You’re a believer. You’ve done some reading, maybe hiked with somebody who had an amazingly light pack. Whatever the reason, you’re convinced of the benefits of going lighter, you just don’t quite know where to start. The first thing to remember is it’s a process. Don’t expect to achieve miracles right away, just start down the trail and learn and lighten as you go. One of the most powerful things you can do is to adjust your expectations. If you try to duplicate your everyday home experience in the backcountry, you are going to be carrying a heavy pack. So let’s start that journey. We’ll cover the following:
- Data is your friend (weigh everything)
- Taking less ‘stuff’
- Multiple use items
- Taking lighter ‘stuff’
- The ‘BIG 3’
- Knowledge is Power!
Data is your friend (weigh everything)To figure out how to get somewhere, first you need to know where you are. You need the brutal truth about the weight of your gear. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming something is negligible, that’s a rare case indeed. Generally, if you watch the ounces, the pounds will take care of themselves.
- Get some scales You may be able to start this process with scales that you have around the house. But eventually you will probably end up with more than one scale. I have a kitchen scale I use for food weighing, a postage scale for most gear items, a scale that reads to the nearest tenth of a gram for really small items, and a digital hanging scale for loaded pack weights.
- Weigh all your gear Take out every piece of gear you’ve taken on a trip or might take on a trip. Weigh each piece of gear, and write down the weight with the accurate description. Don’t write down ‘shirt’, and be wondering later which shirt it was. Be sure to weigh component parts of your gear. For instance, weigh the trekking pole baskets apart from the trekking poles. Don’t just put down the first aid kit at 8 oz, weigh all the pieces. Break everything down into its component parts.
- Weigh your pack Get into the habit of weighing your pack before trips. Take the hanging digital scale with you, and weigh it last thing before you close the car trunk at the trailhead. This will give you a true weight, not a weight at home before you stick in a few ‘just in case’ items into your pack! If you have a competitive nature, you might enlist your hiking friends in this exercise also. A common way to list pack weight is ‘base pack weight’. While definitions vary, generally this is the weight of the pack without food and water (since this depends on the length and locale of the trip), but including containers you use to carry food and water, all your gear including stuff generally carrying in your pockets, but not including the clothes you would normally be wearing in the middle of the day (no rain gear, jackets, etc). Since you’re just tracking your own progress, your personal definition will work if it is consistent. If you find yourself cheating, you can always go to the ‘from skin out (FSO)’ method, which includes ALL gear and clothing, but no food and water. The FSO weight, of course, is not quite as convenient to ascertain at the trailhead unless it is pretty remote.
- Analyze List all your gear and the weights. If you are handy with a spreadsheet program, that is a great tool for accomplishing this list. Then you can sort the items by weight, so that the heavier stuff is on the top (or bottom). Take a look and analyze the total of your standard gear list for a trip. Most people are surprised to find how many individual items they take with them. Sometimes people look at an item of gear they always take with them, and realize they can’t remember the last time they actually used it on a trip. Look at how the weights of clothes add up. Compare the weights of different options you have, like a down vest compared to a fleece vest. Spend some time looking the list over and see if you can write down a couple of observations/ideas based on what you see.
Taking less ‘stuff’So now that you’ve weighed everything, you have some data to start with. It’s time to dive in and start figuring out how to take less so you can do more.
- Leave things at home One of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to reduce pack weight is to leave stuff at home! If you see something you never use but always take, consider going without it. If it’s a first aid item, you will want to think carefully about it, but the same logic can be applied. Consider the ramifications of not having it, the ‘worst case scenario’, if you will. If you can live with that, then leave the gear at home. Consider the particulars of the trip to fine-tune your gear list. If you are heading out in the late fall, insects are unlikely to be an issue, so you can leave your head net and insect repellent at home. If you are hiking in the desert, maybe you don’t need the snow baskets on your trekking poles. If you can figure out how to eat everything with a spoon, you don’t need to take a fork. Taking less items saves weight.
