Backpacking: How To Backpack Lighter

Backpacking: How To Backpack Lighter Why make your backpack lighter? Reduce your pack weight as much as practical to: Make backpacking less difficult and more enjoyable Reduce your risk of […]

Backpacking: How To Backpack Lighter

Why make your backpack lighter?

Too much gear!

Reduce your pack weight as much as practical to:

  • Make backpacking less difficult and more enjoyable
  • Reduce your risk of injury
  • Allow you to hike faster, leaving more time for activities and enjoying the views
  • Keep the cost of backpacking down. I know that sounds crazy since ultralight gear is often more expensive. But there is a trick…
  • Extend the your backpacking into your golden years, or post injury, when carrying a heavy pack is no longer physically possible

I saw this note in an ultralight backpacking group on FB… “Ounces =pounds and pounds = pain”. This is very true.

*If you find this article helpful, then please consider clicking our links below before you buy your gear. The very small commission Gear Report receives when you purchase from our links does not raise your cost at all, but provides the funds to continue reviewing gear. 🙂

How to lighten your pack

The BIG 5

Most folks will tell you there are 3 big items that make up the most weight on your back. I think of it as 5 key items. Here are some target weights to get under, but I consider each of them to be about twice what I might call “Ultralight”… so plenty of room to get lighter.
  1. Backpack – I think a reasonable goal is 3 Lb or less
  2. Sleeping bag – shoot for 3 Lb or less
  3. Sleeping pad – most should be fine with 1 Lb or less
  4. Shelter – I think a reasonable goal is 3 Lb or less and shared with your hiking buddy to split the weight
  5. Footwear – Not in your pack, but very important. If you have strong ankles, then less than 1 Lb per foot should be easy

Much easier to carry this amount of gear

People smarter than me have calculated that that 1 Lb on your feet or hands equals 5 or 6 Lb on in your pack. So, lighter shoes/boots and trekking poles can make a very big difference in how hard you have to work while backpacking.

Lighten your Booty

It seems that many people who worry about grams in their pack are carrying around 10, 20, or more POUNDS around their waste. I try to put equal emphasis in my trail prep on fitness, a healthy trail weight and a minimal pack weight. I don’t subscribe to the typical American paradigm of “We all gain a few pounds each year. It is inevitable”. I think that is a crock. If you can’t see your belly button without the aid of a mirror, then do yourself a favor and shed enough weight that you can actually see your abs. Your knees, back and feet will thank you. Pair maintaining a light, but healthy trail weight with lightening your pack and you set yourself up for MUCH more enjoyable backpacking for many years longer than the folks are carrying extra body weight.

Where to get light Backpacking Gear

  • If you want new gear, then lightweight backpacking gear is available at various trusted retailers:

    If you want to search for used gear at a discount, then check out this eBay search (link).

But I am getting ahead of myself, as most people do. Before you can pick the right gear you have to understand your Needs and Wants.
You might also like our article (not just for Philmont folks) Best Budget Backpacking Gear – Philmont – Boy Scouts

Repeat after me…

“I don’t need that”

No, really… say it… out loud. The first step is to admit that you have a problem.

You can save a lot of weight in your pack by weighing items and choosing lighter options for the gear you carry. However, the easiest, smartest, and most effective way to reduce your pack weight is to only take items that you really NEED and limit luxury items to things you will actually use. So, why do so many people carry WAY too much stuff when backpacking? Simple. Fear! Well … and marketing.

Overcoming fear

Survival shelter

To overcome the fear that you will find yourself without something that you can’t live without, you first have to take an honest look at what you NEED vs what you might WANT while on the trail.

NEEDS are things required for survival:

  • Keep your core body temperature within acceptable limits. That means staying warm and dry enough when it is cold and cool enough when it is hot. For this you wear appropriate clothing and may want a shelter and a means to start a fire.
  • Stay sufficiently hydrated. You either need to carry enough potable water for your trip, or have a safe way to get water while on the trail.
  • Eat enough of the right things to stay healthy. That will likely mean consuming more calories and a different mix of foods than when not on the trail. You must either carry food or acquire it while on the trail. The longer you are on the trail, the more important this is. For short trips, like a weekend or overnight hike, food is usually not an actual “NEED”.
  • Trail safety involves physical protection and emergency preparedness. This might mean using a bear bag and careful handling of smellables to avoid encounters with wildlife. You should also have the basic essentials to keep yourself or hiking buddies alive in a medical emergency until skilled medical help can arrive. Fortunately, knowledge weighs nothing and many emergency medical items can be improvised on the trail.
BioLite CampStove Review charging smart phone full

Charging smart phone with a wood burning camp stove

WANTS are anything not NEEDED for survival:

  • A more robust and well padded, but heavier, backpack and sleeping pad.
  • Additional weather protection like a tarp or tent, or even both.
  • A camp chair for when you are not hiking.
  • Multiple changes of clothes and footwear (boots for hiking, crocs for camp)
  • Cooking gear
  • A cell phone, spare battery, solar panel, camera, etc.

The list of NEEDS is really short, but critical. The list of WANTS could go on for pages and pages and includes most things people choose to carry, but could get by without (maybe even very comfortably).

