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Ultra Light Backpacking List

Updated on October 4, 2010

How to Pack Ultralite

When my fiancé and I started our backpacking/hitchhiking trip our packs weighed close to 30lbs, by the time we finished, they averaged 15-20 lbs. This is a complete list of the items we carried at the end of our adventure. I see many camping checklists good for car camping, but none for ultralite backpacking, so I hope these tips will help you.

Sleeping Bags

 We each had a Mountain Hardware Switch 20 sleeping bag. I had the regular which weighs 3 lbs and Chuck had the long which weighs 3.3 lbs. The sleeping bags were the heaviest items we carried. We ditched the stuff sacks that came with them and bought lightweight compression sacks to get them as small as possible.

We also bought a couple of light foam sleeping pads pretty cheap in Wal-Mart when we realized we seriously needed some padding under us at night.

Click thumbnail to view full-size


 For a camping stove we went with the MSR Whisperlite International. The max packed weight for this stove is just under 1 lb, the minimum is 11.5 oz.  It's a great compact, lightweight stove that's very easy to use. The best part about it is it will burn straight gasoline. That's all we used and we never once had a problem with it. It gets sooty and will need to be cleaned occasionally but has a shaker that cleans the jet as you walk so you'll at least be able to get it lit. We managed fine at 11,000 feet and at sea level. We had the 22 ounce fuel bottle to go with it, and never had to pay more than a quarter to fill it up. (Though we would get odd looks prepaying for that.) Out of the box it will burn white gas and regular unleaded gasoline, but you can get different jets so it'll burn kerosene and other fuels if you're overseas. It'll even burn jet fuel! (Don't know why you'd have any of that though...)

What did we cook in? Two things, both super light and durable. We boiled water for ramen and oatmeal in the 600 ml titanium Snow Peak cup. It weighs 2.8 oz and has folding handles to make it even more compact. What we made hamburger helper and other delicacies in was the Optimus Terra Fry Pan made from ultra light hard anodized aluminum and weighing in at 6.2 oz. This fry pan doesn't have handles, but we always managed. It's also Teflon coated and we never once had a problem cleaning it. We even fried frozen Totinos pizzas on it one day (topping side down!) and that wouldn't even stick! I loved this pan.

We also brought a cheap plastic cup from home to eat meals out of, and bought a cheap plastic hobo spork at Wal-mart. We started with two, but quickly ditched one of them. We're very good at sharing, and it's pretty much key when trying to shave weight with two people.

The stove fits perfectly into the titanium cup and it goes in the MSR bag with the windscreen to save space. The aluminum ground cover was useless for us so we also ditched that. The spork went into the cup, that went into the fry pan, that fit snugly in the side pocket of my Access 40.



When packing ultra lightweight, you really don't have a lot of delicious cheap options for food. We mainly subsisted on Ramen noodles and oatmeal. These tips aren't so much for saving weight but for saving space. You'll need it if you want to pack a proper amount of food. If you'd rather spend the 5 bucks per meal on prepackaged freeze-dried food, be my guest.

So you've made you're dehydrated hamburger, but you don't know what you can cook with it. There are all sorts of complex backcountry recipes out there that are great if you really can't handle eating as basically as possible, but if you can, stay right here because I'll tell you the easiest and lightest way to eat on the road or trail.

