The Coast and Mountain Walkers of NSW - Overnight walks to extraordinary places

Some thoughts on Ultralight Gear

by Steven Robinson (with some thoughts from Mary)

"The greatest comfort one can indulge in is a light pack"

In January 2007 while lugging a 12kg load over big hills in New Zealand, we read an article by Bryan Dudley of Tramplight in New Zealand, on going "ultralight", with a total bare pack weight of less than 4.5 kg. Sounded blissful, so we decided to try some of Bryan's ideas out.

Photo in heavy rain at the start of an 8 day walk
In heavy rain at the start of a 7 day walk.
Guess which pack is ultralight?
(look at height above shoulders)

We now have the experience of ten years of overnight and multi-day trips (up to 9 days) with what feels like a day pack. When asked if we would ever go back to "normal" gear, our answer, and that of our muscles, knees and back, is decidedly "No way!" Having used the light gear in all conditions from Tassie winter blizzard to central Australian heat, we can see no good argument for going back. We have been just as safe, warm, dry and comfortable. Really light packs don't last as long, but are improving, and are much cheaper, so the "running costs" are similar, as everything else seems to last well. For a weekend walk, it is almost like carrying a day pack, with a total weight around the 5kg mark including food, fuel etc. Why suffer?

Photo of Mary having fun in the snow
Mary stopping for a snack in a Tassie winter snowstorm, warm, dry and smiling in her ultralight gear

Ultralight is generally accepted as a total bare pack weight of less than 10 lb. (4.5 kg) for three season walking, going up by about 1 kg for snow camping. This includes everything (pack and contents) except consumables (food, fuel, water).

Going ultralight does not mean going without - it means substituting lighter gear for "normal" weight gear, and using gear with multiple functions as much as possible. New "space age" materials mean that much lighter gear is possible, while still doing the things the gear is meant to do - keep off rain, stand up to wind, keep you warm, cook food etc. Unfortunately though, the major manufacturers, selling to a wide cross section and fearing returns, seem not to be prepared to market much ultralight gear as yet - ultralight gear does need a degree of care in use - and what is marketed in Australia is generally ridiculously expensive (twice US prices). This means that for now, you need to search widely to find what is available commercially (mainly from North America), or make your own (much cheaper). Kits are available if you decide to make your own. Lots of contacts are given below for ready made gear, materials and kits. The wonderfully warm sleeping quilt Mary now uses is modified from a Thru-hiker kit, the shelter that we most use is based on Ray Jardine's concept (available as a kit), and our packs are from Zpacks.


As ever, gear should be chosen to suit expected possible conditions. For example, if extreme scrub bashing is likely, a heavier raincoat would be taken. This does not mean that a heavier sleeping bag, tent etc are also needed. Total gear weight would still be low.

Two Zero packs enjoying a descent in the Western Arthurs
Two "Zero" packs enjoying a descent in the Western Arthurs
Photo:- Duncan Cross

The "big three", where it is easiest to save substantial weight, are pack, shelter and sleeping gear. However we would strongly recommend not going to an ultralight pack until you have all the rest of your gear weight down to about 4kg (excluding food, fuel and water). I say this because I have seen people buy an ultralight pack, fill it with their normal gear, then get discouraged by the experience. Ultralight packs are not designed for heavy loads. Carrying a very light load in a heavy pack is easy - the reverse is not true. Having said that, we have done a couple of trips with 9 days of food and fuel without any problem (starting weight about 13 kg, finishing weight under 5 kg). Below 10kg, we consider the ultralight packs the most comfortable of any packs we have owned.

Looking at sleeping gear, we started off using Ray Jardine synthetic quilts (from a kit). These are light and warm, but very bulky when packed. We are now using down quilts (660g) that we made by modifying the quilt kit sold by Thru-hiker (we have not tried making the kit unmodified, but it is sure to be fine; we just changed it to lengthways baffles, which we prefer). For those who have not met ultralight quilts, they are not like the flat quilts used on a bed - they have a foot pocket to keep that end located. It's a matter of personal preference, but we prefer quilts to sleeping bags. However, very light full sleeping bags are also available or could be made. Many CMW members now have sleeping bags around the 800g mark for winter use in the Sydney area.

