I started my journey of ultralight backpacking due to my health. One winter, a couple of years ago, I missed out on summiting of Blencathra, exhausted, and having an anxiety attack. I realised that if I was to carry on my passion for sleeping on summits and in extreme conditions, I would have to reduce the weight on my back.
Wild camping with a pack that weighs less than 5kg (11lb) seemed impossible in the UK but I’ve found that with the gear I now take out, I even have some flexibility. This is my journey, what I went through to get there, three essential pieces of kit you need and how you can take a much easier path than I did.
Researching all the lightest gear out there and speaking and listening to hikers who walk thousands of miles each year, I knew that not only did I needed to invest in the right kit, I had to make ultralight a habit, an obsession even.
What is Ultralight Backpacking?
Ultralight backpacking and wild camping, is carrying a rucksack with everything you need, including shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and stove, that weighs less than 5kg (11lb).
Everybody who goes out for a walk regularly thinks, ‘This bag’s heavy’ at some point. The further we walk, the more we need to take with us, especially if you’re intending on staying out for the night.
Reducing your pack weight will help you go further, faster, for longer. Here, I’ll give you everything you need to know to reduce your pack weight from 12kg (26lb) down to under 5kg (11lb).
Even just walking for the day, you’ll need kit and a bag to carry it around. At first, you spend a little cash. Eventually though, spending money on better kit becomes an investment and a necessity.
When you do multi-day expeditions, the pain of carrying cheap heavy kit becomes too much to bear. You MUST go shopping.
IS YOUR PACK WEIGHING YOU DOWN?
When I started hiking, I didn’t have the money to spend on expensive, light gear. I was running a struggling business, had a mortgage, a wife and children to support. My kit was cheap. The stove I took out on trips was one of those Calor Gas things you really should confine to campsites with the car a short walk away.
This is my journey from taking 25kg on a five miler in torrential rain from Ambleside to the Kirkstone Pass Inn, through a snowy 19-mile wild camp up 12 Wainwrights carrying 14kg, to my last overnighter with the bag weighing less than 5kg with food!
Achieving this is amazing, yes it is, and I’m sure it makes a great read but if you’re interested in taking a faster track, or you’re struggling to shed that one last kilogram, get in touch and come on an ‘Ultralight Backpacking Experience’ where you’ll see first hand what you need to do.
THE LITTLE BIG WEEKEND – 25kg – Aug 2015
I’d been on a survival course, spending a few days wild in the woods. Naively I took way too much stuff. I’d been wild camping for nearly 25 years but my experience in the mountains was non-existent, I was fit and didn’t really pay much attention to the weight on my back.
My tent back then was 3.2kg; I slept in a synthetic sleeping bag that when packed, was the size of a microwave. So much stuff that I needed a 70-litre bag AND a rucksack, weighing in at 25kg, that’s a sack of potatoes!
So with all of this gear, what would any sane person decide to do at the end of the week but plan a 5-mile walk from Ambleside cross country to the Kirkstone Pass Inn.
By the time I got ‘off-road’, the heavens had opened. The rain was sudden, and by the time I could shelter in an old decrepit caravan by the side of the trail and empty my bag out to get my jacket and bag cover from the bottom, all my kit, and I was soaked
I would be wet for the evening and paired with camping kit that just wasn’t up to the job; it would make the next day unbearable.
After getting over Glenridding Dodd and Sheffield Pike the next day, with a migraine, I cut the Helvellyn circular short, and we headed home. I had an amazing day with Christina, my sister-in-law. The weather was fantastic, and I topped a couple of Wainwrights.
Unfortunately, I failed to do what I intended to do because of my kit. Its weight exhausted me, and its failure to perform soaked me, making me cold. Even the £9 Decathlon mattress failed to stay inflated, so I slept on the hard, cold grass.
Red Screes – 15kg – Nov 2015
Two weeks later I climbed up Red Screes from the Kirkstone Pass Inn with the same 70-litre bag, this time down to 15kg, but still laden with the synthetic sleeping bag and that Calor Gas stove I’d bought from a time-travelling Scout Leader in the ’80s.
