What Is Lightweight Backpacking? Gear List and 10 Tips for Going Light

What Is Lightweight Backpacking? Gear List and 10 Tips for Going Light

The philosophy of ultralight or hyperlight backpacking: minimalism and often compromising on comfort, is by no means necessary in lightweight backpacking. A base weight of less than 10 kg (20 lbs) is quite easy to achieve without major sacrifices.

Lightweight backpacking means hiking with lightweight equipment. In lightweight and ultralight backpacking, the focus is on packing only the necessary equipment and on reducing the weight wherever possible.

The roots of western lightweight and ultralight backpacking can be found in the community of long-distance thru-hikers. In the early 1990s, the idea of faster hiking with lighter and more minimalistic equipment started to spread among traditional backpackers as well. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts on the online lightweight and UL backpacking communities.

In Finland, the outdoor boom is continuing, and at the same time, the popularity of lightweight backpacking has also increased. The phenomenon is already beginning to be visible in the stores' offerings as well.

In this article, I compiled information about lightweight backpacking in the Nordics, based on my own experiences hiking solo and research. I have hiked for several years with many styles and various equipment. Since the beginning, many (but not all) of my gear have been on the lighter side, but I've been cutting weight and changing gear gradually.

In this article you will find answers to the following questions:

  • How much should a backpack weight?
  • What is the difference between lightweight backpacking and ultralight backpacking?
  • How to shave pack weight – the Big 3 equipment?
  • How to reduce pack weight by giving up unnecessary things?
  • Gear list for lightweight backpacking – what do lightweight backpackers carry?
  • Top 10 tips for starting lightweight backpacking

Why start lightweight backpacking?

With lighter backpacks, you can hike longer distances, faster and with less energy. A light backpack doesn't put as much strain on the knees and joints, and hiking feels easier and more comfortable.

You can also say that lightweight backpacking consumes less nature and fragile vegetation. Lightweight and ultralight backpacking enables hiking for people of all ages and different fitness levels.

I got a real spark for lightweight backpacking while trail running / fastpacking the Sevettijärvi-Pulmanki hiking trail in Lapland with a small 20-liter Osprey backpack on my back. It was astonishing and liberating to hike in the middle of the wilderness with trail running shoes on and the weight of just a daypack on my back. Can I really do this?

I started lightweight backpacking on my Sarek National Park hike in Swedish Lapland, for which I even cut off my toothbrush to reduce the weight. I wouldn't have been able to hike such a long distance in such challenging terrain, carrying a traditional backpack and 15 days' worth of food.

Well, I would have been able to do a classic hike, but the journey would have been very painful for my legs (I suffer from chronic foot pain) and I would have hiked much more slowly. I wouldn't have climbed any mountains. The idea of crossing Sarek's rivers with a big and clumsy backpack was also, to be honest, terrible.

So, I started lightweight backpacking based on the usual reason: to be able to travel longer distances faster and more comfortably. So far, I haven't had to compromise on any comforts - even a spacious two-person tent - even though the base weight of my backpack is already less than nine kilograms (19 lbs).

You can become a lightweight backpacker, even if you don't want to go any faster or farther than you have been up to now. There is no need to start timing how fast you can hike a certain hiking route.

How much should your backpack weigh?

What is the optimal weight of the hiking backpack? It is often said that the backpack should not weigh more than a third of the hiker's weight. In some sources it is recommended that a pack for women or unaccustomed hikers weighs no more than one quarter of the hiker's weight. Also, an exact figure is provided: the backpack should not weigh more than 20 kg (~44 lbs).

  • For example, for a woman weighing 65 kg (143.3 lb) with a normal BMI, the weight of 1/4 of the backpack would then be a bit over 16 kg (35.3 lb) and 1/3 of the weight would be 21.5 kg (47.4 lb). Calculation formulas have also been developed for hikers with BMI 25+, so that the weight of the backpack does not increase too much. The comfort zone depends on the hiker's physical characteristics.

You should also remember that the weight of the backpack decreases steadily during the hike as food and other consumables are used. On a longer hike, the starting weight may become high, because the food weighs a lot.