  • Ramen noodles. This is the easiest, lightest food you can carry. They take no time to cook, are super cheap, and if you can't get water boiled they can be eaten hard or softened up in cold water. Rehydrate some hamburger, throw in the seasoning, and you've got a meaty feast. Get every exoctic flavor out there. Believe me, you'll thank me later when you're having some Picante Chicken or Lime Shrimp after weeks of Beef flavor.
    To save space: 1. Break up the noodles while they are still in the package. 2. Empty the noodles into a small ziploc bag so they settle at the bottom and the bag can be rolled up. 3. Open the seasoning and dump it in there (or just put it in there unopened, they don't weight that much) 4. Label the bag. 5. Repeat this for a few bags and you can either pack them individually or put them in a larger ziploc bag. This really does save a ton of space. You'll just have to see for yourself.
  • Oatmeal. The great thing about oatmeal is there are a huge variety of flavors and it's also incredibly easy to cook. Get some regular flavors like Maple and Brown Sugar and Apples and Cinnamon (I suggest the high fiber) for your everyday breakfast. Also, stock up on those great variety packs like Blueberry, Strawberry, and Peaches and Cream. The steps to save weight and space are almost the exact same for the Ramen except for one important thing! Empty however much oatmeal you'll eat per meal into a ziploc bag. We put 1 1/2 packets of regular flavors in one bag and 2 packets for special flavors. Now, I will say that we ate way less while traveling than we do at home even though we burned a ton of calories. I'm not sure why this was, but we shared 1 1/2 packets of oatmeal between us and just 1 packet of ramen for dinner. Everyone's different, so adjust to what you need. Once you have them wrapped up, label them and put them in a another ziploc bag. You got rid of all those heavy foil packages and saved some space too! Bonus tip: Get some powdered milk and add the amount for 1/3 or 1/4 cup to each oatmeal bag to give it some extra flavor.
  • Hamburger Helper. Oh, you thought you'd be eating ramen and oatmeal you're whole trip didn't you? Well, here's a treat, some good old fashioned Hamburger Helper! What you'll need to do hear is empty the noodles into a ziploc bag. Put the sauce mix and powdered milk you'll need into a separate regular sandwich bag. The reason for this is unless you're going with 4 other people, you probably aren't going to cook the whole thing and you'll want to be able to properly divide it. Throw it in the bag with the noodles and you're set! Bring as many as you'd like. It doesn't taste like it would at home, but Cheeseburger is pretty good. Beef Stroganoff...well, I'd stick with the cheesy flavors.
  • GORP. Gorp is just homemade trailmix. Get all the little snacks you like to munch on and put them all in a bag to eat when you need a boost. Raisons and M&M's go together great. As a precaution, I wouldn't put nuts in with any cheese type or chex mix snacks, our cheetos and chex all ended up tasting like peanuts.
  • Granola Bars: These are great for when you need a snack. High fiber and high protein bars are always good, but if you want some for cheap most stores sell their own versions in the candy section that are usually 4 for $1. We'd get some chocolate candy bars sometimes and melt it down in our pan with the granola bars and have a tasty dessert!
  • Other: Tuna in the packs (not cans and make sure it's packed in water and not oil) are good to take, and you can make Tuna Helper as well! Spam in the packs are nice and Beef Jerky is always great to have. (We ate all of ours on the bus ride to Denver though.) Bring some cheap spaghetti mix in the little packets and mix up some runny spaghetti sauce to put over your ramen noodles. Instant Mashed potatoes are also really great! Make sure it's the "just add water" kind or bring a little baggie full of powdered milk if you'll need it.

We packed our food in a waterproof bag, but if you're in bear country, get a bear canister or Ursack. Always stay safe and cook your food 100-200 yards away from your campsite if you're somewhere you need to worry about wild animals.

Alpine Design Hiker/Biker Tent for 2


 Perhaps the most important item to bring along besides your backpack is your tent. We started with Chucks old two-person REI tent. It was a great tent and it was perfect for when we were in the snow in Colorado, but it was ridiculously heavy at more than 6 lbs. When we reached San Diego, a new tent was in order. We couldn't afford a super lightweight and amazing backpacking tent so we ended up getting the Alpine Design Hiker/Biker Tent. I will say that it was an amazing deal. It was on sale at a Sports Authority for $25. They're still relatively cheap. Our's ended up weighing in the 3 lb range which isn't ultralite by most standards, but we shaved off 3 lbs with very little money and ended up with a good little tent. It's not for thunderstorms or anything, but we did camp on a cliff right over the Pacific with very fast winds and it held up great. It's cramped too but for 25 bucks we couldn't complain. It's very easy to set up and pack and never collected much condensation during our use. If you want ultralite but don't want to shell out the money, I suggest going with a tarp shelter. They usually weigh around a pound and are very versatile. We liked having a tent for some *ahem* privacy.