The trick to overcoming fear AND marketing, both of which make people carry LOTS of things they don’t need, is to understand the true difference between needs and wants. Be sure to cover all of your Needs. With the knowledge that your Needs are squared away, you are free to figure out which Wants may help you meet your goals, and which ones will only slow you down.

Choosing your gear

Once you have defined your Needs and Wants you can identify the right gear. You will be surprised how much of the “stuff” that people commonly carry in their backpacks could easily be left at home with no negative impact.

weighing the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum tent

weighing the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum tent

Weigh it

A critical step to a lighter pack is weighing ALL of the gear you are thinking about taking. Not just the stuff in your pack. Weigh your clothes, hat, shoes, trekking poles, etc. I can’t stress enough how critical this is. It really is NOT that time consuming and it is interesting to see how heavier/lighter some things are vs other alternatives.
You can get a nice digital scale for $15 or less (link) and it will pay for itself many times over in improving your backpacking experience. You will probably be shocked to see how much some items weigh and how easy it is to dramatically reduce the overall weight of your pack by choosing similar items that are lighter.

Track it

I log EVERY piece of backpacking gear in a spreadsheet. Then I can easily model different gear configurations to see what the base weight will be. There are also online backpacking gear list calculators like LighterPack. It doesn’t really matter HOW you track it, as long as you keep track of all of your gear weights.

Test it

Even if a particular set of gear looks great “on paper”, you won’t know if a your gear choices work in the field until you test them. When testing new gear configurations give yourself a wide safety margin to start.
For example, many new campers misunderstand the temperature ratings on sleeping bags. You might be tempted to assume that the sleeping bag listed as a 30 degree bag will actually be warm down to 20 degrees, since most products have a safety margin built in. Many sleeping bags actually advertise their minimum safe temperature… as in, the bag should keep you alive in an appropriately rated tent at the listed temperature. Note that is just to keep you ALIVE, not comfortable. A bag advertised as 30 degrees might actually have a comfort rating of 45 degrees. Meaning, that you should expect to be comfortable down to 45, and stay alive down to 30… if all other conditions are good. Throw in Mother Nature and her good friend Murphy and you could end up wet, cold, and miserable.
Hammock in my home office

Testing a camping hammock in the Gear Report office before outdoor testing

Stay safe while testing

Keep in mind that most of the “good” brands do their best to be accurate in describing the temp ratings of their bags. However, LOTS of brands fudge their temp ratings to make their bags seem warmer than they are. And people are different. Some sleep hot, some sleep cold. So, the same make and model of bag may yield very different results for two people sleeping in the same tent. For these reasons I test sleep systems in my back yard before taking them on the trail. That way, if something doesn’t work out as planned, I can retreat to the safety of my house. Taking untested gear on a backpacking trip is generally a bad idea.

Back to the drawing board

Your tests will likely reveal opportunities.
That is the nice way of saying some gear just won’t work for you. Give yourself plenty of time to work through the trial and error process before taking your gear on trips where your needs could be compromised by a gear failure.

Will it ever stop? Yo! I don’t know…

I know a few people that picked their backpacking gear years, maybe even decades ago, and will likely use that same gear until they stop backpacking. I suppose suppose I am happy for them, although I certainly don’t take a “set it and forget it” approach to my gear. In the 30+ years that I have backpacked I have seen gear evolve at ever increasing speeds. I honestly can’t imagine hitting the trail today with the same gear I used when I started. That old stuff was somewhat high tech by the standards of the mid-80s, but is down right archaic today. In 1990 I struggled to get my pack weight down to just 45 Lb when departing Philmont Scout Ranch for a 80+ mile, 12 day trek. Take out the food and water and my base weight was around 38Lb.

I am preparing to return to Philmont with my son in 2017 and have my pack base weight down to about 16Lb before food and water while carrying a complete 2 man tent (I only carried 1/2 of the tent last time). I fully expect to shave another pound or three (or more) before we hit the trail. Obviously, that sort of weight reduction took a disciplined approach and lots of gear testing.

The pay off

Why go through the process described above?
Because it make backpacking safer and more fun. And that is whole point, right?

Where to get light Backpacking Gear

  • If you want new gear, then lightweight backpacking gear is available at various trusted retailers:

    If you want to search for used gear at a discount, then check out this eBay search (link).

Suggestions?

Please leave a comment if you have suggestions on how to backpack lighter.

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About Jeff

Jeff is the Editor in Chief of Gear Report and a National Shooting Sports Foundation Media member. He reports on the outdoor industry, reviews gear for camping, hiking, shooting, hunting, paddling, backpacking and other active pursuits. A USAF veteran, Jeff earned a MBA in Marketing and Health Services. He specializes in consultative selling and internet marketing. As the VP of BD & Marketing, Jeff provides sales and marketing leadership to MGECOM, Inc. and helps http://MGECOM.com acquire new clients in need of solutions for online merchants in need of Affiliate Marketing program management. Jeff founded and manages Cress Sales & Marketing LLC, offering online sales and marketing consulting and services to online merchants and service providers.