How long have you been backpacking and what’s the longest trip you’ve taken?
I have backpacked intermittently since 1995 or so. Perhaps a couple nights out per year for most of those years. Most of my multi-day trips are based out of a kayak, and so my approach to gear has really been to look for things that work well in both venues. When boating an unknown mountain stream, a light boat makes all the difference in catching eddies, quick (and safer) portages, as well as a better performing boat. My longest hike so far has been a 3 night loop in Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness, but I’m preparing for a north to south JMT hike this August that will test my crossover skills. I’ll be doing a lot more backpacking this summer in preparation for that trip.
When did you realize that you needed to reduce the amount of weight that you carried in your backpack?
From a backpacking perspective, I just kinda stopped because it wasn’t any fun with the gear and loads I had. I was using a huge external frame pack, a 5lb sleeping bag, a coleman peak 1 white gas stove, and a 9lb 4 person Walrus tent — because that’s what I had. It wasn’t gear I’d bought for backpacking, but I tried to backpack with it and hated it. Then, a few years later, I was preparing to fly into the back country to run a remote section of river in Montana. Three of us had to get ourselves, our boats, and all our gear and food in a Cessna 206. Forced by this reality to re-evaluate every piece of gear I used, I first discovered the ultralight concept and took to it instantly. It’s been a constantly evolving system of gear since then. While my base pack weight has dropped, my base boat weight hasn’t — since it isn’t on my back, I use smaller/lighter gear to let me achieve a more comfortable camping experience out of my kayak. I look at UL principles as equally useful for packing lighter and packing ore efficiently.
What is the total weight of your big three: backpack, sleeping bag/pad, and shelter?
Sleeping bag: Feathered Friends Swallow, 31oz (20 degree).
Pad: Therma-a-rest Neo Air 12oz
Shelter: SMD Lunar Duo if with the partner, TT Contrail if not. 43oz/25 oz
Pack: Z-packs Zilch, ~6 oz with my options
Do you own a scale for weighing your gear? If so, what kind? How often do you use it?
Yes, I use a digital baking scale. It is mostly used for weighing MYOG or assembled kit weight, as adding the measured weight of constituent parts is rarely precise. For example, if I sum the weights of the individual elements of my sundries bag, it’s inevitably a few grams lighter than the true weight, which I attribute to the limited significant figures on my scale display of course.
Where are you in the process of going lightweight?
For me, it isn’t a religion. I’m not a gram weenie or a tireless spreadsheet maker. My goal is to take the base line experience I’m looking for, then go as light as possible while meeting that comfort level. I am, at heart, a lazy hiker more prone to naps than 20 mile days. A great example of the calculus of weight is in shelter choice. When I’m solo in my kayak, I take an REI Quarter Dome UL tent. It’s de luxe, free standing, dual side entry, burly fabric I can abuse, and lots of extra space. It’s 4 lbs and only modestly bigger than the SMD Lunar Duo when packed, so it’s the default river tent. When I’m hiking — and carrying that weight — I break out the Lunar Duo or Tarptent Contrail. The Lunar Duo is the roomiest tent for 2 I’ve ever used. Not super UL, but with a tad more care to the fabric, I still have dual side entry, lots of room, full bug protection etc. I save 1.5 lbs, but it wouldn’t be worth it to me to go to, say, a duomid to save further weight because the experience is compromised more than I would like. I’ll probably never be a tarp bivy and quilt style SUL guy, because I still spend more nights camped out of my boat than out of my pack.
A place where I’m struggling is with kitchen gear. Currently I’ve got a variety of alcohol stoves, a couple canister stoves, loads of different pots, even a white gas stove for winter use. I’m not willing to go to a boil-only or no-cook menu, so the best I’ve been able to do is about 16oz for my 2-person kitchen and that’s based around a 1.3L Antigravity gear pot, a caldera cone, and a basic baking kit. The problem is I don’t have the flame control for good frying. I’m slowly coming to have three kits — my solo alcohol boil-only kitchen for short quick trips, which I can get to 6oz or so, the middle option detailed above, except using a light canister stove, or the burly hard anodized aluminum with a white gas stove for river kitchen for a medium sized group, which is dramatically lighter than traditional river kitchens often featuring steel 4 burner stoves or old coleman style white gas stoves. But I don’t feel I’ve found the sweet spot of being able to cook the way I want and being UL.
