1/8-inch Thinlight Pad (2.7-3.3 oz), beneath their inflatable to boost the R-value and prevent popping.
READ NEXT – The Best Sleeping Pads for Thru-Hiking
It’s said that a pound of weight on the feet is equivalent to five pounds on the back in terms of energy expenditure. Trail runners weigh less than boots. They’re also more breathable and dry more quickly. For all these reasons, they have eclipsed boots in popularity among thru-hikers. There isn’t much variability in price and weight within the boot and trail runner categories, respectively, so hikers looking to save weight will get the most bang for their buck by switching from any boot to any trail runner.
(For those who like a little more stability in their footwear, low-top hiking shoes or high-top trail runner adaptations are a good compromise.)
Are waterproof shoes worth it? We generally don’t reccomend waterproof shoes because, when they inevitably do get wet, they take much longer to dry than standard hiking footwear. That being said, waterproof shoes can shine in cold, wet weather—late winter or early spring on the Appalachian Trail is a great example of prime waterproof shoe weather.
Note on camp shoes: Camp shoes are very much a luxury item, so the simplest and lightest solution here is to simply not bring them. Particularly if you wear quick-drying, breathable trail runners, you simply may not need an extra pair of shoes just to wear around camp for a few hours per day (at most). However, if you really want a change of shoes, a pair of $5 flip-flops or significantly primer (but more durable) Xero sandals will do the trick.
Ultralight trail runner recommendations:
^Not separated by budget because most trail runners cost about the same.
Ultralight boot/hiking shoe recommendations (for those who want more stability):
Ultralight camp shoes by budget:
Low: No camp shoes at all, also the lightest option; foam flip flops
High: Xero shoes (Women’s – 8.6 oz | Men’s – 10.8 oz)
Insoles: Many hikers find aftermarket insoles, especially Superfeet, more comfortable than the flimsy ones that come standard in most hiking shoes.
Gaiters: Gaiters are optional, but they are excellent for keeping sand, pebbles, and other trail debris out of your shoes for a minimal weight penalty (and a maximal fashion statement).
READ NEXT –
As with most apparel on this list, the ultralight solution isn’t necessarily to wear lighter clothing but rather to carry less. Limit yourself to one set of hiking base layers and (at most) one set of camp base layers. Many ultralighters don’t even bring a change of clothes for camp.
Consider the temperature when packing clothes. In summer, you might hike in a thin T-shirt or sun hoodie and shorts (nice and light), while in winter, you would need thicker fabrics. Those who run warm will always have an edge in the ultralight department since they’ll be able to get away with less material.
Base layers by budget:
Summer hiking shirt recommendations (because you don’t ALWAYS need a base layer)
A hiking fleece or insulated (puffy) jacket will serve as your mid-layer. Some hikers opt to carry both, but the ultralight solution is to just pack one or the other. Fleeces are more durable and better suited to active wear, but puffies, whether down or synthetic, tend to have a better warmth-to-weight ratio.
Ultralight fleeces by budget:
Ultralight puffies by budget:
READ NEXT –
A good rain jacket will keep you warm in cold, driving rain, even if it doesn’t keep you dry (because sweat is a thing). For most thru-hikers, rain pants are unnecessary, but a rain jacket is non-negotiable. You don’t have any vital organs in your legs, after all, and you can typically keep them warm simply by hiking.
Eliminating bulky, heavy rain pants is a no-brainer for an ultralight backpacking gear list, although you should bring them on winter expeditions for added warmth and safety. If you want some protection for your lower half in three-season conditions, a rain skirt or a pair of ultralight wind pants (see next section) are more breathable alternatives to rain pants.
Ultralight rain jackets by budget:
READ NEXT –
Lighter and more breathable than rain gear, a wind jacket and pants add little weight or bulk to your pack and provide a significant boost in warmth if needed. Because waterproof gear is also windproof, dedicated wind gear is definitely a luxury, and the ultralight-est decision would be to do without. However, for those who run cold or venture out in unpredictable high mountain conditions, they provide a nice bit of added safety and warmth.
