Last updated: 10 October 2018
OK, I’m a little obsessed. Ever since I started reading thru-hiker blogs, I’ve been fascinated with the ultralight philosophy of backpacking. Most people who hike hundreds of miles come to realize that every ounce counts, and they figure out how to cut down what they need to the bare minimum.
Of course, everyone’s bare minimum is different, but many hikers can safely (though maybe not cheaply!) get their base weight below 10 pounds. That’s exactly what I have done, though depending on the trip I sometimes have to carry specialized equipment like an ice axe or a bear canister that puts me over the top.
My current basic gear list includes the following:
PACK, SLEEP, AND SHELTER
Backpack: ZPacks Arc Blast (20.9 oz)
This is a bare-bones cuben fiber backpack with no hip belt pockets (they are optional) — just one main pocket that everything fits in, two side pockets for water bottles, umbrellas, trekking poles, or micro spikes, and a mesh back pocket for stashing jackets, maps, and so on. I love it! I especially like the way it arcs away from my back, which greatly improves ventilation. There is room to fit a large bear canister inside, and my umbrella also easily attaches to this bag with some shock cord on the right strap and the upper right corner of the pack frame. I was a little worried about its durability because it weighs over a pound lighter than my ULA Circuit, but so far it has held up nicely, even after sliding down cross-country scree. I’ve had to repair it four times, once when I broke a strap clip (ZPacks immediately sent me a new one), once when my cat scratched up the mesh pocket (repaired easily with floss) and twice when one of the carbon fiber poles that arch the bag away from my back busted through the bottom strap that supports it (easily fixed with duct tape, and they just repaired it free-of-charge repair to permanently fix the problem!). My only other complaint is that the bag is very tall, which forced me to switch away from my beloved Tilly AirFlo hat to the Sunday Afternoons hat because there is no room for a back brim. But that tallness keeps the bag close to my center of gravity, which reduces the impact of the weight on my body.
Sleeping Bag: ZPacks 20 degree quilt (17.5 oz)
The ZPacks quilt has a zipper that rests underneath me when I sleep (it’s designed to be comfortable to lay on) so I can close it up when it’s drafty and keep it open like a quilt when it’s not (though increasingly I prefer it open like a quilt). The neck baffle is not quite as deluxe as my Katabatic Sawatch 15, but the difference is not worth the 7 ounces of weight reduction I get from the ZPacks when the weather stays above 30 or so. I have used this bag during cold desert nights in SoCal and I am usually comfortable down to about 20 degrees. However, 1) I sleep very warm, and 2) when it gets below freezing I usually put on all my clothes and also my down puffy jacket.
Tent: ZPacks Solplex (16.3 oz)
I can’t believe how light this tent is! It is made from cuben fiber (which does not sag when it gets wet) and needs no tent poles since I can use my trekking poles to set it up. There is a bathtub floor, netting for insects, and a pair of retractable storm doors which I almost always keep open so I can see the night sky. My first tent was also a ZPacks (Hexamid Twin), but I changed to this one because I did not like how one of the poles needed to be inside the Hexamid tent. I think the Solplex design gives me more room for my stuff, which all fits easily inside my tent with me. I also own the Triplex version of this tent, which has doors on both sides and feels like a palace even when my wife and I and all our stuff is inside. One possible downside to these tents for some people is that you occasionally have to be creative to get them up (I often use rocks to weigh down 2 or more of the stakes), but adjustable tension cords on the corners make this pretty easy, especially now that I have some experience doing it a few times.
Sleeping Pad: NeoAir Xlite (11.8 oz)
I love this pad! It is super comfortable and easy to blow up and pack away. It was a little crinkly sounding at first, but it got less over time (or I just got used to it). My only complaint is that two of these that I owned developed very slow leaks that I couldn’t quite find, so I had to give them a couple of puffs of air once or twice a night. When it got bad enough, I sent them to Cascade Designs to repair and they sent me two new ones for free!
Pillow: Big Sky International DreamSleeper (1.4 oz)
I got really tired of my clothing bag with a down jacket in it going flat in the middle of the night under the weight of my big fat head. I’ve used this for a few trips now and I love it! I put my hiking shirt around it for a pillow case and it stays inflated and warm all night.
Stakes: Titanium hook stakes (6 x 0.2 oz)
These are very basic and very light six inch stakes with hooks at the end. I’ve actually tried a variety of other stakes, including V stakes and thicker carbon fiber stakes, but those stakes are heavier and harder to get in the ground. The downside of the lightweight stakes is that they need to be held down with rocks in loose soil, but they do fine once they are adequately reinforced. I have not yet experienced a tent collapse.
