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Lighten Up Your Backpack: Gear Compactness

Ultralight Backpack

A few  years ago, I wrote a series of posts on how to lighten your backpack, that outlined the basic principles of lightweight backpacking: weighing your gear, cutting the weight of your big three, selecting gear that can serve multiple functions, and eliminating everything you really don’t need.

  1. Lighten Up your Backpack: Weighing your Gear
  2. Lighten Up Your Backpack: The Big Three
  3. Lighten Up your Backpack with Multi-function Gear
  4. Lighten Up your Backpack: Eliminating Non-Essentials

Shrinking your Gear

Since then, my thinking about going lightweight has evolved and I’d like to add a fifth principle, called compactness.

When your base gear weight starts to approach the 10 lb threshold that signifies the transition from lightweight to ultralight backpacking, the volume of your gear shrinks noticeably.

The prospect of carrying a smaller backpack is surprisingly catalytic and the key milestone in this phase of gear weight reduction.

For example, as soon as you substitute a tent or hammock for a tarp, you begin to realize that you can switch to a lower volume backpack. When this occurs, you’ll find yourself miniaturizing your kit, replacing a big pot for a little one, a sleeping bag with a quilt, using a stove that doesn’t require a gas canister, and so on.

When I went through this fifth stage, I was preparing for the TGO Challenge in Scotland. Before that trip, I switched to a much smaller and lighter weight backpack made out of cuben fiber that was half the weight of my previous backpack. This led to much tighter packing discipline and the need to reduce the overall volume of my gear and food.

I ended up replacing a tent with a lighter, smaller pyramid tarp, a bigger pot with a smaller one, a full size sleeping pad with a shorter one, a water filter with chlorine dioxide tablets, cutting more weight off my gear list and the volume that I needed to hold it at the same time. Despite these changes, I remained remarkably comfortable and in the end probably ended up carrying more items of gear than previously! That was totally unexpected.

What do you think the sixth stage of lightweight backpacking is?

Written 2010. Updated 2015.

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  1. Totally agree with this post Phil. I started really scrutinizing the compactness of my gear when I wanted to buy a much smaller and lighter pack. My 'kitchen' fits entirely within my cook pot now and my wash kit sits in a tiny ziploc bag.

    The 6th stage? Sustainability. Buying recycled/low-impact products when available and buying products that are light but also durable, so we don't have to keep buying new gear.

  2. How about no-sleep backpacking? Ditch the shelter and sleep stuff; you snooze-you loose; LED headlamps run for days now on one set of batteries. Elite military units can do it, why not you?

  3. 6th phase

    finding gear like this on the shelf at REI


  4. Brilliant stuff – simply said. I think you are the Colin Fletcher of our generation.

  5. I think it was the American climber Mugs Stump who climbed Denali on this technique about 15 years ago. With 24 hour daylight around midsummer you can disregard conventional sleep patterns, snooze when you’re tired, in the warmest time of the day and climb in the coolest. The tactic is not without increased risk, in the case of a change in the weather, and altitude sickness in the case of Denali (through a too fast ascent); but I think he climbed the peak in about 48 hours, compared to the usual multi-camp load-lugging tactics which take about 10 days. The performance was transformational; if you are chasing faster times etc.

  6. Mike – I am humbled by your praise. Truth is, I am still a grasshopper. I do commend Chris Townsend as a worthy successor to Mr. Fletcher. The guy hikes and writes like an angel.

  7. Simplicity – I am not sure this fits in as a 6th stage but it is a worthy goal. I find that with fewer items that are less complex, I am more at peace when on the trail. It eliminates so much fiddling around looking for gear, packing gear, and worrying about gear. Safety needs to be considered but much of safety has to do with knowledge, knowledge of what is critical gear and what is not as well as critical skills required to hike safely.

  8. Completely agree. When you have less, you have more. They say backpacking is all about self-reliance. It really comes out when there's little backup.

  9. It's odd. I have read so many posts on compactness of kit but it's never been an issue for me. I have usually used a 40-45 litre pack for anything from a weekend to the two-week TMB we are about to undertake and it's always been big enough for me which has meant I've never needed to compact my gear much. Or perhaps I naturally compact it sufficiently already (I'm pretty anal)? I use a Gossamer Gear Gorilla which carries everything I need for a weekend hike and will carry everything we need for the TMB. What I have yet to do is a lengthy hike where food for the entire trip is carried – then I guess compacting will become crucial. I think, once you have dropped your pack size, and starting examining your equipment carefully so you're only taking what is necessary (and safe), compacting happens almost automatically.

    Agree with Joe – sustainability is important. We're in the "Microsoft/Intel of the mid-to-late 90's" phase where every time we purchase a piece of kit, a newer, shinier, lighter piece comes out that we must have (I refer, I hope you realised, to the way Microsoft and Intel seemed to bring out new OS and new chipsets every year which necessitated new PC's or systems circa every 24 months). Maybe we should be using what we've got…

  10. I've bought a lot less gear this year. Maybe because it's compact, or maybe because it's so damn near perfect that the delta is just not worth it. I've also started buying "out of date" or refurbished computer hardware almost exclusively. A lot cheaper that way.

  11. Great advice! Will use this on my next overnight hike. Thanks!

  12. I like this post, thank you! I was never good at packing when I was still starting, and the result is bulky bags which makes the trip tiring. But when I learned how to pack in the best way, that's when I enjoyed the adventures the more.

  13. sixth stage is no carry bushcraft survival – make your own shelter from leaves and forage, or take stuff to have fun with, like ul fishing tackle, bb gun, what do you do for fun on campouts?

  14. Great write up! I have been using a Gossamer Gear Miniposa (old style)since it was introduced one of the first I believe…I had to pre-order it from Grant. Small, ultra compact and light weight gear…

    Perhaps when they start making a Cuben Fiber version of the Miniposa I will give the old pack up. Tall mesh pockets? YES.

    Anyway, I find that at night, after I set up camp and am cooking supper, EVERYTHING is out and has been used over the course of 24 hours. This IS light weight packing. Well said and well written! Only my down sweater remains to be put on before I bed down. Ain't it great?


  15. Funny you mention that. Once my tarp is set up and my sleeping bag is lofting, I take everything else out of my pack too – since I use it all in camp. There isn't any extra stuff that I carry – except a few pills, potions, and extra batteries that doesn't get used.

    Good feedback on the miniposa. I know a lot of other people who swear by that pack. Cheers.

  16. Nice articles.
    I think step 6 is skills. Replacing equipment with knowledge how to make things on the go or replacing equipment with lighter versions that require skills to keep them from break down or be to uncomfortable.
    This step is awfully close to go “stupid light” though.

  17. I agree with you, and ALL the “steps” can or should be taken in parallell.
    The big difference with skills is that’s the only step you can’t bye yoursekf into, all other steps you can do from your sofa at home.

  18. Buy yourself.. pardon for my spelling. :-)

  19. Yeah, well to complete your list there is 1) Sustainability 2) Skills as were mentioned.

    It is nice to be able to use stuff a lot of times. Lights need batteries, of course, not a new light. Jackets, sleeping bags, tarps, etc. Durability & reliability go hand-in hand. But, anything that lasts 10 years with minor maintenance falls into this.

    Skills are equally important. Using a small wood stove means fire building skills. Knowing your last watering hole on a trail and tanking up leaves a much more comfortable camp and one that doesn’t require a 1/2 mile hike to get water, later. Thinking ahead IS a skill. Often, though, skills are acquired by experience and beginners should not count on them.

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