Whether you’re looking into one of the Triple-Crown thru hikes in the States, a smaller thru hike that’s more closer to home, or you’re just looking to upgrade to some better gear- lightweight backpacking gear is going to make a huge difference.
Gear is very subjective and will vary from person to person. The more time you spend on trail , the more experience you gain with gear you like, what gear you don’t, and what brands and styles you want to go back to again and again. After all, you might not have the luxury of running into the nearest REI or waiting for online shipping so it is nice to familiarize yourself with brands that are tried, true and tested.
What Does Backpacking Base Weight Mean?
Here’s a term you might start to hear a bit more if you are just starting to check out lightweight backpacking gear: base weight. Your base weight is essentially the complete weight of your gear minus consumable items like food and water or variable items like fuel. Generally, you are “ultralight” if your pack weighs under 10lbs and “lightweight” if it is under 20. Most backpackers will have a pack of around 30lbs, but the lighter your pack is the less weight will be holding you back from putting in high mile days on trail.
One thing is for certain, going “ultralight” can come at a heavy price tag. However, for gear that you use every single day you need something that will be long lasting and be very effective!
Introducing… Reid! Reid is my self-proclaimed “professional dirtbag” partner-in-life that finished the PCT in 2019 and plans on completing the CDT next year in 2022. Most of what I currently know about backpacking has come from Reid and the trips we’ve taken together. Throughout the 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, he really dialed in his pack and what gear he enjoys (his base weight was between 12-15lbs during the PCT).
Before we dive in to some of our favorite lightweight backpacking gear, make sure you note that this is not a comprehensive list and is meant as an introductory list of where to get started! There are tons of other brands and styles out there that ultralighter’s and lightweight backpacker’s use that they love. Keep diving into the world of gear through blogs, YouTube videos and recommendations from friends or family.
Without further ado, here is some of Reid’s favorite lightweight backpacking gear, other popular items we have seen on trail, and things you should consider bringing for your lightweight outdoor treks.
→ Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest: This is one of the most popular packs for ultralight backpacking and for good reason. It fits 40L of gear inside with a waterproof exterior and 10L of storage with the external pockets. It comes in at 1.88lbs (and a bit more for the black version) and is a really durable, solid pack. Reid used this on the PCT in 2019 and still uses it today. Its more of a dirty brown color, but hey- a little dirt doesn’t hurt!
→ Granite Gear makes great packs and their Crown2 60L series is very popular with backpackers. The regular size of the Women’s pack is 2lbs 5.8oz and their smaller bag, the Granite Gear Crown2 38 Pack weighs 2lbs 1.5oz. If you need something in the middle, check out their Perimeter 50 Packs.
→A similar style to the Hyperlite packs, Mountain Laurel Designs makes a few different models of ultralight backpacks that are worth exploring and are a bit cheaper than Hyperlite. Their Burn 38 Pack has a total capacity of 38L and weighs only 16.5 oz. A step higher than this will bring you to their Prophet 48L bag which weighs just 17 oz.
✓ Sleeping Bag
→ Mountain Hardware has some of the best sleeping bags for going light, unless you are wanting to opt for a backpacking quilt, and we both use their bags. Obviously, we don’t really see inside other tents so it’s hard to tell what most people have. I use the Phantom 15 Bag and absolutely love it. It weighs just 2lbs and is made of Goose Down so it packs down into a water bottle sized compression sack.
→If you want to look into Backpacking Quilts, check out these options:
Therm-a-Rest Corus 20 Quilt : weighs 1lb 13oz, and has a 20 degree temperature rating
REI Co-op Magma Trail Quilt 30 (long): weighs 1lb 3 oz and has a 30 degree temperature rating
or the Sea to Summit Ember Ultralight 35F Down Quilt: The long version weighs 1lb 8oz, and has a 35 degree rating
→ Another huge force of nature for Sleeping Bags and Quilts comes from Enlightened Equipment. Their products are some of the most popular and most lightweight systems out there and for good reason. Their products, like this Revelation Bag, come completely customizable from the color, length and width, temperature rating and down type.