  • For example, let's take that 16 kg (35.3 lb) backpack weight for a week's hike. If you estimate that the food would weigh about 600 g (1.4 lb) per day and add fuel and some extra energy to the equation, you get about 5 kg (11 lb) weight for the food. The backpack would weigh around 11 kg (24 lb) after the hike. It doesn't yet make it to the lightweight backpacking category, but it is already close.

If you look at the recommended maximum weights for backpacks, women should already choose lighter equipment, especially if they enjoy solo hiking and carry all the load themselves. For example, sleeping bags and sleeping pads are available in different sizes, so a smaller hiker can choose a shorter and lighter product.

Hiking with a lighter backpack is usually more comfortable than hiking with a heavy pack. It is still very individual, what kind of weight on the back still feels quite comfortable, and how long hikes you do. You can carry just as much or as little as you want on your trip, hiking is not a competition.

If you are hiking in a group that is supposed to go at a certain pace, the weight of your pack matters more. The weight of the backpack has a direct effect on speed and indirectly on safety. A backpack that is too heavy for your speed and fitness can increase the risk of health problems and accidents, or too heavy gear can prevent you from maintaining an adequate walking speed.

If you combine hiking with some other hobby, such as fishing or nature photography, it's easy to put on a lot of weight. A four-kilogram (9 lbs) camera set requires a lot of imagination if you want to make your backpack even lightweight not to mention ultralight. The more weight-increasing other equipment you carry, the more useful it is to shave pounds from where you can shave them, such as the base weight.

What is the difference between lightweight backpacking and ultralight (UL) backpacking?

In ultralight backpacking, the aim is to cut even more weight than in lightweight backpacking. The term 'base weight' is often used, which means the combined weight of all equipment without food, water and fuel. The latter belong to 'consumable weight', in which some hikers also include toilet paper and toothpaste.

From the base weight you also reduce the weight of the equipment you are wearing. The 'worn weight' includes, for example, hiking shoes, hiking clothes and a sports watch, which are never in your backpack. According to this principle, the DSLR attached to your belt, or your mobile phone and map and compass in your trouser pocket are not included in the base weight either.

  • A backpack with a base weight of less than 10 kg (22 lb) is generally considered lightweight backpacking, and a backpack with a base weight less than 5 kg (11 lb) is considered ultralight backpacking in Finland. In English-speaking countries, the corresponding weight limits are 9 kg 72 g (20 lb) and 4 kg 540 g (10 lb).

(In Finland, a lightweight backpacker can pack 928 grams (2 lb) more in their backpack, and an ultralight backpacker up to 460 grams (1 lb 0.226 oz) more, haha!)

Anyway, there really aren't any technical definitions that would exactly define lightweight backpacking and ultralight backpacking. However, certain weight limits are established in the lightweight community, but definitions are constantly evolving.

Lightweight backpacking can also be divided into four categories:

  1. hyperlight under 3.63 kg (8 lbs)
  2. ultralight 3.63 kg – 6.8 kg (8 – 15 lbs)
  3. lightweight backpacking 6.8 kg – 9.72 kg (15 – 20 lbs) and
  4. regular 'classic' backpacking over 10 kg (20+ lbs) base weight.

The philosophy of ultralight or hyperlight backpacking: minimalism and often compromising on comfort, is by no means necessary in lightweight backpacking. A base weight of less than 10 kg (20 lbs) is quite easy to achieve without major sacrifices.

There are no style points or awards in hiking – it is not a 'greater performance' to walk in the wilderness for a month in just underpants, eating berries. On the other hand, it is not a 'better way' to enjoy nature by dragging a huge backpack bursting with all kinds of outdoor stuff. What is best for you as a hiker, is best for you!

Is lightweight backpacking expensive?

According to my own experience: it is. At least any 'ultralight' product in any outdoor store is more expensive than just a regular item. When I first started buying backpacking equipment, I often settled for slightly heavier items due to a limited budget.

