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Ultralight Packing List Explained- Backpacking the Deserts of the Southwest

392x72 APHike

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 :DeLorme inReach SE, SPOT Messenger and ACR SARlink
Page 7: Choosing Your Survival Knife

The Desert Explorer Ultralight Packing List Explained

Following is the Desert Explorer packing list explained. Desert Explorer is not paid, sponsored or supported directly by the companies we recommend here. We recommend products because we consider them to be the best options for our needs. Clicking to view the products will open a new link. If you do decide to purchase an item through one of the links it does help support this website. More of our favorite products can be seen on our Gear Shop Page.

Italicized items are worn or carried on body
Bold items are survival / always carry items- these are the pieces of gear that I have with me whether I am out for a week or an hour long walk away from camp or down a trail. The bold items are my 10 Essentials.


  • pants, or shorts with zip-off legs- For shorts and shirt I wear Ex-Officio clothing. Their Amphi Convertible pant has zip off legs that have not failed yet. It's nice to have the option.
  • desert shirt- The ExOfficio Men's Air Strip Lite is the best hot weather shirt I have found. It is another case of getting what you pay for, meaning it is not the cheapest sun shirt out there.
  • light polypro shirt- I usually carry either light or ultra-light polypro shirt and pants, depending on current conditions. The poly shirt stays in a 1 quart ziplock and is one of my survival/always carry items.
  • light polypro pants
  • light vest- A nice addition to have along for chilly evenings or mornings, although not always necessary. On cold nights it is zipped up and acts as a sleeping bag liner for the feet. A simple, cheap pile vest from REI wieghs less than 8 ounces.
  • light pile shirt (optional)- Another option, usually for spring or fall. There are lots of good brands out there.
  • rain gear jacket and pants- Raingear is just too heavy and unnecessary for the desert. Golite made ultra-lightweight raingear which I still carry. I haven't needed to research newer brands as my old Golite gear is still functional.
  • socks (pair per day +/-)- Your choice here. I wear merino wool socks year round. I like that added cushion and the heat doesn't bother me.
  • polypro gloves, cap- Again, ultra-lightweight is best. Gloves may or may not get used, cap usually does, even in the desert.
  • desert hat- The Columbia Bora Bora Boonie Hat has been my preferred hat for years. It is light, breathable, and dries quickly. But I do wear a military issue desert camo floppy at times.
  • bandana
  • hiking shoes/ boots- I wear Bates M-8 Desert Combat Boots. I like everything about them- the support, breathability, the added "exoskeleton" padding, and especially the "gecko grip" soles. They literally stick to the slickrock. Yes, they are costly, but I am happy to pay the price for proper footwear.


  • bug juice
  • sunglasses , sunscreen
  • watch
  • flashlight- The Photon or Princeton Tech microlites are highly recommended. They weigh only ounces and put out huge amounts of light and have long battery and bulb lives.
  • headlamp- I carry the Petzl e+LITE as my headlamp. It is super lightweight, works incredibly well, has a long battery life, and the batteries are small so carrying an extra set is easy.
  • compass, wrist compass- The compass is a very personal piece of equipment. The leading brands are Silva and Suunto. Both make great products. I carry a Silva Ranger CLQ Compass I also have a Suunto M-9 Wrist Compassstrapped to the chest strap of my pack for quick access. The choice of style should be dictated by your level of confidence in navigation, familiarity with your area of operation, and what you plan to do with it, that is, just find north, orienteer, bushwack, or leave it hanging around your neck and never touch it. either way, a lightweight wrist compass that you can attach to you wrist, pack, or beltloop is highly recommended as a backup and survival item and for quick direction finding.
  • map and case- I recommend using 7.5 minute series or 1:24,000 maps because of the degree of detail. Maps are covered more in depth on our Maps and Navigation pages. My usual map case is a storage grade one gallon ziplock bag. They are cheap and light. If I am hiking on a river I use a small size SealLine HP Map Case with a cord attached that I can tie to my belt.
  • lighter- A Bic butane lighter, the smaller version, is what I carry. Make sure the one you take is full.
  • lip balm
  • fixed blade knife- I recommend fixed blade for safety. CRKT makes a line of inexpensive, lightwieight and very functional blades. But do not rule out the USAF Survival Knife. For more information and a discussion of features and options see our Survival Pages and Knife Review page.
  • metal match - A survival item- the boy scout keychain model should be tied on to your knife sheath, or anywhere else. You will always have it with you.
  • backpack- Another very personal item. Spend all the time you need picking this out, especially when buying an ultralight pack. It is going to feel different than your typical 5000- 7000 cubic inch, 5 pound backpack. I use the Golite Jam 2 or the Golite Pinnacle, depending on how much space I need. Unfortunately once these wear out I will have to find another brand.
  • trekking poles- If you haven't tried them yet, you should. They do amazing things for weight distribution and balance. At the end of the day you've had a bit of an arm workout, but your legs and knees and back feel better and you've walked a little further. They also double as tent poles for the poncho or tarp shelters. Leki Makalu Antishock Trekking Poles are my personal favorites.
    Ultralight Tip- I have rarely used the webbing loops attached to the trekking pole handles. While trekking down the Escalante River I decided it was time for them to go. I cut the straps off and lightened my load by another few grams! Just as important, the straps were no longer in my way. I should have done it years ago.
  • pole repair parts- The Leki Super Makalu has a couple of internal parts that "might" wear out- I haven't had to change mine yet. Each part is about one dollar and adds only grams to your pack weight.

