Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Cost of Ultralight Backpacking: A Good yet Affordable Starter Kit

This is a follow up post to compliment the last Back to Back video I recently put up on Youtube about the cost of backpacking.  After finishing the video, I got to thinking, and thought why not put up a solid yet fairly economical gear list for someone new to Ultralight backpacking?  

*Update: Since writing this article, I've added a video to my Youtube channel covering some easy and cheap DIY / MYOG gear, which you can check out here.

I will assume that this will be for someone that has little or no backpacking gear.  Or maybe if you are reading this and have more "traditional" type gear, you can always sell it online or give it away to friends or family.  I won't cover absolutely everything, just the essentials, and this is for typical "high season" use, i.e. summertime or temperatures no lower than around 7C / 45F.  I am also putting a focus on gear that is built to last, and don't want to be too stingy with fancy/deluxe gear.  

This gear list is intended to be used for section hikes and/or weekend adventures, but in a pinch could be used for longer periods of time under the right conditions--though I wouldn't use this exact list for most thru-hikes on my thru-hike bucket list.  One could probably fit up to a week of food in the given pack plus all the gear, and anything less than a week should be no problem.

I've also rounded up both the weights and the costs to get conservative estimates, and always keep in mind you can buy a lot of these pieces of gear used, which is something I do often.  The only thing that I didn't include is either a cell phone or a wristwatch, which could be good to bring with you.  I bring my cheapo cell phone with me and it doubles as my clock (and calculator or timer/alarm if needed).  Some people have one or the other, others have both; but not everyone likes to take one or both out into nature, not to mention that prices of both are all over the place.

And keep in mind that this could be a base set of gear to start with and add stuff on to--for example if you are into bushcraft/woodlore/survival stuff (like if you came over here from Ross' blog), there would still be plenty of room for a folding saw, fishing kit, etc.  With a lighter, more minimalistic gear list like the one below, you will be able to hike further and with greater ease, have more energy to do other stuff out in nature, and take better care of your back and joints.

First I'll cover stuff that most people probably have laying around their house, or can be found for super cheap or free.  

Let's start with clothing worn:

Baseball cap
Nylon t-shirt (like a football/soccer jersey)
Nylon running/warm up pants
Nylon windbreaker
*Cotton, wool, or synthetic undies depending on your preference
*Cotton, wool, or synthetic socks depending on your preference
Comfy sneakers of your choice


*Edit:  I seemed to have created some minor controversy on Reddit's Ultralight forum over my pick of cotton undies and socks for use in the summer/warm weather.  There are people that are strongly against using cotton at all, even under summer conditions.  I use some cotton clothing in the summer like socks and undies and also in the dead of winter as an outer layer when it is very cold out (so that it's too dry/cold for it to get soaked), and from my experiences it works just fine for those applications.  But I appreciate feedback from readers and value other perspectives, so I will include more options above for clothing worn.  But I am not going to get into a long digression about the pros and cons of each fabric, for that you can Google on your own.  For the record, I would never recommend cotton for backpacking outside it's narrow place in warmer weather and very cold weather.


Basic essentials found around the house:

First aid kit (Ziplock bag with a handful of band-aids, ibuprofen, anti-bacterial ointment, etc.), 100g.
2 recycled, 1 liter, plastic water bottles.  80g total.
Toothbrush and small baggie of baking soda.  20g total.
DIY cat can alcohol stove and tin foil windscreen.  20g total.
Plastic bag to waterproof quilt and/or clothing.  15g.
Recycled plastic bottle, cut in half to pour water into filter bladder, doubles as a mug and a container for wild edibles.  10g.
Iced tea spoon (long handle spoon), stainless steel.  30g.
1 liter Ziplock bag for diddy bag, waterproof electronics, etc.  10g.
Small, recycled, plastic bottle for alcohol fuel.  25g.
Synthetic sleep/spare socks.  50g.
Bandana or small towel.  50g.
10m paracord or thin nylon rope.  50g.
3-4 liter Ziplock bag for cook pot.  15g.
DIY small stuff sack made out of a scrap tough nylon (check free scraps box at a fabric store if you don't have any) for tent stakes.  20g.
Book of matches.  10g. 

Now on to the backpack and its contents that need to be bought.  The gear that I have not linked you can find at most sporting/camping goods stores, or just order online.  Most of the prices I used either Amazon or REI as a reference.

*Zpacks Zero, hybrid Cuben, size small, with side pockets, top strap, roll top closure, and haul loop.  About 220g.  $148.

*Update 07/05/2017: Recently Zpacks stopped offering their Zero packs in place of their own take on a minimalist frameless UL pack called the Nero.  It seems like a nice little pack, but it comes in at about 200 bucks.  Other options here are to buy used, or for about 20 bucks more than the old Zero, you can get a Gossamer Gear Kumo 36 liter minimalist UL pack.  I have read a lot of good things about this pack and considered getting one myself for a bit.  Otherwise you can always go for a school-type frameless backpack that you can find all over the place for cheap.