- Take smaller quantities The other part of taking less stuff is taking smaller quantities. You would be surprised at how quickly the seemingly minor weights of soap, sunscreen, skin lotion, and insect repellent add up. Strive to only take what you expect to use on a particular trip. Comb the travel sections of the stores you shop for small sizes or samples of products. Buy mini containers and decant products into them after labeling. Check out Minimus.biz for a huge variety of items available in tiny quantities.
Multiple use itemsSomewhat related to taking less stuff is looking for multiple use items. If you can find a piece of gear that does more than one function, you can leave something else at home. Now, they may not be perfect for all the functions, but if you decide it does a serviceable job, it’s a great way to lose weight. Some examples to get your creative juices flowing:
- Titanium cup
If you’re willing to plan ahead and adapt, you may find that you can use the same titanium cup or pot as:
- Cup (for cold drinks)
- Mug (for hot drinks)
- Bowl (for soup, cereal, etc)
- Plate (for hot meals, as long as you don’t mind if your food groups touch)
- Pot (for boiling water, or simmering food if the cup is big enough)
- Group gear (I’ve done trips where we both ate right out of the pot we cooked in, and neither of us took a plate or bowl)
It may not seem like they weigh much, but carrying a separate compass, thermometer, timer, alarm, etc. can add up, not to mention the hassle of keeping track of a bunch of small stuff. If you pick the right watch it can serve as:
- Timer (to keep track of when your water is ready to drink, or how far to the next turnoff)
- Compass (be sure to set the declination)
- Altimeter (handy on the PCT for tracking progress)
- Barometer (for anticipating changes in weather conditions)
- Thermometer (for data points so you know how well your sleeping bag works)
This is one item that won’t set you back a lot of money, but carefully chosen and used, can be your:
- Washcloth (use one corner)
- Towel (use everything except the one corner, hand squeegee yourself first)
- Hat (to keep the sun off, or as a little extra insulation)
- Handkerchief (snot of course renders some of the other uses less desireable)
- Prefilter for water
- Signal tool (if you pick red or similar color)
- Dr. Bronner’s soap
If you haven’t heard of Dr. Bronners, you must have lived a very sheltered existence indeed, and it’s time to expand your horizons. I prefer the peppermint style. And while the writing on the original bottles can provide for hours of entertainment or thought-provoking discussions, this is very concentrated, so decant into smaller dropper bottles. It’s biodegradable, but use responsible Leave No Trace manners in the backcountry. This miracle soap can be used as:
- Soap (okay, no surprise there)
- Shampoo (keeps your scalp fresh)
- Dishwashing (rinse well)
- Toothpaste (1 drop only for beginners!)
It’s nice to have the perfect pair of pants or shorts for every condition, and I’m sure your trail companions might appreciate different colors and patterns, but if you choose wisely and accept some minor compromises, you may find that one pair of pants can serve as:
- Rain pants (obviously they need to be waterproof/breathable)
- Sun pants (okay, not perfect, but if you mostly use shorts, and they are really breathable, they will do in a pinch)
- Wind pants
- Laundromat suit (on longer trips, when you’re in town, it’s nice to have something to wear when you’re washing everything else)
- Shorts (if you have zip-off pants)
The right hat can provide:
- Sun protection
- Rain protection
- Headlamp (with a small light clipped to it)
- Washbasin (if it’s waterproof, or with a plastic bag inside)
- Bug protection (when it supports a head net)
- Ground cloth One of those thin emergency blankets, particularly if you choose the ones that are gold colored on one side, can serve as a ground cloth, emergency warmth/shelter, and a signal tool (the gold color is not generally naturally occurring and will not look like other natural reflections from the air like the silver side will). Of course, the polycryo ground cloth, besides being even lighter and having the advantage of letting you see pebbles through it before you sleep on them, can serve as a solar still in an emergency situation.
