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How to go Ultralite

This piece originally appeared on the blog of one of my partners, Vermont Darn Tough.

This time of year always strikes a bit of wanderlust into my spirit. Watching the wild geese migrate south on their expedition without worry for material possessions reminds me of my calling to long-distance hike every year.  It is doubtful that I will ever be as resourceful as my feathered counterparts, but minimizing the amount of weight on my back as I trek thousands of miles each season helps reduce the damage to my body, allowing me to hit the trails year after year injury free.  After more than 10,000 miles of walking, I am certain that my yearly migration is only possible because I’ve managed to keep my pack weight “ultralite.”

This past April as I started my second end-to-end journey of the Appalachian Trail, fellow hikers embarking on their trip in Georgia examined my small pack with shock and disbelief.  My baseweight (everything on my back excluding food and water) was 7 pounds yet I saw hundreds of hikers with packs that looked like they could weigh more than me.  I believe starting a hike with a small pack gives me the ability to walk longer miles at the start of a long journey.  Eventually, everyone walking for weeks on end becomes strong enough to carry their load, but starting with a small pack prevents long-term grinding on knees and joints and trims down the chance of having a trip-ending stumble on a root.

How have I managed to walk for thousands of miles carrying a pack with gear comparable in weight to my laptop?  I started by reading several books on ultralite hiking including Ray Jardine’s Trail Life and Don Ladigin and Mike Clelland’s Lighten Up.  From them, I learned to keep my Big Three—shelter, sleeping bag, and pack—each under 2 pounds apiece.  As much as I can, I try to bring multi-use gear (for example, my sleeping pad is also the foam frame of my pack).

Knowing backcountry navigation and safety, personal comforts and limits, and how to use my gear are all the essence of the ultralite game.  Having the know-how and experience to address whatever crazy response my body or the wildlands will throw at me—whether it’s head-to-toe hives, a blizzard, or a marmot munching on my sleeping bag—is more important than any gear I carry—heavy or ultralite.

Being a lightweight backpacker is about knowing my own comforts and when and when not to carry gear; I went stoveless in the Mid-Atlantic section of the Appalachian Trail because the weather was so hot that making warm food every night seemed unappealing, even to a hungry hiker.  Yet the weight of my pack is less important to me than knowing that I will be safe. I happily added a few extra clothing layers at the beginning of the hike and in New England.

The more I hike, the more confident I feel knowing that I only need to carry the gear I will use.  I constantly assess what pieces of gear I use and how often.  This helps me decide what gear to carry and what gear I can send ahead to a place on my journey where I may need it more.

I believe that being an ultralite hiker has allowed me to walk further and faster each day. Carrying less on my pack has given me more; it lets me to spend less time worrying about the pain in my back and more time enjoying the views and spotting the birdstraveling on their long journey this fall and, enviably, carrying nothing at all.



Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.


Steve Carothers

I come from the old school of backpacking when we carried everything but the kitchen sink on our backs and suffered from the weight, hiked less miles per day but still enjoyed mother nature. Thanks for the article as I am nearly 62 and have a torn meniscus in my right knee…time for me to lighten up….Steve…


Glad you enjoyed the article and were able to get some great information from it. Feel free to email me if you’ve got questions about lightening up!-Liz

Gordon Yamamoto

Well spoken, AND entertaining!! Information is better shared from a human being like yourself, rather than an automaton. Look forward to reading all of your inputs, and really enjoyed the BACKPACKER coverage of your Los Angeles adventure!!

~ YAMO, Y’ALL !!

Paul Boulay

Katahdin 8/5/78 to Springer 6/7/79 through the winter (at age 21-22).
Liz, amasing odometer, 10K miles, congratulations! If and when my responsibilities reduce, I have always wanted to do another trek. My winter pack weight, including snowshoes, topped out at 86 lbs. The lightest it ever got was 35 lbs, without food, water or money literally racing 27 miles into Hot Springs on a Friday before the Post Office closed. I spent 10 days with cousins in MD over Christmas & New Years. My body weight had packed on 10# of muscle from from a stable 145# since the start, but added another 10# of ice cream and beer fat in 10 days over the break – to 165#. I really would like to do another long hike.


Winter backpacking the AT is no joke! Congratulations to you! I wrote an article for section hiker on speed hiking and how I think winter thru-hiking may be harder: Thanks for sharing your story!