Z-Line Spectra Cord, 50ft, yellow, for guy lines and good for future DIY projects like stuff sack drawcord.  Can be ordered from Zpacks.  25g.  $13.

8, 6.5 inch, Orange, Tough Titanium Tent Stakes.  Can be ordered from Zpacks.  64g.  $20.

Sawyer mini water filter, which can be ordered from Zpacks along with the backpack.  Filter and bladder 62g.  $24.

DIY synthetic quilt.  Order the 5.0 oz Apex Quilt with M90 bundle from Thru-Hiker, then get a friend or family member that has a sewing machine to make a simple quilt (if you can't do it yourself).  I'd estimate the weight to around 500g.  $80.

Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOlite.  R value 2.8, size regular 400g.  $30.  This pad will then be trimmed to create a back-pad for the backpack, which also doubles as sit pad and many other uses too.

*Golite poncho tarp.  Rain gear, pack cover, shelter!  210g.  $60.

*Update 15/04/15: For a while now Golite has gone out of business, so looks like you'll have to try and find one of these great poncho tarps used if you can.  Otherwise Sea to Summit makes what seems like a good poncho tarp, in both an ultralight and "normal" version.  The light one (230g) is around $90 bucks new, the heavier one (370g) is around $50 bucks.  Or you can make a DIY shelter out of plastic sheeting for super cheap and buy a cheapo rain poncho, which in addition to rain gear and pack cover, can also be used as a front door/vestibule for your tarp shelter.

Borah gear Argon bivy with side zipper, 175g.  $95.
(or if you opt for a larger DIY tarp plus cheapo rain poncho shelter, you could instead go for the Bug bivy with side zip, also by Borah, for $70 and about the same weight)

SOL space blanket for a ground cover.  Cut in half, this sheet makes two ground covers that are the perfect size for me (I am 183cm/6ft tall).  43g.  $5.

Polyester fleece soft shell jacket, generic, also doubles as pillow at night or emergency layer in a cold sap.  250g.  $20.

MSR Titan Tea Kettle.  115g.  $60.

Bic lighter.  20g.  $2.

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack, 8 liters.  For food and hanging food at night.  35g.  $18.

Generic but good quality compass.  30g.  $20.

Mora knife and plastic sheath, one of the basic, stainless steel models.  105g.  $10.

Black Diamond Gizmo Headlamp.  60g with batteries.  $20.

Biodegradable soap of your choice, repackaged in a small bottle like a mini-shampoo bottle you get at hotels.  20g.  $5. 

Small can or bottle of bug repellant.  75g.  $5.

Bug head net.  40g.  $10.

Small bottle of sunscreen.  60g.  $3.

DIY Tyvek shoulder bag or satchel.  This is to be used in place of hip belt or shoulder pouches to carry useful stuff to have handy while you hike.  First you make a Tyvek stuff sack out of a recycled envelop, which you can learn how to do here.  Then you sew on an additional cord or strap on the sides to turn it into a shoulder bag or satchel.  Should weigh no more than about 30g, and cost of materials is at most around $2.

This brings the grand total base pack weight (including items carried) to:

3044g / 6.7lbs.

At a grand total cost of:


I don't think either grand total is all that much of a burden, and everything listed is plenty durable for what it is made for--especially things like titanium and hybrid Cuben fiber, two things that are big in the UL community, and in each case I'd say for very good reasons.

One drawback of synthetic clothing and sleeping bags that should be noted, however, is that after a lot of use and wear-n-tear, they don't insulate as well and ought to be replaced.  I recently replaced my synthetic fleece soft shell with one that is nearly the same due to moderate use after 3 years.  My old synthetic sleeping bag lasted about the same amount of time, and I recently replaced it with my DIY Saco Rojo, which I expect to last slightly longer due to higher quality synthetic insulation (Climashiled Apex).

Nylon fabric is more durable though, like the stuff used for windbreakers and running pants.  For about 3 years now I have been using the same two windbreakers for backpacking, and they have seen plenty of heavy/rough use.  Still going strong, though I have noticed a very slight decline in warmth and wind blockage.  Running pants on the other hand get beat up more, so will need to be replaced more, about as much as a fleece jacket.  But some are better than others.  My pair of Puma running pants with a layer of mesh on the inside I have been using for a bit over 2 years now (IIRC), and they are still going very strong.

So there you go.  For the price of a PS4 and a few games, or one really fancy custom made knife and sheath, or a fancy cell phone plus accessories, you can have a really good UL set of gear for high season.  If you live in a warmer climate, this might be your year-round kit.  Where I live, I could get great use out of this set up from late May to early September, give or take a few small articles of clothing.  Add gloves, scarf, beanie hat, etc. in cooler weather, or leave the fleece jacket behind when it's warm.

I hope that this helps anyone looking to backpack--UL or traditional or whatever--into getting some good yet affordable gear so that they can get out and enjoy nature.

Usual disclaimer: I am not sponsored by any brand or company, and get no free gear from them either.

Update 01/05/2017: I revisited this idea in another more current post.  Check it out here.