- Sunglass tether The hides sunglass strap also serves as a sunglasses case, and a polishing cloth.
- Sleeping pad Many Gossamer Gear packs are designed to use your sleeping pad as part of the pack frame. It can also serve as a sit pad during breaks. With the proper knowledge, a sleeping pad can be an important piece of first aid equipment. It can also make a cool toboggan for sliding off a snowbank into an alpine lake.
- Sleeping socks Many Gossamer Gear packs are designed to allow the use of sleeping socks as shoulder strap or waist belt padding. The sleeping socks may also make great protection for sunglasses.
Taking lighter ‘stuff’Once you’ve figured out what you can leave at home, either because the function is covered by some other multiple-use item, or you’ve just plain figured out how to do without it, it’s time to start making sure that the stuff you do bring is the lightest stuff you can find, or at least the lightest you can afford. Light stuff doesn’t always have to be pricey. Check out Mark Henley's Ultracheap Gear List for ideas. Here’s some items you might want to consider:
- Spoon You got down to one spoon, so don’t take a big metal one. Most outdoor stores sell nice lexan spoons. Personally I like the feel of a bamboo spoon, but the Dairy Queen spoons are super light, and nice and long for eating out of Ziploc bags. The McDonalds McFreeze spoon is also light, and much more durable. Keep your eyes open and see what you come up with.
- Flashlight I’ve hiked hundreds of miles at night with a Photon Microlight. There are lots of options out there now, but consider carefully how much light you really need and what kind of features are really necessary. If you get a tiny light that can clip onto your hat, you don’t need the heavy head strap. Lithium batteries are a little lighter and will last longer in the cold. I’ve actually gone heavier in recent years, since I enjoy the clip on the Fenix or Arc AAA lights.
- Rain gear Frogg Toggs, Rainshield and Driducks are very breathable and very waterproof products. I’ve used Driducks for years as my only jacket. It’s so breathable it makes a great windshirt, so there’s no need to bring a separate one. I don’t use the Driducks pants because they get shredded too easily on brush and talus, so I opt for chaps. But if you’re traveling on clear trails, the Driducks pants may serve you well.
- Footwear Lifting boots on every step can take a toll, and minimize the benefits of carrying less weight on your back. Most lightweight backpackers use running shoes for hiking. With less weight on your back, there’s also less weight on your feet. If you use trekking poles, they help with balance and can keep you from twisting your ankle. Lighter loads will allow you to be more focused on your surroundings, and being not as tired will help keep you from stumbling as much. Also, using running shoes will help strengthen your ankles.
- Cup If you’re not ready to use your cooking pot for your cup, take the lightest cup you can find. My favorite was a thin plastic cup cut from part of a large drink cup from a fast food place. I just had to make sure there was something inside it when it was packed, so it would hold it’s shape and not crack.
- Cooking There’s a bunch of options for light alcohol or esbit stoves. And you can make your own for free!
- Water treatment Filters are heavy, and prone to clogging. Ultraviolet treatment is nice, but relies on batteries, and can sometimes malfunction. Chemical treatment such as Aquamira will effectively treat water, with no waste and for a fraction of the weight. Usually mini dropper bottles can carry a 4 – 5 day supply.
The ‘BIG 3’When you weighed all your existing gear, put it in a spreadsheet, and ranked it by weight, you probably noticed the three heaviest things were your pack, tent and sleeping bag. Since these are the generally the three heaviest items, it’s worth taking a look at these to shave some major weight.
