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Intro to Lightweight Backpacking

If you’ve ever been backpacking, you’ve probably heard people boast that their pack weighs 50 or 60 lbs. Those days are over. With a little knowledge, it is possible for anyone to reduce their pack weight to a comfortable 25 or 30 lbs. and still bring along some luxury items. The chief benefit of bringing less gear is that you’ll be able to hike farther, see more, and have more fun (and take less ibuprofen).

Hiking in the Catskills
Hiking in the Catskills

I got into lightweight backpacking by trying a more extreme style called ultralight backpacking. Ultralight backpackers try to get their pack weights down to 15 or 10 lbs., or even lower. While this is possible to achieve, it requires very specialized gear, expert technique and a favorable climate. It can also be somewhat expensive: it costs about $20 to shave an ounce off your pack weight when you get your pack weight down to 15lbs.

Below, I describe a three phase process for reducing your pack weight to a comfortable 25 lbs.

Phase 1: Eliminate and Substitute

In the first phase, you need to understand how much your gear weighs and eliminate everything you don’t use on trips. After that, we look at three core components: your backpack, shelter and sleeping bag and substitute them with alternatives that weight less than 3lbs. each.

  1. Buy a digital scale on ebay that can weigh up to 8 lbs in pound, ounce and gram units. They cost about $20.
  2. Assemble all of the clothing and equipment (minus food, water, and stove fuel) that you carry on backpacking or camping trips and weigh it. Add up all of the weights. This is your base weight.
  3. Go on a backpacking trip and keep track of all of the gear or clothing that you did not use. Subtract this from your gear total and see how much weight you can save by leaving it behind. You’ll be surprised.
  4. Next, try to limit the weight of your backpack, sleeping bag, and tent to a total of 9 lbs, or 3 lbs each. There are a lots of very affordable mainstream backpacks, bags, and tents that you can purchase that will bring this number down quickly. Look at some of the gear reviews or links on this blog to learn about good alternatives.
  5. Finally, try to replace existing items in your kit with lighter weight alternatives. For example, don’t bring an entire can of insect repellent when you can bring 1 oz. to get through your trip; or replace an 8 oz. flashlight with a tiny LED that weights 0.5 oz.

Phase 2: Multipurpose Equipment

You can further reduce your pack weight by using a single item for multiple purposes. For example, my sleeping gear includes a tent, tent poles, a sleeping bag and pad, long underwear, a balaclava and a down vest.

  • I use hiking poles, so I replace my tent poles with them to erect my tent. This means I can leave the tent poles behind and reduce my gear weight by about 8 oz.
  • I have a frameless backpack (see my Starlite review). My sleeping pad goes into a special pocket in my pack that lets it act as an internal frame stiffening the pack and helping to transfer its weight to my hip belt. This lets me use a pack that is about 8-16 oz. lighter than backpacks that come with a built-in internal frame.
  • My sleeping pad is 3/4 length which means that it ends just below my knees. My legs and feet require less insulation than my core, so I position my pack and all my remaining gear under my lower legs. Additional weight savings can be 2 oz. to 8 oz. depending on the weight of a full length pad.
  • I wear long underwear, a down vest, and balaclava to sleep and to reduce the amount of insulation and the weight of the sleeping bag that I need to bring along. This layer doubles as an extra clothing layer if it gets very cold. The additional weight saved is about 8-16 oz.

Phase 3: Thermo-regulation

When you hike you generate a lot of heat and therefore you can carry a lot less clothing. The trick is learning what kind of clothing you need, how to layer it and how to build in a safety factor for different weather conditions and terrain. This takes a lot of practice, trial and error experimentation and careful observation, but eventually you can shave several pounds of gear off your pack weight.

Conclusion

The process of reducing your pack weight, described above, can easily take an entire backpacking season. Above all, the most important things you can do is to get out on as many backpacking trips as possible, even if they are just overnights. Experimentation and careful observation are key. Now get out there and do some hiking!

3 comments

  1. I carried more than my share of 50 or 60 pounds packs as a teenager. Now I have kids and don't get out as often. I try replacing one piece of gear with something lighter each time I do go out. My pack still isn't light but getting the weight even by a pound or two makes the trip more enjoyable.

  2. Good points about remembering to only bring what you need whether it's bug repellent or toothpaste. Duct tape is something I'll never go without on a trip and I usually just wrap a small amount around something I'm already bringing (like a small bottle of bug spray for example). That way you don't need the big bulky roll and you've got a backpacker's best friend along with you.

    I also prefer to bring a hammock over a tent, but I may be a bit biased. Great site and great tips!

    Seth Haber

    Trek Light Gear

  3. Thanks for your posts Phil. I'm certainly glad those 50 pound days are gone forever! It's truely amazing just how little base equipment you actually need when using multi-purposing. And you don't need to go droping big bucks for most of the gear either. I'm going to replace my sleeeping bag (it's past due) with a home made quilt tailored for use in my hammock (the girth is smaller) and shave a little weight for a third the cost of a new SB. I'm also sewing external mesh pockets to my Aarn pack to to increase its volume for my backing preferences without changing its weight distribution. Really love how the Aarn works and rides.

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