Stakes: Carbon Fiber stakes (2 x 0.2 oz)
These are much less likely to come out of loose soil, so I use them for the narrow axis of my tent (the door and the opposite side).
Pack Liner: Generic Trash Compactor Bag (1.9 oz)
I only bring this if I think there is a chance my bag will get wet (I often leave it at home in SoCal)
FOOD AND WATER
Water Filter: Katadyn BeFree (2.3 oz)
Until recently I used Aquamira Drops as my primary water treatment, but I saw this filter in Backpacker’s Gear Issue and thought I would give it a try. The filter works by gently squeezing an attached soft bottle and I’m surprised at the flow rate — you can’t drink it fast enough to keep up! I like the added benefit of removing larger particles of sand and silt from more turbid water, and the ease of just grabbing dirty water for storage and filtering/drinking whenever I’m thirsty. I should note that I am also becoming more confident in identifying water sources that are likely to be safe, which are prevalent throughout the Sierra, so about half the time I don’t use anything for purification.
Water Bladder: Platypus 2L (1.3 oz)
SoCal is pretty dry, so I sometimes need to carry several liters of water between sources. These water bladders work great and actually have a lower weight per liter of capacity than even the Smart Water bottles. One downside to these is that they are somewhat hard to fill because they collapse, but when paired with a harder-sided bottle they work great.
Water Bottle: Smart Water (1.4 oz)
I was really surprised to learn that thru-hikers typically do not use Nalgene Bottles. As an avid day hiker and car camper for many years, I felt like the Nalgene Bottle was a fixed part of my experience. But they are heavy! Ordinary plastic water bottles seal well and weigh just over an ounce. You shouldn’t reuse them too many times because the plastic tends to break down with UV exposure into estrogens with unknown effects, but I usually get a few trips out of each one and then recycle them. The Smart Water bottle is great for its tall shape because it fits nicely into my pack side pockets and it can be reached without taking off my pack.
Spoon: TOAKS Titanium Long Handle (0.7 oz)
Lightweight and durable! Some thru-hikers just use ordinary plastic spoons, but I like not having to worry about breaking this utensil. I also like the texture of the polished bowl better than the unpolished titanium spork I used to take with me.
Food Bowl: Peanut Butter Jar (2.2 oz)
I pretty quickly made the decision to go stoveless because it removes both fixed (stove) and variable (fuel) sources of pack weight. I’ve always been a cold pizza kind of guy anyway, so this was a natural choice for me. A simple 40 ounce plastic container allows me to rehydrate foods like ramen, mashed potatoes, refried beans, and other foods that I’m just fine eating at the ambient temperature.
CLOTHING IN PACK
Rain Jacket: Marmot Essence (6.5 oz)
I love this rain jacket, and truth be told, I often take it instead of my Patagonia Houdini wind jacket because I like the extra protection it gives me (definitely if there is any chance of a storm). I have not yet used it in long, persistent rain, but I suspect that paired with my umbrella it will work great.
Puffy Jacket: Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer (7.8 oz)
I love this jacket! It is extremely lightweight and easily keeps me warm down to 20 degrees or so, and might even work at colder temperatures when paired with a base layer and wind layer. So far the durability has been great, and it is also a great item to add warmth while sleeping at night for extreme comfort. I definitely recommend the hooded version of this jacket because the extra weight is negligible and the hood adds a lot of warmth.
Baselayer Shirt: Capilene Lightweight Crew (3.5 oz)
I am a warm sleeper, so this lightest long sleeve base layer made by Patagonia is plenty for me (my wife uses thermal merino wool, which is warmer but heavier). I try to only wear this top at night when I am sleeping, but I have occasionally used it as a base layer while hiking when temperatures were below freezing.
Gloves: PossumDown (1.0 oz)
These gloves from Zpacks are warm, comfy, light, and water resistant. If I am expecting a lot of rain/snow, I switch to my Mountain Hardwear Plasmics.
Extra Hiking Socks: Darn Tough (2.3 oz)
I own two pairs of these wool socks and they are still going strong after about 70 days worth of hiking trips. I’ve had almost no problem with blisters in that time. I usually swap the socks once every day or two and wash the dirty pair and keep them in the mesh pocket on my pack to dry.
Beanie: Mountain Hardwear Microdome (1.7 oz)
This is a very nice lightweight cap that I normally wear while sleeping or during the first hour of hiking on a cold morning.
Neck Gaiter: Half Buff (0.6 oz)
I only wear this at night when it’s nice to get just a little more warmth around my neck since my head sticks out of my sleeping quilt. I also use this to keep my face warm when it is really cold, or as a light block for my eyes when the moon is extremely bright.
