Lighten Up your Backpack: Eliminating Non-Essentials


Lightweight Backpacking Series

This is the last article in a four part series that provides backpackers with a set of easy to follow recommendations to reduce the weight of their backpacks.

  1. The first article in the series, Lighten Up your Backpack: Weighing your Gear stressed the importance of purchasing a digital scale and taking the time to weigh all of your existing backpacking gear.
  2. The second article, Lighten Up your Backpack: The Big Three, explained how to get the combined weight of your shelter, sleeping bag, and backpack under 9 lbs. These tend to be the heaviest items that you carry.
  3. The third article, Lighten Up you Backpack with Multi-function Gear illustrated how you can cut weight by using gear that can serve multiple purposes, thereby eliminating more gear, and lightening your back.

This article’s focus is on helping you further reduce your pack weight by eliminating non-essential items including extra clothing or extra supplies that might be a convenience, but that you really don't need to bring with you. This phase will require some more real world experimentation because you'll probably need to make some weight-safety-confidence trade offs to get that last extra 1-4 lbs out of your backpack.

Tracking Unused Backpacking Gear

The next time you go on a two or three day backpacking trip, keep track of every item that you brought along and whether you used it. If you haven't done this before, chances are good that there are several items of clothing or accessories that you brought with you, and felt you needed, but you didn't actually use. Some common examples are: 

  • More than one extra pairs of socks
  • Extra underwear
  • Liquid soap
  • More than 1 oz of bug dope
  • A camping towel
  • Gaiters
  • An extra stuff sack you don't really need.
  • A fleece sweater you brought just in case…
  • A guidebook
  • A 3 to 5 oz space blanket
  • A tube of sun tan lotion
  • Extra food
  • Extra pills and vitamins
  • Factory packaging on dehydrated meals

Eliminating Unused Backpacking Gear

If you've done the experiment, there are probably a few things that you can immediately eliminate from your backpack that you never touched. For example,

  • You don't need to bring a entire trail guidebook when you can just photocopy the pages you need to refer to and bring them.
  • Ditch the space blanket. You'll never use it and there are plenty of other things in your existing gear that you can use to wrap yourself up in an emergency like your tent, footprint, backpack liner, rain gear, etc.
  • You don't need 3 pairs of socks when 2 pairs will do. You can dry a pair at night on your tummy in your sleeping bag.
  • You don't need two pairs of underwear. If the ones you are wearing are dirty, turn them inside out. If they're wet, they'll dry on your body while hiking.
  • Ditch the camping towel. Wipe your self dry with your shirt and then wear it to dry it out.
  • If you come home from a 2 day trip with 2-3 lbs of extra food, cut down on what you bring next time. I usually bring along about 1000 extra calories on a 3 day trip, but I know what foods to bring to get that extra weight to 5 oz. 

Repackage trail meals and lotions

One way you can save a lot of weight is to repackage food or ointments. Commercial dehydrated backpacking meals use way more packaging than you need and if you transfer their contents to a ziploc freezer bag, you can shave a lot of weight off your pack.

In addition, you should only carry the amount of sun tan lotion, bug dope, soap, zinc oxide or purell that you need for the duration of your trip and no more. On a 3 day overnight, that rarely exceeds 1 oz.

Plastic Bottles at REI

The best way to do this is to visit you local REI store, purchase small dispensing bottles, and repackage just what you need and no more. For example, instead of bringing a big bottle of Purell, I bring a 1 oz. bottle, shown below, which will last about 3 days of conservative use. When I get home, I just refill this bottle from a 12 oz. bottle of Purell and I'm ready for my next trip.

Parting thoughts

Shaving the last ounces off your pack weight might sound foolish to some, but it really adds up. Moreover, it's not the weight of your pack that matters. When you chuck all of the unnecessary gubbage out of your pack, your conscious awareness will increase because you can't just run on autopilot anymore. Simplification requires an increase in your problem solving skills and creativity; I talk to a lot of lightweight backpackers and the one desire that most of them share is a simplification of their life, even if only for a few days on the trail. Going lightweight provides that for us.

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14 Responses to Lighten Up your Backpack: Eliminating Non-Essentials

  1. whitespide1066 February 1, 2009 at 4:49 am #

    we can only look on with envy in the UK when we see shop displays like that from REI.

    Nothing like that in the UK.

    • Tom May 27, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

      GO Outdoors Store. Biggest UK outdoor supplier.

