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Making Small Things Smaller to Save Weight and Space

lightweight backpacking

Reducing the weight and size of small items makes it easier when you have to carry 7 liters of water and tools for 3 days of dry camping and trail maintenance.

Inspired by my friend Trail Ambassador Rik Christiansen who unpacked all his hygiene and other random little items for me one night, I decided I would try to shave even more weight from my pack by going through everything and seeing if I could make it smaller. This kind of “gram weenie” behavior smacks of zealotry, but I actually shaved a noticeable amount of weight before my 2009 PCT hike to really make a difference. I went through everything I had and saved 9 pounds. This list doesn’t include every little thing I did to shave that 9 pounds, but it includes many of the tiny and sometimes overlooked things.

Tiny Hygiene Items

Hygiene Items

Tiny Hygiene Items: Bandaids, wet wash and alka-selzer, single-use packet of neosporin that I actually refill with a toothpick, small bag of vicodin and ibuprofen, gauze and tape, dental floss, large needle (because at my age, it’s hard to thread a small one) with a piece of foam to contain it, toothpaste, part of a toothbrush, part of a hairbrush, hair ties, stick-pick, tiny hand sanitizer, lip balm and knife, container with waterproof matches and trick birthday candles, mesh bag to put it in.

One tip Rik gave me was to save small containers from any kind of hygiene or medical products used in regular life. Then refill them. I also save up tiny zip-lock bags that come with extra buttons or craft supplies. Whenever you are lucky enough to find a sample size product that isn’t the full-size allowed on a plane, buy the product. Never mind what’s inside, you want the container! Sometimes I shop for the containers more than actual products contained within.

More Hygiene Items from Reusable Containers

While on the PCT, I made a Lady J out of a bottle of salad dressing and used a small squeeze bottle for a bidet.

small squeeze bottle

A Lady J made out of a bottle of salad dressing and a small squeeze bottle for a bidet

The Lady J literally saved my rear from mosquitoes. The mosquitoes in Oregon are horrendous!

Make Things Tinier

Small Hygiene Containers

Small Hygiene Containers

Top picture: I opened this tiny dental floss container and inside was an even tinier spool of floss. Not only can I just forget about the dispenser completely, I can refill this tiny dispenser with dental floss spools from full-size dental floss containers. Either way I save space as well as weight.

Bottom left: I saved this tiny bottle from medication my avian vet gave me. I used it on the PCT for shampoo. I carried shampoo so that when I got to town I could wash up regardless of access to a hotel or post office. I have very long hair and this container held enough soap to wash my hair twice and my body once. I would refill it with hand soap from the dispensers in the rest room. I found restroom hand soap to be gentle on my hair.

Bottom right: Sample size lotions are great. Sometimes they are small, sometimes they are even smaller. Some of these types of containers have a top that can be pried off so you can refill the container. If so, you can reuse it with your favorite sunscreen.

Tiny DEET Replacement Bottle

Tiny DEET Replacement Bottle

I found a small container of 100% DEET but then I found a smaller container to put it in. Since I usually wear long pants and sleeves, I only need a small amount of DEET. You can pry the top of a Visine bottle off to refill it.

Tiny Music

Strumstick and Penny Whistles

Strumstick and Penny Whistles

I like to save weight so that I can bring a few luxury items. I play this fun little stringed instrument called a Strumstick. It’s easy to play and sounds nice in the wilderness. It came with a canvas case that is pretty heavy, so I sewed up a much lighter case out of water resistant ripstop.

The Strumstick weighs about a pound. Even lighter than a Strumstick is a penny whistle. A penny whistle weighs about 1.25 ounces. The standard penny whistle is in the key of D. The black one pictured is a D. The smaller one is in the key of F. The weight difference between a D and an F is noticeable. A harmonica is also a good choice for a small instrument.

Re-make the Things You Have from Other Materials

Replacement Pot Lid

Replacement Pot Lid

The lid on my MSR Titanium Kettle is light, but this aluminum flashing lid I made is even lighter by more than half. This  ugly homemade pot lid made it through 1800 miles of the PCT and still works.

Keep Your Eye Out for Reusable Containers

Little Containers

Little Containers

There’s a store in my area that sells waste from local industries. We have a lot of medical device makers in my area. I found bins of tiny medical containers there. Probably the tiniest ones are too small for anything other than spices.

Hydration Tube Mouthpiece Cap

Hydration Tube Mouthpiece Cap

A flip-top container works well as a bite valve protector for my drinking tube. The connected top means I will never lose the top. I like to keep the bite valve protected from dirty floors when I set my pack down. The manufactured bite valve cover caused the valve to leak. This flip-top container is from the industrial cast-off store I mentioned earlier, but I have found similar flip-top containers on other products now and then.

Sometimes I feel like I’m an episode of hoarders waiting to happen with my habit of finding and saving tiny containers. I really owe these ideas to Rik who set me down the path to saving micro-weight and finding ways to solve problems with reused or unconventional items.

