Ultralight backpacking: ditching useless gear

I posted a couple days ago about my frustration with modern backpacking. I naively thinking that the methods of dropping pack weight were common knowledge. It wasn’t until I saw some of the gear lists from people claiming to pack light that I realized, a lot of the concepts of lightweight backpacking are not well known. Here I want to highlight some pieces of gear that I am not taking on my upcoming ultralight backpacking trip and why.

Toilet paper

A roll of TP can weigh up to 6 ounces. That is an enormous amount of weight for a nonessential. While TP can double as a fire starter, the amount needed for that is of insignificant weight. This is a personal choice, I know, and a piece of gear that a lot of people could never imagine doing without. However, I instead use things that I don’t have to carry on my back to accomplish this task. I use sticks without bark, snow, leaves, or even moss. All of these are readily available and accomplish the task equally well. Wiping our asses with paper is only a recent phenomenon, so consider dropping the weight and doing without it.


If I carry a blade at all, I carry the tiny, tiny swiss army knife with scissors, tweezers, a file, and a toothpick that weighs 3/4 of an ounce. I’ve seen men carrying foot long blades into the tame backcountry of the east coast and the only justification I can imagine is compensation. At this point I’ve walked all but two states of the Appalachian Trail and only a few times did I ever use my knife. In each of those situations, the knife wasn’t even a necessity and my tiny knife always sufficed. I know this seems crazy. “Go into the woods without a knife? What a fool!” But let’s get real, when do we actually need a knife on our “epic” extended walks?

An insulating jacket

This is a hugely personal decision and one that is only applicable to a few circumstances. When I go backpacking alone, I hike, I eat, and I sleep. If I want to tool around, I always build a fire. When building a fire, I’m running around the woods searching for wood and producing an enormous amount of heat. When standing around a fire, the radiated heat keeps me warm. I am always either in my sleeping bag or I am producing enough heat to not need an insulating jacket. When I take breaks, I keep them short to keep from having my muscles get cold. If I need to take an extended break, I find a warm spot in the sun, hidden from the wind. I find that even on sub-zero degree days, I am fine with a base layer and a dark rain jacket when in the sun.

A pump water filter

I do carry water treatment but usually opt out of using it. You should always search for the best water sources, whether you are filtering it or not and on the AT, those sources are plentiful. Contaminated water sources are uncommon, easy to spot, and more often than not, are labelled at the trail crossing as unsafe. Find a spring flowing straight from the belly of the mountain, not a creek surrounded by cow pastures in a valley. Be smart about it and leave the bulky pump at home.


I noted in my last post my raging frustration with tents. They are heavy, unattractive, and failure prone. On the AT, when it’s raining, you want to find a shelter. And when it’s a nice night, enjoy the freedom of star gazing without a nylon roof. There are situations in which tents may be necessary; they provide a substantial amount of heat retention and are great shelter from snow, wind, or bugs. But rarely are they necessary over a simple tarp or bivy shelter.

Pack cover

Rain covers for packs are extraordinarily ineffective at doing what they are designed for. Nothing is more frustrating than carrying a quarter pound piece of nylon that you are trusting to keep everything dry only to find that everything is actually soaked. A 1 oz. trash bag completes this task with much greater efficiency for a fraction of the weight. I keep all my gear inside one of these trash bags all the time and often will take an extra bag for a million different purposes including as a replacement but also as an emergency shelter or rain jacket.

Stuff sacks

I love seeing when people lay their gear out and you can’t tell what half of the stuff is. It’s all bundled up into convenient little carrying cases that made the item more marketable in the store. There is a misconception about the effectiveness of these stuff sacks. When everything is in it’s little carrying case, it makes it impossible to fill crevices in the pack. These bags each weigh a fraction of an ounce, but when all added up the weight becomes substantial. If you are really carrying so many items that you need to be that organized, you have bigger problems. If something truly does need to be compressed, like a down jacket, simply squeeze it into the bag with your sleeping bag.

First aid kit

Unless you are hiking with a dozen prebescent boys or are severely accident prone, a full fledged first aid kit is entirely unnecessary. Read a single article about wilderness first aid or even take a full class if you are planning on going mountaineering. However, a simple 3 foot strip of duct tape, some petroleum jelly, or even some super glue will fix nearly all your potential injuries.


Where there are bears on the east coast, there are established places where to hang your food. In places where bear threats are few and far between, some simple precautions can help you more than a bear bag. Wrap your food in airtight containers or bags. I put all my food in Ziploc bags inside of a sil-nylon bag, which is inside of a trash bag, all inside of my backpack. If you do decide to hang a bear bag, make sure you hang it properly. A fed bear is a dead bear.

Cook set

At most I will carry a pot which doubles as a cup. I ditched the canister stove a while ago in exchange for an alcohol stove which I in turn exchanged for the occasional campfire. However, on my upcoming trip, I’m ditching cooked foods and will only be eating dry, ready-to-eat foods. This simplifies my trip, lightens my pack, and allows me to spend more time hiking and less time at camp. Additionally, it helps with the problem of bears without the scent of a cooked meal on me and near camp.

A lot of these choices are simply preference but I challenge you to look to see if there is something you really don’t need or maybe only believe you needed because of cultural influence. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are an infinite number of unnecessary things people have taken on backpacking trips, from machetes to full cooksets. You can justify a case for nearly every addition to your pack so instead of looking at the anomalies, look at the norms of your region at that particular time of year. After every trip, I look at my pack to see if there was something I didn’t use and decide whether it would be good to have it for certain situations or if I in fact, never needed it in the first place.

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