How long have you been backpacking and what’s the longest trip you’ve taken?
I thought it might help by first saying that I’m a 45 year old father of two girls, a high school Art / Photography teacher, and freelance photographer. My first overnight backpacking trip was in 1997 and my longest trip was a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim (Bright Angel Trail to North Kaibab Trail) in 2005.
When did you realize that you needed to reduce the amount of weight that you carried in your backpack?
I realized I needed to reduce my pack weight when I sought to go longer distances and stay out multiple days and my knees and back were saying “No Way!” It was either limit myself to weekend trips or start buying lighter gear. I specifically recall hiking the Eagle Rock Loop Trail in Arkansas with a 43 lb pack (fleece, sweatshirts, and a 2 person tent) in Jan. 2009. I knew then I had to do something different.
What is the total weight of your big three: backpack, sleeping bag/pad, and shelter?
Big Three Weight 9 lbs 4 oz;
- Granite Gear Vapor Trail pack 2 lb 5 oz
- Big Agnes Seedhouse Sl1 w/ footprint and Ground Hog stakes 3 lbs 8 oz
- Big Agnes Zyrkle 20 degree bag w/ BA Insulmat Aircore pad 3 lbs 7 oz
Do you own a scale for weighing your gear?
I have two scales. A Berkley digital hanging scale and a postal type scale for smaller items by Creative Toys. I always weigh my pack prior to a backpacking trips and record that information with my trip journal. I also weigh items as I consider adding them to my pack.
Where are you in the process of going lightweight?
I am at the stage of being a “modified” ultra light backpacker. I have reduced weight in my pack, sleeping bag, and tent. But, I haven’t forgone the comforts of my 2.5” sleeping pad or my JetBoil cooking stove. I consider the convenience of a good night sleep and the efficiency of the JetBoil over their added weight. So, I could go to a lighter stove and lighter pad, but I’m not there yet. Boiling 2 cups of water in approx. 2 minutes is big when I’m waiting on a cup of coffee.
How much has cost constrained the rate in which you reduce your gear weight?
Early on, cost was definitely a factor. I purchased both my Granite Gear Vapor Trail and BA Seedhouse used on eBay saving approx. 40%. Now that I’ve seen the added advantage of lighter weight gear I am more apt to purchase new so I can get the exact size / color. I even bought a Snow Peak 450 double wall cup, which is insanely expensive for what it is, but I hope to have it for a lifetime.
What was the largest amount of pack weight you dropped by replacing or eliminating a piece of gear?
Best item on weight savings? It’s a toss us between by Vapor Trail pack and Big Agnes tent. I traded a 5 lb Kelty pack for the Vapor Trail and a 6 lb two person Kelty tent (Gunnison 2) for the Big Agnes one person (Seedhouse SL1). Both were considerable savings on weight (and my knees) – about 3 pounds each saving me 6 lbs total.
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?
I traded a synthetic REI 0 bag for a Big Agnes Zyrkle 20 degree down bag. The down definitely compresses well and keeps me plenty warm in East Texas and Central Arkansas (and hopefully the Sierras this summer). There was no way the REI bag and bear canister would fit in the Vapor Trail for my JMT hike and I didn’t want to strap the canister on top of the pack if I didn’t have to so the swap to down was out of necessity. Seriously, I hated to spend over $300 on a bag.
Backpacks with an external frame, internal frame, or no frame?
I’m a huge fan of internal frame packs for comfort and mobility. I’ve gone from a Kelty external, to a Kelty internal, and now the Granite Gear Vapor Trail ultra light internal. Pack weight is always a factor – the more pack weight you have, the sturdier the pack needs to be.
Double walled shelters, single walled shelters, and tarps and bivies?
I do prefer a double wall tent just because of the East Texas bugs. I did use the BA Seedhouse as a tarp this spring and I could feel the spiders crawling across me until the Advil PM kicked in (lol). In cooler weather I wouldn’t mind using the BA as a tarp and leaving the tent behind saving a pound or so.
Full size sleeping pads vs. torso sized?
I’m a side sleeper and thinner pads have caused my arms to go to sleep by the pressure of my body – weird right? So, I much prefer the 2.5” full size Big Agnes Aircore. Plus, it does fit in to the Big Agnes sleeping system by sliding in to the bottom of the sleeping bag, which I love by the way (no rolling off the pad in the middle of the night). If the Neo Air comes out in a mummy style I may purchase one; however, the insulation factor is much lower than the BA pad.
Boots vs trail runners?
I wear Keen Targhee waterproof Boots. They have a larger toe box, which have been a blessing to my toes and have proven to be a solid waterproof boot. I like stepping in the middle of trail puddles and rock hopping without losing my stride.
What would you say are the biggest benefits of carrying less gear?
The biggest benefit to carrying lighter gear is being able to go further, longer, and with less stress on knees and back. Prior to my sub 30 lb pack (w/ 2 liters of water, 4 days of food, and a Bearvault BV500 bear canister for the Sierras) my backpacking was limited to 6 mile days and maybe a three day trip. Over the past year of getting lighter, I have now challenged myself to thru hike the John Muir Trail (220 miles) this July. I never would have considered this hike in the past. My knees and back could not have handled the gear I was carrying 18 months ago. Plus, now that my pack is lighter I am carrying a front-loading camera case for my professional camera (Canon EOS 5D). Before going light I only carried a point in shoot because I just couldn’t add the weight of the camera. I’ll be taking 4 lbs of camera gear on the JMT. I like to get “disconnected” and the best place for that is in the backcountry away from the crowds and often times that’s where the best views can be found.
What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to start reducing the weight of their backpacking gear?
My advice is simply try out the gear. Go to an outfitter and see what options are available. Borrow some items from a friend. Go hiking with someone who is considered ultra light and see how their gear works for them. Talk to other backpackers and read reviews. Find what fits your needs (and budget). You don’t have to “go light” all at once. Start off with a tent, then a sleeping bag, then find a pack that works (buy the pack last) for what you have.
Is there anything else you want to get off your chest?
I would like to “get this off my chest.” If you are an ultra light backpacker, don’t be a mooch. I recently went backpacking with an ultra light guy (he was sub 20 lbs) and he asked to borrow things from me on three different occasions. He even asked if he could have some of my boiled water because his “Heineken” alcohol stove would take too long. This experience gave me a bad taste in my mouth for extreme ultra light backpackers. I like to help out a fellow packer, but not bringing the essential is your fault. I may be holding on to what I bring on the JMT saying “I brought what I need and don’t have any to spare.” Also, I believe conditioning goes with going light. Take some spare pounds off your mid section and it’ll do wonders for your backpacking enjoyment. Climb on a Stair Master during the off season and hit the trail as often as your can to tweak your gear. Plan small trips and then set your sights on the “big one.”
Note: Sean submitted this post in order to enter the Sectionhiker.com Golite Ultralite Down Quilt Raffle. See link for full details.