Make sure you take a ground cloth! Not only will it protect your tent, but it will add that one extra layer between you and the cold hard ground. Bonus tip: If you're camping somewhere with prickly plants that go through the ground cloth or jagged rocks, put your sleeping mats underneathe the ground cloth and tent. It will save your tent and your bottom with the added luxury of making more room inside!

Gerber River Runner Knife

Other Essentials

I've listed the basics: backpacks, sleeping bags, cookware and food, and tents. Now it's time for all those little things you'll want to take along.

  • Headlamps: We had two and they could have been much lighter but we didn't want to shell out the extra money for them. You'll want headlamps and not flashlights. It's a lot easier to set up a tent in the dark with both hands.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste: To shave weight, we emptied about half the tube out because we knew we wouldn't need it all. Alternatively, bring travel size.
  • Deodorant: Here's a neat trick we discovered halfway through our trip: take the deodorant out of the case and keep it in a ziploc bag. Not only does it save weight, it saves space! Also, just bring one stick. I compromised and used the men's deodorant to keep us light.
  • Soap: Bring a bar of soap (antibacterial) and replenish along the way as you need to. We always took advantage of hotel soap when we splurged on one. READ THIS: You do NOT need shampoo! You just don't! Wash your hair with the soap, it'll feel cleaner anyway. We also washed our clothes with the soap too.
  • Razors: If you need razors, buy the cheap plastic disposable ones and bring along a couple. This would only be for extended trips of course.
  • Cell phone: Bring a phone of course! You'll never know when you'll need it. Luckily, our cell was the LG Shine at the time so it doubled as a mirror.
  • First-Aid: Ours was relatively bare. It consisted of a couple band-aids, moleskin for blisters, some antibiotic ointment, advil, and Benadryll to help us sleep at night.
  • Bug Repellant: As long as you don't have gear that will be ruined with DEET, get the little orange bottle of 100% DEET you see in camping stores. It will last you forever and is so tiny!
  • Sunscreen: Just bring a little bottle, you'll probably need it.
  • Pack towels: We had 2 MSR Ultralite Packtowels. When they say ultralite they mean that. They weigh practically nothing. The medium is about the size of a dish towel, but it was all we ever needed because it wrings almost dry and is super absorbant. It's also got a neat little snap loop so you can snap it to a tree or your backpack to let it air dry.
  • Compass: We never once used it (mainly because we were worried about doing it wrong) but it was nice to have just in case.
  • Maps: There are plenty of resources for maps. Trail maps can be found all other the internet, but since we mainly stuck to the roads, a state map with national and state parks marked worked great for us. We just got a new one every time we entered a new state and threw the old one away.
  • Knife: Chuck carried the Gerber River Knife on him. It always came in handy for making kindling and any number of things. He got really good at throwing it into trees as well! It's his absolute favorite knife because it's small but sharp and has a good belt case. It's pretty durable too and only costs $20.
  • Lighter: We did carry some matchbooks, but generally lighters are easier to deal with. You'll need something to start that fire!
  • Toilet Paper: Make sure to get the environmentally friendly kind! We saved weight and money by looting gas stations, campground restrooms, etc for small piles of TP that we kept in a bag. If you don't have the earth friendly kind, make sure to properly dispose of it in trash cans.
  • Swiss Army Knife: A small cheap one from Wal-Mart will come in handy. The scissors stay sharp forever and are great for clipping nails. Use the small blade to shave bits of wood for kindling, and they also come with a pair of tweezers and a toothpick.
  • WATER: This is the most important thing you'll ever have on your backpacking trip. Bring plenty of water. You'll need it to cook, wash, and stay hydrated. We carried two 2L bottles and one Gatorade bottle for water. If you think you have too much water, you probably don't.


