Okay, you’re intrigued with the possibility of heading out backpacking with a lot less weight on your back. But you can’t help it, maybe it’s just the way you’re wired, but you’ve got questions that you need answered before you’re ready to start the journey.
- I need to hear the benefits of going lighter.
- Hey, I already own a bunch of [heavy] gear!
- What about safety?
- What about comfort?
I need to hear the benefits of going lighter.Not everyone will experience all the benefits of a lighter backpack, but then not everyone is looking for all the benefits of going lighter. Benefits enjoyed by hikers who have lightened up include:
- Easier on the body Even if you do manage to find the perfect backpack, with awesome padding, with a perfectly adjustable harness, compression straps, load lifters, canted waist belt, amazing frame, so that your shoulders aren’t sore, you’re STILL putting that load onto your poor knees and feet! Now if you’re a young stud/studette, maybe you can get away with carrying 70 lbs, or 50 lbs. But after a few years, you will feel it, and the damage to your knees and ankles may already be done. Carrying less weight will make your ENTIRE body thank you!
- Allows hiking longer/later in life My favorite letters from customers are the ones that start out: “I thought I had given up backpacking forever when I turned __, but now with my new light gear I am planning, and taking, trips again!” Being able to lighten your load means you can keep doing backpacking well into your ‘golden years’. And what could make the autumn of your life more ‘golden’ than backpacking?
- You can get further into the backcountry If you like to get away from the trailhead, and out past the crowds, having a lighter backpack will allow you to put in effortless strides that eat up the miles, and let you enjoy the solitude of the backcountry away from the hordes. If you want to see some countryside that not everyone can get to, taking less will help get you there.
- Pack more experience into a long weekend Depending on your personal job or life situation, you may not have a lot of discretionary time. Maybe you can only eke out a 3-day weekend for a backcountry recharge. There’s nothing better to cure WDD (Wilderness Deficit Disorder) like a quick trip. Having a simple, light pack makes for quick getaways from town. A light load allows you to make the most of the time you have available, it extends your backcountry reach, and brings more of the wild within grasp.
- Permits easier off-trail travel If you like to get off the beaten path, or have never tried it but are looking for something different than the trail experience, having a lighter load will make it easier to leave the trail and start bushwacking. A smaller load is easier to force through brush, and a lighter load makes for easier going up steep talus.
- Safer That’s right, a lighter load, even with a reduced first aid kit, can be SAFER than carrying a heavy pack with a big first aid kit! See discussion under What about safety?
- Less gear to keep track of Gone will be the days when you look like a gear explosion, if you’ve pared your backpack load down to the essentials, you will find you’ll be quicker out of camp in the morning because there’s just less gear to pack up. The simplicity of less gear will free you up to enjoy your surroundings more, spending less time worrying about your ‘stuff’. And isn’t that one of the reasons you head to the backcountry in the first place?
Hey, I already own a bunch of [heavy] gear!Good news! You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to trim your pack weight. To be sure, to get to some of the rarified levels of lightness, some significant coin may help. But a central tenet of going lighter is taking less, making do with less. Leaving stuff at home doesn’t cost anything. For some great cheap gear ideas, check out Mark Henley’s ultralight/ultracheap gear list. Some of the ways to save weight don’t involve new gear (see more ideas under I'm ready to start!):
- Leaving stuff at home As you analyze your gear list with weights, and think about what you actually use on trips, you’ll figure out things to leave at home. Most people take more gear, clothes and food than they actually use or need.
- Looking for multi-use items
This is closely related to leaving stuff at home, above. If you can figure out that a bandanna can serve as a washcloth, bandage, prefilter, emergency hat, and towel, you can then leave some of those other items at home. Other possibilities:
- Titanium cup that serves as plate, bowl, cooking pot, mug
- Watch with timer, alarm, compass, altimeter, barometer, thermometer
- Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap, serving as shampoo, dishwashing, toothpaste and deodorant
- Hat that provides sun protection, rain protection, a headlamp (with a clip-on flashlight), and even a washbasin
- See lots of other ideas at Multiple use items
- Borrow or rent lighter gear Renting light gear is hard, since most rental operations go in for heavier, bullet-proof gear. However, depending on how old and heavy your gear is, you may find that the rental options give you a taste of equipment that is at least lighter than what you have. Another option: make friends with people who have lighter gear than you and see if you can borrow it. Sometimes people that are really into lightening their load may have multiple renditions of gear as they lightened up, so you may be able to borrow what was their lightest pack right before they got one that was 2 ounces lighter. Some outfitters, like Wilderness Outings and Wilderness Trekking School, run specific lightweight trips and have gear (including Gossamer Gear products sometimes) that can be rented or borrowed. Depending on how heavy your gear is, you may find rentals at REI and Adventure 16 that will lighten your load at least a little.
- Make your own gear
If you can sew, or are willing to learn, there are many do-it-yourself projects that will significantly lighten your load. Many online stores have patterns or even complete kits for making your own gear. For example, the G4 pack pattern and materials is available for under $40 from Quest Outfitters, and there’s even a G4 Yahoo group if you have questions while you’re sewing. Making your own gear allows you to customize it to exactly what you want. Start with easy stuff like stuffsacks and tarps before moving on to backpacks and clothing. Other sources for patterns and materials:
- Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics
- BackpackingLight MYOG
What about safety?I rank possible backcountry injury/illness into three categories:
- You are going to die no matter what you brought
- You are going to live no matter what you brought (though you might be VERY uncomfortable)
- Something you brought will make the difference of you living or dying
- Increased strain on body parts A body beat down by a heavy load is more likely to have an accident. Weary brains are more likely to make poor decisions.
- Decreased range of party A lighter party may be able to avoid hazardous conditions, such as crossing a pass before a thunderstorm sets in. A lighter party can have someone go ahead and scout out a safer camping spot. A group of tired, heavily-laden hikers may be forced to make compromises that will impact their safety.
- Limited ability to redistribute gear If you are in a group with everyone carrying 50 lbs on their back, and someone sprains their ankle, you have limited options. If you’re in a group of lightweight hikers with everyone carrying 20 lbs, it becomes easier to redistribute the struggling hiker’s load among the rest of you. God forbid, if you have a real emergency and need to go get help, you will be less tired from a light load, and better able to scoot down the trail for help.
What about comfort?The choices you make in lightening your load based on comfort will depend on how you “do” backpacking. Which describes you better:
- I want to hike in a few miles and then base camp, for fishing or doing day hikes Guess what? You might not bother too much about lightening your pack load! You will be happier taking in some plush sleeping pads, some warm clothes, and lots of food. Since your emphasis is on ‘camp’, you might as well make it comfortable.
- I like to walk, traveling more or less all day Since you are happiest when walking, you will want to make choices that reduce your pack weight as much as possible, so you will enjoy the time spent walking as much as possible.