Of course, there is a lot of expensive and heavy outdoor equipment in the world. On the other hand, I have not seen any great cheap and ultralight ones. What is cheap in lightweight backpacking is giving up unnecessary equipment or not buying them in the first place.

I've also been dreaming about all kinds of ultralight DIY gear. Their materials are also often valuable, so you don’t want to make many mistakes when making them. For a sewing and handicraft enthusiast like me, making your own lightweight gear opens up new and exciting hobby opportunities.

The biggest investments in lightweight backpacking are shelter (tent), sleeping bag, sleeping pad (inflatable) and backpack.

How to lighten your pack: the 'big three’

A large part of the base weight – and thus, your backpack – consists of the heaviest items:

  1. shelter: a tent or other shelter
  2. sleeping system: a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad
  3. backpack

Some people use the term 'The Big three' and others use the term 'The Big four' when referring to the above items. The content is roughly the same, but some talk about ‘a sleep system' and combine the sleeping bag and sleeping pad into one whole or drop the pad from the list.


A shelter, usually a tent, weighs probably the most of your backpacking items. Ultralight tents are often non-freestanding tents or tarps made of ultralight materials, and that are pitched with hiking poles. Hammocking with UL hammocks has also become popular. Another ultralight option is a minimalist bivy sack, usually combined with a tarp.

I hike solo in challenging conditions, and so far, I have wanted a storm-proof, warm and spacious tent around me. My shelter must have a floor and keep bugs out. I have to be able to quickly set up the shelter alone on any terrain.

My two-person MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent has passed all the tests, from raging winds to floods to freezing temperatures. The tent is light, but not ultralight (approx. 1.6 kg, 3.5 lb depending on the setup).

  • You can reach a lightweight base weight with a light backpacking tent, but not easily an UL base weight.

I also own a Nemo Hornet 1P tent that weighs only half of the MSR (and is also smaller), but I only use it in nice summer weather, as I don't think it is durable enough in harsh climates.

The MSR tent is one of my first purchases - and the only one of the 'big 3 or 4' that I haven't updated over the years. At that time, the availability and price of ultralight shelters kept me at bay of even considering buying one. For now, I prefer to cut weight elsewhere, but I have already started looking at ultralight shelter options.

Sleeping bag and sleeping pad

The warmer the sleeping bag, usually the more weight. In ultralight backpacking, lighter quilts are often preferred, because the down under the back flattens anyway, and does not warm.

  • In lightweight backpacking and ultralight backpacking, the goal is that the sleeping pad and sleeping bag are only as warm as the hiking destination absolutely requires.

Minimalists often use the lightest foam pads as a sleeping pad. Extreme weight shavers pack only a torso of a sleeping pad. This would definitely be the optimal choice for its lightness and affordable price. However, I recommend that you test what you need for sleeping before going into wilderness with just a tiny foam shred.

My first sleeping bag and sleeping pad turned out to be too cold in the conditions where I hike a lot. In the second round (or maybe third), I invested in as light and warm a three-season set as possible. Sea to Summit's Women's Flame III (665g, 1 lb 7.46 oz) and Thermarest Women's Neoair Xlite (340g, 11.99 oz) inflatable pad have proven to be pretty perfect choices for my needs as a cold sleeper.

Read also: How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag and Pad for Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking

A lightweight backpack

Finding a good lightweight backpack for your needs can take time. The same applies here as with any equipment: it really depends on the hiker's anatomy and preferences, which kind of pack is suitable for lightweight backpacking or hiking in general.

The traditional backpack has a large and sturdy (external) frame, the purpose of which is to distribute the weight off the shoulders to carry it comfortably. These packs usually weigh 3-4 kilos (6.6 – 8.8 lb).

  • In lightweight and ultralight backpacking, hiking backpacks have only light frames, or they are completely frameless. The weight of a lightweight or an ultralight backpack is usually under 1 kg (2.2 lb).

I compared every possible lightweight and ultralight backpack that I found and that would fit my needs. I went to outdoor stores to test the lightest backpacks. I secretly wanted to fall in love with Osprey's Ariel Pro 65 backpack, but in my comparisons, several other backpacks were better.