  2. Earlylite February 1, 2009 at 4:56 am #

    Just save your hotel shampoo bottles. :-)

  3. Ramkitten February 1, 2009 at 8:16 am #

    This was a constant challenge–but a fun one–on the Appalachian Trail for six straight months. Shaving pack weight while not leaving myself short of what I truly needed was something I thought about nearly every day when repacking my stuff each morning and when resupplying for the next stretch. Great series of blog posts!

  4. Frank February 1, 2009 at 11:09 am #

    Great post and very important. We use empty film cannisters for stuff that does not need to be totally sealed. Just give them a good rinse and usually throw them out after use.

    Excess packaging is a curse and should be avoided at all costs. On every walk we do here in Oz we must carry everything in AND out as there are no rubbish bins (trash cans) or facilites to burn anything.

    We are off on another long (8 nighter) in 2 weeks. I will take photos of all the excess packaging andf blog about it.

    If you are walking in a group, also spend a lot of time coordinating shared gear. That will save a heap of weight e.g. bug stuff, sun screen, tooth paste, pocket knife, first aid gear etc. We did a short post about the planning for the walk here:

  5. Sarah Kirkconnell February 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    I agree with most of it (gaiters to me are winter or mud fests only) but with pills, if they are narcotics that one carries….keep them in the bottle. Ask your pharmacist for the smallest/lightest bottle they have. It is illegal to have them out of the bottle, unmarked. Pesky I know!

    Also, if you have prescriptions you take, you don't have to carry tons but if you really need them, have your hiking partner carry a small backup amount for you just in case your pack is lost.

    On stuff like bug dope, sun block, etc…loiter in the travel section of health and beauty at Wal-Mart/Target. You can get nearly everything these days in tiny bottles/tubes.

  6. Matthias April 16, 2009 at 1:25 am #

    great post. the idea of repackaging with smaller bottles is really good, haven't thought of that before. thanks!

  7. Scott Patton November 5, 2009 at 7:18 am #

    Great tips. What suggestions do you have for multi-month trips. Over that duration we'll be in and out of hostels when necessary but hope to be doing a majority of camping. Thanks!

  8. TrailDawdler November 5, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    For hostels, a lightweight packable fast-dry towel (REI has several; buy the big one, cut it in halves/quarters) makes sense. So might a lightweight silk or synthetic (not cotton or blend)bag liner; adds warmth to bag, doubles as hostel sheet.Walmart and Target in USA (and most chain drugstores) have extensive travel/sample size sections. For air travel, remember TSA still limits liquid/gel/paste containers to 3.0 oz max & confiscates all larger.

    Hotel mini's can be great. Save yours, or just walk up to the front desk & ask nicely (helps if you look like a guest).

    When resupplying, buy smaller containers, less to lug around. You may/will probably find you need a lot less than you think–one of the benefits of travel. Enjoy!

  9. StovieRay February 20, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    I have found Nalgene HDPE bottles cheaper at The Container Store, probably the only thing they have there that's cheaper than anywhere else. I've also recycled HDPE bottles from medications and if you pop off the child-proof part of the top, it is lighter than the standard Nalgene model.

    Although I am pretty good about thinning out the pack, I use my vacuum food sealer to seal up a pair of clean wool socks. They lurk in the dark recesses of my bag until needed – then, a warm hooray! I also seal a fire kit with lighter, matches and a couple of firestarters(wax-dipped strings or birthday candles).

    Do not vacuum seal marshmallows. They get nasty.

    I have a set of silk long underwear that works both as a liner in my sleeping bag (OK, jammies) and I can wear them as needed during the day. Silk is light, durable and rinses out and dries fast.

    I don't like the idea of having a single knife shared among the group. A small Swiss Army model is a good tool to carry on you all the time and the weight to value ratio is positive. In my hiking parties, we always have our own knife, compass, firemakers, and a little first aid kit.

    I've been using a vintage Walrus Trekker tarp when out with a partner, and we split up the tarp, insert and stakes. It's a great tarp. I wish they still made them.

  10. Dana September 17, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    I just came back from a weeklong solo backpack trip along Yosemite’s North Rim. It was the first time I’d been backpacking in close to 35 years. Unfortunately, I was stuck with the heavier, less expensive tent and sleeping bag (used for car camping) that I already had. My biggest excess weight for the week ended up being food. I had way too much heavy trail mix and energy bars. There were a few other small thing on the list above that I could have left behind, they went unused. But experience is a great teacher and I’m looking forward to my next adventure!!!

    • Earlylite September 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

      It’s a process like any adventure. You’ll get your weight down to a level you’re more comfortable with and all will be well.


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