Songbird's 2018 Ultimate Lightweight Hiking Gear Wish-List (Incredibly light equipment options)

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Backpackers are always looking for a better way to do things. It's one of the greatest things about keeping this activity as a hobby. When you aren't able to get out and hike, you can still participate by trip planning, equipment organizing, and researching.

Over the last few months I've put together my 2018 Ultimate Dream Wishlist to try to see just how light I could get a viable equipment list to be with the equipment available to me in 2018. The key elements of the kit are lighter than I ever thought possible when I first got involved in the hobby.

The core of the kit is an XUL gear-list that I believe most hikers could comfortably make use of on a long distance hiking trail like the AT in the summer. Transitioning this kit to a 3 season kit capable of dealing with somewhat colder spring and fall temperatures would only require the addition of several items, and not an exchange of the core elements of the kit for other equipment choices.

2.89 Pound Base Weight XUL Summer Kit (Core)

This summer kit is a collective display of the incredible advances that have been made in lightening and specializing backpacking equipment. Green-starred items are items that I already own and can be found on my current summer pack list.

What keeps this equipment list so incredibly light is the very light "big 3" of the kit. Your (1) Pack, (2) Sleeping Equipment, and (3) Shelter will always be responsible for a huge portion of your base pack weight. Keeping these items to a low weight makes a lower base pack weight a snap to achieve. The big 3 of this kit, and the equipment utilized to expand the temperature range in which the kit is viable will be the focus of this post. If you would like to hear more about the other equipment choices on this list and why they are worth their weight such a lightweight load-out, leave a comment down below. If there's enough interest I'll be happy to continue in a Part 2 that covers the rest of the gear list.

Eliminating equipment redundancies by carrying equipment that can serve multiple purposes is a great way to cut the weight of your pack down as well. You'll see several examples of this below.

The Pack

The Balloon Pack pack is a cottage-industry made cuben fiber backpack. Cody at Appalachian Ultralight has made some of the lightest hiking backpacks on the market, and his finished products come at reasonable prices compared to other semi-custom and custom equipment. Cody is currently shifting his focus to a more purely custom-built shop, so you can browse his store and pick out one of his lightweight creations for yourself.

Check out my review of the Appalachian Ultralight Balloon Pack to hear more about this 6.25 ounce waterproof beauty.

The Shelter System

The Poncho Tarp

The Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Rain Poncho is a staggeringly light 5.00 ounce poncho tarp. This poncho serves both as your rain jacket when you are on the move and as your shelter when you turn in for the night at camp. Instead of carrying a rain jacket and tarp you can carry a single item that potentially halves the weight required to meet this function.

Using multi-purpose equipment like this poncho-tarp means that you never carry a gram of redundant equipment weight. There is another example of multi-purpose gear carried in this list that is hugely responsible for bringing the base pack weight down. For more about poncho tarps, check out my review of a sil-nylon poncho tarp I've used extensively on trail and will be taking with me this summer in my under 5 pound summer kit.

The Bivy Sack

Because poncho tarps are some of the smallest tarps available, you will often want to carry a bivy sack to use with the poncho-tarp shelter. Think of a bivy sack as a rain jacket, or 'hard shell' for your sleeping bag or quilt. 

A bivy will block any wind or rain that manages to find its way underneath your small tarp while you rest in camp. It will also act as your groundsheet, protecting you and your equipment from wet and dirty ground wherever you choose to set up camp for the night.

The great thing about a bivy is that when the weather is really nice you can use it to sleep out in the open ('cowboy camping') and enjoy a very nice sense of immersion in the woods. 

The Borah Gear Cuben Bivy is a 4.10 ounce insurance policy against the unexpected. The Cuben Bivy's marvelously light weight is due in great part to its DCF (cuben fiber) bottom fabric. Acting as a ground sheet, this bottom fabric will protect your equipment from the ground and keep you dry from below in wet weather. With a breathable argon top fabric and a bug mesh window on the head end of the bivy, this piece of kit will perform well on warmer summer nights that will have you sweating in a less breathable bivy sack. A small loop on the bug net hood lets you 'tent' the fabric of the upper portion of the bivy sack away from your face, giving those who need it a little more 'living space'.