Head Net: Sea to Summit Insect Shield (0.7 oz)
It’s a little hot to hike in this net, but it’s great protection from bugs. Sometimes it’s the only way to stay sane!
Umbrella: Golite (8.0 oz)
This is arguably the weirdest piece of gear I own. Every time I use it on trail, I pass at least a few people who comment on it because they have never seen anyone backpacking with an umbrella. It is also heavy, which is frustrating because I sometimes bring it on trips when I never use it. But I have made peace with this “luxury” item because it gives me the greatest joy in three situations where I am at my lowest. First, I use this as sun shade when it is hot, especially on multi-thousand foot climbs. Second, I use this in the rain and it keeps me much dryer than “water-proof” gear which either wets through or creates a nice sauna underneath. Third, it is absolutely wonderful to have when I have to get out of my tent to pee in the middle of a rainy night. I have figured out a very nice way to attach the umbrella to my pack so I can use my trekking poles at the same time, and in the rare case when it is too windy I either put one trekking pole away or I rely on my hat and/or rain jacket.
Satellite Communicator: Garmin inReach Explorer+ (7.6 oz)
A friend of mine gave this to me when he no longer needed it (thanks Barnfinder!). When I do solo trips in areas where I don’t have cell reception, it gives my family peace of mind because it allows me to send periodic texts with my location. I also like the ability to do two-way communication in the event of an emergency. I think it’s worth the weight and the $12/month service plan….
Phone: iPhone 6s + case and Apple EarPods (5.9 oz)
I keep this in my pants pocket except during higher risk stream crossings and I have a basic case (included in the weight total) that protects it from breaking when I drop it. I primarily use the phone as a camera, MP3 player, and a mapping device (with GaiaGPS, Maplets, and/or Guthook apps). I have also used it on mountaintops to text friends and family that I am safe, and on rare occasions, I play a game of Scrabble at the end of the day. Going forward, I also plan to try editing photos and blogging from the field, though the WordPress App seems a little frustrating at this stage.
External Battery: Anker PowerCore 10,000mAh + cord (6.6 oz)
This is a simple battery that will recharge my phone about 5 times. I used to carry a smaller one but I got tired of working so hard on battery management. With this one I have more than enough power to use my phone with the brightness up for maps, photos, and reading.
Headlamp: Petzl elite (1.0 oz)
I hardly ever need this wonderful little light, so I am glad it does not weigh much. If it’s dark I am usually sleeping, and even if I am not, moonlight is usually sufficient for me to see a trail or my way around the tent (I climbed Whitney before dawn without ever turning it on). However, I do sometimes stay up for a bit reading my maps, and it’s nice to be able to see what I am eating if I happen to get a very early start or a very late finish. I also use this light to attach my phone to my trekking pole to create a makeshift tripod. It’s a little awkward, but it works!
Pack Towel: Lightload (0.3 oz)
I use this highly absorbent towel like a handkerchief mostly, keeping it in my pocket. Athough it’s not nearly as aesthetic as a regular towel, it does a very good job of drying me after a Sierra swim.
Pocket Knife: Victorinox Classic Swiss Army (0.8 oz)
I use this great little multitool to cut meat and cheese, open my bear canister, scissor leukotape, remove splinters, clip my nails, and even clean fish. Because it’s so handy, I keep it in my pocket nearly all the time.
Trowel: Deuce of Spades (0.6 oz)
My punniest piece of gear. Extremely light and works well, though the sharp edges can be a little hard on the hands in tougher soils.
Hygiene: toilet paper, ziplocks (1.0 oz)
Pack it out!
Map: varies (1.0 oz)
I love maps!
Duct Tape: generic (0.5 oz)
It’s true, this stuff will fix anything.
Repair: 6x safety pins, needle, sleeping pad patches, cuben tape (0.5 oz)
Mouth Care: toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, chapstick (2.3 oz)
Yes, I cut down my toothbrush handle…. I also stash my needle (which is hard to stash) with the floss.
First Aid: 20x Ibuprofen, 5x bandaids, leukotape, alcohol wipes, antibiotic pads, sting pads, gauze (1.5 oz)
Pretty basic, yes, but did I mention that duct tape will fix anything?
Wallet Stuff: ID, Credit Cards, Cash, Permit, Pen, Car Key (1.3 oz)
I call this my “link to civilization” kit!
DEET: Generic 100% solution (1.0 oz)
Only needed in mosquito season.
Sunscreen: Generic (1.0 oz)
This is just the back of my hands — everything else is usually pretty covered. I will also take it if I expect to hike long distances on snow.
