Colin Fletcher’s Gear List: Then and Now

Fletcher’s basic gear list.

Colin Fletcher is widely recognized as the father of modern backpacking. The co-author of The Complete Walker Volume 4, last published in 2002, he helped popularize the use of gear lists and gear weights to organize and reduce the weight of backpacking gear. The content of that book still influences my backpack gear selections today.

In the summer of 1959, Fletcher walked over 1000 miles through the deserts and mountains of California, from Mexico in the south to Oregon in the north. His journey lasted for 6 months, in which as he writes, “my pack was my house.”

I recently came across Fletcher’s gear list which he published in 1960, in Field and Stream Magazine.  I’ve reproduced it below in two parts: the first part which he used to backpack in hot weather and desert conditions, and the second, a list of equipment that he added when walking across the mountains in colder weather. That journey is chronicled in his book, Thousand Mile Summer.

While Fletcher’s gear list is fun to read through and was remarkable for the time, I thought it’d be amusing to speculate about what his gear list would look like today, with the latest gadgets, clothing, and backpacking equipment available to long-distance hikers. There is quite a contrast between then and now, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate.

Colin Fletcher’s 1960 Gear List

When Fletcher drafted his gear lists, the notion of “base gear weight” (gear but no food or consumables) or “skin-out weight” (everything including gear, food, consumables, and the clothes you’re wearing) didn’t exist yet. That said, the following gear list is a pretty good estimate of what we’d now call his base backpacking weight, which includes just his gear, the clothing he carried, and camera equipment, minus food.

The base weight of his hot weather gear totals 569 oz or 35.6 pounds. This is a perfectly respectable pack weight, considering that he was carrying an early down mummy sleeping bag that weighed 90 ounces (5 lbs 10 oz) and a modified external frame backpack that weighed 67 ounces (4 lbs 3 oz) but could haul up to 80 pounds. Fletcher kept his gear weight down by cowboy camping without a tent or sleeping pad during the first part of his journey, finding soft places to sleep on, by sleeping naked, and only using his extra clothing for ground insulation when required.

ItemsWeight (oz)
Steel cup3
Margarine container2
Two nesting cooking pots20
Camera 2 and 1/4 x 2 and 1/432
K-2 filter in case2
Camera lens brush1
Writing materials12
Camera, 35mm26
Six Rolls 120 film, b&w7
Toilet articles14
Moccasins18
Toilet paper7
Six rolls 135 film, color9
Towel2
Camera tripod`14
Exposure meter6
Shorts3
Whipcord pants31
Woolen Sweater34
Poncho19
Detergent container2
Salts and Pepper Holder2
Fork1
Spoon2
Sugar container2
Two pairs socks7
Spare shirt9
Staff20
Waterproof matchsafe1
Nylon cord (30 ft)2
Spare spectales, 2 flashlight bulbs 2 oz2
Book matches (6 books)1
Nylon boot laces1
Small scarf1
Snakebite kit1
Bandana1
String shirt9
Paperback book6
Carborundum stone3
Binoculars, 6 x 3014
Cellophane tape1
Compass5
Boot wax2
Fly dope2
First-aid kit3
Wallet (w/ can opener)6
Flashlight with batteries5
Mummy sleeping bag90
Three half-gallon water canteens39
Backpack (modified external frame)67
Total (oz)569
Total in Pounds35.6

Fletched would hike for about a week at a time, carrying approximately 10 pounds of food between resupplies at small stores or post offices, where he’d forwarded food. He used water purification tablets, probably iodine to treat his water, and pre-cached water in several desert locations. In addition, he had the ability to carry up to 1.5 gallons of water at a time in three half-gallon aluminum canteens, since this was before the age of soft water bottles or trail angels.

Added Equipment for Mountainous Terrain

Fletchers Gear List Additions for the Mountains
Fletcher’s Gear List Additions for the Mountains

Like any good backpacker, Fletcher only carried what he needed through the desert and then added additional gear to his pack when he had to hike in cooler weather at higher elevations in the mountains. In addition to heavier clothing, Fletcher liked to catch trout to augment his diet. He also used a white gas stove in the mountains, instead of burning sagebrush, because it was less of a hassle to use and much more reliable to cook with. White gas was available at the stores he resupplied at in those days, although I doubt it is today. The total weight of his additional cold weather/mountain gear (see below) comes to just over 10 pounds.