I had always thought that my back would require a sturdy framed backpack. I took a risk and ended up ordering The Mo from Atom Packs, which weighs a little over 900 grams (2 lb).

As I was used to a huge backpack, the MO felt ‘suspiciously small and light’, but the new backpack changed my (lightweight backpacking) life. The 60-liter pack is excellent for a two-week (hiking 15 days without resupply), 200 km (over 125 miles) hike in the mountainous wilderness or in the autumn of Lapland. There are even lighter backpacks for easier hikes in less challenging destinations.

Lighten your backpack by ditching the non-essentials

What are the non-essentials of hiking? Basically, everything you can't find on the 'hiking essentials packing list’. Here are some general tips for reducing weight:

  • Water. Don't carry excess water with you. Drink a lot when water is available and carry only the necessary amount in a water bottle depending on the hiking destination.
  • A wooden mug. The wooden mug is certainly beautiful, but it weighs a lot. Cut the weight half by changing to a Kupilka mug. Cut the Kupilka weight half by switching to a plastic folding cup. The price comes down along with the weight!
  • Ten clothes just in case. On a hike, you can manage with surprisingly few clothes if you carefully consider what you really need. By combining clothes and dressing in layers, you save on equipment purchases and the weight of your backpack. An Icelandic sweater is great, but a light down jacket only weighs a third of the weight of a sweater.
  • Heavy break sandals. There is a surprisingly large variation in the weights of outdoor sandals. Crocs are on the lighter side. You can also craft DIY slippers from strips of foam.
  • Fuel. Don't cook rice porridge or twelve-minute macaroni in the woods. When you only boil water, you consume only little gas or other fuel.
  • Food. Dried food weighs much less than fresh or canned food. Lightweight backpackers should invest in energy-dense food. Dried spices in a mini freezer bag do not weigh much, olive oil can be carried in a tiny lightweight plastic bottle.
  • Entertainment. Is it worth bringing games, books or other extra items to the woods, or could you just enjoy the fresh air and silence?

Packing list for lightweight backpacking

A lightweight backpacker's packing list is the same as a traditional hiker's packing list, minus all the non-essentials. Personal preferences define what you consider to be non-essentials. The backpack becomes light when all or most of your equipment are lightweight.

With the help of a packing list, you can make a trade-off between the lightness of backpacking and general comfort especially when in the camp. The lightweight hiker's packing list must also be adapted to the season, the nature and climate of the destination and the duration of the hike.

I divided the lightweight backpacking packing list into sections, the first of which, in my opinion, contains the minimum equipment for an overnight hike in the Nordics from late spring to late autumn.

The other lists include equipment that not everyone necessarily needs, depending on the person and the hiking destination or weather.

Essential equipment for lightweight backpacking (in the Nordics):

  • Backpack
  • Shelter (tent, tarp, hammock, bivy sack, etc.) (when you don't sleep in the wilderness huts)
  • Sleeping bag or down quilt (according to your needs)
  • Sleeping pad (inflatable or foam according to your needs)
  • Change clothes (base layer) and socks for sleeping
  • Dry bag (UL) for change clothes (which can also fit matches and a mobile phone)
  • Waterproof outerwear (very light options available)
  • First aid kit (gather your own set into e.g., a small freezer bag)
  • A map (e.g. as printouts) and a compass
  • Fire-making equipment (e.g. matches)
  • Knife or similar (e.g., a tiny scout knife)

+ food (usually a minimum of 500 g/day)

Essential equipment if you are not a very minimalist:

  • Water bottle (empty soda bottle weighs a little, Nalgene a lot; can be replaced with a pot/mug)
  • Mug (plastic, composite fiber (plastic is lighter); can be replaced with a kettle/water bottle)
  • Cooker (e.g. MSR PocketRocket), fuel (minimalists may be fine with cold/cold water soaked food)
  • A container in which you can boil water and eat from, e.g. UL pot (see above)
  • Eating utensil, i.e. spoon, fork, or spoon fork (or a piece of wood/stick found in nature)