The Sleep System

The Poncho Quilt

Often called a "wearable sleeping quilt", poncho-quilts offer extraordinary weight savings through multi-functioning. In warmer conditions where you don't need much dedicated insulation to keep you warm, even just wrapping normal sleeping insulation around your torso can take the edge off on chilly nights. 

A poncho quilt is made specifically for this purpose, and will perform much better as worn insulation, making use of a sealable head slot that allows you to wear your sleeping insulation like a big, thick, puffy vest. 

With the wearable quilt you don't have to carry both worn and sleeping insulation for warm weather backpacking trips. In colder weather conditions, as discussed below, adding worn insulation that can be layered together with a poncho quilt will expand your sleep system's capabilities dramatically. Similarly, the poncho quilt can be layered with the worn insulation to provide a very warm worn insulation system.

The Mountain Laurel Designs Spirit 48, in size large for ground-sleeping coverage and comfort, comes in at a very respectable 341 grams according to my scale (369 grams / 13 ounces manufacturer-stated weight). With the Spirit 48's use of synthetic insulation, there are lighter down-insulated wearable poncho-quilts. With such a heavy dependance, however, on a single piece of dedicated insulation in the XUL summer core kit, synthetic insulation like the Climashield Apex used in this wearable quilt is a no-brainer. In my experience, synthetic insulation will outperform down in bad conditions, and gives some measure of additional safety when using such minimal equipment load-outs.

The Sleeping Pad

The Gossamer Gear Nitelight sleeping pad, coming in at 5 to 6 ounces depending on manufacturing variances in the closed cell foam material (CCF), is a torso-length pad that is purpose-built to offer just enough comfort and insulation to let you get a good night's rest. This pad folds up in thirds and can be used to give a frameless pack some structure and padding, keeping pointy food-bag items from irritating your back during the day's hike and simplifying packing. Keeping your foam sleeping pad in an outside pocket of your pack lets you have quick access to it as a sit-pad for breaks on trail during the day. 

For side-sleepers that just can't get a good night's rest on a piece of closed cell foam, and coming in at a close second place for the 2018 Ultimate Dream Wishlist's sleeping pad of choice, the 12.00 ounce, regular size Thermarest Neoair X-lite inflatable sleeping pad offers the most comfortable lightweight solution. The regular size x-lite mattress offers great sleeping comfort for side-sleepers, but comes in solidly at second place due to the dramatic weight increase involved with moving up to a full-size inflatable sleeping pad. For anyone shorter than 5' 5'' or just looking for a comfortable shorter inflatable pad, check out the women's version of the X-lite.

With an equipment list that has a small number of total equipment pieces and such a low overall volume, there isn't much available in the kit to use to extend short inflatable sleeping pads. This means that as you sleep on the short inflatable pad your legs will hang off and be uncomfortable. I call this "leg-hangoff". I have found that for short sleeping pads, especially torso-length pads, a closed cell foam material is superior in that it offers cushioning and insulation without creating too much of a height difference between the head and foot ends of the sleeping area. Even with a low-volume kit like the Dream Wishlist, you will be able to use a frameless pack and your other equipment to extend a low-profile closed cell foam pad like the Gossamer Gear Nitelight and give your lower body some insulation from cold ground. 

3.74 Pound Base Weight SUL 3 season Kit (Expanded)


It isn't too difficult to make a "Super Ultralight" summer kit. The nice, warm evenings and sunny days of summer mean that you can get by with very little equipment. When the weather turns a little colder on the fringes of the main hiking season, though, extra equipment is called for to keep backpackers warm and safe.