Tarp Vs tent
Tarp and bug net (800g left) Vs tent (1260g right)
Our preference is for the tarp

Photo:- Duncan Cross

For shelter we started off with a two-person double skin tent of 1260g that we made ourselves. This has sheltered us happily through bad weather and is still in fine condition. As an experiment, we also tried a fly sheet and bug-net set-up (800g) along the lines of the kit sold by Ray Jardine. This is now our preferred shelter - it protects us well from the weather, and is much more pleasant in bad weather, as you have so much more room. Sitting out a day of rain is much more enjoyable than being stuck in a "camper's coffin", especially when you have the room to invite in others. The downside is that you have to know how to set it for different weather conditions. The one place a traditional fly is not so good is in a very windy area with no protection. If this is a worry, you could try the "Trailstar" from Mountain Laurel, much used by walkers in the Scottish Highlands, where gales, snow and rain are common (340g). We happily used one in the Central Plateau of Tasmania, in exposed campsites, and it certainly is not going to blow away. If you don't get worried by mozzies etc. you can reduce the weight of a fly set-up further, to around 200g in the extreme.

Trailstar in Central Highlands, Tasmania
Our Trailstar in the Central Plateau of Tasmania. A really 'bombproof' design.

The next thing is to go through every bit of gear that you own, and say to yourself "Can I do without it, use something I carry anyway in place of it (e.g. a spoon instead of a fork - you don't really need a fork), reduce the weight in any way (cut off excess bits) or get a lighter version". You need to be absolutely ruthless here (compare your weights with those in the list below). It is amazing how a few grams here and a few there all add up to kilograms.

Mary in Central Australia
Mary in the arid centre - 9 days food and fuel is a bit of a squeeze!

When you have your gear weight really low (everything you carry except pack, food, fuel and water down to around 4 kg), it is time to consider an ultralight pack. Packs can now go down to about 120g. How low you go depends on your priorities - Mary uses a "heavy" 200g Zpacks pack because it is made of much tougher material, does not have bush-snagging net pockets and other rubbish on the outside and has a hip harness. We use a closed cell foam "frame" (which doubles as a sleeping mat / lounge-around-the-fire mat). The pack will not last as long as a Macpac or WE pack, but then it is half the price. I chose a lighter version (160g), but it has suffered from bush bashing and hauling over rocks, while Mary's is still in very good condition after the same use.

Ultralight gear need not cost an arm and a leg. For example, a winter weight down sleeping quilt kit (single) from Thru-hiker is about $170, a shelter kit from Ray Jardine is about $130 including the bug net, and the packs we use cost about $145 (ready made).

Our gear is not as light as is possible, and we have included some "luxuries" in our gear - for example, a Thermorest NeoAir and a Personal Locator Beacon (your "luxury" may well be that coffee maker you can't do without).


Our present 3 season weekend gear list for two people (4 season around Sydney) looks like this:-


  Steven (g) Mary (g)
pack (Zpacks "Zero" with padded hip belt) 160 200
closed cell foam pack frame/mat (Gossamer Gear) 140 140
sleeping quilt (extremely warm down) (Thru-hiker kit) 610 660
fly, bug net, floor and pegs (similar to Ray Jardine kit) 800 --
down jacket (Thru-hiker "Whitney" kit; very warm) 260 300
light fleece coat 240 240
thermal top 160 160
thermal long johns 60 60
balaclava 44 55
spare socks 50 50
first aid kit -- 160
raincoat (Zpacks; superceded by better model) 125 125
spare undies 45 30
billy, meths stove inc stand, windshield, fuel bottle -- 140
mugs, bowls, cutlery etc for 2 -- 140
water purification -- 40
pack liner (plastic bag) 60 60
water bottle (Platypus hydration bottle) 55 55
head torch (Petzl e+lite) 26 26
washing kit (teeth, soap etc for 2) -- 60
knife, emergency blanket, sunscreen, odds and ends 30 150
Thermorest Neo-air (3/4 length) 250 250
shovel -- 10
Personal Locator Beacon (Oceansignal RESCUEME) 120 --
long roller bandage for snake bite 40 40
Totals 3275g 3151g


This gives an average of 3.2kg per person all up (excluding food, fuel and water) on one's back. There is an excess of warm clothes for summer walking. Note that compasses, gaiters, hats and clothes that we start in are not in the list, as we are wearing these.


Our advice to anyone contemplating going down this route is to weigh everything that you already own, see how it compares to what is available or can be made (which involves doing lots of reading on the web), then make decisions on where, for you, it is best to start. Make lists of everything and total the weights up. We are happy to share our experience.

Photo of Mary swimming a blockup of the Kowmung river
Mary (center, in water) swimming a block-up in the Kowmung River, NSW


General Article For another viewpoint, Roger Caffin has written a very good article on ultralight walking in Australia here.



