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The Five Gallon Challenge: Can You Fit all of Your Backpacking Gear into a Five Gallon Bucket?

The contents of a Ultralight Gear List fit into a 5 gallon Plastic Bucket
The contents of a Ultralight Gear List fit into a 5 gallon Plastic Bucket

The majority of people who could benefit from carrying lighter weight gear balk when it comes to weighing everything in their packs and creating a spreadsheet. It’s a big time committment and it’s not clear that the results are meaningful for many people.

The Five Gallon Challenge shows people the benefits of carrying less backpacking gear in a more visual way than is possible with a gear list. This technique is particulalry effective in groups where people can compare the volume and space that their gear requires to other peoples’ backpack contents.

Step One: Obtain a 5 gallon plastic bucket from the hardware store

Step Two: Fill it with all of the backpacking gear you carry inside your backpack or attach to the outside, but not your backpack, food, water, water bottles, or fuel. You can leave those items out of the bucket.

Emphasis on Gear Volume, Not Weight

The important thing to emphasize in the Five Gallon Challenge isn’t the weight of the gear in the bucket, it’s whether the gear fits in the bucket. Gear that is highly compressible and requires less volume is almost always lighter, if only because you need a smaller backpack to carry it.

Many ultralight backpackers and some lightweight backpackers will be able to get all of their gear into a 5 gallon bucket because they:

  • Use quilts instead of bulkier sleeping bags
  • Use more compressible down insulation instead of synthetic insulation
  • Use shelters that pitch with trekking poles instead of tent poles
  • Use single wall tents or tarps instead of double wall tents
  • Use small stoves and cooking pots instead of larger ones
  • Use stuff sacks with open ends that compress better than roll-top dry bags
  • They bring less extra clothing
Five Gallon Challenge - More traditional backpackers with bulkier gear will have a harder time fitting it all into the five gallon bucket
Five Gallon Challenge – More traditional backpackers with bulkier gear will have a harder time fitting it all into the five gallon bucket

But more traditional backpackers who use bulkier gear or who bring extra clothes won’t be able to get as much gear into the bucket, which provides an opportunity to go through their pack and eliminate unnecessary items.

Relaxing the Five Gallon Challenge

If you’re trying the Five Gallon Challenge with a group, and it’s clear no one is going to be able to fit all of their gear into the bucket, you can relax the rules a bit by letting participants leave out a shared item like a tent or a bulky item like a sleeping bag. Going through the exercise will still have merit because participants will see the impact that bringing extra clothes, bulky cooking gear, or a large sleeping pad can have on the volume of their gear.

Credits

I didn’t invent the Five Gallon Challenge. I learned about it from two Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors named Ken “DripDry” Holder and Lee “RevLee” Fields. They use it to teach boy scouts and their parents about the benefits of bringing less unnecessary gear on backpacking trips.

I think the Five Gallon Challenge is a brilliant idea and one that resonates with people who aren’t as number-oriented, but are more visual. An overflowing bucket does make for a memorable image.

17 comments

  1. Would you advise using the bucket itself as a backpack? If all the gear fits in there why not.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing! I need to get my hands on a 5 gallon bucket. I consider myself a smart packer, but I’m curious how I’d actually do in this challenge. ;-)

  3. I think so. I’ll try it. Now, if you include ALL the gear I own, a 55 gallon drum or two would suffice…

  4. Basics go in the back of each car along with a sleeping bag in the winter. Great chair/water bucket as well. Yes it all fits in with top on bucket. Working on the single gallon next:)

  5. I actually did this for a short canoe camp recently. The bucket made a nice waterproof container for most of my normal gear and was easy to tie off on the canoe itself. I had a waist pack for stuff I wanted easy access to. I use a hammock and pack pretty light so everything fit…except for the “luxuries” afforded by extra space in the canoe…aka, camp chairs.

  6. This is a great technique that I can share with my Boy Scout Troop.

  7. I ran into a guy that used a 5 gallon bucket AS a backpack! Had it fitted up with straps and everything. Said it made a great trail chair.

  8. Yup, not a problem, my packed Backpack fits snuggly into the a “homer bucker”…Do I have to count my 4 piece fishing rod which in it’s aluminum tube is a bit long…

  9. Not sure I’ll do the Challenge, but do want to lighten my pack. Last year I walked into the Whites at 40lb (excluding water) for 4 days. Would like to get that down to 30lb this year. Extra clothing and lighter food my best bets, I think. And carrying only the pages I need from the AMC WM Guide!

  10. You can probably do this with bulky gears in groups too. Most of the tents can be disassembled into smaller parts. So one bucket would have the fly, another would have the poles et cetera.

  11. How do bear canisters figure into this challenge? For those of us who backpack in the California Sierras, they are required in many areas and would obviously take up most of the room in a 5-gallon bucket.

  12. If you’re using trekking poles to set up your tent, can you fit them in the bucket?

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