Lighter: Generic Disposable (0.8 oz)
I usually don’t carry a stove and I often hike where campfires are not allowed, so I sometimes leave this at home.
TOTAL BASE WEIGHT: 9.50 lbs
So that’s everything I am carrying in my pack or my pockets besides food and water. To calculate total “skin-out” weight, though, we need to add clothes and my trekking poles.
ITEMS WORN AND CARRIED
Shoes: Altra Lone Peaks (26.0 oz)
This is my favorite set of shoes out of three that I have tried. I’ve worn New Balance 990 running shoes my whole life (yes, I am a white, male, geeky, and a little pudgy) because I have a very wide toe box and flat feet. I originally wanted to get a New Balance trail runner, but when I tried them all they slipped in the heel. So for the first few trips I just wore my 990s. Then they upgraded the New Balance Leadvilles to reduce heel slippage and I owned a pair of those for a time. But on the High Sierra Trail my right foot got blisters for the first time. It was probably a sizing issue, so if I just went up a notch the Leadvilles would be fine, but my friend BarnFinder spoke highly of the Altra Lone Peaks, which seem to have been built not only for thru-hikers but for feet like mine. I love that the front of the shoe goes wide and there is velcro and a hook especially for attaching ultralight gaiters.
Pants: Prana Stretch Zion (14.0 oz)
I run really hot but I like protection for my legs in the backcountry. So I originally tried hiking in wind pants, and that worked great for a while. But they eventually fell apart in the seat with constant abrasions from sitting. These Prana pants are much heavier, but they do stretch and are incredibly durable. I had Insect Shield treat them with permethrin and I have had no bites on my legs through these pants. They also look pretty nice — I bought another pair just to wear around town!
Long Sleeve Shirt: REI Sahara (8.2 oz)
This is an extremely billowy and airy button down shirt with ventilation under the arms. It also has a collar, which I really like (which is weird, because I NEVER wear collared shirts). It keeps more sun off my neck and when it’s buggy I can put up the collar to get just a little extra protection for my neck. Like my pants, I had Insect Shield treat this shirt with permethrin, and mosquitoes have not gotten through the shirt yet.
Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z (10.2 oz)
I originally bought some Black Diamond adjustable aluminum poles that I really liked, but they are pretty heavy compared to these poles. That’s important if I want to switch off not using them occasionally just to mix things up, because then I have to carry them. I was worried that their lack of adjustability would be a problem for my tents, which have no poles of their own. However, the full height of the pole is perfect for most of the supports and I can fold down one section of the pole when I need less height for the back of my Solplex. I recently broke a pair of these and because they were still under the one year warranty, Black Diamond sent me a new pair free!
Hat: Sunday Afternoons (2.6 oz)
I originally started backpacking with a ULA Circuit pack and a broad brimmed Tilly AirFlo hat that I loved. But when I switched to the ZPacks Arc Blast, it had no room for the back brim of the Tilly. I tried to adapt the Tilly to no avail. I also tried the OR Sun Runner, but I hated the wind flaps for the side and I didn’t want to have to apply sunscreen to the side of my face all the time. So here I am with the Sunday Afternoons. It’s a pretty goofy looking hat, but it is extremely light and cool, it keeps the sun off my whole head, it does well in wind, and it does not bang into my pack.
Underwear: Ex Officio Give n Go Sport Mesh Boxer Briefs (2.5 oz)
I’m ashamed to admit that I wore tighty whiteys for decades. I had no idea how comfortable underwear could be. These are not only great for preventing chafe and improving ventilation, they are just amazing everyday underwear. This might be the biggest benefit backpacking has brought to my life!
Hiking socks: Darn Tough (2.3 oz)
I wore out two pairs of these wool socks but they lasted for about 2000 miles of hiking! I’ve had almost no problem with blisters in that time. I usually swap the socks once every day or two and wash the dirty pair and keep them in the mesh pocket on my pack to dry.
Gaiters: Dirty Girl (1.2 oz)
Lovely, durable, lightweight, and effective. These gaiters keep rocks out of my shoes and reduce the number of times I need to stop to wash my feet.
Sunglasses: Generic (1.0 oz)
I had a pair of Happy Lenses that I really liked, but they are expensive and the backcountry tends to be hard on sunglasses. So I just prefer to buy any old cheap pair from the mall or wherever.
TOTAL SKIN-OUT WEIGHT: 13.75 lbs
Some items don’t make it into the “always carry” category. For each of these items if I am using it to swap out another I also list the net weight gain minus the weight of the swapped gear.