✓ Sleeping Pad
→ As with Sleeping Bags, it can be hard to tell which brand people use, unless its the ever-popular Thermarest Z-lite Sol Foam Pad. This is the pad that I use and while it isn’t perfect, it definitely does the job. The Z-lite weighs only 14oz and is pretty durable on the trail. I like that that you don’t need to inflate it and waste any time or energy if you need to set up camp quickly. You can also use it as a comfortable seat and not worry about creating a hole.
→ Reid uses a Thermarest NeoAir XLite for all of his treks, and he replaced his Z-Lite on the PCT after 500 miles. Although the Z Lite are convenient and cheap, after time they do squish down. You can also check out their new model, the Thermarest NeoAir UberLite which weighs only 8.8oz. for the regular length.
→ We use a Z Packs Duplex for all of our trail adventures and with it only weighing 19oz and packing down to about the size of two Nalgene’s, it is hard to beat.
→ Big Agnes also makes a great line of lightweight tents that I am looking in for myself for solo trips. I really like their Tiger Wall UL 2 Solution-Dyed Tent because it is one of their lighter tents (2lbs 8 oz) for a lower price. The lightest model is the Fly Creek HV Carbon 2 Tent at 1lb 7oz and is about twice the price tag as the Tiger Wall. We also see a lot of Copper Spur tents out on trail, but they do weigh more than both of the other options and are in between on the price range.
→ Hyperlite makes a few great models of tents that are popular among thru-hikers. They have multiple different models that can fit a wide variety of needs and wants. Check out their Echo 2 Ultralight Shelter . It weighs about 1.8lbs with all the features, and is one of their cheaper models. You can also check out the Ultamid 2 Pyramid Tent, which weighs about 1.17lbs and is a really popular tent we see on trail!
→ One of the other popular tent models we see are Nemo tents. Their Nemo Dagger 2 Tent is one of the more common tents I see and is a 2 person tent weighing in at 3lbs 5oz
✓ Trekking Poles
→ Trekking poles are one of those items that is really subjective to the person and their likes. We are both fans of poles with cork handles like Komperdell poles. If you are looking for ultralight options, carbon will be your best bet!
✓ Water Filter & Bottle
→ The Sawyer Squeeze Filter (3oz) is our filtration system of choice, and recommend it over their Micro system. I also suggest checking out a stronger squeeze bottle like the CNOC 2L because they will last a lot longer than the plastic alternatives.
→ Another popular ultralight option is foregoing a filter for a water treatment system like purification tablets or iodine. Aquamira is one of the more popular brands for treatments and you can also check out Potable Aquas Iodine Tablets
→ For bottles one of my favorite options and one of the most popular are SmartWater Bottles. Not only are they lightweight but they are compatible with the Sawyer systems and screw right on to the cap. We also use Hydrapak 2L for a lightweight, collapsible bottle that saves a lot of space. I have also filled these with hot water for a bit of extra Sleeping Bag comfort if the temperatures are very low.
✓ GPS Device
→ Garmin is one of the leading makers in outstanding GPS devices. The Garmin inReach Mini is our GPS of choice. You can also check out the regular sized Garmin inReach Explorer+ to get a few more features like pre-loaded topo maps, smart sensors that work like a compass, and more.
✓ Bear Can
→ The BV500 is one of the most common Bear Cans you’ll see in areas where there required. They weight 2lbs 9oz and can fit a ton of supplies if packed well. Reid opted for this instead of the popular Bear Bags, the Ursack Major Bear Sack – 15 Liters (8.8 oz) because it was sturdier, and it makes a nice seat. The Ursack is rising in popularity, though, and is worth checking out. They have multiple different sizes ranging from 10 Liters (a BV500 is about 11) to 30 Liters. It’s important to note that Bear Bags like the Ursack are not yet approved to usage in places like National Parks. You can check their respective websites for approved models.
✓ Poop Kit
→ We use the trowel similar to this one: TheTentLab The Deuce #2 UL Backcountry Trowel (.6oz) and keep in in 2 plastic bags with a small roll of toilet paper. The outer bag contains the clean toilet paper and the trowel, and the inside one is the used TP that can easily be disposed of.