ItemWeight (oz)
Tent, stakes, poles49
Longjohns9
Parka22
Woolen helmet3
Woolen gloves4
Fishing accessories6
Fly reel7
Heavy woolen shirt16
Fly-rod case, aluminum9
Fly-rod4
Heavy woolen socks5
Spinning reel9
Gasoline stove and cover14
Heavy wollen scarf5
White-gas container4
Total (oz)166
Total in Pounds10.4

A Modern Take on Fletcher’s 1000 Mile Gear List

If Colin Fletcher were to hike his Thousand Mile Summer Route over today in 2022, what would his gear list look like and how much would it weigh?

Here’s a stab at a modern gear list for him that replaces his:

  • heavy photography equipment with an iPhone 13 Pro Max(the photo quality is really incredible)
  • cooking pots and white gas stove with a lighter weight canister stove and nesting cookset
  • fly rod, reel, and spinning reel with a Tenkara fly fishing setup
  • his big 4 with much lighter weight alternatives including a multi-use poncho tarp, a foam sleeping pad, and warm down sleeping bag, and a backpack capable of hauling all his gear, food, and 1.5 gallons of water when required.

These changes cut his gear weight in half and illustrate how much has changed in terms of backpacking gear and photography between 1960 and 2022, some 60 years later.

ItemWeight (oz)
Kitchen
Toaks 450 ml Titanium cup2.7
Soto Amicus cookset combo (incl. stove)11.2
Margarine container2
Sugar container2
Detergent container2
Salts and Pepper Holder2
Spork1
Mini bic lighter1
Three 2L (70 oz) Platypus Bottles3.9
Documentation/Optics
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max (camera, writing, book reader)8.5
Joby Mini tripod2.5
Binoculars 6 x 3014
Anker 10k Power Pack6.7
BD Spot Rechargeable Headlamp2.6
Suunto M3D Compass1.5
Clothing/Personal Care
Crocs (camp shoes)12
Two pairs Darn Tough socks7
Patagonia Baggie Shorts 5.2
Patagonia LS Sun Shirt7.4
Railrider Bushwacker Weather Pants15
Patagonia R1 Air Full Zip Hoody13.5
Brynje Wool Thermo Mesh LS Shirt5
Toilet paper7
Toilet articles4
Towel2
Spare spectales2
Spare laces1
Small scarf1
Bandana1
First-aid kit3
Nylon cord (30 ft)2
Tenacious tape1
Picaridin2
Wallet (w/ can opener)6
Big 4
Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape/Tarp Poncho11
Gossamer Gear LT 5 Trekking poles (pair)10
Western Mountaineering Versalite 10F sleeping bag32
Nemo Switchback Foam Sleeping Pad14.5
Granite Gear Crown 3 60 Backpack44
Total (oz)272.2
Total in Pounds17.0

Additional substitutions can also be made for the gear he carried on the mountainous/higher altitude portion of his journey with the inclusion of a freestanding tent, lighter weight clothing, and a much simpler and lighter weight fishing setup. These would have dropped his gear weight from 10.4 pounds down to 5.8 pounds, which is also respectable, considering the added comfort and convenience that these modern items would have provided.

ItemWeight (oz)
Freestanding Tent
Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 1 Tent34
Clothing
REI Lightweight Long Underwear5.9
Montbell Ex-Light Down Anorak8
Fleece cap2
Fleece gloves3
Heavy woolen socks5
Heavy wollen scarf5
Minus 33 Kobuk 1/4 Zip Expedition Wool Sweater19.2
Fishing Gear
Tenkara Bum rod case2.5
Tenkara USA Iwana 12' fishing rod2.7
Fishing accessories (flies, line)6
Total (oz)93.3
Total in Pounds5.8

Wrap Up

This was a fun exercise that illustrates Colin Fletcher’s ingenuity in 1960 as well as the benefit of more modern gear for long-distance adventures. If you’ve never read any of Colin Fletcher’s trail memoirs, I’d encourage you to give Thousand Mile Summer, a try, since Fletcher was a gifted writer.  The Man Who Walked Through Time (Kindle, Audible, Paperback, Hardcover) is another one of my favorites, one that I reread every few years because it is so good.