I’m surprised now that I even ate that night on Broad Crag in the wind. I was however really impressed with the OEM Bandicoot holding against the gales that blew up Scandale as I perched on the flattest bit of crag I could find in the dark.
As I set off the next morning, after striking camp in very poor visibility, I lugged this bag around. After the guide book leads me into Dovedale, I had to get back up to bag Harsop Above How. There was no way I was going to let this slip away from me, just to have to do it again on its own, so I ascended 300m again, steeply.
When I reached a subsidiary summit of Hart Crag, I was exhausted, completely wasted, desperate to get done. The walk over Hartsop Above How was a mix of exhaustion and thorough adventure. The wind was amazing. Although I dumped my bag in Patterdale, the trek back up to the Kirkstone in torrential rain was horrendous.
One day my bag will be so light it’ll lift me off the ground, I hoped.
My kit at the time was cursed with:
- Decathlon 70L bag – 2kg
- Vango synthetic sleeping bag – 1.8kg
- Calor Gas stove – 1kg
- Lots of ‘wet’ food – 2kg
All of this kit is the sort of stuff you should empty onto a table at a car boot and shout, ‘Anything you want, 50p, everything must go.’
The Coledale Horseshoe – 14kg – Feb 2016
Setting off from the van, a little way up the Whinlatter road, I placed my bag on the scale and knew categorically there was nothing I could take out of it. To my horror, after thinking I had done well to get the weight down, the numbers read just over 14kg. My chest felt heavy, nevermind the rucksack.
I’d got rid of the synthetic sleeping bag now and had found Alpkit, specifically the SkyeHigh700 which was warm, even with it being -10 degrees before I went to sleep on Eel Crag that night. I’d also invested in a more reliable stove, the Alkit Brukit.
Like the JetBoil it would boil me some water in no time, essential I thought, in freezing conditions, but this still weighs in at 900g with gas.
I remember I took a bag of rice pudding up with me! Now, this is a big part of the problem. When you take water up a hill with you in your food, it’s inefficient.
There are plenty of water sources up the hills if you know where to look or how to plan your route around it. Why carry it around with you all day?
Read my ‘Water Purification’ blog and see why and how you never need to take water up the hills in the English Lake District.
There were lots of conversations about kit at this time. I’d met a few other hikers doing the Wainwrights, carrying a lot of weight and striving to reduce the burden. The goal was ‘under 10kg’. I didn’t know what I could do now without spending money.
To add insult to injury, out of the blue came a £7000 bill that my small company needed to clear in the next few months. I had to jack in my goal of completing the Wainwrights in 12 months and get stuck into some serious grafting. The spend would have to wait.
Caudale Moor – 9.9kg – Jan 2017
Jumping forward a bit here, having worked my arse off saving my business (and my marriage), I thought it time to be taking things seriously, I could even make this ‘walking business’ my business. I booked onto the Mountain Leader Programme.
I also started investing in some new kit. Forking out on an Osprey Kestrel 45, I was thrilled that my bag now dipped under 10kg.
I celebrated with a post on Facebook. I’d achieved my goal. But, in the last nine months, the goalposts had changed.
I think Caudale Moor was the first camp where I thought I might blow away. A storm had come in during the night, the forecast changed dramatically and I ended up staying put until about 10am next morning.
People who I were now speaking to had lighter packs. I’d joined the ‘Ultralight Backpacking‘ group on Facebook, and these people were truly ultralight. 5kg was the new 10kg. Shit!
Still happy with the progression, I got a kit list from a fellow wild camper, his bag came in at about 5kg without food (generally thought of as under a 1kg per day), this we would call our base weight. The ‘base weight’ generally stays the same no matter how many days you’re out, just add food.
How on earth I was going to half my pack weight? I really didn’t know, but I was determined not to be carrying this burden with me. My body was weak.