I have also heard good things about using a “travel bidet” for thru-hiking. You can find one at REI called the Happy Bottom Portable Bidet (2.8oz) , but I have also heard of people using other bottles that squeeze similarly.
For women, I also suggest adding a Pee Rag into that “kit”. I use a quick dry towel from REI Co-Op that I keep on the outside of my pack but should also check out this awesome line of products: the Kula Cloth Reusable Antimicrobial Pee Cloth (.4 oz) . I’ve heard great things about them and I am stoked to see them being carried by REI now.
→ It might not be one of the items you think about much, but headlamps are starting to have a wide variety of features that are very different from each other. We personally enjoy very bright, rechargeable lights with a red-light option. Rather than bringing batteries for most headlamps, rechargeable ones are becoming increasingly popular on trail and have a decent lasting battery life. Check out this one from Nightcore, the NU25 (1.9oz).
✓ Medical Kit
→ Reid’s Medical Kit is small, but suited what he needed on the PCT. While I am more comfortable with a bit larger of a Medical Kit, like this Ultralight Adventure .5 Medical Kit (3.68 oz) his consisted of: various sized Band-Aids , blister tape, alcohol wipes , gauze, ibuprofen, tums, and ear plugs. You may also find it useful to have a small, Travel Sewing Kit with some needles and a small pair of scissors for things like gear repairs.
✓ Toiletry Items
→ A toiletry kit is going to look different per hiker, much like their medical kit. In normal hiker style you might find some common items such as : a small toothpaste tube, a toothbrush (often with a broken off head to save space and weight), nail clippers, tweezers, sunscreen and Chapstick (SPF preferred!)
✓ Power Bank
→ A small power bank, whether it be a rechargeable model like the T-Core 10000mAh Charger (6.2oz) or a solar charged model like the ADDTOP Solar Charger 25000mAh (1.18lbs), is definitely necessary for thru hiking! Solar models are very popular on long trails and Reid even saw someone using a wind powered charger on trail (although, he would not recommend it…).
✓ Miscellaneous Items
→ We have multiple dyneema stuff sack bags that clip the same way a dry bag would. Reid made his own before heading out on the PCT and has made a few more since then. He bought the supplies from ripstopbytheroll.com While hiking the PCT he also met someone who completely designed and sewed his own backpack to save money!
→ For a mess kit, both of us use Talenti Gelato jars and a long aluminum spoon like the Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spoon-Long (.4oz). If you plan on cold soaking meals, these containers are the best because they are durable and don’t leak.
→ Other things to be considered: reading books on your phone instead of a tablet, travel towel like an REI Co-Op Multi Towel , notebook and pen, compass, paper maps, charging cords (usb-c and micro), bug net like the Ben’s InvisiNet Insect Head Net (.7oz), and a backpacking wallet with cash, your ID, cards, and insurance card in a plastic bag.
→ Snow Gear! If you are attempting a large hike like the PCT or AT, there will likely be a section of high elevation and snow to conquer and an ice axe and micro spikes will be necessary. C.A.M.P USA make a lightweight Ice Axe that is 7.1 oz called the Corsa.
→ Reid does not include it on his treks, but I do! That thing is a backpacking stove. I have used a MSR PocketRocket for a few years with a small stove kit and love it.
→ For wild animal protection, like Bears, its important to consider tools to deter them like Bear Spray or Bells. It is completely up to you whether you bring them or not on trail, and the hike you do might have a huge impact on that decision! If you do bring spray, make sure it is in an immediately accessible place while you are on the move. If it is inside your pack or in a place you cannot reach- it’s dead weight. Check out these Backpacker Holsters by Counter Assault.
✓ Down Jacket
→ A lightweight, warm down jacket is a must and there are tons of different options that people love. One of the most popular thru hiking jacket is the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer (7.2oz.). I personally love the Patagonia Down Jackets and I use their Nano Puff Hoody (10.8oz).
→ A Long-Sleeve Shirt that can protect you from the sun is a popular option among thru-hikers. My personal favorite is from ExOfficio (UPF 50) and hooded options are also very popular like the REI Co-Op Sahara Shade Hoodie (UPF 50).
