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Lightweight Backpacking with Multi-function Gear

The Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform DW-1 is pitched using your trekking poles to save weight.
The Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform DW-1 is pitched using your trekking poles to save weight.

This article’s focus is on helping you further reduce your pack weight by selecting backpacking gear that can be used for multiple functions. If you can bring less gear, it will weigh less, and you can further cut down on pack weight by carrying a lower volume backpack. Let’s start by listing some of the common ways that ultralight and lightweight backpackers use to reduce their pack weight in this manner.

Multi-Function Gear Tricks

  1. If you use trekking poles, they can double as tent poles replacing the ones supplied by the tent manufacturer. This can chop a pound from your pack weight.
  2. If you have a frameless backpack, you can use a foam sleeping pad like a Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest as a stiffener to make it more rigid. Simply roll it up and put your gear in the middle. Lightweight backpackers often use frameless packs because they can shave another pound from your gear list.
  3. Use a poncho as a tarp shelter. The Exped Poncho Bivy UL can be used to replace a tarp, backpack cover, rain jacket, and rain pants saving you a pound or more in gear weight.
  4. Use a bandana as a hat, a scarf, a potholder, and a towel for washing up. Buff bandanas are perfect for this.
  5. Use a tent stake as a cat hole scooper.
  6. Use rocks and sticks that you find in the woods as tent guy-line anchors or stakes.
  7. Use a sleeping quilt as a jacket. Sierra Designs sells a Mobile Mummy Sleeping bag that can be used as a jacket.
  8. Use your cook pot as a plate and a mug. There is no need to bring anything else for eating or drinking. This will save you about 8 oz.
  9. Wear rain gear in your sleeping bag so that it acts as a vapor barrier. This will let you bring a lighter-weight sleeping bag and save more weight.
  10. Slide your sleeping bag into your empty backpack while you are lying in it at night. It will act as a vapor barrier to keep you warmer so you can bring a lighter sleeping bag. You can also use it this way as a bad weather half-bivy if you’re sleeping under a tarp and rain is blowing onto you.
  11. If you carry a mylar emergency blanket, you can use it as a tent footprint or as a signal mirror.
  12. Stuff all of your clothes into your sleeping bag at night so that your body has to heat less air volume. You’ll be warmer and you can bring a lighter-weight sleeping bag.
  13. Use an empty hydration bladder as a pillow.
  14. Stuff a stuff sack with clothes and use it as a pillow.
  15. Use a backpack cover as a water sack to carry water to camp.
  16. During spring or autumn, sleeping in a down vest or jacket may let you reduce the weight of your sleeping bag.
  17. Use a stove repair tool like a spoon. MSR’s Alpine Tool Spoon is designed for just this purpose.

Backpacking Safety Considerations

There are definitely some great ideas here, but some of them require weight to safety trade-offs that may be more aggressive than you are ready to make. This is especially true when you are cutting the weight of your sleep system by using vapor barrier techniques or alternative insulation to reduce the weight and temperature rating of a sleeping bag. Under these circumstances, I cannot emphasize the importance of experimentation and caution. You need to try a lot of different gear combinations in a variety of weather conditions to understand your personal safety boundaries and which weight/comfort trade-offs will work for you.

Written 2008. Revised 2016.


  1. 9. Wear rain gear in your sleeping bag..

    I never thought of this, but it's a good idea and makes sense – I'll give it a go.

  2. One idea that might shave a tiny bit:

    Soda (or Gatorade, etc.) bottles are lighter than Nalgenes. Nice thing is, they're easily replaceable, so you don't have to worry about washing them (unless you want to keep using the same ones for a while, I guess). If you're wanting hot liquids, you'd need to stick with something like a Nalgene or CamelBak bottle, but otherwise the lighter, recyclable bottles are fine.

    Oh, and you can always cut half your toothbrush handle off. :)

  3. I forgot about those. They are lighter and BPA Free. I plan on using wide mouth, 32 oz. vitamin water bottles on an upcoming Wilderness First Aid course I'm taking in early December in Vermont, where we'll be outside for 2 days.

  4. #3)Nice except now what do you do after you've set up the Cape and it's still raining and you've got no rain gear? And you have to go outside to get water, go to the bathroom, cook, etc.

    #9) Wear Rain Gear inside sleeping bag?

    Kinda clammy, no? Unless it's very cold outside.

    Like below 15 degrees F. In those temperatures you likely wouldn't bring rain gear.

    And this doesn't really work if it was warmer and rained that day. So now you've brought your lighter sleeping bag but you can't really wear that still wet rain gear inside the sleeping bag without…ummm.

    10#) Slide sleeping bag into pack so it (presumably the pack) acts as a vapor barrier?

    Most packs aren't waterproof and won't act as a vapor barrier. And a good thing, since the vapor barrier needs to be inside the sleeping bag, not outside, where it will destroy the down's loft for sure. But the pack might act as a heat retainer which is not a bad idea.

  5. #3 – you get water before you set the cape up.

    #9 – ok – this is meant as 3 season advice.

    #10 – you got it. The pack acts as a heat retainer even though it's not airtight. I've used this system myself in very high winds in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. If you want watertight, you can also just use a backpack liner. Thx for the comments!

  6. I am assuming that with the empty bladder, you are blowing it up to make an air pillow. When I happen to do this I also put a shirt over the bladder as a pillow case.

    Another pillow option is to find a sleeping bag with a built-in pillow pocket which eliminates the need for a separate stuff sack. The bags from Big Agnes are great examples of this.

  7. Hey, that's a game we started playing some 20 years ago while stuck in a tent going on the third day of rain.. Take an item out of your pack and try and come up with as many possible uses as one can.. The winners gets a Snickers!

  8. The smartphone, the modern day Swiss Army Knife, is the ultimate multi-functional device: camera, books, music/video player, maps, flashlight, GPS, photos cards (driver’s license, permits, credit, medical, fishing license etc…), entertainment, emergency calls, internet access… and anything else for which there exists and app.

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