Keeping a 3 season kit below 5 pounds can be tough, but I've found that adding just a dedicated puffy jacket, puffy pants, and a wind shell seriously expands the hiking season for SUL equipment load-outs. Lofted insulation like down or synthetic 'puffy clothing' give the most warmth for their weight, and are an obvious choice for those who want to get the most out of every ounce of equipment carried.

I've found some great lightweight items that will expand the 2018 Ultimate Dream Wishlist's capability into a greater portion of the main hiking season. When I saw these lightweight clothing options, I knew instantly that they would have to be included in this year's list. All three items are made by Enlightened Equipment, a small gear company that has seen an almost meteoric rise in popularity in the long-distance hiking community over the last two seasons due to the quality of their products and the price point at which they are provided.

It's important to note that these three pieces of clothing would be worn to bed on colder nights to get the most warmth and utility out of all the insulation carried in this kit.

Without further ado, here's the 3 pieces of additional clothing that I'm most excited about as cold weather options this year.

'Puffy Clothing'

Puffy Jacket

The Enlightened Equipment Torrid APEX Jacket starting at 6.50 ounces, this jacket will give great warmth for its low weight. When layered underneath a poncho-quilt like the Spirit 48, this jacket will help provide a great deal of warmth for the upper body.

Despite the bleakness in this
snowbound hostel selfie,
My Cerium LT Hoody has
performed well for me in the
coldest conditions on the AT.
I don't imagine that, on its own, the Torrid APEX Jacket could outperform my 10 ounce Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody's down-hybrid construction in the coldest conditions, but when coupled with the serious insulating-power of a wearable sleeping quilt the Enlightened Equipment jacket would put up a heck of a fight.

There's a couple of reasons I think the Torrid APEX jacket should trump in such a light-weight kit:

First, modularity. Wherever possible, having more modular equipment systems means more flexibility in how you make use of them. Where a little extra warmth is needed, the 6.50 ounce synthetic jacket will do well in providing in-camp comfort. A heavier jacket is often too warm on summer nights, though it can be ventilated by opening up chest and pocket zippers and doffing the hood. On colder nights, the ability to layer the jacket with a wearable quilt gives much more comfort and warmth, without redundancy or excess in the amount of insulation carried. A heavier jacket that doesn't work with your sleeping insulation to boost its warmth will always carry with it some surplus of insulation weight that a more modular kit would not.

Furthermore, in the warmest months, when your dedicated jacket gets sent home, it's nice to have the ability to use just the wearable sleeping insulation to keep the kit as light as possible. That warmer jacket will only really be carried where you also have a warmer sleeping bag or quilt in the main hiking season and both items are doing their own, separate jobs instead of complementing each other to do the same job.

Second, I'm not in love with down cold spots. As much as I like my down equipment for its low weight and longevity,  I find the shifting of down clusters throughout my lofted-insulation equipment to be very frustrating. In my quilt, the down all shifts to its edges in use since the edges of the quilts hang down around my body and the baffles run at 90 degrees to my long axis. As a result I've often felt poorly insulated by my down quilt.

Similarly, I've found that the down in the elbows of my 10 ounce puffy jacket tends to shift to the back side of the elbow within the garment. This leads to having little or no insulation, and very noticeable cold-spots in the crooks of both of my arms. I find shifting the down back to where it belongs to be frustrating, especially where the baffles are very narrow.

Climashield APEX is a continuous piece of synthetic insulation that doesn't shift around and doesn't have cold spots. The nature of the APEX synthetic insulation brings me to the last difference, and why I tend to prefer synthetic insulation. Whereas APEX might lose a little loft and performance over time, down garments constantly shed feathers. I've breathed in, swallowed, or sniffed down feathers up my nose on a number of occasions, and there's just something awful about seeing tufts of your insulation constantly escape from the confines of its outer fabric. To a some extent, escaping feathers can cause irritation by poking you where they escape through the inner shell fabric. I've had feathers poke me in the crook of my arm a couple of times and it just about drove me nuts until I was able to work the garment between my fingers and get the feather back inside with the rest of the down.