The big internal frame pack I bought when our son Brian joined Boy Scouts weighed over seven pounds empty. Now, my total base pack weight is well under that. There are a number of great pack options out there, both by cottage manufacturers and mainstream manufacturers. Think about what kind of trips you are going to take with the pack:
- how long
- what kind of terrain
- season (temperatures, precipitation)
- on trail or off-trail
- arid areas (need to carry more water)
Not so many years ago, a 4 to 6 pound tent was considered lightweight. There are now so many more options. What you need for shelter depends somewhat on the kinds of trips you take, but largely upon your comfort level. You need to consider:
- size of sleeping group (1-, 2-, 3- or 4-person)
- time of year (3-season or 4-season)
- bug protection needs
- Sleeping Bag
There’s a ton of options when it comes to sleeping bags:
- Down vs. Synthetic (down is lighter/warmer, as long as it stays dry)
- Blanket/quilt vs. Bag
- Zipper vs. Half Zipper vs. No Zipper (zippers add weight)
- Breathable vs. Vapor Barrier
- Insulation on Bottom?
- Hood vs. No Hood
Knowledge is Power!One of the main things you are doing when lightening your load is trading knowledge and experience for weight. The more you know, the less you can take.
- Trip planning
The more you know, either from research or from traveling in the area previously, the lighter you can go. Some of the considerations:
- Location (have you been there before, or have others in the group, in the same season)
- Route (is the trip on a trail that others will be traveling, or is it in remote, off-trail wilderness)
- Who you are traveling with (what are their pack weights? How much experience to they have? Do they have any medical training?)
- Anticipated conditions (temperature, precipitation, bugs, bears, sun)
- Water (are sources plentiful? Do you have recent intel on the locations? Are there high creeks to cross?)
- Bailout points (are there locations to take out in an emergency? Do you have the maps for them?)
- Bear canisters (are they required for the area you are traveling in?)
I know it’s kind of ‘old school’, but books are a great way to learn from the experience of others. Both how-to books, and books about trips taken by lightweight hikers are useful sources of information. Some of my favorites:
- Lighten Up!, Don Ladigin
- Ultralight Backpackin' Tips, Mike Clelland!
- Lightweight Backpacking 101, Ryan Jordan et al
- Lightweight Backpacking and Camping, edited by Ryan Jordan
- Beyond Backpacking, Ray Jardine
- Gear lists Reviewing other people’s gear lists is a great source of ideas. You get a glimpse of how they have solved the gear equation. Just make sure it’s a list they have actually used, and not an ‘armchair’ gear list. There’s a section on our website with some interesting gear lists, and many of our trip reports include gear lists. Often trail journal sites will include gear lists.
- Online resources We live in an online world, and the amount of information available online is staggering. As you check out websites, you will see links to still other sites, so you can quickly bookmark a number of sites with useful information. There are also online groups and forums devoted to ultralight backpacking.
- Wilderness First Aid
You have to carry your brain when you’re backpacking, and it doesn’t weigh any more no matter how much you stuff into it! Packing it with information will allow you to become lighter, as you learn techniques that allow you to improvise. Most people carry heavy first aid kits that they don’t know how to use. This is a case where knowledge of what to do in a medical situation is invaluable. Find the nearest provider near you, and consider taking:
- Basic first aid
- Advanced Life Support (ALS)
- Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) (usually about a 3-day course)
- Wilderness First Responder (WFR) (usually a 4 – 6 day course)
- Courses Once great way to gain experience is to take trips with companies that provide a safe and engaging experience. It’s hard to find programs that stress lightweight backpacking, but it’s becoming more common. Some options:
- Teach others As you gain a little knowledge, one of the great ways to learn more is to teach others what you have already learned! Consider volunteering for your local Boy Scout troop, get involved in the Sierra Club or other local outdoor programs, and participate in online forums.
- Hike! There’s no substitute for actually getting out there! Be an intentional backpacker. Take notes when you’re on a trip (keep pen and paper handy so you jot things down as they occur to you). Record what worked, and what didn’t. Note what gear other people had that seemed to work, or what food that looked tasty. Then review your notes before a hike. Have your gear packed up and ready to go at a moments notice, so if an opportunity arises, you’re ready to take advantage of it. Find people with lighter packs than you to hike with, so you learn from them.