Ultralight wind gear by budget:
Low: none; just use your rain jacket instead
Socks and Undies
Again, it’s not about choosing a pair of socks that’s three grams lighter than the competition so much as it’s about limiting the number of pairs you bring. It’s a good idea to have one backup pair for hiking for the sake of blister/infection prevention, so we’ll endorse the concept of an extra pair even in an ultralight gear list. You only need one pair of camp socks at most, for a grand total of two or three pairs.
Underwear: Many hikers simply go without—after all, do you really need them?—but this is a personal choice determined largely by your comfort level and tendency to chafe.
Underwear by budget:
Low: None, just go commando
High: Ex Officio Give-n-Go
Low: Any sports bra that already works well for you
Shorts are obviously lighter and more breathable than pants and are undoubtedly more popular among thru-hikers. However, pants protect you more from sun, bugs, cuts and scrapes, and cold weather.
Hiking bottoms by budget:
- Any pair of athletic shorts/tights
Dark horse candidate: Hiking dress. Fewer moving parts, fewer ounces, infinite joy. As a bonus, any synthetic dollar store dress will work fine.
Gloves and Warm Hats
Gloves: Most hikers find that a pair of merino or synthetic liner gloves will suffice for most conditions.
An added pair of rain mitts (2 oz) can help coldfingers to continue functioning in cold rain or when filtering water on a winter morning. Like a rain jacket, rain mitts provide a significant boost in warmth all on their own. You can also use dish gloves as a budget-friendly alternative.
Hats: Any wool or synthetic beanie will do. If your mid-layer jacket has a hood and you run warm, you may get away without a hat altogether.
First, ask yourself what kind of sun exposure you expect on your upcoming hike. You won’t need much sun protection in the AT’s green tunnel, for instance, but you better be prepared to pull out the big guns for the PCT’s desert section.
Basic sun protection:
- Polarized sunglasses (any—don’t have to be expensive) and
- Trucker or ball cap paired with a sun hoodie, buff, or bandana to protect ears and neck or
- Full brim hat to protect same
- Small sunscreen (may be necessary on very sunny hikes)
- Optional: sun gloves
- Optional: chrome sun umbrella (6.6 oz)
Pro tip: Forget the expensive sunglasses case: an empty Crystal Light container is both cheaper and lighter.
The ultralight solution is to not use stuff sacks—just pack your clothing, sleeping bag, etc. loose inside the pack. The pack will load better this way anyway, as your soft goods will fill any awkward gaps. To ensure that your gear stays dry in wet weather, line the entire main compartment of the backpack with a large trash compactor garbage bag.
For a little more organization and rain protection, you can use large ziplock bags in place of stuff sacks.
Stuff sacks by budget:
Low: None, ziplock bags
High: Sea to Summit Ultrasil dry bags (0.7 – 2.3 oz), Zpacks DCF dry bags (0.5 – 1.1 oz)
The ultralight solution is to go stoneless and cold soak your meals. Going stoveless saves you the weight of the stove, fuel, and possibly pot, but if you’re just carrying fresh foods that don’t need to rehydrate (tortillas, cheese, etc.) in place of freeze-dried or dehydrated dinners, you won’t save much (if any) weight because those foods tend to weigh more.
Those who like a hot meal or their morning coffee can still go ultralight while carrying a full stove and fuel setup. Learning strategies to maximize fuel efficiency (heating fuel with your body heat before using, cooking in sheltered areas, etc.) will help you save fuel weight between resupplies.
Minimalist canister stoves are among the most popular lightweight options, but clunkier integrated systems (such as Jetboils) are still viable because their weight accounts for not only the stove but also the integrated pot and windscreen. Integrated stoves are also more fuel-efficient.
