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Taking a Lighter and Faster Approach in the Backcountry

Getting into Ultralight Backpacking, by Nisha Sharma.

About the Author: Nisha is an engineer and avid backpacker based in Seattle, WA. She fell in love with the pacific northwest for its diverse landscapes and beautiful national parks. Follow her @nish_sharms to see some of her adventures!

Pictured below, Nisha's UL pack in Goat Rocks Wilderness. "I cut my sleeping pad to torso length and it doubles as a sit pad at lunch"

I still remember (and cringe at) my first backpacking trip so vividly. It was in August of 2016 in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. True to its name as a rainforest, we got absolutely POURED on. Everything was soaked- and I mean everything. Still to this day in the PNW, I have not experienced rain that heavy or unrelenting.

Ironically, the worst part of that trip wasn’t the rain, but how sore my shoulders were from my heavy pack. My backpack was probably around 25 lbs for a single overnight trip in moderate temperatures. I packed a lot, and not the right items. We ended up cooking our intricate tofu noodle stir fry under a tree as it quickly turned into a soup. I was cold, wet, and simply not having fun.

Ever since that fateful wet night, I have put a lot of love and care into each and every item I select to bring with me on my outdoor adventures. Turns out Marie Kondo is on to something! I found that as I started evaluating my gear choices, the progression into taking a lighter approach was natural. In this case, less is definitely more.

What is ultralighlight, anyways?

“Ultralight” (UL) backpacking refers to an approach that emphasizes carrying the lightest and the simplest gear. I want to stop here and emphasize simplest because I too have fallen into the trap that UL strictly means cutting ounces. While this can be true, the idea behind an UL approach is to not have to fuss with your setup. A 45 L backpack with a simple large pocket, 2 side water bottle pockets, and a mesh stretch pocket is far easier to pack and unpack than a 70 L backpack with bells and whistles that you might use one day.

Savvy swaps don’t have to break the bank

Ultralight has a reputation for being...ultra expensive. Some backpackers spend hundreds of dollars just to shave a few ounces off their setup. Here are some items that you can easily swap, which will give you your best bang for your buck.

  • Hiking boots - I am on a personal mission to convert as many backpackers as possible to get out of their boots. Did you know that one pound on your feet is equivalent to five pounds on your back? The average pair of hiking boots is close to two pounds, while a pair of running shoes is one pound or less. Weight savings aside, running shoes dry incredibly quickly while boots stay damp for days on end. This isn’t for everyone, but before you assume you have weak ankles or assume you need your boots, give a short 1 nighter a try in trail shoes - with the lighter load, you might surprise yourself and prefer it.

  • Rain cover - Lots of packs come with an entire separate pocket for a rain cover. Instead, try lining your pack with a trash compactor bag. A compactor bag is basically a super thick garbage bag. It waterproofs your pack from the inside so there’s no need to panic and find your rain cover mid hike. I roll my compactor bag at the top a few times- consider it a poor man’s dry sack.

  • Water bladder/Hydration reservoir - As handy as it is to have a mouthpiece while you hike, the biggest setback from using a hydration reservoir is that you can’t tell how much water you have left. This may not seem like a big deal if you’re in an area with a ton of water sources, but it can quickly turn dangerous. When I hiked the Wonderland Trail (a nearly 100 mile loop circumnavigating Mount Rainier) in 2019, I had to do some brutal climbs in the heat of the day on very exposed terrain. Since I used clear, plastic water bottles it was a breeze to tell how much water I had left. I recommend SmartWater bottles in the 1 L and the 1.5 L size as they sit well in most backpack side pockets. These bottles can be reused up to 500 times (many PCT through hikers use them!), so they aren’t as wasteful as you might think. I love the Sawyer Squeeze as a lightweight filter to screw directly onto your SmartWater bottle - you don’t have to carry a heavy, clunky filter, and it makes filling super fast, or, you can fill your bottle with unfiltered water, and drink directly out of the sawyer filter, making filling a breeze.

  • Tent Footprint - A footprint can be great at extending the life of your tent by providing a barrier to ground abrasion. Instead of your tent manufactuer’s footprint, consider trying a homemade footprint made of polycro. Polycro is a super strong and waterproof material that is sold in the form of window insulation film. I was able to find a window insulation kit for around $12 and cut a piece to size for my Big Agnes Tiger Wall tent.

Pictured below: dinner time in the Enchantments!

At the end of the day, the reason why we backpack is to have fun and enjoy our experiences in the great outdoors. My advice to a novice ultralighter would be not to get caught up counting ounces and trying to slash items. Bring what brings you happiness, but be mindful of what you want and what you need.

I personally enjoy shooting film photography, so I ironically add back some weight and lug around a bulky metal Canon AE-1 camera. For me, the images I capture on my adventures are one hundred percent worth the extra two pounds in my pack. I classify my camera as a need, but for someone else that’s a whole bottle of wine they could be bringing out there. To each her own.

Pictured below: her friend Steph’s “luxury” item is a drip coffee maker. It’s much better than instant!

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