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Going Ultralight- Where to Begin

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Page 1: Going Ultralight
Page 2: The Desert Explorer Ultralight Packing List
Page 3: The Desert Explorer Ultralight Packing List Explained
Page 4: Desert Explorer Recommended Gear- Our Gear Shop
Page 5: Homemade Gear
Page 6: SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger and the ACR SARLink PLB
Page 7: Choosing Your Survival Knife

Ultralight Backpacking and Hiking in the Desert

Ultralight backpacking means different things to different people. To some, ultralight backpacking means 8 pounds on the back, total- some refer to this as minimalist backpacking rather than ultralight. To others, it may mean lightening the backpack to 20 pounds. I find myself somewhere in between these two philosophies.

Going “ultralight”, or at least shedding pounds from your backpack, is not as tough as it may sound. Initially, it just takes a commitment to spending money on newer, lighter gear and depending on how light you want to go, making a few sacrifices. Once you have replaced a few basic items, you will have to convince yourself that your insulated mug is not necessary, that you don’t really need all those stuff bags, that your Thermarest chair can be left behind. And finally, you arrive at the point where you are taking off cordlocks, cutting off your toothbrush and spoon handles, removing zipper pulls, and cutting unused strap ends from your pack.


Packing Tip- If you want to obsess about pack weight as I do, take your gear to your local post office. They will have a digital scale in their lobby that you can use get exact weights of your gear and food.


The starting point for lightening your pack is the backpack itself. By purchasing an ultralight backpack many people can instantly shed 2, 3 even 4 pounds from their load. Many older packs weigh between 4 and 6 pounds, and are around 5000- 7000 cubic inches- far too heavy and big unless your are climbing Mt. Everest. Even newer packs, while lighter, still weigh around 3 pounds or more. If you truly want a lightweight pack you don't have to look far: look at the Osprey, Marmot, Granite Gear, or Exped to start.

Next is the sleeping kit- bag, pad and shelter. First, by replacing your old two and a half or three pound bag with a down bag at less than a pound and a half, you have again shed a considerable amount. Then comes the sleeping pad. The simplest option, as we point out on our Ultralight Packing List, is the Thermarest Prolite series. The extra-small weighs less than a pound. Next you need to ask yourself if you really need a tent. By sleeping on the ground with the stars overhead you instantly drop another 3, 4, maybe 5 pounds from your pack. And there are plenty of options for lightweight tents if you must use one.

From here the changes in gear start shedding ounces rather than pounds, but it all adds up. By going to the MSR Miox pen and leaving your old pump behind you may drop close to a pound. By making a cat stove and carrying denatured alcohol for it, and ditching your Firefly and fuel bottle, you shed close to another pound.

At this point you will need to look at your gear piece by piece and first ask if you really need that item. If you decide yes, then it is time to look at the lightweight options that are out there for each piece of gear, for example clothing, cookware (which really should come down to just one pot), and survival items.

With all that said, we present what we refer to as our "Ultralight Packing List". It is our recommendation on what to pack- use it as a starting point as you do your own packing. This list is most applicable to warm and hot weather pack trips- it was created with hot weather desert backpacking and hiking in mind. Note that many of the items are options. You need to decide, based on your experience, research, and the expected conditions exactly what you want to carry. For example, do you need a sleeping bag, or just a liner, do you need a bug shelter, or can you sleep in the open and not worry about bugs?

A note on experience- it is up to you to use and understand your gear before you get yourself into a situation that might be uncomfortable. Ultralight or minimalist backpacking is very different from what most are used to. Be careful when you start leaving equipment behind. FYI, in the summer I tend to carry, not including food or water, just under 10 pounds of gear from this list and have everything I need for many days in the canyons.

For those unfamiliar with ultralight backpacking, there are many ultralight websites out there where you can read endlessly about ideas and experiences and recommendations on going minimal.

Click here for the Desert Explorer Ultralight Packing List as we use it. Click here to see the Ultralight Packing List with extensive explanations and our specific gear recommendations. Visit our Gear Shop to read more about the gear we use.


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