Alternative fuel stoves: Alcohol and solid fuel stoves are almost always the lightest options have their own drawbacks. Alcohol stoves are often not very fuel efficient, so you end up carrying more fuel, while solid fuel stoves tend to leave a residue on the bottom of your pot. Alternative fuel stoves also lack an on/off valve, which is a requirement in many fire-prone areas of the US west.
Ultralight stoves by budget:
Windscreen: A piece of aluminum foil will suffice for most setups.
Lighter: Even if your stove has an igniter, you should always bring a mini Bic lighter just in case. Piezo igniters are extremely unreliable.
Ultralight pots by budget:
Ultralight spoons by budget:
Note: don’t bother with forks or sporks; you don’t really need tines and they’re too much of a liability. Long-handle spoons are the way to go whenever possible, as they’re much more functional in freeze-dried food packs.
Overnight food storage:
You must secure your food and other smellable items overnight to protect them from wildlife. This is both for your sake and that of the animals. Bear canisters are heavy and uncomfortable, but they are required in some areas. An Ursack is a much lighter alternative to a canister in areas where bears are active, but canisters aren’t required. In areas with a lower risk of human-wildlife encounters at campsites, a regular waterproof bag hung from a tree branch will suffice. Click here to read more about how to do a proper bear hang.
*Not IGBC-compliant, might not be acceptable in some places.
READ NEXT – The Best Stoves for Thru-Hiking
While some hikers choose to forego trekking poles, most long-distance hikers use them. They save your knees on the downhills (to say nothing of your face should you accidentally stumble) and give you extra power on the climbs. As a bonus, you can use them to set up your ultralight tent.
Carbon fiber vs. aluminum: Carbon fiber poles are lighter than aluminum but also much more expensive. Carbon fiber poles are also more brittle: they tend to snap under stress, whereas aluminum pole are more likely to bend.
Cork vs. foam grips: Cork grips theoretically reduce the likelihood of blisters on your hands, but they also absorb salt that attracts sodium-craving critters at night. Foam grips can leave a black residue on your hands but are more economical.
Ultralight trekking poles by budget:
Pay attention to battery life, lumens, red light, and locking features when shopping for a headlamp. Hikers who rarely night hike won’t need as big of a battery or as much light output as those who regularly take to the trail when it’s dark out.
Some headlamps have rechargeable batteries, saving you the weight of extra AAAs if you already carry a battery bank for your phone and other electronics.
Another way to reduce the weight of your headlamp is to remove the heavy head strap and replace it with a loop of lightweight shock cord.
Ultralight headlamps by budget:
READ NEXT – The Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking
Avoid heavy, cumbersome pump filters, as well as elaborate UV setups unless you’re winter camping or have good reason to believe there may be viral pathogens in your water sources (typically not an issue in North America). It’s worth noting that none of the listed options remove pollutants such as heavy metals or farm runoff.
The ever-popular Katadyn BeFree and Sawyer Squeeze are both affordable, lightweight, and effective.
Chemical purification drops/tablets are also viable options, but they take time to work and are more expensive in the long run since you have to continue buying more.
Note on the Sawyer line of water filters: although the traditional Sawyer Squeeze isn’t the lightest filter in the lineup—that honor belongs to the Mini—it is the most reliable in terms of flow rate and cloggability (new word?).
Ultralight water purification by budget:
Leave the heavy-ass Nalgenes and tiresome Camelbaks at home and just stick with a couple of one-liter Smartwater bottles, which you can replace every so often in town. Smartwaters mate with the Sawyer Squeeze, are relatively durable for disposable bottles, and weigh next to nothing. The only time you might want a Nalgene is on a winter hike, as the more durable Nalgene can be filled with boiling water to make a hot water bottle for your sleeping bag at night.
The most ultralight water system would consist of one water purification system (chemicals or a device like the Squeeze or BeFree) and two Smartwaters—one of which you designate as a “dirty” or collection bottle.
