Why I Will Never Be an Ultralight Hiker… and Why I’m OK with That.
There is a firm push in the hiking community to go ultra-light. Even people who don't use ultralight gear, feel or believe that's the ultimate "best" to which we should all aspire. Thru-hikers go on a constant quest to cut whatever else is left to cut, to go on a bare minimum (and sometimes even below that) to reach the UL Grail.
Obviously, there is a good reason behind it: shading some weight off our packs makes hiking easier and safer. It's less pressure on our knees and muscles don't need to work as hard to carry it all up to the hills.
Over the past few years, I shed quite some weight off my back. I've changed my tent, sleeping bag, and mattress bought a smaller and lighter backpack, learned to leave some stuff behind as not necessary... but I feel I reached a moment where I'm satisfied with what I have - even though it's far from an ultra-light ideal.
Going ultra-light should never be a goal in itself. With such approach there is the risk of reaching, what Andrew Skurka called “stupid light” level, where we compromise our safety, time or comfort for the sake of cutting a few extra grams. Make sure you read the classic linked above, even if you are no-where the risk of stupid light level…
Disclaimer: This post, in addition to some awesome tips and advice, may contain affiliate links to respected retailers for your convenience. It means that if you buy anything through those links, I receive a tiny commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Some reasons are budget-related: there is no way I can afford a Dyneema tent or backpack, for example. Other ideas are more... comfort-related. There are things I am willing to carry even though there are not necessary and even might seem silly to pack. And yet - I do.
I try to be somewhat aware of the weight an item brings to the load but to check each thing, write it down, etc.? No way. I have no idea what my exact base weight is (with no food or water), and I tend to only weight the whole pack right before I go and it’s just to have a general idea. I feel that I feed my anxiety plenty as it is now without the need to add another thing to obsess over.
It's all part of the HYOH (Hike Your Own Hike) philosophy - we have to find our own sweet spot among various (sometimes opposing) goals. We need to consider our comfort needs, safety, mileage goals, camping preferences, budget, fitness levels, health issues, etc. It takes a while to figure out what works and what doesn't, what we can live without and what we prefer to carry - even if it means a more massive pack and possibly fewer miles hiked or quite the opposite: fewer comforts for the sake of more distance covered.
No matter how much I think about it all, and know that ultralight is not for everyone, I still feel like a fraud for not being or at least not constantly trying to go ultralight. To help my own anxiety and to ease the pressure to conform to the UL hiking world, I wrote this list of things I take with me that are often big “no-nos” and yet I won’t pretend I don’t pack them, there is no shame in it. I hope it also helps you to figure out what you are comfortable with and your personal compromise between weight, price, comfort, safety, style, health issues… and so on.
Disclaimer: This post, in addition to some awesome tips and advice, contains affiliate links to respected retailers for your convenience. It means that if you buy anything through those links, I receive a tiny commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Below are some of the things I pack, which are entirely not objective "musts" but are my personal "have to haves."
Personal hygiene and toiletries
A tub of a regular sized hand moisturizer
From the perspective of a UL hiker (as I've learned from watching countless youtube videos), you basically don't need anything more than maybe a tiny bottle of soap. But I have dry, atopic skin, and I just can't do with soap only. I always carry with me a regular-size tub of hand cream for dry skin. I use it not only for my hands - although for anyone hiking with trekking poles in windy conditions it's good to have it - I use it on my legs and arms, which get dry and itchy fast. I can't even imagine taking a shower and not using some kind of moisturizer after! I would shed dry skin like a snake.
So I have it always with me - it's big and heavy, but a must in my case. Btw - the one on the left is the one I use, I really love it!
Another big no-no in the thru-hiking world: a deodorant. I'm not crazy for cleaning when I'm in the Great Outdoors, I am fine not showering for a few days in a row... but I like not to smell of sweat. I found that a roll-on deodorant can be a great addition and even though it's big and somewhat heavy - it adds a lot to my personal comfort, and I feel better when I have it.
Wet wipes are more accepted as a great solution to no-shower trails. Many people dry them first and then re-hydrate when needed. I don't care about that. I like that they are wet and soaked with moisturizing oils or lotions. Such a nice feeling after a long day of hiking to take a wet wipe shower! Btw - it’s well worth getting a bio-degradable wipes (wilderness wipes) for the sake of our Planet.
I can’t imagine going for a long trek with no option of preparing a hot meal. I know there are thru-hikers who decided to go stove less and just soak their food. While I can imagine a cold breakfast (I will get to the coffee in a moment), I have to have a hot dinner. I often hike in cool areas, where it can get chilly in the evening. The big pot of hot soup (and noodles!) feels amazing and I can hear angels singing when I eat it. So first of all: I must have a stove, no saving on space and weight here!
