It took me years to reduce my backpack weight down to where it is now and I don’t consider myself “ultralight” by any means. That word is tossed around a bit too much. It’s likely to take you a while to lighten your pack appreciably as well so you should get started now. Here are several steps that I hope will help you on the way to becoming a lighter backpacker.
Step 1. Admitting that you are not an ultralight backpacker
You’ve already passed step 1, congratulations! Actually this is important because now you have to decide where you want to be on the lightness spectrum. Do you really want to be an ultralight backpacker? You might have jumped in and decided you’re going to be the lightest possible and flirt with adventure racer territory. This is not the category most people fit in. As you begin to lighten your load, you’ll shortly bump into the light weight vs. comfort trade-off, and at that point you have to decide what your backpacking goals are. How far do you want to take it? What level of comfort do you want? How much do you want to spend?
Backpacking goals – You could trade in every item in your pack right now with the lightest version on the market. For some this would be a massive improvement, but for others it may not. Your mileage may vary on that hypothetical depending on the gear you started with. But ultralight backpackers do more than this. They drop items completely from their pack. They may say that they feel more comfortable backpacking at that weight but you might not agree. It’s up to the individual. If you have companions, it is also up to them. Keep their comfort in mind if you want to continue having them along on trips. Definitely read on for more about this trade-off. The most important part about all of this is to enjoy yourself and your surroundings. That’s probably why you started backpacking, right? It’s amazing what you can find and experience out there. Always keep that in mind.
Money – Money alone can’t buy you an ultralight pack, but it can certainly help lighten the load. In some instances it doesn’t require much money to have something really light and this is one of the great things about backpacking. The homemade soda can stove is a classic example. Ultralight backpacks can be cheaper than the bigger full featured ones. And the old single walled pup tents that my buddies and I used on many trips are somehow still lighter than any new 2-person tents out there. However, it likely takes money if you are switching out your existing gear, or starting fresh. Gear swapping is increasingly common so keep your eyes open for opportunities if you don’t want to over-lighten you wallet. Along with comfort and weight, cost will be the third major factor in your gear decisions.
2. Approach lightweight backpacking as a State Of Mind
If you want to go light, you really have to want to go light. You have to consider weight in everything you bring on your trips, EVERYTHING. Shaving ounces is nothing to sneeze at. There are only 16 ounces in a pound, and pounds are heavy. Shave an ounce off 16 items and you’ve saved a pound.
As soon as possible you should get a scale of some kind and weigh all your items to determine your “base pack weight”. Base pack weight includes everything you carry on your back, including the clothes on your back, but excluding – food, water, fuel, shoes, trekking poles. Food scales or postal scales work great for this. You can use my Backpack Weights Spreadsheet or LighterPack to easily keep track. Weighing your gear and saving the results is one of the most important things to get you started. From there, you want to try to cut some items if you can outside your Ten Essentials, reduce the weight of some, and replace others with lighter versions. Do not cut out any Ten Essentials unless you are very experienced and know the risk.
3. Replace gear with lighter versions
When you finish weighing your gear, you’ll probably notice your big three: backpack, shelter, sleep system (sleeping pad and bag). They are a great place to start if you want to switch out your gear for something lighter since you might have the most to gain here. When researching gear, always compare weight.
Your backpack is very important of course. If you’re planning to get a new one, it’s probably not the best idea to just go out and buy an ultralight pack and declare your ultralighthood. You can use a new pack as a goal setter as you can only carry what will fit in or strap onto it, that is as long as you keep it realistic since you are actually forced to meet the goal before you can use it. The most pragmatic strategy is to reduce the weight of your other gear before your pack. Because your backpack choice and the rest of your gear are intertwined, you really have to take a holistic approach to reducing weight. Make sure your pack can fit your gear, and make sure your gear can fit your pack. There are tons of options now for light backpacks. Do your research and compare. With your pack, as in many things, lighter isn’t always better. Somewhat heavier, more full featured packs can have better suspensions, straps and hip belts, and more padding so you could actually have a better time with those on the trail than something that’s lighter. Your body will pay the price for an overloaded ultralight backpack. I can remember the external frame pack I used on my first trip and it was comfortable, heavy, but comfortable. Whenever possible, try it on in the store with some weight.
