Ultralight backpacking – what are the essentials…?

The first ‘proper’ scramble I did was Pinnacle Ridge on the Scottish Isle of Skye. It’s an 11km hike involving easy rock climbing and an abseil over 6 Pinnacles on the Cuillin Ridge. It reaches a high point on the summit of Scurr Nan Gillean, a Munro with a height of 964m (3162 feet). I’d never done anything like it before. I didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare, and I carried all sorts in my bag including, for some reason, flip flops.

On the summit of Sgurr Nan Gillean with Castle Mountaineering Club and flip flops...

On the summit of Sgurr Nan Gillean with Castle Mountaineering Club and flip flops…

As I gained more experience, I learned to focus on what is fundamentally important, the basics of survival – warmth, water, and food. Anything beyond that becomes a luxury.

I’m always learning, but these days I feel more prepared. I enjoy the process of planning, anticipating the adventure, and choosing the right gear. This is even more important as I plan my first long distance hike, solo.

After functionality, the most important principle for me is to go as light as possible. As a woman I feel it’s particularly important – a bag weighing 15kg (33 pounds) is equivalent to 25% of my bodyweight, whereas for an average man it’s a more reasonable 20%. I’m aiming for my full pack to weigh a maximum of 12-13kg (around 28 pounds).

I love the challenge of finding the best combination of functionality, light weight, and best value. Using those criteria, choosing the essentials was easy, and after some research they are:

  1. Tent – Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 (970g)
  2. Rucksack – Osprey Exos 58 (1.2kg)
  3. Sleeping mat – Thermarest Neo Xlite (340g)
  4. Stove and pan – Alpkit Brukit (450g)
The essentials..? They make me happy anyway!

The essentials..? They make me happy anyway!

I noticed a couple of areas where the golden rule of lightness didn’t seem to apply. As I thought about how to reduce their weight I realised I wasn’t prepared to compromise. I will carry the extra weight of these items without question:

  • Coffee and pot – Nothing happens without fresh coffee, weight is not an issue.
  • Sleeping Bag – Rab Ascent 900 (1.7kg). My tent will be tiny, but it will be a palace of warm welcoming down.

Including food, water, and clothes, my bag is nearly at my weight limit, and at this point I’m finding the decisions harder. More and more items are demanding consideration – a mobile phone charger, a plug. Should I take sunglasses? Or a paper notepad? The not-quite-essentials are starting to add up.

The requirement to strip life down to the basics is one of my favourite aspects of being active outdoors. It has given me a real appreciation of the simple things in life. Money can’t buy that feeling, sitting on a cliff top after a day’s climbing, watching the first stars come out, listening to the waves roll in.

However carefully I plan, there will be things I need that I never thought about, and things I take that I never need. I guess that’s part of the journey. One luxury that weighs nothing is time. To reflect and find the answers to those questions… what am I carrying that I can leave along the way? Where do I refuse to compromise? And how much do I appreciate the things that money can’t buy, the things I don’t want to be without…

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3 thoughts on “Ultralight backpacking – what are the essentials…?

  1. Amy James

    I am also packing to go on a far less adventurous trip to Majorca but the fact that we are travelling with a baby for the first time definitely makes it feel more of an adventure than it normally would! Anna, your thoughts on the essentials have helped me to lighten my load, although I will still be lugging the maximum baggage allowance that Ryan Air will give me through the departure lounge tomorrow. I try to lean towards the ‘take what you can carry, carry what you take’ premise but I have never been on a journey where I have had to do this for the entire time whereas you are living this as honestly as possible in the true spirit of travel.

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