How much has cost constrained the rate in which you reduce your gear weight?
I’m a gear head. No way around it. I actually budget $100 a month for gear — I know it’s sick, but I get out 100+ days a year, so I use it. And it’s hard to stick to that budget. The toughest for me was saving for the Feathered Friends bag, but that’s been a great investment. I’m willing to spend, but not without reason. I’m more likely to spend if the item is from a cottage supplier, well designed, and multi use. I’m less likely to spend for that fancy big box technical fabric. Gotta throw a plug out to Joe Valesko at Z-Packs, who has been the very model of a service oriented innovator. He’s great to work with. I generally find the value for my dollar better at the small businesses because they are were innovation is happening, and you can communicate with someone who both makes the gear and has a native understanding of its uses and compromises. It’s a pleasure to business with folks like that.
What was the largest amount of pack weight you dropped by replacing or eliminating a piece of gear?
This is easy. Across all my gear, moving away from that Walrus 9lb tent was definitely the biggest savings — my heaviest tent now is less than half the weight! I don’t even think that tent would fit in any of my current packs. After that was the stove, going from a Coleman Peak 1 to an 0.5 oz alcohol burner for weekend trips. Now if only someone would make a whitewater boat that didn’t weigh 50lbs.
What’s your view on the trade-offs between the following types of backpacking gear, for your specific climate conditions and needs?
Down vs. Synthetic sleeping bags?
Down or bust, even here in Washington State. Not open to debate unless a new material worth considering comes along. The only downside is the challenge of packing it so it stays dry, but that’s just good gear management anyway (Watershed bags, while not SUL are truly DRY and bomber. Only drybag to buy for whitewater). Warmth to weight — and size — makes down the only way to go in my opinion. Also the longevity of a good down product is a factor. Properly cared for, you’ll get 3x to 4x the use out of a down product vs a synthetic, so I feel it’s a better investment overall.
Backpacks with an external frame, internal frame, or no frame?
Internal or no frame. I use 2 panels of z-lite in my z-pack and it’s great with < 20lbs. I also use a ULA Catalyst for longer trips or trips with the bear canister and I find when I get up to 30lbs total pack weight, that internal frame really helps.
Double walled shelters, single walled shelters, and tarps and bivies?
Generally single wall shelters. When I’m not backpacking, double wall shelters are a little lower maintenance, but in the backpack you’ll only find a single wall shelter unless it’s a winter snow trip. Too many bugs here for me to enjoy the tarp method, but I would like to try hammocks out.
Full size sleeping pads vs. torso sized?
Here again I must sacrifice UL dogma. I’m a side sleeper and as I’ve said before, lazy napper. So I like a comfy pad. My favorite was the Big Agnes Petite Mummy Insulated Air Core which was warm, luxuriously thick, and surprisingly light at ~18oz. It sprung a leak I couldn’t find and I can’t seem to replace it though. So I currently use a Neo Air or Z-lite depending on whether weight or space is at more of a premium. I’ve added a 1/4″ thinlight insulation pad from Gossamer Gear to stretch the range of the Neo-Air, which gives me a pad comparable in weight and warmth to my old petite mummy Air Core, and it’s a fair bit bigger to boot, so while not ultra light it feels ultra right.
Boots vs trail runners?
I’ve only ever hiked in boots. I have the lightest pair I can find, but my ankles roll out on me all the time, so I’m hesitant to move to trail runners. This is an area I’m definitely willing to experiment in. When I backpack overnight out of my boat for a night somewhere along a week long river trip, I hike in my 5.10 water shoes and they’ve taken pretty good care of me so far, but I’m not usually making the miles I do on a backpack trip. Then again, I’m also on much less developed trails, if there are any trails at all.