As for shelter, if you currently have a tent, check out bivy sacks, tarps, tarptents, floor-less single-wall style tents, hammocks, or just stick to finding a lighter regular tent. Some shelters allow you to use your trekking poles for the tent poles. For sleeping bags, the higher the temp rating, the less they weigh. So get one with the highest temp rating you think you can get away with. If you have money, get two, one for cold and one for warm. I recommend down bags. Down is the lightest, packs the smallest, and I think it’s warmer than synthetic no matter what the temperature ratings say (caveat – down bags are no good when wet, and generally cost more). If your uses aren’t as demanding, synthetic works perfectly fine. Sleeping bags are one place where you can actually really get a significant improvement by paying more. For example one high end brand has a 20 degree bag for $425 that only weighs 19 ounces! Check out your options for a sleeping pad and get what fits your comfort level. There are a lot of different types out there now (closed cell, self-inflate Thermarest style, inflatable, mummy shape, three-quarters length). Water filter, stove, cookware, clothing are other things you can perhaps find lighter versions for. Water treatment has some newer options such as Steripen, Sawyer squeeze bag filters, and Lifestraw, each with their own pros and cons. Maybe take one of those rain ponchos in a ziptop bag that weigh only 1.5oz instead of a one pound rain jacket if you think you can get away with it. Use a 32oz gatorade bottle instead of a Nalgene.
4. Reduce weight of items
The really “hardcore” people saw off their toothbrush, trim off labels from gear and clothes, cut excess from straps, and trim the edges of their map. But hey, they’re right! Why not do it if you’re serious? It’s guaranteed to save you some weight. Only carry the amount you need for sunscreen, toothpaste, bug juice, hand sanitizer. Find small bottles or purchase small dispensing bottles (down to 1oz) and fill them. Reduce the weight of your tent. Pull out your tent stakes and check their weight (weigh a bunch and divide for accuracy). My old steel tent stakes were 9.5oz for 15, which is about .6oz each. There are titanium stakes at just .2oz. If you have a retail tent ground sheet/footprint, get some 2 mil plastic or tyvek and make your own lighter version. Use lithium batteries instead of alkalines for AAs and AAAs in your flashlight/headlamp/camera etc. if your device accepts them and of course pack them for spares as well. They are significantly lighter, .5oz difference for every 4 for AAAs, plus they last longer. Weigh all of the clothes you have that would work on a trip and pick the lighter ones. Repackage your food. You can often save weight (and volume) using a zip freezer bag instead of the retail packaging.
5. Use multiple-use items when possible
Perhaps the spork is the best symbol for this step. I don’t like sporks myself since I believe they perform badly as a spoon and don’t work as a fork, but I do only bring a plastic spoon with me. Do not lug around a swiss army knife that includes a spork and 100 other things and weighs 2 pounds. You won’t use most of that 2 pounds. Again, many people use their trekking poles as their tent poles as well and this can save maybe a whole pound! Convertible pants also fit into this category; you can have just one pair of convertible pants instead of one pair of shorts and one pair of pants. Stuff your sleeping bag stuff sack with clothes and use it as a pillow. Keep in mind that you do lose some redundancy in case of something breaking or losing something when you go this route.