Survival Kit

The survival kit, and the subject of survival itself, deserves many pages of explanation. It is covered more in depth on our Survival Kit pages. Below are some of the items that you should consider carrying on your body at all times. The other bold face items in black on our list are also recommended. Be warned, again- unless you know how to use the items and understand and have thought out, even practiced for a survival situation, these items might be useless. If you walk yourself through a survival scenario that you might be in, you will have a better idea of what you might want to have. Be prepared, as the Boy Scouts say.

  • matches- Should be waterproofed.
  • parachute cord- A.K.A. paracord or 550 cord- an indespensible survival item. Some say you should carry 50 feet, I carry 30 feet. Make sure you get the genuine article which has smaller strands of cord inside of a sheath. The smaller strands can be removed from the sheath and have countless applications.
  • duct tape- Not much needs to be said about this item. I keep a few wraps around a Nalgene water bottle. Be sure to change it out periodically. Alternatively, wrap four or five inches back on itself, flat, continue wrapping and make your own "roll" of tape without the rigid center.
  • first aid kit- This is your call- as big or small as you think you will need.
  • iodine tabs- Or other form of purification that is small and portable and that you are likely to keep on your body. Be sure to periodically check the expiration dates on products like this.
  • 2 meals, snacks- Clif bars, Power bars, Cornuts- whatever. If you always have a meal or two in your buttpack or "always carry bag", or at least snacks, it can do tremendous things for your morale in a survival situation.


Again a very personal area. You know if you are a hot or cold person, if you have a high or low tolerance for that cold desert night you might encounter. By researching where you are going, you should have an idea of average night time temperatures, chance of rain, and bug conditions. Pack accordingly.

  • sleeping bag or liner- There are many great down bags these days weighing around one pound. I use a Mountainsmith sleeping bag weighing just over one pound or a Golite 40 degree quilt that weighs less than a pound. Unfortunately Mountainsmith no longer makes bags, and Golite is now defunct. Some of the lightest bags around are made by Mountain Hardware and North Face, to name just a couple of companies to look at.
  • bivy sack- A Gortex or equivalent bivy sack is sometimes added to my pack in early spring or late fall. Otherwise, I have an Intergral Designs ultralight bivy that stays in my pack at all other times.
  • sleeping pad- Mine is from the ThermaRest ultralight series, the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Extra-small Pad, their lightest at about 8 ounces. Or you could go all the way and cut down a closed cell foam pad to shoulder width to reach from your thighs to your shoulder blades. This option weighs 4 or 5 ounces.
  • poncho- As noted above, a silcoth poncho has many applications, including being strung up as a rain shelter. The Integral Designs Sil Poncho- the poncho I carry- cost about 85 dollars when i bought it. Again, I do not think it is available any longer. Another option is the Integral Designs Siltarp Ultralite Tarp, which appears very comparable minus the hole and hood for your head.
  • bug net- Golite had a great selection of ultralight shelters and insect protection. I carry the Shangri-La Nest and Shelter when necessary, each weighing about one pound. I can only hope that Golite's latest incarnation as a company will bring these great shelters back. These shelters do not come with poles, part of keeping them so light. Trekking poles take the place of tent poles. I also commonly string my shelter up under a tree, tying it to branches. On the White Rim Trail where there were no trees I was recently forced to prop my bike up and pile rocks to set the shelter up. All is fair when it comes to fighting mosquitoes.