What would you say are the biggest benefits of carrying less gear?
Well, I’m a gear head, so I might have to challenge your assumption that because my gear is light I carry less gear. Sometimes I feel like I carry more gear. Perhaps the best way to think of it is that for the same weight, I can do more for longer. There are a couple of main reasons I get outdoors. Primarily I just love moving at a human pace, and I particularly dislike motors. I also go for the solitude — the time alone in my own head to make peace with myself and with the world. I go for those moments of peace meditating on a stream or cloud, which for me provides the basic perspective around which I build the rest of my life.
Gear … it’s really just the means to an end. As Abbey says : “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” And while I’m a gear head at home, when I’m outside, I’m looking to spend the smallest amount of energy possible on things like washing dishes or rigging shelters. I want simple, functional, effective gear I can depend on, even in situations I don’t necessarily anticipate. When the lighter version doesn’t provide that, I take the heavier version, within reason. Packing is, to me, an art. It requires that one take only that which is necessary, and yet also demands sufficient skill and supplies to deal with any unforseen misadventures. I love the feeling of a small, light load that covers not just the basics, but everything I need for comfort and safety in the event things go wrong — which of course they do all the time.
My personal breakthrough has been how much I find I enjoy hiking. I never did before, because I was hauling too much junk, and I don’t particularly like day trips. My goal is always to sleep out, and revolutionizing my gear has given me a lot more opportunities to do so.
What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to start reducing the weight of their backpacking gear?
I’d start by saying don’t let specs drive your decisions. If you’re stove is 2 oz lighter but won’t work in the weather you’re in, it’s of no help. So start with the experience you want. If you find you want a SUL experience, you’ll end up there — but it is a journey and you’ll want to fully explore all the stops along the way, not head straight to Timbuktu. In terms of how to start lightening up, the old adages of “get a scale and weigh everything” together with “focus on pack, shelter, and bag/pad” are tried and true.
Personally, I think kitchen and hydration systems are the next two places to focus. Hardest of all is clothes — and no gear list can beat experience in knowing what works for you in varied conditions. Last but not least, having an improvisational spirit, a willingness to explore or try new things goes a long way. Think about multiuse items and look hard for the things you can do without. But most of all, whatever else you do, get the heck out the door and out there in the wilderness — it is there that you will find the most important thing on your gear list — wilderness and the peace and challenge and terrible beauty of moving with its rhythms.
Is there anything else you want to get off your chest?
Not particularly — thanks for offering a chance to to some of us to share some thoughts on gear and hiking attitudes. I look forward to seeing what others have to say.
Backpacking Gear List
|Gear Item||weight (oz)||Kit|
|FF Swallow 20 degree bag||31||Camp|
|1L gatorade bottle||1.75||Water|
|1.3L AGG pot/holder/cozy||8.5||Kitchen|
|8 oz fuel bottle||2.25||Kitchen|
|Salt n pepper||2||Kitchen|
|Toothbrush & paste||1||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|super glue||0.625||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|duct tape/sewing||0.625||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|ibuprofin (40)||0.5||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|cotton ball firestarter||0.25||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|mini bic||0.75||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|baking soda||0.5||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|1/2 zinc oxide||0.5||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|Priceton Tec Scout headlamp||1.25||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|immodium (6)||0.375||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|Leatherman micra||2||Toiletries/Repair/First Aid|
|capilene long sleeve shirt||9||Clothing|
|montbelll down sweater||14||Clothing|
|AGG rain jacket||5||Clothing|
|MLD event mitts||2||Clothing|
|Pileaus sil rain hat||1||Clothing|
|OR sun runner hat||3||Clothing|
|spare socks + liners||4||Clothing|
|Final Total Base Weight||193.875 oz||12.1 lbs|