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
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.
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.