Since the early 2000s, I’ve applied ultralight principles to all of my backpacking trips around the globe. From deserts to jungles and from alpine regions to arctic tundra, lightening and simplifying my load has made a significant difference to the overall quality of my wilderness experiences. As a result of these journeys, I’ve learned what backpacking gear I need to be safe and comfortable(ish) in any given environment.
What follows is the first in a series of ultralight gear posts based on those experiences. Considering my east coast of Australia origins, I thought I’d start things off with “hot and humid” environments. In regard to specifics, by “hot and humid” I’m referring to hiking destinations in which daytime air temperatures regularly exceed 29°C (84°F) with at least 65 percent humidity, and nighttime temps are commonly in the low teens to low twenties Celsius (i.e. 54 to 75°F). In the upper reaches of low-elevation mountain ranges such as the Appalachians and the Australian Alps, evening temperatures can occasionally drop to single digits Celsius (i.e. high thirties to low fifties Fahrenheit).
It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that most hot and humid places are not necessarily backpacking-friendly 12 months a year (e.g. Florida in the middle of summer). The same goes for multi-day or week excursions during the height of the rainy season in tropical environments such as Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea. Is it possible to venture into such environments at the hottest times of the year? Yes. It’s possible if you’re fit, experienced, and prepared for the added discomfort and/or limited hiking windows. Is it always a smart thing to do? Not so much.
Gear List: Appalachian Mountains / Australian Alps (Summer)
Below is a gear list of what I would take if the world was COVID-19 lockdown-free and I was jetting off in the not-too-distant future for a summer backpacking trip in the Appalachian Mountains or the Australian Alps. Most of the gear is similar to what I’d also take on a hiking trip to tropical areas, however, there are some differences which I reference specifically in the Details/Alternative Items section immediately below the list:
MLD Burn (DCF) (modified)
Frameless, slim profile / UL backpack of choice since the 2000s / Current model has more bells and whistles than the original version, but no biggie to modify (see Pack Hack video).
Pack Liner (Trash Compactor Bag)
Cheap and effective
Tarptent Aeon Li
Easy to pitch and roomy for something that weighs around a pound. The bathtub floor and netting are key for wet, muddy, and buggy (oh my) conditions. If rain isn’t on the cards, I leave door flaps completely rolled up for more ventilation and enhanced views (see photo below).
Stakes – Easton stakes (come with tent)
Pad – Thermarest NeoAir XLite (Sm)
Very comfy / Doubles as makeshift framesheet for pack / Put feet on backpack when sleeping / See 20,000 + mile review.
Quilt – MLD Spirit Quilt 38°F (Lge) (with Poncho head slot)
I prefer synthetic over down insulation in hot/humid environs (see below for details). When it’s consistently sweltering in the evenings (e.g. in the tropics), I’ll leave the quilt at home and go with a cotton/silk liner instead.
LokSak 20×12 (Food Bag)
Holds five days of food. I’ve found that seals start to go after about six weeks of regular use in the field.
Food Vessel: Reconstituted Gatorade Powder Container
Titanium spork (Toaks)
I put some orange tape around the end to make it tougher to lose.
SmartWater Bottles 1 LT (2)
FIRST AID / HYGIENE
Sunscreen (repackaged in a tiny bottle)
Hand Sanitizer (repackaged in a dropper bottle)
It’s been 20 years since I’ve had a case of the trots in the backcountry. I think a big reason is my diligent use of hand sanitizer.
Aquamira (repackaged in dropper bottles)
Water purification method of choice since 2007.
Toothpaste (mini tube)
Doubles as sewing thread
Antiseptic Wipes (2)
Clean cuts and wounds.
Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube)
3M Micropore Medical Tape
Breathable, paper tape / Adheres well.
One-armed blind people can sew better than I can.
Tenacious Tape and Mini Tube Super Glue (sleeping mat repair)
Rain Jacket – Montbell Versalite
Pit-zips, two pockets, 3-way adjustable hood / Combine with travel umbrella when it’s really bucketing down.
Insulation – Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Zip-Neck
Versatile. Can be used as a mid-layer in hot conditions (size up), or a base layer in winter.
Extra Socks – REI Merino Wool Liners
Still my go-to liner socks, though the current models aren’t quite as durable as the pre-2013 versions.
Head Net – Sea to Summit with Insect Shield
Buff (original polyester)
Beanie, neck/face protection, condensation wipe, convenience store holdups if low on cash.
Gloves – Montbell Chameece Liners
Easily the best liner gloves I’ve ever used / Compatible with touchscreen devices
Phone –iPhone 11
Major upgrade over my old Samsung Galaxy S7
Otter Symmetry case (orange)
Umbrella – Montbell Travel Umbrella
More of a supplementary item rather than a stand-alone solution for all my rain protection needs. Combines well with rain jacket. Sanity saver when it’s belting down for an extended period.
Small stuff sack – HMG Cuben Fiber (2)
Ditty bag / First Aid / Toiletries
Recent pickup. I’d been hearing great things about it for the last year or two, and decided to give it a try. Double thumbs up.