Attempting the Blencathra circular, I had to descend just before the zig-zag near the summit. I was at the doctor’s soon after. He thought it was Hypothyroidism in early stages, so I tried some Levothyroxin. It did nothing. He helped in no other way.
In my quest to live a comfortable life, I improved my diet. It can only help until I get diagnosed with something and treat it. I felt a little better, over the next month I would manage to do an 11km walk up Skiddaw (via Lonscale Fell and Little Man) for Danny’s completion of his Wainwrights. I was knackered the whole of the next day, but I managed it.
Of course, I was determined to find out why my body was so weak but also to get the pack weight down so that even feeling feeble, I could get up some hills.
The £7000 was paid off, and business had benefitted from my attention over the last year. I was now financially able to spend what I wanted on the kit.
I was searching now for the lightest of gear, NOT JUST LIGHTER THAN WHAT I HAVE.
My Caudale Moor Pack of 9.9kg included:
- Osprey Kestrel 45L – 1700g
- AlpKit SkyeHigh 700 – 1400g
- Thermarest pad – 700g
- Silver bubblewrap – 168g
- AlpKit BruKit – 900g
Great Gable +6 from Honister – 5.6kg base weight – Jul 2017
So this is it, the lightest I’ve been for a two-day hike, and it’s going to take a lot to get below.
This was a good old hike, but what’s most interesting with regards to kit is that by now I’m down to 5.6kg with about a kilo of food.
I was thrilled when I got my Mountain Laurel Designs bag. The MLD Exodus weighs 500g so takes 1.2kg off my pack weight. It’s not fully water-resistant but my gear always got wet in heavy rain anyway. It has no frame to support the weight but then, you don’t need it when the contents only weigh 4kg!
The Osprey Kestrel 48, after only three trips, took early retirement and got sold.
For the last few camps, I’ve slept under an MLD Trailstar tarp with an inner mesh, weighing 735g in total with pegs.
For this trip, however, I would try out the DD Superlight tarp, the same weight but I wonder if it’ll be more versatile in the long term, so I’m still experimenting. The DD would be paired with a bivvy bag that has a mesh to stop insects from feeding on me at night. Both of them would still only weigh 750g with pegs.
Although on warm evenings I’m sleeping in a 295g goose down sleeping bag, it’s just not warm enough when it’s wet or foggy, so I’m still using the Alpkit 700 at 1140 grams.
A fantastic transition was dropping the 900g Alpkit BruKit and opting for an alcohol stove, made by a fella called Norman from a tin can! The Storming Stove System comes in under 300g including a Clipper lighter, and its fuel bottle might be around 100g for an overnight expedition.
Here’s the key to ultralight Backpacking
When you have little money, your goal is to get lighter. You buy stuff that’s lighter than the last stuff. You get more money and buy stuff that’s even lighter than the last stuff.
This is a false economy. You shed a few grams, but you need transformation not change.
To go ultralight, you must aim for kit that weighs 0kg. If you start from 0kg and build your pack from there, you will ultimately end up with the lightest pack. Instead of buying lighter, you need to buy as light as possible.
Comfort and safety will always have to be considered when making decisions regarding kit. I always carry a first aid kit for example, but only with this goal will my kit be ultralight.
This is the theory I work on when helping anyone reduce the weight they’re carrying.
The Big Three
When you’re going out wild camping, ‘The Big Three’ will be the main items that carry most of the weight. These are the rucksack, tent and sleeping bag.
Most rucksacks on the market are strong and have pockets to accomodate demand. Weighing in at a kilo to two, they have a frame structure to carry and distribute the 10-15kg weight they are made to carry. When you go ultralight, you don’t need the frame, it’s unnecessary when the contents are under 5kg, so a well designed and made pack should weigh under 500g.