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22 comments

  1. Good article, Philip. Thanks.

  2. Great article. His books got me into backpacking in the 60’s. I even managed to find some bambo near my house for a hiking staff and The Complete Walker was used and looked through many times. I still have my Svea stove! I remember my pack weight as being pretty heavy but it was a lot less complicated back then and I had a grand time. And remember that they set records in mountaineering with wool and leather boots. Good thing to keep in mind then and now, ‘It’s about the journey’

    • I started backpacking in 1970 and this book was one of my cherished possessions (I still have it!). It convinced me to shed my tent whenever possible and sleep under a tarp/poncho. I too still have my svea stove!

  3. Neat! I’m reading ‘Walking Man’ by Robert Wehrman. Super ‘Fletcher’ biography. I bought his first Complete Walker and read it till it disintegrated. I have his C.W. iV with Chip Rawlins, now. Hard pressed to get a copy of Thousand Mile Summer. Strayed’s ‘Wild’ was interesting.

  4. “When Fletcher drafted his gear lists, the notion of “base gear weight” (gear but no food or consumables) or “skin-out weight” (everything including gear, food, consumables, and the clothes you’re wearing) didn’t exist yet.”

    If skin-out weight didn’t exist as a concept at the time of the Thousand Mile Summer, it’s because Colin hadn’t invented it yet. By at least the 1984 edition of his The Complete Walker he was was talking about FSO (From Skin Out). This is the earliest mention of the idea that I’m aware of.

  5. I would also recommend his book “River”, a journey down the Colorado River .

  6. Like the rest of you, St. Colin taught me to backpack. I’ve read and owned all 4 CWs (a young man I taught to backpack now has possession of those 4 hardbound books.) I took my first backpack trip led by someone who knew little about backpacking (“Don’t bring a tent.” “What if it rains?” “It won’t.” And I believed him.) But, it was enough to get me hooked. When I got home, I checked out the original CW from the library, put together a kit that resembled his, and took my second trip (and first solo trip) and never looked back.

    His general advice has changed over the years, but still is essentially unchanged from CW1 and correct:
    1. If you need it, take it.
    2. Pare away relentlessly at the weight of every item.
    In CW4, he added:
    3. Strive to reduce to a minimum the number of items you carry (often by sensible multiple usage.)
    4. Gossamerize every item toward vanishing point.

    Personally, I wish someone would go through all of the CW series, chop out the gear reviews (and maybe Chip Rawlins’ comments), and publish an “Essence of Backpacking” with all the stories and advice that has proven to be timeless. The result would be another classic.

    My own favorite tip was how to use your hiking pole to brace your external-frame pack and use it as a chair. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that with packs like the Osprey Exos or Levity, which are in fact external-frame packs made out of much-improved materials than the old welded-water-pipe 1970s packs. (How can you tell? The perimeter frame with cross-braces and suspended-mesh backpanel are still easily recognizable.) Until I figure it out, I’ll stay with the Mountainsmith Slingback Chair that is the second-best chair I’ve found and weighs only 5 ounces.

    I think I’ll go read a random chapter now…

  7. Great read. I especially liked that you used the Gatewood poncho/tarp in the kit. It does not get much attention.

  8. One of my favorite Colin Fletcher quotes regarding the freeze dried food that was available in his day : “it’s expensive, tastes like cardboard, and makes you fart like a bull”. Thankfully that assessment of freeze dried food is no longer accurate.

  9. I was a kid in the 1970s when I read the “Complete Walker” in our local library. His methodology towards backpacking has stuck with me even today. I now own several of his books, thanks to online sources. Wonder how many young people even know his name? Great article, thank you for highlighting Colin Fletcher’s contribution to modern backpacking.