Optional: one or two collection bags like the Evernew (1.5 oz) or Cnoc Vecto (2.6 oz)—these add weight but make collecting and squeezing dirty water much easier, and you can preserve both of your Smartwaters as clean water reservoirs. An extra collection bag or two also expands your water carrying capacity for long, dry stretches.
Optional Part Two: If you use the Sawyer Squeeze, the double-female Sawyer cleaning coupling (0.2 oz) can mate your Squeeze to your clean water reservoir for a leak-free gravity filtration system.
READ NEXT – Katadyn BeFree vs. Platypus Quickdraw vs. Sawyer Squeeze
First Aid / Emergency Kit
Your first aid kit should contain a spread of basic medical supplies without going overboard. Ideally, your first aid supplies should all fit inside a snack-size ziplock bag.
First Aid / Emergency:
- Antihistamine (diphenhydramine)
- Assorted bandaids
- Triple-antibiotic ointment
- Alcohol prep pads
- Gauze pads
- Leukotape (blister prevention)
- Prescription medications
- Mini Bic lighter (if not already included in cooking kit)
- Sewing needle (wrap in tape to keep from stabbing)
- Duct tape or Tenacious Tape
- DCF repair tape (if you have DCF gear)
- Superglue or Aquaseal
- Inflatable sleeping pad patch (comes standard with most pads)
People like to make fun of backpackers for sawing their toothbrushes in half, but hear me out—it really does make sense, if only because you don’t need an ungainly seven-inch handle messing up the dimensions of your toiletries bag.
As a backpacker, you will stink and be disgusting no matter what. Beyond basic hygiene, there’s not much point to bringing lots of toiletries. Leave the baby wipes and deodorant at home.
- Floss (doubles as strong thread for gear repairs)
- Keychain hand sanitizer
- SPF lip balm
- Menstrual supplies: tampons and/or menstrual cup (e.g. Diva cup)
- Extra hair ties
Poopin’ and Peein’ Supplies
- Trowel and
- Toilet paper and ziplock bag to pack out used TP or
- Culo Clean (0.4 oz) backcountry bidet
Trowels by budget:
Low: Snow stake (1 oz); trekking pole or ice axe tip
High: The Deuce (0.6 oz)
Many long-distance trail guides are now available in the FarOut smartphone app, adding nothing to your pack. However, even if this is the case (and especially if it isn’t), it’s always a smart idea to have a secondary, hard-copy method of navigation. This could mean a map and compass (our compass recommendation: Suunto M-3 D Leader Compass (1.6 oz) or a trail-specific guidebook.
Thru-hikers using a paper guidebook can just carry a small handful of relevant pages at one time and mail future page bundles ahead to themselves. Discard pages after you’ve finished them.
GPS devices that are functional for navigation are typically larger, heavier units such as the Garmin GPSMAP 66i. Most thru-hikers and backpackers prefer to stick with smaller, lighter units. Although they have less navigation capability, they can still help hikers to “stay found” via features like two-way satellite communication, tracking, and SOS. GPS smartphone apps such as Gaia GPS, Caltopo, and Avenza are weightless and, frankly, easier to use than navigation-enabled GPS devices.
Ultralight GPS recommendations:
You won’t need all of this gear on every hike—it depends on the region and season in which you’re hiking.
- Insect headnet (1.3 oz) (depends on trail and season)
- Bug spray (Deet, picaridin, or Lemon oil of eucalyptus)
- Ice Axe
- Bear Spray (11 oz – only necessary in grizzly country)
Ice axe recommendations:
*trekking pole with ice axe attachment; approximates the function of a real ice axe
Common Add-Ons and Luxury Items
Going ultralight doesn’t mean you can’t bring any luxury items—it just means you should be judicious in what you choose to bring. All of the items on this list are extras. Once you have your main setup wired together and know how much it weighs, you can pick and choose a few luxury items to round out your pack.
Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).