Shelter Note that this can go as light as 245g for a one person shelter, groundsheet and pegs. Some very light gear here, but being in Cuben fiber, a bit more pricey. See the Trailstar if you want a "bombproof" fly sheet. Interesting review here. We are very happy with ours in areas like Tassie, Snowies, although we are still learning how to use it to best effect in different conditions. Very good service. They had a one person tent with full mozzie protection, tub floor, vestibule, under 500g! They are reworking their line of shelters - worth watching. Great for 3 season use, but you would need experience to use it in bad winter weather. Laser photon looks great, but is pricey. (explore side index under shelters),default,sc.html for superlight and strong carbon fibre tent pegs (good price too). We find the 6" ones excellent.

You can make your own shelter from ideas gained from any of these links, or that you have yourself.


Photo of net tent in central Australia
Note the loft in the blue quilt - 660g!
On a nine day walk in central Australia.
Yes, we did pack a flysheet just in case!

Sleeping Gear We use a slightly modified version of the M50 sleeping quilt, which packs small and is very warm, but because it is a quilt, is fine for summer use also. Excellent quality down. We have used these quilts, but found them bulky when packed. Not a problem for weekend walks, but not if you want to fit nine days food. Light and very warm in Alpine version. Untried by us, but super light! Really light gear here; down jackets are great.,default,sc.html There is another very good bag available now , by Mountain Hardware, but I don't know its name. Can also be imported


Packs We are using the largest size "Zero" pack plus padded hipbelt option. Very happy with the version with the heavier material. I have not used one of these, but a few CMW members have Jam packs and are very happy with them.



28g Vargo stove in action
28g Vargo stove in action
(should have full windshield)
Photo:- Mary Robinson We have the little Vargo Triad meths stove. It is more fiddly to use than a Trangia burner, but is otherwise similar. Note that the 28g includes a stand! We have added a foil reflector, windshield and lid, which greatly increases efficiency. Total weight is then about 40g. Short burn time is the main problem, needing a refill before each course when cooking for two. Not so good in very strong wind. Any number of stove designs! a great little home made twig stove. See his other stove experiments by following the link at the bottom of his page.

Of course, if you prefer to cook on gas, any number of very light burners are readily available. The experts who have added up the numbers (for stove + fuel + container) say that meths is best for one or two nights, but gas for longer trips (and shellite for over a week, although my experience leads me to doubt this). We now use a little Asoto gas stove for long trips.

Materials and kits We bought all our materials here for tent etc. Very good service. Have also made one of their clothing kits, which worked well. Look at the weights of some of the clothing in the kits, and compare to what you carry! Huge range of fabrics to make almost anything.

Lightweight breathable raincoat The ones we have are superceded. Friends swear by the new model (waterproof, comfortable, breathable and tough), and you can order them long! Get a bigger size than you think you will need - sizings are on the small side. Of course there are lots of light jackets available in Australia, but most are short.

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Note that postage from US is expensive - luckily this gear is light - but typically think of adding around $30 to $50 for postage. It is cheaper to order several things in one order.

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Below is a note that I sent to Russell Willis of Willis Walkabouts, who wrote asking about this gear:-


"Have just completed a 7 day winter overland track walk (Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair) in Tassie with a bare pack weight of 5 kg (starting weight 11 kg). Hit the full range of weather - rain plus gale, heavy snow, beautiful sunshine. Fabulous trip.

View of Tasmanian highlands in winter
View from the Overland Track in winter


"The ultralight gear was superb. I think we were warmer and drier than anyone else in our party who was using normal gear. For walking we were in thermal top and long johns, shorts, boots and gaiters as a base, then could add insulated vest (Thru-Hiker Minima Vest), lightweight stretch pile coat, E-vent Integral Designs raincoat (no longer made), sil-nylon overpants (my design), thermal balaclava, insulated mittens and overmitts (my design), sun hat and sunglasses. At night we changed into clean dry thermals top and bottom, insulated vest, down jacket, insulated "helmet" (over head, around ears and around neck), insulated trousers and insulated hut/tent shoes (all the insulated stuff my design except the vest). We were warm! We carried (and used) our double skin 2 man tent, and cooked on our 28g stove.

"Our 800g down bags kept us cosily warm (again my design) [now superceded by lighter and warmer one]. Within our weight allowance we also had an epirb, gps, first aid kit - I'd hardly say we were skimping on gear!"



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