The Ultralight Hiker: What to Pack?
I’d like to debunk a myth spread around by people who know little about hiking - that hikers are just people who slap a few things into their backpacks and wander off into the wilderness.
Serious hiking and especially high altitude, ultralight hiking, calls for a lot of planning and decision-making. Each of these decisions might end up costing you dearly on your trip. So, let’s get down to business. As you read this, you will be more equipped with knowledge to make a system of your own - in terms of packing for your high altitude hike.
If you are not an experienced hiker, the packing part of your hiking trip can be so overwhelming that your mind will "boil". Don't worry, we will come up with a systematic approach here that will leave you clear on the precise steps you need to take to make everything easier.
So, let's dig right in.
5 tips that will make all the difference in the world:
Tip 1: Don't choose your backpack first
I get it, every hiker I know makes this decision first. It seems obvious and it is the first thing you imagine when you see yourself hiking. Not a good idea. Save this for last. The most common mistake I have seen over the years is choosing the wrong backpack - most often smaller then you need. And when I say "smaller" I primarily mean by volume, not mass. Get this wrong and you might end up focused on the initial tears on your seams instead of the beauty on the trail that you came all this way to admire.
So, decide conservatively on what gear you do need for your hike first. Then decide which backpack is right to support you.
Tip 2: Don't choose your backpack based solely on weight
It might seem that we are planning in reverse here… and we kind of are. But it is this kind of thinking that helps ensure the least packing mistakes. It is like painting a bridge, but building the scaffolding from the top-down.
Speaking in plain terms, it is easy to get into the trap of opting to save a pound or two in weight. But you’ll be cursing the day you did it and daydreaming of how great it would be if you choose a pack with a frame sheet or a padded belt. Believe me, there are a lot of smarter ways to save weight.
Tip 3: Use the guidelines below to decide how much weight to carry
Now, this is not carved in stone and you should always try to hike as light as possible, but this is my take on maximums for different groups of hikers.
|Hikers (Based on Experience)||Maximum Weight|
|Relative newbie in good health||20% of bodyweight|
|Intermediate hiker||25% of bodyweight|
|Well-conditioned experienced hiker||35% of bodyweight|
I cannot help you determine the group you are in. When in doubt, you should be conservative.
Don’t let your ego decide for you, there's no shame in being a newbie hiker. Also, don't fool yourself by thinking things like, "I am stronger than those other softies." Think about the bodybuilders that look like they could lift a building, but when they try to do an exercise an average gymnast does, they look ridiculous. Your experience and physical limitations go a long way here.
Tip 4: Use this list as a start for your packing list
I am not inventing warm water or saying anything new when I say that each trip is different. Each of you will have your own list (if you are smart). These are a few common things that find their way to most lists: Your primary items for one-day hikes:
- water bottle (perhaps custom nalgene bottles for the hiking enthusiast)
- jacket (insulated)
- rain gear
- trekking poles
- sunglasses and light
- map, GPS, compass
- water treatment
- first aid kit
- tent (tarp)
- sleeping bag
- sleeping pad (I found that this one can make-or-break a hike, because after a long day of hiking, a good night sleep is a must.)
- clothing (base layers)
- wind shirt
- rain gear
- hat and gloves (how warm these are depends on the time of your hike, location and temperatures)
- trekking poles
- overnight pack
Tip 5: Take your time when choosing a stove
I could go on and on about each item on this list, but I’m not writing a book. I know that other choices are much simpler. Because this is the one piece of gear that ultralight backpackers have the most trouble with, let’s spend some time with this decision.
The mind really boggles when you start researching the topic. With many different kinds of backpacking stoves and all of the companies praising their product to the sky, it's hard to take a wholesome look at what is best for you.
So, instead of looking for all those types of stoves and their PROs and CONs and since this is an article focused on ultralight high altitude hiking; I will share my own opinion.
I go for alcohol stoves (spirit, Alky, Met). These are usually the homemade variety, aluminum and tin cans. They rarely weigh more than a pound.
My primary reasons for choosing these are:
- really ultralight (remember that when talking about backpacks I said that there are smarter ways to shed of weight of your back)
- simple fuel
- I really like to fiddle around my own gear and even make it from scratch
- not really high heat and not adjustable
- avoid these if you need lots of food cooked or if you need to melt a lot of snow for water
This is not an exact science. Each trip will be different, but these are essential and common points that you don't have to learn for yourself. Some things will come from your own experience, but a lot can come from the experience of others. I share my experience to help you determine what you need to do to pack right for your next hike.
If you are planning an ultralight hike and especially a high altitude one, you will find this to be helpful. If it is, every second spent writing this short guide was worth it. Have a good hike and be safe out there!
James Menta is an outdoor enthusiast from Bucharest, Romania. He spends most of his time in nature around the world, where he camps and tests camping gear. His favorites are the survival items that he often puts to use. He likes to share his adventures on his blog and is best known for his air mattress reviews found on BestAirMattressGuide.com.
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