Other Items and Things You Think You Need but Really Don't

Some items you might consider taking depending on what you plan to do are

  • Fishing pole: There are a ton of lightweight, backpack friendly fly rods out there. I wish we had one. We bought a little $10 dollar child's spider-man pole at Wal-Mart in Colorado when we decided we really wanted to fish. (Never caught anything. Ever.) We also had some extra line, a couple bobbers, some weights, hooks, and power bait. You should bring whatever you need depending on what you'll be fishing for.
  • Iodine tablets: We did bring a Potable Water kit that consisted of iodine tablets and some liquid that was supposed to get rid of the iodine flavor. We never used it, but it was nice to know we had if we did need it.
  • Camera: If you have a light digital camera, great. We didn't so we bought a disposable camera. One we ran out of film, we threw away the batteries to save weight, had it developed as soon as we could and mailed the pictures back home.
  • Books: It gets pretty boring sometimes, and a good book is nice to have. Here's some fun tips to save weight on carrying books: We bought paperback books at thrift stores along the way. (usually a quarter or 50 cents a piece) If we had two, we would each read one then switch. After switching, we would tear the pages we read out and use them to start fires. If we had only one book, we would again tear the pages out and pass them to each other then throw them away or use them as fire starter.
  • Deck of cards: We loved playing cards. There's not much to do once camp is set up and a nice game of rummy kept us occupied. Use rocks to weigh the cards down if it's windy.
  • Crew Change Guide: The Crew Change Guide is an underground publication of a ton of railroad yards in the United States with times of crew changes (when workers shift and trains are stopped) and what the yard is like. We had one that was a few years old, but it still came in handy and we ended up hopping a freight from one of the yards listed in the guide.
  • Tampons: If you're a woman, you might need these. I recommend them over pads, they're lighter and less messy. Make sure to get biodegradable ones.
  • A shovel: We had a really light plastic trowel we got from Wal-Mart for a dollar. I think we lost it somewhere along the way though. It wasn't with us when we got back! A shovel will be for burying your elimination of course. It also helped us out when we were snowed on. We dug some trenches around our tent for the snow to melt down.
  • Chapstick: Always nice to have.
  • Firestarters: These are small blocks of what looks like compressed sawdust. They burn for a very long time and are great to get fires started in high elevation or wet conditions.
  • Gloves: A good pair of gloves will come in handy if you're going to be in the cold. We had a pair of cheap hunting gloves from Wal-Mart that were relatively light. It did snow on us a couple of times but the main reason we brought them was in case we hopped any freight trains! We did and we had to use them to breathe through as we went through tunnels and to keep our hands from getting filthy and frozen.

Things You Think You Need but Really Don't

  • Shampoo: You simply don't need this. You have soap, why do you want the extra weight?
  • Hairbrush: I'm a girl and I managed. I had medium length hair at the time and made it 3 months with finger combing my thick hair. If I can do it, so can you! However, a small light comb probably won't hurt.
  • Make-up: No. You don't need it. It's that simple.
  • A Hatchet or Axe: There are probably some light ones out there, but I doubt you'll need it. Most campgrounds have strict rules about firewood anyway. You may only get firewood from the ground. There's usually plenty of it so leave the axe at home, Paul Bunyon.
  • Bug Spray: We had a couple cans, but the 100% DEET is all you'll need. Cans are too bulky and heavy.
  • Pillows: Don't need them. Roll up your fleece or other clothes and use that as a pillow.
  • Laundry detergent: Again, you have soap already, use that!

Cut these off!

Simple Ways to Shave Weight

I know, this hub has been a long one, but you're at the end. Let me leave you with some last few tips on shaving a little weight off that much lighter backpack of yours.