Montbell Trail Wallet (orange model)
Love this little wallet. Light and respectable alternative to the hikertrash/homeless Ziploc model. Use it both on trail and off.
Swiss Army Classic
Compass – Suunto M-3G Global Pro
Adjustable declination and globally balanced needle.
Deuce of Spades potty trowel
Map Bag – Quart Size Ziploc
Keeps maps clean, dry, and organized.
Montbell Alpine Carbon Pole Cam Lock (without strap and basket)
After many years of using the Fizan Compacts (twist lock), I switched to the Montbell flip-locks which are easier to handle, more secure, and worth the extra ounce and a half.
Pants – Outdoor Research Ferrosi
Exchanging the Patagonia Baggies for permethrin-treated pants due to summer being tick season. I only picked up the Ferrosi’s a few months ago, and I’ve got to admit I’m impressed. Most comfortable hiking pants I’ve worn.
Base layer – Patagonia Sun Stretch Shirt (Lge)
I’ve been regularly using this shirt during the Australian summer in recent years. Material feels soft against the skin, relaxed fit, dries quickly, useful zippered pockets, and UPF 30 protection.
Hat – Adapt-a-Cap (old model)
The latest incarnation is heavier and a little tight for folks with a big noggin.
Shoes – Brooks Cascadia 14
I’ve worn every model of the Cascadias since the 3’s, which came out more than a decade ago. With the exception of the Cascadia 10’s, all of the different incarnations have consistently given me between 450 and 600 miles before having to swap them out.
Socks – REI Merino Wool liners
Still my go-to liner socks, though the current models aren’t as durable as the pre-2013 versions.
Dirty Girl Gaiters
Handy for keeping out dirt and mud. Fun colours and designs. I’ve been rocking DG’s since 2007.
Timex Ironman Watch
Cheap, durable, light, multiple alarms
Polarized lenses, 100% UV protection, wrap-around.
Details & Alternative Items
In this section, I go into more specifics about the reasons behind some of my gear choices, as well as list alternative items which will do a similar job in hot and humid conditions. Some of the alternate items suggested I have personally used, whereas other recommendations are based on consistently great reviews from the UL backpacking community over a period of at least two or three years.
Warmer weather means a light sleeping bag, no stove, and fewer and/or lighter clothing items. In such conditions, I’ll almost always opt for a frameless backpack, unless there is a chronic scarcity of H2O and I’m regularly having to carry more than 6 or 8 liters. In such scenarios, I’d consider going with a lightweight internal framed pack such as the HMG Southwest 2400.
UL Alternatives: Gossamer Gear (Kumo), Superior Wilderness Designs, Atom Packs, Pa’lante Packs (V2)
When nights are muggy, buggy and torrential rain could be on the meteorological cards (i.e. particularly if you’re in tropical-type environments), ideally, you want a shelter that holds up well in a storm, has good ventilation, a bathtub floor, and bug netting. Alternatively, for those that prefer the aerial approach, hammocks represent and excellent (though slightly heavier) option in hot and humid conditions (i.e. better airflow and easier to keep gear dry).
“What about tarps?” For hot and dry environments, most definitely. For buggy, wet and muddy conditions, it’s possible, but personally I think there are better options.
UL Alternatives: Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, Tarptent StratoSpire Li, MLD Solomid/Duomid (with bug net inner), Durston X-Mid // For lightweight hammock options, see Hammocks for Thru-hiking.
When it comes to sleeping bags/quilts, I opt for down insulation in most conditions. The exception being hot and humid weather in which synthetic equivalents (e.g. ClimaShield Apex) are both more resistant to moisture and dry faster. If the evenings are consistently sweltering, I’ll leave the sleeping bag at home and opt for a Sea to Summit silk/cotton bag liner (i.e. 70% cotton / 30 % silk) which tips the scales at just 5.2 oz. It’s worth noting that 100% silk liners are even lighter and more compact, but tend to stick to the skin more. Alternatively, 100% cotton liners feel like your sheets at home but are approximately twice as heavy and even less compact.
UL Alternatives: Nunatak 3D Apex, Enlightened Equipment Revelation Apex 40
In hot and humid conditions, insulation from the ground isn’t much of an issue. If you are going to go with a thin closed-cell foam mat, this is the type of environment in which to do so. That said, everyone’s different when it comes to the level of comfort required in order to obtain a good night’s rest, so ultimately your own experiences will be your best guide.
Memory Lane: Age and personal history play a role in sleeping comfort. In my teens, twenties, and thirties I exclusively used closed cell foam mats. When I hit my forties, I noticed that years of heavy wear and tear had begun to take a toll, and I required a little more in the way of comfort in order to obtain a good night’s sleep. From an ultralight perspective, thankfully the beginning of my fifth decade coincided with the arrival of the Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite.