Carrying a standard tent is out of the question when you’re ultralight backpacking. Although it takes a lot of camping to become sufficient in tarp camping, it’s almost a must. There are tents out there that only weigh 600g but they’re very expensive, whilst a tarp could only set you back £70. I’m well known for using an orange Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar but the DD Superlite, although it needs some manipulation, does me very well. Don’t just buy a tarp thinking it will solve all your problems, you really need to use it and work out how it can work for you.
3. Sleeping Bag
Synthetic sleeping bags are almost impossible to use when ultralight. The material is double the volume for the same warmth you get from down for a start, and the weight is also pretty much double. You definitely need a down sleeping bag. When you get one from a cottage manufacturer, designed to your specific requirements, it will cost a bomb, so don’t bother unless you have a big budget. The best two I have found, and used, are the Alpkit Skyehigh (I use a 700 but I sleep cold so you may get away with a much lighter one), and the RAB 900.
(OK, The Big 5)
4. Sleeping Mat
I really must include the sleeping mat in this list as it can take up a lot of space in your kit and can weight up to a kilo if you don’t get the right one. The Thermarest Neoair Xtherm is the lightest sleeping mat (at 430g) that I found with an R-value (6.9) capable of keeping you warm in winter, going ultralight. However, the sleeping pad isn’t the only thing that made me a member of the elite ‘Ultralight’ crew. I also invested in a super-ultralight backpack and tarp tent.
This can also weigh a kilo so my big three becomes the big five. The Alpkit Brukit came in at 900g and although handy in winter, it’s well over weight. My Stormin Stoves System alchohol kit comes in at under 600g including the cup, fuel, cloth and spork. Microburners are popular as well if you prefer gas but I love the silent burn of bioethanol when I’m in the wild.
My Ultralight Backpacking Gear
On my Mountain Leader Assessment, I carried everything I needed for a three day expedition, including three days of food, in a Berghaus day bag, a 25 litre day bag!
Here’s everything I take for an overnighter in my pack, what I wear and what I carry on my person:
rucksack and items – 1365g
- MLD Exodus Rucksack – 500g
- First aid kit and toiletries – 750g
- Petzyl Actik Core Head Torch & 26g backup – 115g
Shelter – 750g
Sleeping – 1817g
- Alpkit SkyeHigh 700 – 1140g
- or RAB Ascent 700 – 1290g
- Silver bubble wrap roll – 168g
- Thermarest Neoair Xtherm – 430g
- Sea To Summit Aeros – 79g
Cooking system – 594g
- Stormin Stove System inc lighter – 207g
- Bioethanol in bottle – 178g
- Alpkit MiTiMug 650 ml – 112g
- Folding Titanium Spork – 18g
- Microfibre Cloth – 43g
Water purification – 96g
- Sawyer Water Filter – 54g
- Squeeze Bag 1L – 42g
Total Ultralight Base Weight – 4586g
- OS Map piece laminated
- Small Silva Compass
- iPhone 7
- Black Star Walking Poles
- Black Mammut Jacket
- Berghaus Green Trousers
- Trail Gaiters
- Scarpa Ranger Boots
- 1000 Miles Walking Socks
- Berghaus Sterling Beany
- Berghaus Thermal Gloves
Carried items, clothes and food are not included in base weight total.
Weighing Your Pack
I’ve used this Freetoo luggage scale for a few years now and it’s great. Easy to set up, small and compact, it’s great to just have it in the box ready to weigh my rucksack every time I go out.
The Ultralight Backpacking Experience
Instead of learning the hard way, as I did in the early years of camping in the mountains, in one of our Hiking Kit Workshops, we look at your backpacking gear and create a budget. We set the goal of saving weight, starting at 0kg. We build for you a lighter, comfortable kit that suits your needs.
I can take you out with all the gear on our Ultralight Backpacking Experience so you can see what it’s like to hike with it and comfortably spend the night under the stars. You’ll see exactly how it feels to wild camp ultralight but most importantly you’ll learn what you need to have a pack under 5kg and how to use it all.
Either way, best of luck. If this blog has helped or inspired you in any way, please comment on it or send me a message from the contact page.