    I also have a 5 ounce option- I bought a length of no-see-um netting at the local Army-Navy store and stitched up a mosquito shelter of my own design. It slides about 2 feet under my sleeping bag or pad to hold it in place and drapes over my body, being stitched down the sides, at about my waist. It does require at least one cord tied to a support to keep the net off the face. Update- I have stitched together the next generation of my mosquito shelter. You can see photos and read about it on the Homemade Gear Page.
  • Tyvek ground sheet- Tyvek Housewrap comes in large, expensive rolls from builders supply stores. It is used as a vapor and wind barrier in construction. It is lighweight, waterproof and the alternative to heavy plastic ground sheets. Visit a residential construction site and explain what you are doing and they will probably slice off a piece for you. Bring a six pack of cheap beer as an offering and you are sure to get as much as you need.
  • Clark Jungle hammock- Sounds like a strange option for the desert, but we do have trees here. The Clark family of Salt Lake City makes an exceptional product. The Jungle hammock has an integral mosquito net and comes with a silcloth rain fly, which you could leave behind if you are so inclined. The hammock then weighs just over a pound including ropes. Its a great hammock if you like sleeping in them. Click here to visit the Clark website.

Miscellaneous Items

This section is up to you. I do recommend at least the TP and toothbrush.

  • notebook, pencil
  • camera
  • T.P. (Be sure to pack an extra Ziplock bag or two to carry it out after use.)
  • toothbrush, powder, floss- Ecodent toothpowder, found at Whole Foods or the like, can be put into a 1/4 or 1/2 ounce nalgene bottle.
  • electrolytes- Alacer Electromix comes in pre-measured packets for one quart of water. They can be a great help on a 100 degree July afternoon in the canyons. Again, a Whole Foods item.
  • Sport Slick or Bodyglide- If you have a tendency for chaffing, either works great. Also can be used on the feet to help stop blistering.
  • handiwipes- Personal hygeine item.
  • buttpack/daypack- A very lightweight buttpack or homemade silcoth "daypack" is great for dayhikes out of your basecamp. It allows you to bring along plenty of water and those survival essentials.


  • stove, fuel and acc's. - The alcohol burning, homemade "mini stove" is preferred. Unfortunately the instructions for this stove no longer seem to be available. I have the entire web page saved and will look into the implications of making that available through the Desert Explorer website. In the mean time, visit for endless design ideas. Beware that many of the links that are listed are no longer functional, but you should be able to find a design to your liking nonetheless.
mini stove photosThe above photos show my stove, and stove with stand made from a piece of rabbit wire fence.

These photos show the stove with 600 ml. Snowpeak cup (with lid I made from a piece of aluminum flashing), windscreen made from old MSR windscreen cut down to size, and fuel bottle. On the right is the entire kit tucked inside Snowpeak cup. The Nalgene bottle holds 250 ml. or about 8 ounces of alcohol, enough to boil 10 full cups of water.
  • water bottle- Standard wide mouth, one quart Nalgene.
  • MSR Dromlite w/ cap (4L) and drinking tube.
  • Platypus (2L)
water storage container optionsThis photo shows a few options for carrying water. From left are a 2 liter Platypus bag, a very light, cheap and strong option. Next are two versions of the MSR Dromedary bag. The black bag is the heavier, 6 liter version. The purple bag is a 4 liter Dromlite, their ultralight option. On top is a newer Nalgene bottle, not quite one liter. This Nalgene is a bit heavier for its size. On ultralight trips I often use the 4 liter Dromlite with a drinking hose attached, and carry the Platypus bag in case I need to carry more water. I carry a Nalgene collapsible one quart widemouth bottle for purifying water and mixing drinks. For more on this subject see Water Storage on our Recommended Gear pages.
  • water purifier- Currently I am using the MSR Miox Water Purifier. It weighs ounces and has kept me safe so far. There is no lighter option that guarantees such safety. Make sure you practice using it at home!
  • titanium cup- There are a variety of them available these days.The Snowpeak 600 ml model (see above photos) holds the mini stove and its accessories. Mine did not come with a lid (I made it from some lighweight aluminum roof flashing), but they make a 700 ml cup now that does have a lid. See our Gear Shop Page for titanium cup options.
  • spoon- A simple plastic spoon from REI is enough. Do you really need a fork or knife?
  • soap- Should be biodegradeable, Dr. Bronners for example, carried in a 1/4 or 1/2 ounce Nalgene bottle- take just enough.
  • food- I discuss this topic on our Backpacking Foods pages. Be sure to keep it light. Avoid the obvious- cans, too many Power or Clif bars, raisins, nuts, etc. I carry all dehydrated meals, made at home, in storage grade one quart Ziplocks. Boil and add water and let it sit for 5 to 20 minutes and your meal is ready- without wasting water for washing.
  • hot sauce (always remember the hot sauce)- In a 1/4 or 1/2 ounce Nalgene bottle.

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