Depending on the destination / weather, in addition:

  • Pot, fuel (it is possible to base the hike entirely on the cooking possibilities of the huts)
  • Headlamp (+spare batteries) (not needed in the nightless night of the north)
  • Sunglasses
  • Warm clothes (light down jacket, beanie, gloves, woolen socks)
  • Repair kit (repair tools for sleeping pad and tent, some tape, cord, small safety pin)
  • Water purification tablets (a lighter option) or a filter (mostly not needed in Lapland)

Most hikers want/need in addition:

  • Toilet paper, pee rag
  • Trash bag (if you don't produce any trash, you don't need one)
  • Small ultra-light towel, cloth, etc. (for drying everything)
  • Mobile phone
  • Light shoes for breaks, Crocs, etc. (DIY sandals)

Not essential but nice / useful / mandatory for some hikers:

  • Trekking poles (light, foldable)
  • Home key, car key
  • Personal medicines etc.
  • Menstrual bandages, tampons
  • Toothpaste and brush (mini tube, light and small toothbrush)
  • Foot cream, lip cream, sunscreen (a small amount packed in a light box)
  • Mosquito net, insect repellent
  • A small amount of eco-detergent, a small piece of sponge
  • Travel money bag, money, bank card, driver's license, passport
  • A few sheets of paper and a small pen
  • Cell phone charger
  • A GPS device, a satellite communication device, a power bank, a pile of wires
  • Raincover for backpack (or big UL pack liner)
  • Tent footprint, ground cover etc.

Tips for starting lightweight backpacking

  1. Buy a kitchen scale. If you don't already own a kitchen scale, get one. There's no need to splurge, save the money for some lightweight backpacking gear or movie tickets.
  2. Weigh your equipment. Open Excel or a similar free program. In the columns, write each piece of equipment you own on its own line. Weigh each piece of equipment and write down the weight in the columns. In Excel, it is easy to calculate how changing one piece of equipment for another (or removing it) affects the total weight.
  3. Reducing equipment should not mean compromising on safety. So, learn wilderness and survival skills well so that you can also manage with lesser equipment. Don't bring anything 'just in case'. But don't leave your tent repair or sleeping pad patching tools at home to shave the weight.
  4. When purchasing equipment, think about how the items can be combined with each other or used for several purposes. You can boil water in the pot, but it also serves as a plate. The lightweight jacket works as a break jacket, extra warmth when sleeping or as a pillow substitute. The ultralight cell foam pad and the ultralight inflatable sleeping pad work individually on warm summer hikes, and together in colder weather.
  5. Know your own needs and preferences. If someone claims that an ultralight inflatable pillow gives you great sleep, but a pile of change clothes under your head ruins your trip, is that true or not? Do you really need soap for a week's hike? Do your feet appreciate dry hiking socks?
  6. Think about the nature and climate in the areas where you hike. Does your shelter need trees? Is it freezing at night? Do you need a thick sleeping pad? Do you want your backpack to also fit in the shelter for the night? It might not be a good idea to go into the treeless mountainous wilderness with an ultralight hammock.
  7. Remember to handle ultralight equipment with care, as they may break more easily than equipment made of stronger materials. This is easier said than done, especially in challenging circumstances. In Sarek, I literally got my ultralight rain pants to shreds, and I even had to fix some holes in the tent fabric with tape.
  8. Change to lighter gear gradually. You don't have to start lightweight backpacking with one fell swoop. Use the gear you own, rent the rest. On the other hand, if you don't own lightweight or ultralight equipment yet, and you're considering lightweight backpacking, don't get any heavy items in the first place. Get light gear that suits you and has received good reviews, according to your budget.
  9. Start trimming weight with the largest and heaviest equipment: shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and backpack. In this way, you can reduce more weight faster.
  10. If you're handy, you can save on costs by making equipment and drying food yourself. The ready-made freeze-dried backpacking meals are very convenient, but their bags are unnecessarily heavy. By doing it yourself, you will also definitely get equipment perfectly fitting your needs!

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