6. Cut some items
There may be a bunch of things that you’re packing that you don’t really need so it’s up to you to decide what you can live without. Back to the tent stakes – if you’re carrying several extra tent stakes with your tent, cut it to just a couple spares. Clothing is big here; bring less if you can, this is up to you. Remember what you’ve done on previous trips and learn from experience. Wear your socks two days each and bring an extra pair to use for sleeping in or as a backup. Wear shirts twice. Maybe do a rough hand wash of some items in a stream if you can. Ignore the smell 🙂 If you have camp shoes or flip flops, consider dumping them or getting lighter ones. If you use rain pants, maybe try the waterproof and stylish trash bag kilt instead. Take a draw string garbage bag, cut or rip out the bottom, and cinch it on your waist for a perfectly waterproof layer with fantastic ventilation. I did this on the trail once when it was snowing some wet snow and I kept getting wet brushing up against snowy bushes. I’ve since added it to my gear list and continue to bring it. For cooking, it is possible to use your cook pot for cooking, as a plate/bowl, and as a mug. Or you can just use your cook pot for boiling water and cooking and only have one other item for eating your food/drinking cocoa. There are really nice cook sets out there but you can really rework your cooking and cut down what you bring. It’s not my thing but some people eat only cold food on trail. Take less batteries and better ration your headlamp and camera use – turn them off quickly! If you know you’ll have good water sources, you might also consider leaving behind the water filter and just using tablets. I will again say to not cut out any Ten Essentials unless you are very experienced and know the risk. Safety is a part of this equation but it should not be considered a variable.
7. Hike with others
It not only makes a big difference in safety, but it can definitely lower your weight. Share common items with others in your group… stove, cookware, water filter/purifier, tent. One telling sign of my efforts to lighten my pack came on one trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire when my buddy’s pack weighed the same as mine, yet he had no common items and I had, oh, just the tent, stove, fuel, pot, water purifier, trowel. As a corollary to this tip, give good advice, and sometimes tough love, to the friends you’re hiking with so that their weight is reduced as well. It benefits them of course, and you as well since there will be less chance of you gaining items to even things out.
8. Budget your consumables
This is an obvious one but not exactly easy. It’s easier with more experience. You can bring less food, stove fuel, batteries, water (if you have to carry it), etc. the better you know how much you’ll use.
Don’t use your flash light much and bring less batteries. The ones you do bring should be fresh. I usually go to bed not too long after dark, sometimes even before. You might as well after hiking all day long. I rarely go through one set of AAA batteries that my small light uses. I didn’t even bring the spare batteries last time. Only have the camera on for a few seconds at a time. Conserve stove fuel. When you boil water, once it starts boiling, it’s not going to get any hotter so you might as well stop there. This goes for food cooking and water purifying purposes. Plus make sure you don’t have the burner valve opened more than is useful. Some find the Jet Boil type systems with the heat exchanger are more efficient with fuel with a slight weight tradeoff. I’m not sure if you save more weight in fuel that way or not, but worth looking into. A homemade windscreen made from cardboard and aluminum foil can also increase the efficiency of your stove (read your stove’s instructions to make sure this is ok, not recommended for stoves that mount directly to the fuel canister).
10. Live off the land
Maybe don’t live off the land as you’d traditionally think, but just a little. If convenient, campfires are nice to have and you can cook with them for breakfast or dinner. Observe local rules such as using “dead and down” wood only and no fires in certain areas. If that will work on your trip, don’t bring that extra safety cushion canister of fuel for your stove if you have a good handle on how much you’ll need. If you are a confident fisherman maybe you can bring your rod and leave a few food items out of your pack. There is also hunting, but I’m not experienced and I know hunters tend not to backpack. Follow Leave No Trace principles.
As you can see there are many ways to drop some pounds from your pack. This all really just comes naturally once you set off in earnest to lighten your pack. You do lose a little safety and comfort with some of these options so do your homework. Make sure to choose your pack items for each trip based on the trip conditions. Preparation really helps. Don’t get overzealous and get yourself in trouble. You need to have enough peace of mind to enjoy yourself since that’s the number one goal of getting out there in the first place. I hope this helped on your quest to lighten your backpack and gave you some ideas at least!