UL Alternatives: Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol, Therm-a-rest RidgeRest SoLite, Gossamer Gear Nightlight
In hot conditions (whether it be dry or humid), go as light and breathable as the dictates of your feet allow. The goal being to mitigate swelling and excessive perspiration which can lead to blisters and/or other foot issues. Don’t even think about boots or trail running shoes with a Gore-Tex liner, the latter of which sacrifices breathability for temporary waterproofness.
Pro Tip: 1. When hiking in hot conditions, wash/clean your feet and socks regularly. Once during the day when at a water source (change socks afterward), and again at day’s end before going to sleep.
Alternatives: When it comes to footwear, I’m always reluctant to give specific model recommendations, due to the uniqueness of each person’s feet and injury history. That said, brands of trail runners that have well-established reputations include Brooks, Salomon, Inov-8, Merrell, La Sportiva, and (even) Altras.
What about sports sandals?: Best ventilation and quickest drying of all footwear options. If you have strong ankles, a light load, and are walking on a trail with relatively mellow tread, they can be a functional option. That said, it’s worth noting that they usually weigh around the same as lightweight trail runners, don’t offer the same level of support or protection in rough terrain, and aren’t as stable during challenging river crossings. Personally speaking, sandals are a great choice for day hiking and around town wear, but not so much for backpacking trips.
Most of the models advertised as hiking or trekking socks in Outdoor Stores are too thick and heavy for anything but cold conditions. Disregard the spin, and go with thin, breathable models. Many ultralight hikers opt for cheap and ultralight nylon dress socks (e.g. Goldtoe Metropilitan), but personally I prefer merino wool liners – they are a bit more expensive, but they feel better against the skin and don’t smell as much.
Alternatives: Smartwool Merino Liners, Injinji Wool Liners
Base Layer – Torso
When both temps and humidity are high, generally I’ll opt for a synthetic, buttoned shirt for maximum ventilation. If I’m carrying an umbrella it could be a short-sleeved model, however, more often than not I’ll still go with a long-sleeved version both for bug deterrence, as well as the extra sun protection. If it’s buggy as well as hot (e.g. Amazon and Central America), I’ll opt for permethrin-treated clothing. On that front, there are three options available: 1. DIY Permethrin spray your shirt and pants; 2. Send your items away to be factory treated (US residents), or; 3. Purchase pre-treated shirts and/or pants from companies such as ExOfficio and RailRiders.
UL Alternatives: Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoodie 2, Columbia Silver Ridge Lite
Base Layer – Pants/Shorts
As long-time followers of “The Hiking Life” may be aware, I tend to prefer wearing shorts when I hike. Indeed, unless it’s consistently below freezing, it’s rare that I’ll walk in pants. That said, there are some notable exceptions. One of them is in countries such as Pakistan and Tibet, where it’s culturally appropriate to wear pants rather than shorts. The other scenario that comes to mind is when I’m hiking in areas where ticks or mosquitos/sandflies/midges are an issue.
Which brings me to the Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants. I only picked these up recently after reading a bunch of glowing reviews, and I have to say they’ve exceeded my expectations. Lightweight, very comfortable, they dry relatively quickly, and they look respectable when traveling through airports and towns.
UL Alternatives: Patagonia Baggies 5″ and 7″ (the only hiking shorts I’ve worn since 2016). Click here for a long-term review of the Baggies.
What I bring as an insulation layer for a backpacking trip is more changeable than a summer’s day in San Francisco. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s another item in my kit which is more dependant on weather conditions than the insulation layer. When hiking in hot and humid low-elevation mountain areas (where chilly nights/mornings are possible) I’ll generally go with a very light fleece/grid fleece with a zipper (e.g. 100 wt). In tropical regions, I’ll often leave the fleece at home and go with a thin Merino t-shirt, which I’ll change into at day’s end after having a wash.
“What about the Synthetic Poncho Quilt?”: In the gear list above I mention the MLD Spirit quilt with a poncho head slot. Technically speaking it’s a dual purpose item that can also be used as an insulation layer. But in practical terms, I’ve found that while I might occasionally wear the poncho quilt around camp, I virtually never do so out on the trail. Why? Mostly because it’s overkill for activewear in hot/humid environments. The other reasons are that I don’t want to risk getting it wet on foggy/drizzly mornings, and also because there’s a pretty good chance of catching it on a branch if it’s draped loosely over the back of my pack while hiking.
UL Alternatives: Montbell Chameece Jacket, Patagonia Micro D Fleece Pullover
In hot and humid environments an umbrella provides an unbeatable combo of shade, ventilation, and rain protection. Theoretically speaking, most of the time in such conditions you could probably do without a rain jacket. That said, theories aren’t worth *#!% during an extended period of high winds when the rain is coming in at a 45° angle (irrespective of the temperature). At such times, you’ll be glad you also brought along a lightweight rain jacket (i.e. 6 to 8 oz).
UL Alternatives (Umbrellas): Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow, Montbell Trekking Umbrella
UL Alternatives (Rain Jackets): Columbia Outdry Ex, Montbell Peak Dry Shell, Frog Toggs Ultralite 2 Jacket
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