How to go ultralight camping

Hit the trail without any extra baggage.
Hit the trail this summer. Dennis Welsh / AMC

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On a backpacking trip, spending the night outside takes more preparation that simply going for a day hike. But fear not: It doesn’t have to feel like gearing up for a Himalayan expedition. Here’s how to get ready for an overnight hike without breaking the bank—or your back.

First things first: If you’re setting off on a multiday hike in the summer, you’ll be dressing the same as you would on a light day trip (see this guide to ultralight backpacking) and bringing the same essentials. You’ll still want to don light shorts, a T-shirt or synthetic shirt, and hiking boots. While hiking shoes may suffice on a day hike with a light pack, your backpack will be medium-sized for any overnight trek, so you’ll want good, solid hiking boots that go up to around your ankles.

Since you’ll be spending at least one night outside, in addition to those day-hike supplies, you’ll need to schlep some extra gear with you. Namely, you’ll need equipment for shelter, warmth, and food.

Where to sleep

You can spend the night outside without bringing a tent. That’s because some campsites offer Adirondack-style shelters that provide a roof over your head and three walls, with an open front. But it can be risky to rely on these. If you arrive at day’s end and discover that it’s filled up, you could be forced to spend the night outside—and if it’s raining, you’re in trouble. Your best bet is to pack an emergency tarp or tent. Perhaps you won’t have to use them, particularly if you’re traveling to a campsite with a shelter, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Black Diamond makes a solid tent option called the Mega Light, which weighs less than three pounds and has an insanely simple design: A single center pole holds it up like a circus tent. The result is roomy and pleasant, but there are some downsides. You’ll need a ground cloth below it, and stakes to hold the edges down, which could make setting it up on a wooden tent platform tricky. Plus, bugs can fly through the gaps between the tent’s edges and the ground. While the Mega Light won’t be a perfect solution for everyone, it still offers a lightweight place to spend the night.

A more tradition tent also has a lot of appeal. These freestanding shelters have floors and include a waterproof rainfly that goes over the tent itself. But you don’t need to buy a premium one that says “North Face” or “Mountain Hardware” on the side and looks like it belongs at Everest base camp.

What to sleep in and on

Getting into a cozy sleeping bag at the end of the day can make you feel as if you’re in your own personal burrito.

One key factor to consider is how cold you think it will get at night. Even if you’re camping in the summer, a sleeping bag that will keep you toasty down to 40 degrees or so, which mountainous areas can easily reach, is a good idea. When shopping for bags, consider the temperature range, as well as the fill, or insulation, within it. Down bags are generally more expensive, and don’t do well when they get wet, but they’re also warmer and lighter than synthetic options.

If you choose the latter option, REI makes a bag with a synthetic filling]({rel=nofollow} that will keep you comfortably warm even if it dips to 45 degrees or so. For down lovers, Marmot sells one called Always Summer that’s rated to around 40 degrees.

One more thing to remember before you start shopping: If you’re tall, you’ll need a longer bag.

You absolutely need something between your sleeping bag and the ground. A sleeping pad will keep you warm by insulating you from the chilly earth, and of course, you’ll be more comfortable.

Therm-A-Rest makes comfortable sleeping pads that self-inflate, so you’re snoozing on air. It can’t hurt to blow into the nozzle some yourself to help get it totally firm. Another, less expensive, option from the company is a foam mattress that requires no inflation and costs only $45.

Cooking and eating

Unlike a day hike, where there’s no need to cook, if you’re spending the night outside, you’ll want a warm supper. And to make that happen, you’ll need a stove.

Options abound, but one solid choice is the WhisperLight from MSR. It burns white gas and is easy to use, but you have to buy the fuel bottle separately.

Of course, you’ll need pots or pans to cook your trail banquet in. MSR makes those too.

But what are you going to cook? Mountain House produces ready-to-eat meals that only require you to add water, but you can save money by planning your own meals and doing it yourself.

One very easy dish is mac and cheese with… tuna fish. Because why not? When cooking in the outdoors, fill up your water straight from a stream or river. As long as you plan on bringing it to a rolling boil, you do not need to purify it first (as you would if you were just going to drink it). A box of mac and cheese by Annie’s, for example, will be tasty even if you don’t add the recommended milk or butter, and stirring in that tuna will give you extra protein. Since you have to pack out your trash, tuna that is sold in a pouch rather than a can will be easier to transport. Plus, you don’t need a can opener.

Another dinner option is pita-bread pizzas cooked in a pan over the stove. Don’t forget tomato sauce, cheese, and a protein like pepperoni. Cover the pan with a lid to get the cheese nice and melty. After the meal, packets of hot chocolate will allow you to make warm, sugary drinks.

For breakfast the next day, you can also start out with a warm bite. Bring some water to a boil, then make instant oatmeal with raisins in it.

How to carry everything

Like you would on a day hike, you’ll need a backpack. Carrying your extra camping gear—that tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove, food, and cookware—requires a mid-sized backpack. Osprey makes backpacks designed to carry gear on a multiday trip, as does REI. The products have numbers in their names that indicate how big the pack is by volume, measured in liters. The specific pack size you buy will depend on how much gear you’re bringing, and what fits you well personally. Like with boots, it’s good to try packs on before you buy one.

Extra items

Optional items for a day hike, like a headlamp and warm ski hat, become essential when you’re spending the night outside. The same goes with rain pants—even in dry weather, you might want to throw them on at the campsite for warmth and protection from biting bugs. And while you’ll bring the day-hike outfit of a synthetic shirt, fleece layer, and breathable rain jacket, on an overnight, it can’t hurt to pack an extra warm layer, like a light down vest, in case you get severely chilled. Bring one pair of wool socks, made by a company like SmartWool, per day. Instead of bringing just one water bottle, it’s good to take two.

Now you’re ready to brave the wild yonder. Ideally, you won’t be sleeping beneath the stars, but snug in a wooden shelter or a cozy tent. And when you get back, you’ll have earned that warm shower—and a clean change of clothes.