At the moment I have a very simple “kitchen” with Jetboil MiniMo as the stove and pot combo. I could go lower here, as the pot is aluminum. I could get an ultralight stove and a titanium pot… But why should I when I’m really happy with the Jetboil? Yes, it’s heavier than titanium pots but it is not steel and it works perfectly for my needs. As the saying goes, “better is the enemy of good”. The constant race after “better” can drive us crazy and ruin fun (and budgets).
If you are interested to see what other gear I have in my backpacking kitchen, take a dive into this article.
I love coffee. It’s probably the best part of every morning, the first sips of hot, freshly brewed java is a bliss and something of a communion with gods. And the smell… there is nothing like the smell of freshly brewed coffee (I’m writing it in the morning, sipping on my first cup, so the love is real).
In the beginning, I tried using instant coffee when I was hiking to save on space and weight. But I just hated it. I drunk it in the morning like a medicine to get the caffeine fix but didn’t enjoy much of it.
So I decided to get a full set up for proper coffee brewing in the wild: I have a silicon folding dripper, I carry filters and a bag with real coffee grounds. And as I like my coffee white, I also have dehydrated full-fat milk (I haven’t found any dehydrated creamer…) - it’s not ideal, as there are always some clods and lumps of the powder. But it adds the flavor of real milk and I’m fine with the slight downside. Carrying real cream is just a bit too difficult - although I did it a few times on short treks (I used the single-use creamers, not very ecological so I have to come up with something better).
Btw - a small saving tip: don’t buy the dehydrated milk made for hikers, it’s crazy expensive. Just buy in regular store in bulk and take as much as you need. I use it also for my awesome oatmeal to add flavor and protein. In Poland you can buy them cheaply in any grocery store, look for “ethnic” stores you may find it, too. Below I found a link to some fancy non-GMO (I’m all for GMO as I am pro-science and pro-feeding the Planet), non-Gluten-free (how the heck milk could be with gluten??) so it’s more expensive. Look for cheap, full-fat milk, that’s the kind you want :)
Are you interested in checking out the stuff I use to brew and drink my coffee? Click below:
I have a pretty UL sleeping set up - I use the popular Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite mattress (read the review here), and I have a high-quality down sleeping bag with no hood to save on weight. But I also carry not one but two pillows. Why? One I got a while ago to help with neck and back problems. I tried the UL approach with using a dry bag stuffed with clothes, but it's just too lumpy and not comfortable at all. So I got a small and light Sea to Summit Aeros pillow (read the review).
So what's the deal with the second pillow? I have back issues and fibromyalgia. It means that I'm extra sensitive to touch and pain, I have difficulties with proper sleep and wake often. A long time ago a doctor suggested using a body pillow for sleeping on a side (with the pillow between my knees and arms), and it was such a great help with back pain! The body pillow is obviously a bit big to carry for a trekking trip, so I used a dry sack with clothes to hold between my knees when I sleep (or under the knees when I sleep on my back). The problem is that the clothes were not staying in place but creating a hole in the middle and it was basically useless. So I got a cheaper pillow just for my knees. Good night sleep is paramount for good hiking the next day!
I know some people can leave on two sets of clothes: one for the sleep, one for hiking. I can't. I don't mind using the same shirt for a few days (yay merino and modern synthetics!), but I still want to have a few options and being able to change into something clean after 3-4 days. And so, depending on the expected washing opportunities, I can have 3-4 tops/base layers. Especially with the amazingly light synthetics, I don't worry all that much about the weight. Same with underwear - it's tiny! I am happy with carrying two extra pairs to have more changing opportunities. If I know I will often be stopping at campsites or other accommodation with washing facilities and the weather is fair (to make drying easy), I might take fewer pieces. With pants I don't care as much, as I don't mind they are dusty - an extra pair of pants is a much more significant addition.
In addition to the extra tops, I always have a fleece with me. Fleece is pretty heavy and thick, and yet - I find it too comfortable and versatile to leave it behind. I’ts comfy, soft, and dries really quickly if it gets wet (in contrast to the down puffy). When I’m hiking in areas/season when it can get really chilly I like to have multiple options for layers. For example, last summer in Norway I had one thin fleece (pictured below), one thin synthetic jacket and one thin puffy. Might have been an overkill for some, but I’m glad I had them all with me.