  10. I used Fletcher’s book as a reference for my trans-Spanish Pyrenean trek in the early seventies. External frame pack, leather boots, et al! I was prepared for any foreseeable contingency, and made aware of those unforeseeable. A tru backpacking guru. Thanks for this post. The history and content may be of interest and enlightenment to the UL hikers of today…yours truly included ;-)

  11. Fun trip down memory-lane, I started backpacking in the 60’s, amazing how the weight of the Big Three (or Four) has plummeted. And the advancement of LED lights with Lithium batteries, providing unbelievable brightness, long life and cold resistance! Your update of his gear list did miss one thing that is a BIG change, a Bear Canister.

  12. About 1970 I belonged to the Book of the Month Club. The Complete Walker was offered as a Book Dividend. I ordered it just to find out how anyone could write an entire book about walking. I had never heard of backpacking. I became fascinated with the concept of going into a wilderness carrying everything you needed on your back. In short order, I started acquiring equipment using Colin’s advice as a guide. I hiked several trails with my young son in the next few years. Then, at 36 years of age, my body got wracked with osteoarthritis from shoulders to feet. Despite the incredible pain, my biggest regret was that my backpacking days were over. The Fletcher book I didn’t see mentioned in the Comments was The Man Who Walked Through Time, about his hike through the Grand Canyon. The number of people steered to backpacking by Colin Fletcher must be staggering. We are all in his debt.

  13. I lent my 1st edition of The Compleate Walker and sadly never got it back. Now I NEVER lend stuff.

    But even in the early ’70s I never carried s much as Fletcher, summer or winter, on my northern Pennsylvania backpack trips. Why take two pots? At most I take a 3 cup anodized aluminum Open Country pot and in winter add a ceramic coated “one egg” skillet, W/O handle.

    BUT… I have added a Garmin Colorado GPS (yeah, an old GPS) and spare batteries for GPS headlamp.

    BIG 3+ UL GEAR LIST: Osprey EXOS 58 pack, Tarptemt Notch Li Dyneema tent, REI FLASH 3 season insulated (R3.2) air mattress, Western Mountaineering overstuffed Megalite down mummy bag. With the proper clothing this gear can get me through temperatures down to 25 F. Stoves are Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti cone stove with ESBIT or CRUX folding canister stove.

  14. P.S. I forgot to add a SPOT Gen. II rescue beacon.

  15. Quite interesting that mountaineers were carrying lighter kit in the 1930’s before nylon even existed and that many people today still carry heavier kit than Collin even with all of the knowledge and options we have. Fun exercise nonetheless.

  16. Awesome piece. You’ve sent me scurrying to find and reread my old Colin Fletcher books. Thanks!!!

  17. George Nicholson

    I Love this modernization of Colin’s original packing list. The Complete Walker was one of my most significant inspirations to start backpacking. His descriptions are so romantic and deeply spiritual that I even reread it a few years ago. So much of if still holds up albeit the equipment list, which you have thoughtfully updated. Kudos

  18. Great article! Made me think back over my 45 years as a backpacker and how my gear and technique have evolve (with happy memories no matter what the weight).

    Also, great to remember St. Colin and St. Harvey. Haven’t thought about them in years. I think the biggest thing about “The Complete Walker” and “Backpacking One Step At A Time” is the shift in thinking away from camping and bushcraft towards a totally mobile experience. When I started backpacking, there were still a lot of people carrying a hatchet, bow saw, and 1000 feet of cordage so they could carve out a campsite and build up some camp furniture wherever they stopped each night. Fletcher and Manning showed my generation that you could get by without making a chair, a wash stand, or an elaborate fireplace, and in fact, enjoy the actual hiking.

  19. In the early 70s, who even weighed their gear?
    Who could afford to buy gear?
    Yes post Vietnam surplus or Korean conflict winter gear
    I hiked the Eastern Seaboard with a surplus army blanket, poncho, and ensolite mat.
    Who even thought of ultralite!

  20. Great article. Colin got me started backpacking in 1974 with a bright green Jansport external frame pack. Recently sold it to a young man just starting to backpack. I loved that pack. Did anyone mention that Colin cut the margins off from his maps to save weight?

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