There have been times where we have packed up the truck and headed for the mountains, hoping for a fun family weekend or some time alone to reconnect with nature. If you are used to the family-style camping trips, then you know that a lot of gear comes along for the ride. Hours may be spent setting everything up, and a lot of waste is often left behind. If you are in the mood for something different, and a much lighter load, try camping with the bare minimum.  

When we say “bare,” we literally mean that all of your gear weighs less than 20lbs., including what you are wearing. Everything inside your pack should last you a good week, though you may only be spending three or four nights out in the wilderness. It sounds like quite a challenge, but less is truly more. Although you may not have all of the luxuries of home there with you, you will definitely be prepared and (mostly) comfortable.

The concept being referred to is “ultra-lightweight” camping or backpacking. This style of camping means no car, no grill, no huge tent and air mattress. The heaviest items on your list should not exceed 3lbs, such as your sleeping bag, tarp, and cookware.

The more you pack, the more you are going to have to carry through the wilderness. Ultra-lightweight camping focuses more on actual ground covered per day, and immersing oneself deep into the wild, meaning there are no roads, so forget the car. You will likely start at the entrance of a park of your choice, and head out from there on your own route, depending on what trails and sites you have decided to tackle. We do not recommend taking this type of trip alone if you’re doing it for the first time. Take a buddy with you, even the kids can do it (12+), but do not go solo unless you have already conquered a prior trip of this magnitude. Even then, we do not recommend trekking out into the depths of untouched remote wilderness without taking full advantage of the buddy system.

Here are some things to consider when preparing for your ultra-lightweight backpacking experience:

  • Overall gear weight – what are you willing to carry for miles? 15lbs? 55lbs? Practice by locally hiking 3-4 miles with your pack, filled with everything you want, and measure what you can handle by distance per day (calculating your muscle mass per unit of body weight will also help you to determine what amount of weight is acceptable to carry).
  • The backpack – the pack itself weighs something, and obviously you don’t want a pack that weighs a ton. Make sure your pack is 5lbs or less when empty.
  • No tent! – Sorry, glampers. Invest in a bivy sack and a tarp (even a bivy hammock) to rest in. The easiest and most effective option is to bring a tarp with stakes for shelter, and a sleeping bag that can double up as a poncho when needed. Get creative.
  • No extra clothes! – What you are wearing is what you’ve got. Dress comfortably in mesh undergarments and breathable wind/rain gear. You may bring one extra pair of socks but remember that even 3oz worth of garments count in the final weight.
  • No “junk” – This means you are going to have to rough it. Forget toilet paper (yes, really), forget toiletries altogether. Save weight to pack the important stuff, like your first-aid kit with medicines and bandages.
  • Alcohol Fueled stove – Alcohol fuel is twice as light, and the stoves themselves are just as efficient, if not more so, than canisters or wood-burning stoves.
  • Less calories per day – Pack foods that are rich in “good fats” and proteins. You don’t want your meal to weigh your pack and your body down.

You can opt to not bring a stove for hot meals, and simply rehydrate packed food, but we suggest bringing some sort of camp stove with you. The stoves serve more than the one purpose of heating food, such as filtering and boiling water, giving off heat for warmth, etc. Some of the most lightweight and efficient stoves on the market are alcohol-fueled stoves.

Forget canister stoves for a trip like this, as they weigh twice as much as alcohol stoves do. Wood-burning stoves are another option, and can be lightweight, because you will find your fuel at your campsite, instead of carrying it, but can be a hit-or-miss, depending on whether or not you can find dry wood.

A few things we do not recommend skipping over or, “deciding not to bring,” are the essentials. Things like a compass and map, sunscreen and/or sunglasses, a flashlight, first-aid kit, fire-starters and matches, a multi-tool, and a water bottle, are all considered must-haves.

Hydration is very important, but you do not want to carry a lot of water with you, as it will contribute greatly to the overall weight you are hauling. Usually only a pint is what most backpackers start off with. Carry instead, purification tablets or filters for your bladder (water pouch) that you will be able collect water in. These options weigh 10 times less than actual water, so this lessens the amount of initial weight you will carry, while providing you with an on-the-go filtration system.

A map and a compass are extremely important items. Whether you know the area or not, you must take a laminated or waterproof map with you just in case you get lost. You cannot rely on landmarks, as they are not permanent features, such as a large tree or rock. While leisurely hiking, it is easily noticeable, but when lost and in a panic, many things can begin to look the same, and a map is the only sure way to pinpoint where you are. A compass will sometimes be built-in, as part of a kit that comes with a multi-tool and a fire-starter, so it is best to purchase all of this and put everything in a small, waterproof bag. We suggest bags over watertight containers, simply because they are less bulky than containers, and easier to hold on to.

As for sunglasses and sunscreen, this is only a must if you are in warmer weather and exposed to lots of sunlight. During the winter, we would tell you that a coat and gloves are necessary. As summer is now beginning to reach its pinnacle, sunscreen is not a bad idea, especially when you are going to be vulnerable to the elements for long periods of time while backpacking. A flashlight can be something as simple as a small photon light keychain attached to your multi-tool, or a headlamp. For ultra-lightweight camping, the photon light is the way to go. These are sold individually, for around $10. If you decide to purchase a small survival kit, sometimes they include a photon light, as well as a whistle, maybe a flare, and some other items. These kits go for about $20+ depending on the quality and included materials. When considering the weight of literally everything, you may not think that things this small will make much of difference, but they will. Pack this stuff first, and if there is room and extra weight leftover to add to, then throw in your toilet paper and snack bars.

A first-aid kit is an absolute must. If you catch cold and become feverish, you’ll need medicine. If you scrape your knee open on a boulder, you’ll want a bandage and ointment. These are all extremely likely events when you put yourself in the position to be exposed to such conditions. You’re out in the wild; You will come into contact with some sort of danger. The important part is to remember what to do in those unique situations and to be as prepared as possible. This is another reason why it is recommended that you do NOT go alone.

With a pack at 5lbs, sleeping gear at 3lbs, nutrition and a stove at 3lbs, and the essentials coming in at about 4lbs, you’re looking at the bare minimum adding up to a total of 15lbs. This is a rough estimate, as some new technology will offer up gear at a fraction of the projected weight for its class. The category is known plainly as “ultralight,” so look/ask for that when purchasing new equipment for this specific trip. Gear this light, that still maintains applicable durability and function, does not come cheap.

Be prepared to pay a few hundred dollars for a sleep sack under 2lbs, and shop around for an alcohol-fueled stove. This equipment is not usually found on shelves at major retailers, but can be purchased online via ordering from the store near you, and will be shipped either directly to your home or to the store for pickup. Do not purchase any gear online without making sure that it is coming from a verified source with a decent return and warranty policy. Gear this promising is going to be expensive, so don’t expect to find a product of the same quality for $100 less; It just won’t perform.

Whether you’re wanting to get out and explore nature with the bare minimum as a challenge to yourself, or if you are simply looking for ways to lighten the carload next time you go camping with the family, these methods are great for determining what is necessary and what isn’t. If you have been camping a few times before and would like to try something different, this is for you. If you’ve never been camping before, in true form, then we recommend tagging along with friends and staying with experienced campers for the first few outings. Ultra-lightweight backpacking is ultra-challenging, but worth every bead of sweat. Take advantage of the purity nature has to offer. When you hike deep into the forest to witness things that not many would dream of ever making it to, the last thing on your mind will be roasting marshmallows back at camp. Good luck out there!