Puffy Pants

The Enlightened Equipment Torrid APEX Pants can be had at a staggering 4.66 ounces in size medium. Over the last two years I've learned that "puffy pants", as I call them, give me a huge boost to warmth and comfort around camp in the evenings. My current pair of Mountain Hardware synthetic puffy pants have served me very well and have some great features, but by comparison weigh 18 ounces.

The prospect of enjoying the in-camp comfort of lightweight "puffy clothing" options like these at a fraction of the weight penalty is quite alluring, and locks these pieces of equipment into their well-earned spots on the 2018 Ultimate Dream Wishlist.

Wind Shirt

Last, and actually ... least ... coming in at a nifty 1.78 ounces, is the Enlightened Equipment Copperfield Wind Shirt.

In my current summer kit I will be carrying an Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket as an extra piece of clothing to provide some extra, more form-fitting wind protection on exposed ridge-lines and mountain summits where a poncho-tarp will probably flap about endlessly. This rain jacket will also offer a little bit of extra warmth around camp for my otherwise bare arms that stick out from underneath my poncho-quilt.

The drawback to carrying this rain jacket as an extra piece of clothing is that it weighs 159 grams, or about 5.61ounces. Even more importantly it that is close enough to a vapor-barrier in function, despite any true rain jacket's claim to be 'breathable', that hiking in it can be murderously hot. If I wear my Helium II jacket when I hike out of camp on a chilly morning, I know that I will be stopping to remove it within 10 minutes.

I've come to the realization that for every purpose that I've decided to carry this extra piece of clothing for, a much lighter wind shirt would do an adequate job in some areas to much better job in others. Having the ability to wear the Copperfield Wind Shirt around camp for a little extra warmth without getting sweaty in the process like I do wearing a rain jacket would be glorious. A long-sleeve piece of equipment that isn't stifling can be amazing in camp where there is heavy bug pressure, and wind-shirts are often utilized as bug-shirts by hikers.

A potential modification to a lightweight wind shirt like the Copperfield Wind Shirt

I've had this idea that I could cut my cheap bug mesh hood in half, stitch it in to the hood of a wind-shirt for an 8 or 9 gram weight increase, and call it a day as far as dealing with bug-pressure in camp is concerned. Leaving the mesh below the chin unstitched to the sides, the remainder of the bug-mesh fabric could just tuck in behind the zipped-up collar of the jacket to seal out any bugs. A mild surplus of fabric in the bug mesh face shield would mean that the hood could still be worn without the face shield by pulling it up without freeing the bug mesh from the inside of the hood first. I wonder if Enlightened Equipment would be willing to modify one of these 7d wind shirts in this way for a customer, but hey this is the Ultimate Dream Wishlist after all so lets not put limits on what our gear might be.

Thanks for reading, but there's more to see!

Well reader, that wraps up the 'core elements' that make this crazy-light XUL/SUL equipment list tick. If you haven't yet check out the lighter-pack page containing the full 2018 Ultimate Dream Wishlist where you'll find more equipment picks that have made my list for this year. As I said earlier in this post, leave a comment down below if you would like to see a similar post covering the other items that made the 2018 wishlist. I would be happy to write up something for each of those remaining items if there's enough interest.

If you want to see what I'm carrying with me this summer starting on May 16th, 2018, check out my current SUL summer gearlist for the AT. (It is not as polished as the dream list, but much more descriptive and replete with the personal items that make my gear-list work best for me.) A video series based on the contents of my summer pack is available through this playlist, if you want to watch some video-recorded gear talk. 

Thank you for supporting littlelifehappy by reading this post. I very much appreciate your readership. If you enjoyed this post start holding your breath for updates from the trail. I'll be posting whenever I'm able to get adequate WiFi or LTE coverage, but will probably lean more heavily on video-blog and photo type content while out on trail. I'll make it a point to put up links to everything through the littlelifehappy blog, and keep an eye on any comments that are made through the site.

Have a great day, and talk to you soon from the trail.