This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador Diane “Piper” Soini

13 Responses to Making Small Things Smaller to Save Weight and Space

  1. Brad Boll May 30, 2014 at 6:46 am #

    A couple other things you could try: tooth powder instead of paste, a single edge razor blade instead of the knife, pre-cut lengths of floss in a tiny baggie, and removing your pot handles. I’ve found that my home-made windscreen works better when the pot has no handles. Also, maybe it’s just me, but I’d never carry musical instruments in the wild – I want it as quiet as possible. My partner and I ran into young people on the AT this past weekend playing music from smart phones (with and without earbuds) and cartoons – very annoying. Cheers, B

    • Diane Soini May 30, 2014 at 8:01 am #

      I like it quiet too. But sometimes I go solo and like to have something to do. My local trails are really empty. Lots of trips I will see nobody else the entire time.

    • Rb May 8, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

      Right on. One can sing but leave the crafted music out of the wilderness please. Sound travels too far most of the time.

  2. Ken May 30, 2014 at 6:57 am #

    OK, maybe I’m a little crazy too, but I would suggest pealing off all those labels on product containers and bottles whenever possible, too.

  3. Steve May 30, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    talk to your dentist, many have “half length” tooth brushes that they give away for free. they are generally quite light while still having a usable handle.

    works great for pots with a slight ridge, but for yours, you could cut it slightly wider than your pot and cut it with three nubs at 120deg to bend down so help keep it steady and assist in removal.

    one thing I like to do, because they are water proof, though not necessarily as light as a freezer ziploc, is to use the large prescription pill bottles to store things like bandaids, etc that you want to keep dry, and or prevent from being crushed.

    another thing to keep in mind for bottles is that volume and weight are not 1:1 correlated, as you go up in volume the weight increase is minimal.

    I’d also use a .5oz cuben bag to contain it all (or I should say, I do use…)

  4. Colin May 30, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    Musical instruments are quite a bit different from radio/smartphone music and TV. When in the wild I find the simplicity of life needs matching simplicity — including in the music.

  5. Dale Wambaugh May 30, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    You can use a plastic sewing machine bobbin to carry floss or any small line. If you have a sewing machine, loading the bobbin takes seconds you could use a drill motor and a screw for the axle, or just wind it on by hand.

    I use a small sewing kit like the free ones you get in a hotel. It has buttons and safety pins as well as needles and thread. 0.25oz total.

    Stores that sell essential oils often sell all kinds of small vials as well.

    For hair grooming, I carry a small comb— very light and easy to source at any local drug store. I use the mirror on my compass for grooming.

  6. Diane Soini May 30, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    Hey, that’s a good idea!

  7. Kurt in Colorado June 2, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    You SO need to relabel that Visine bottle before using it for DEET! One squirt of DEET in your eyes and you’ll rue the day you thought it was a good idea to save 0.3 ounces!!

    I once used a Visine bottle for hand sanitizer (alcohol gel). I got home from a 12 hour drive, was dead tired,crawled into bed, but my eyes were aching so I reached for my Visine in the dark…and suddenly my eye was burning! I ran to the bathroom, flushed my eye, looked in the mirror and was horrified to discover I was BLIND in that eye!

    After a trip to the ER at 1:00 A.M., and a completely ruined night of rest, I learned that the cornea is the fastest growing tissue in your body, and by the next day, I had my vision back (after they flushed a liter of saline over my eye at the ER).

    So you gotta be SMART about repurposing!

  8. Rob of the WV June 4, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    Natural quiet seems to be a thing of the past. Noise everywhere. Do we go hiking/backpacking to share noise with others? I detest those speakers hikers use on the trail. Please be courteous – if you’re playing music or audio books or whatever, use a quiet earbud. Instruments – I suggest you think about how special it would be for someone to clang on a set of drums in the nearby glen when you are contemplating the growth of trees. Your special music is not so special to others, so please play at home or in a parking lot, not the wilderness. Natural quiet is precious and becoming even more rare.

    Happy Trails and cheerio, Rob of the WV

  9. Marco June 6, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Small volume stuff has a quality all of it’s own…usually the most obvious place is in weight savings. Packing small packets of food helps a lot. I get my food down to about 1.1-1.2 pounds per day without missing all the extra calories. ‘Corse, I have *plenty* of reserve. My tarp fits into my grease pot, yet has weatherd bad thunder/lightening/wind storms with me under it. Compressing you bag doesn’t hurt it as you hike, just shake it out at night. The military used to supply vacume packed down blankets for arctic emergencies. They would be packed for years that way. Yup, the dimunutive Murmur has been called a glorified purse when doung the Northville-Placid Trail. It wasn’t even full for the planned two weeks out (including several days of fishing.) Small is good.

  10. A guy from BPL June 19, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    The salad dressing bottle lady J is genius, assuming the sharp jagged plastic edge has been smoothed over.

    The squeeze bottle bidet is fine, though the pictured bottle has been through… dirty hell. 🙂

  11. Shelby May 8, 2015 at 8:10 am #

    Wonderful article…. thanks for sharing

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