Food Bag: Ursack Major (8.7 oz)
I usually just keep my food with me in my tent, but I take my Ursack whenever I head into bear country. It has a 925 cubic inch capacity and is made of bullet-proof Spectra fabric and approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) for food storage. All you have to do is tie it as directed to a nearby tree or rock (though leaving it on the ground is fine too — you just risk a bear running off with the bag). You can use this bag almost everywhere in bear country because most National Parks like Denali accept the IGBC’s recommendations. But it is not (yet) approved in Yosemite and some parts of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. This is really annoying, but c’est la vie.
Bear Canister: Bearikade Expedition (37.6 oz)
This is a very large capacity (900 cubic inches) and (relatively) lightweight food canister that is approved in Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It also doubles as a camp seat and roller for rolling out muscles at the end of the day. It fits in my Arc Blast backpack, though it is a bit of a pain to get in the bag sometimes and its rigidity puts pressure on the arc of the pack. I’m hopeful that at some point rules will change and I never have to carry this thing ever again, but I am not holding my breath….
Sleeping Bag: Katabatic Sawatch 15 (24.4 oz, net +6.9 oz)
I originally bought this sleeping bag for my wife when I used to rely on my wide 6ft Katabatic Palisade 30. I now prefer my ZPacks bag when the weather stays above 30 or so because it is 7 ounces lighter, but this regular 5.5 foot bag also fits me (I’m 5′ 8″) and it is much warmer than either (and about the same weight as the wider and taller Katabatic 30 degree bag). Katabatic has a reputation for accurately rating their bags for warmth (unlike all other sleeping bags ever) so this 15 degree bag is about 15 degrees warmer than the ZPacks 20 degree bag. I’ve gone back and forth with the whole quilt thing — at first I really liked it, but a couple of drafty nights sent me to ZPacks for a bag with a zipper. Lately, I have become more of a fan of the zipperless design after some cold nights in the ZPacks bag. I find that when I zip it up all the way around me, the ZPacks bag stretches tight and loses loft, and therefore warmth. Meanwhile, I think I finally found a configuration for the Katabatic that will work to keep out drafts. They have two sets of clips that are supposed to pair with a cord ties around the sleeping pad, but one set are cheaply made and I keep losing them, and the other set are very hard to attach to the cord. So instead I use a pair of straps at two points on the bottom that go between me and the pad to keep the edges of the quilt underneath me on both sides. So this is my new winter go-to bag.
Extra Sleeping Pad: Thermarest Z Lite (14 oz)
I bring this extra closed-cell sleeping pad when I expect to sleep on snow.
Baselayer Pants: Capilene Lightweight Bottoms (3.5 oz)
These are super comfortable and warm, but my sleep set-up is pretty warm already, so I leave these at home unless I expect the temperature to go below freezing.
Rain Pants: Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants (5.4 oz)
These are lightweight silnylon pants that I take as an extra layer if I will be walking through wet underbrush or sliding on snow. I also use it as a just-in-case extra layer if I’m pretty sure I won’t need my baselayer pants.
Gloves: Mountain Hardwear Plasmic (2.5 oz, net +1.2 oz)
I’ve used these gloves in a snow storm. They keep my hands warm and dry. I usually take these instead of my Mountain Hardwear gloves if it’s going to be below freezing.
Traction: Kahtoola Microspikes (13.1 oz)
These are great traction devices for on-trail hiking in consolidated snow. However, I felt like I needed something more secure when I climbed Forester Pass during the big snow last year.
Traction: Kahtoola K10 Hiking Crampons (21.5 oz)
If I think I will be climbing steep ice fields, these are my new choice. I used them on my trip to Sequoia with MixMaster last June and they worked very well.
Traction: MSR Lighting Ascent Showshoes (64 oz)
I have not gotten to try these out yet. I bought them for a winter trip to Sequoia that got canceled. I would only use these if I expected unconsolidated snow. Otherwise crampons or micro spikes are probably better (and definitely lighter!).
Ice Axe: Corsa Nanotech 60cm (9.9 oz)
This axe saved my life on Forester Pass. The adze is not the best digging tool in the world, but it’s fine for relatively non-technical uses like mine. I am happy with a shorter axe, but others prefer longer ones or whippets.
Stove: JetBoil Sol (9.0 oz)
I hardly ever take this since I usually go cookless. I tore it down a bit, taking the cloth exterior off, for example, but it’s still kind of heavy. I bought an adapter that allows me to use the stove to fry fish, but fishing trips are kind of rare.
Water purification: Aquamira treatment drops (3.0 oz)
It only takes 15 minutes to treat most water with these drops (longer if it’s colder). I also have chlorine dioxide tablets, but those take up to four hours for treatment.