→ For good T-Shirts, you cant go wrong with Merino Wool and SmartWool make some of the best. I also love hiking in tanks but it’s important to find one that is comfortable with your backpack straps!
→ A Fleece Long Sleeve is also a great thing to have for colder sections of the trail!
→ If you love hiking in pants, REI has a ton of great Zip-Off options for Men and Women like the Sahara Guide Convertible Pants. For warmer weather, shorts are in-style and come in a variety of styles that it is difficult to choose from. This is totally up to you but I suggest finding a comfortable pair that works well with your backpack waist strap and suits your needs. I prefer a yoga-pant like material for the waist and a running short-like bottom whereas a lot of other people on trail love the Patagonia Baggies 5″
→ A good pair of Merino Wool Long Underwear will also come in handy for nights or hanging around camp. Between brands like Smartwool, Icebreaker, and the Kari Traa base layers, you will have tons of options.
✓ Shoes & Socks
→ For thru-hiking, Trail Runners reign as champions for their lightweight design and comfortability. There are lots of options and brands out there but we both use and rave about our Altras, specifically the Altra Lone Peaks and Altra Timps. If boots become a necessity because of snow ( longer use of crampons ) Merell makes some very popular designs.
→ No ifs, ands, or buts, Darn Tough Socks are the way to go. Their warranty allows you to send them back to their warehouse if they become too warn to wear, and they’ll send you a new pair! They have a lot of styles, heights, and cushion to choose from. You should bring at least 2 pairs, one for sleeping and around camp and one for during the day.
→ Make sure to add a good pair of sunglasses to this mix that are polarized so you don’t ruin your eyes on trail! They might be more pricey, but its much safer with how much time you’ll spend in the sun. I use the Wayfarer Ray Bans and they are great. I prefer this style over some of the others because of the thicker and sturdier frames.
→ A warm Beanie for chilly nights and a Buff to protect yourself from the sun will definitely come in handy for varied weather conditions. Make sure you also bring a solid baseball hat, sun hat or cap on the trail that you love because you will likely wear it everyday. The Patagonia Trucker Caps are a popular one we see a lot, and I really love the North Face Horizon Brimmer Hat and the Columbia sun hats like the Bora Bora and Coolhead ii
✓ Miscellaneous Items
→ You cant skip out on a solid pair of undies, and make sure you bring at least 2 pairs. Merino wool tend to be the more popular material, like these from Icebreaker, because they are quick drying and temperature regulating.
→ You may also want a pair of gloves for chilly nights or long stretches through the snow. During Reid’s time on the PCT, he brought a fleece pair of gloves, as well as a pair of snow gloves for the Sierra.
→ Another sun safe item that some thru-hikers choose to bring is something like a sun glove or even a parasol. It is totally up to you and your needs if you choose to include that in your pack!
Lightweight Backpacking Weight Savers
✘ Camping Stove: Although I bring it, and a lot thru hikers include it in their gear, many people opt for cold soaking their food! You also don’t have to worry about finding somewhere to resupply on fuel, or running out mid stretch.
✘ Pots/Pans/Cookware: They are often heavy and there are plenty of alternatives!
✘ Pillow: Even backpacking pillows aren’t worth the extra weight in a lot of thru-hikers gear! Try stuffing a sack full of your day clothes and it should work just as well!
✘ Heavy Books: Trust me, even Cheryl Strayed abandoned her many books on the PCT. Download some on your phone for offline reading in the backcountry.
✘ Backpacking Shampoo/Soap: You’re going to stink… probably really bad too. Its better to embrace the stank and get used to it when it happens! Additionally, it is much better for environment to keep things like soaps (even the biodegradable ones) out of water sources!
I asked Reid if he had any closing thoughts of wisdom for someone going on their first thru-hike or longer trek…
“Take care of your gear and it will take care of you. “
Happy hikin’ yall! If you have any questions for myself or Reid on lightweight backpacking gear, trip experiences, or anything else- leave them in the comments below!
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