  • If you carry a foam sleeping pad, cut off the bottom so it will be about knee length. It doesn't really make any sort of difference as the pad is really there to make your back and head more comfortable, not your legs.
  • Get rid of all unnecessary strings and zipper tags. Those little cloth pieces attached to your zippers? Yeah, they don't seem like much now but cut them all off and pile them in your hand. That'll probably save an ounce or two. Get rid of extra strap too. If you think straps are too long, cut them off at a safe place (so you can still compress and uncompress with no problems) and knot them off.
  • Carry your water in your hands. Unless you use trekking poles, you might as well take that heavy water out of your pack and carry it, your back will thank me.
  • Carry little things like change, cell phones, etc in your pockets. Get it out of that pack if you can carry it somewhere else!
  • When you're packing up after a night of camping, make sure to shake all of the dirt and leaves that might have accumulated in your tent, clothes, or backpacks. Always remember that little things like this can add up, some of this might sound crazy (zippers, deodorant, etc) but it really helped us save weight!

And that's all I have for you. You may notice I didn't put any clothing up. This is because it really depends on who you are and where and when you are travelling. What I will say is layer. Instead of bringing heavy, bulky clothing bring several lightweight layers. It keeps you warmer when cold, and if hot you can just take layers off until you're comfortable. If you have any questions on what to wear or would like to know what clothing we had with us don't hesitate to ask or request a hub for that.

I hope this list will help any beginners wanting to start out light on the trail or provided some veterans with a few tricks they didn't know. Enjoy and happy hiking!


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Fishing pole with powerbait. Not sure where you are backpacking into to fish, but wild fish will almost never hit powerbait. They will pretty much only hit flies or nymphs. I have a 5 ft 2 piece ugly stick that fits perfectly in my pack and wont break when I'm up at the lake

    • profile image

      Gaddis Luxor Hotel, Suites and Apartm 

      6 years ago

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      very very very usefull.

    • profile image

      Jason C. 

      7 years ago

      Some good advice, but some stupid advice as well. Carrying water in your hands to save weight on your back?

      For one - think about where your arms attach to your body, and consequently how that force is delivered to your feet (hint: it's down your spine). You also heat up your water too. And secondly, empty hands allow you to brace yourself against the ground should you slip.

      Furthermore, I don't know why you recommend tuna in water. The oil (extra virgin olive oil is best, or soy bean oil) contains energy and helps to keep the tuna fresher. It can also be used for frying the tuna in before making a soup or something. Tuna in water tastes comparatively worse, and contains no energy for the water weight carried. Also - if tuna water gets onto your hands, it can be much smellier than tuna oil (great for attracting bears).

    • chucksbaby profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      That's why they aren't under the essentials list. =) I really just wanted to share that trick we do with books lol we thought it was clever. Good to know about the trail mix!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Quite a comprehensive list! Thanks. I like to divide my trail mix into individual serving size ziplocs. It is more sanitary than a "community" bag and it rations the tasty mix. Also I chucked the cards and book long ago. I can usually find some simple activity or non-activity to enjoy.

    • chucksbaby profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      I guess we just had a good tent or something (the heavy REI one at the time), but maybe just lucky. =) We hitchhiked from May to July, but were in the Rockies in May and were snowed on. We got plenty of condensation on the sides of the tent but none on the bottom. At that time we didn't even have sleeping pads. In California we never had any condensation problems, for the most part the weather favored us the whole trip.

      Wet sleeping bags are definitely no fun, our bags got soaked on the Greyhound to Denver and we spent the whole day lugging around heavy packs and getting lost in the city. Do you use a down or synthetic bag? I've no experience with down so I was wondering which was quicker to dry. We left ours in a sunny patch during the day (even though there was still snow) and while it took most of the day I was just glad we had something to sleep in that night.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Do you hitchhike and use your tent in all seasons?

      I use two ground sheets: one as ground cover and another as the first layer inside the tent's cabin.

      Ground generated condensation can cause serious problems; a wet sleeping bag is difficult to dry in winter.

    • chucksbaby profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thank you for the comment!

      I guess we never had many problems with condensation on the bottom because of the excellent ground cloth we used, but that's good to know for anyone who does!

      Thanks! And happy hiking!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Greetings ...

      Thank you. A useful list for anyone starting out.

      My only comment is with regards your suggested shortening of the foam sleeping pad to save weight:

      I tried that myself, once, and regretted it when the cooler weather arrived because of condensation underneath which soaked my sleeping bag.



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