How to Use Spreadsheets to Go Ultralight

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Ultralight hikers are known for being gear-obsessed. One way that obsession manifests is in the creation of detailed gear lists. Fretting over a spreadsheet in your free time might sound like a good way to ruin an otherwise fun hobby, but ask any seasoned gram-counter and they’ll tell you it’s an important part of the journey to a lighter backpack. Why? It’s the most surefire way to get an accurate measurement of one all-important statistic: your baseweight.

What is a Baseweight and Why Does it Matter?

Though the phrase is tossed around regularly in ultralight circles, “baseweight” isn’t a term familiar to all backpackers. By definition, your baseweight is the total weight of all your backpacking gear minus consumable goods like food, water, and fuel. Since the weight of those consumable goods will change over time, calculating your pack weight without them adds a degree of precision. In addition, most ultralighters also separate items that they wear while hiking from their baseweight, since these items are almost never carried inside their packs. Things like shoes, your primary hiking pants or shorts, and t-shirt would be considered “worn weight,” while clothing that you usually stow in your pack, like a rainshell or puffy jacket, would be considered part of your baseweight.

Ultralighters like to put a quantifiable number to their baseweight because, while humans are easily deluded, a spreadsheet never lies. When packing for a trip, it’s easy to convince yourself that certain items weigh “next to nothing.” In actuality, all of those “weightless” items can add up to a substantial burden in your pack. A detailed gear list will lay bare just how many of these items you’re choosing to carry. Having a gear list also can show you the weight savings to be gained from new purchases or substitutions. And in some cases, that a new, lighter tent or sleeping bag won’t make as big a difference as you thought.

lighterpack
A sample spreadsheet from Lighterpack

How To Calculate Your Baseweight

The first step to getting to know your baseweight is to weigh your gear. Most companies list the weights of the products they sell, but many ultralighters prefer to weigh everything themselves because these listed weights can be off by as much as a few ounces. Plus, you undoubtedly have at least a few items, like an old aluminum pot or random pocket knife, that won’t have a weight listed anywhere online. To get started, a decent food scale can be had for about $10 and will do the job just fine. 

Next comes cataloging your gear into list form. An Excel spreadsheet could do the trick, but there are also purpose-built websites and apps that will make it even easier. The most popular is Lighterpack, though it is far from the only option. In any case, all of these apps work roughly the same way: enter your gear by name and weight, and the app will tally your total haul. There are options to group gear by category (like “shelter system” or “cookware”), along with a color-coded pie chart that gives you a weight breakdown per category. In Lighterpack, you can mark items as baseweight, worn weight, or consumable, and attach photos of each item, plus import and export your list as an Excel file, and share it via a unique URL. 

Sound like overkill? Perhaps for some. But seeing your gear reduced to a simple baseweight can be very instructive, especially if you’re new to ultralight. It can tell you if you’re close to meeting your goal weight or not even in the ballpark. And the ability to swap out an item for a lighter alternative and instantly see the impact on your baseweight is worth the time and effort. 

How to Get Started Using Lighterpack

Staring at a blank spreadsheet can be intimidating, especially if you’re new to backpacking or just starting out down the ultralight path. Luckily, since Lighterpack makes it easy to share lists, there are a number of them floating around to give you an idea of where to start. These range from budget ultralight gear lists to kits used during FKTs, and everything in-between. While you shouldn’t use any one list as gospel—everyone has different needs and tolerances—combing through a few different Lighterpack lineups can give insight into the kind of gear other hikers are carrying, what they’re leaving behind, and why. That, plus double-checking what you find against a proven checklist from an expert, will be a huge help as you get started.