Take a look below at some of the clothes I love and recommend:
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I don't have any tech gear like GPS or a personal beacon, as I don't really need them and can't afford them anyway. I don't hike in really wild areas like you can encounter in Americas or far north. I use established trails and most of the times I have a signal on my phone. In true wilderness areas such devices are often necessary for basic safety.
I hike alone which means a lot of blissful solitude. But sometimes even I can get bored with just thinking. Hiking in summer (especially in Scandinavia) means long hours for hiking and enjoying the surroundings, but when I hike in winter, it could be utterly dark after 5-6 pm. And here enters Kindle. I prefer it over my phone as it's easier to read on it and also it doesn't drain the battery as much as a phone. My hiking trips are times when I read the most - at home, there are just so many other things to do (mostly online) that a book is almost an afterthought. Not so during hikes. When I have a lot of daytime, I love to stop for an extended coffee break and read for an hour or so. In winter, I spend hours every evening to just read myself to sleep.
In addition to books, I also keep other useful things on my Kindle: pdf with trail descriptions, bus schedules, trail guides, insurance info, etc. Whatever I might need as a document I can download to the Kindle and not carry any papers on me. Although it's not good for color maps, all the other information can be stored on it.
The one tech item that adds significant weight to my pack is a power bank. I used to carry a small one, but it lasted for maybe 1.5 recharges for my phone. When I hiked in Canada and Iceland, both destinations with a rare chance for recharging, I was angry I couldn't use ViewRanger on my phone or had to pick and choose when to take a photo out of fear of running out of battery completely.
So I upgraded to a powerful Anker PowerCore 20100 (click on the image to the right to see details) and this year when I hiked in Norway and went more than a week between charging opportunities, I never run out of battery. I could use my phone to check my position and for a map, take photos and stay connected. It's heavy (350g / 0.7 Ib) - but I will not leave it behind, no matter what.
I used to take photos with the fantastic compact camera Sony rx100 m3 (read review), which could be stored in the hip belt's pocket. I absolutely love taking pictures, and it is a significant part of my hiking experience. I love seeing the world through the lenses, I like to document my adventures and capture the way I felt when I was doing it all.
Last year I bought a much bigger hybrid camera: Sony Alpha a6300. This camera can't fit in any pocket anymore! It's heavier, and I had a hard time figuring out how to carry it when hiking. For the time being, I clip it to the sternum strap, so it doesn't bounce too much and also it takes some of the weight off my neck.
I might buy a camera-clip for backpacks in the future but for now, and it works. I am glad I can play with taking photos while I hike, compromising as little as possible on the quality of my photos.
For the flight or ride
Most of the times when I go for longer hiking trips, I take a plane to reach my destination. My backpack is a bit too big to use it as a carry-on and anyway, as I use trekking poles, they wouldn't allow it in.
A backpack cover
Backpacks are pretty vulnerable in the luggage departments: their straps can get caught in the conveyor belts, trekking poles could catch on something or snag in between some other luggage. The delicate fabric can get torn or dirty.
Because of all that, I always pack my backpack into a bigger sack for the flight. First, I got a big sack that looked like it serves to store potatoes. I used it also to sit on or as a "carpet" in front of my tent. Later, I got a sack by Deuter that can be stored in its own pocket and closes with velcro straps. It works fine and can hold much bigger bags than my backpack. I used it a few times as extra protection under my air mattress when I was worried about prickly shrubs. Still, most of the time it's useless weight when I hike.
A small day pack
Another thing I use mostly during flights or bus rides is a tiny day pack. It folds into its own pocket and is waterproof. In addition to store in it things I need while flying, I also use it on campsites (to go to a pub, to go shopping, to take washing stuff, etc.). It's also great when stopping in a town and wanting to do a bit of urban walking. There is only so much that can be stored in your pants' pockets!
Sometimes we also have a chance to leave our tent and big backpack on a campsite and go for a day hike with just the basics. It can also serve as an extra dry sack for clothes and other stuff.
There are people who don’t use them and don’t feel any need for such a piece of gear. Me? I can’t hike without them. They saved my butt countless times, when climbing up steep slopes, stepping over muddy puddles, providing rhythm on even road or building a porch for my tent. I absolutely love them, even though I’m forced to pay extra for check-in, they are worth it. The benefits of hiking with trekking poles are many and if you are interested, I invite you to read my article on all the many benefits (and a few downsides) of trekking poles.
My trekking poles are not the lightest there are - I didn’t even think about getting the ultralight carbon poles, they are way beyond my budget and I’ve heard some bad comments about their durability. But I don’t really care about the extra weight - I can work my arm muscles more, right?