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How to Reduce the Weight of Your Consumables

How to Reduce the Weight of Consumables UL 101

The heaviest items in your backpack are water, food, and fuel. They’re called consumables because you use them up as your trip progresses, as opposed to “base weight” which measures the weight of non-consumable items like a backpack, tent, unworn clothing, a sleeping bag, and other items that you’ll carry your entire hike.

Given the effort that people spend reducing the weight of their base weight by buying lighter weight gear, it’s a wonder that more attention isn’t paid to reducing consumable weight, given that it’s often heavier than all for your other gear combined. If you’re taking a hike where every once counts, shouldn’t every once count?

Common Consumables

  • Water
  • Food
  • Fuel
  • Toothpaste
  • Soap
  • Hand cleanser
  • Bug dope
  • Chapstick
  • Sunscreen
  • Toilet paper
  • Wet wipes
  • Butt paste
  • Foot salve
  • Spare batteries
  • Leukotape
  • Drugs/Pills

Here are some tips to reducing the weight of the consumable items in your backpack:

Water

Water weighs two pounds per liter. Camel up at water sources (drink extra) to reduce the amount of water you need to carry between them.

Calculate the distance to the next water source – a map helps. Carry only as much water as you need or a little in reserve, except in cases (like the desert) where it’s prudent to carry more.

If you carry your water in a hydration system with a reservoir, switch to water bottles so you can see how much water you have left and regulate your intake better. There’s often no reason to carry the full 3.5L (7 lbs) of water in a reservoir when you can carry just 1 liter or 2.

Food

Don’t carry more food than you can eat. You’d be surprised how many people do this. You’re not going to starve to death on a backpacking trip.

Carry fatty, high calorie foods like potato chips (smashed up to save space), olive oil, coconut milk, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pecans. etc to reduce your food weight, while still eating nutritious foods.

Combine multiple servings into one package instead of carrying many individual servings. This can cut down on packaging weight and the amount of garbage you have to carry out.

Prepare your own dehydrated meals instead of carrying heavier prepared foods.

Stove Fuel

Carry a collapsible wood stove to cook with wood you find on the ground, instead of carrying a Jetboil and a fuel canister, or an alcohol stove and a fuel bottle full of alcohol.

Go stoveless when conditions permit, and rehydrate food in a jar as you walk.

Bring Less

Repackage all creams and gels into small plastic bottles or tubs so you’re not carrying the entire amount in the original packaging. This includes sunscreen, bug dope, water purification drops, butt paste, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, etc.

Pre-cut strips of leukotape blister prevention tape and attach them to release paper Don’t bring the entire roll.

Eliminate

Reduce or eliminate the amount of toilet paper you carry. Use natural materials (leaves, sticks, rocks) instead.

Wash yourself with soap and water, not wet wipes or other moist towelettes. This will eliminate packaging that you need to also carry out as well as the water weight they contain before use.

Replace all of your electronic devices with ones that can be recharged with a USB battery pack. Get rid of all of the spare batteries in different sizes that you carry.

Full Skin Out Weight

Full skin out weight or FSO as it’s sometimes called, includes your gear’s base weight, the weight of your worn clothing (not usually counted in base weight) and the weight of your consumables, combined. While discussing base weight is a good starting point for comparison between hikers, the only weight that really matters is the full skin out weight of what you have to carry when you go hiking or backpacking. So, don’t forget to give some thought on how to keep the weight of your consumables down to make your FSO more manageable.

Written 2018.

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34 comments

  1. this more falls under reducing base weight but Im hoping to finally go on my first overnighter this year, and I’m thinking about leaving behind my 3L water reservoir , and using 2,, 1 liter smart water bottles, but use a product called blue desert smart tube drinking system a hose with a cap adapter for smart water bottles, basically because i get frustrated with trying to remove and put back bottles in my mesh pockets, and hopefully will save some weight and also not having to use a fast fill adapter,

    • The problem with using a water bladder is that you can’t see how much water you have left so you end up carry far more than you need. Water is heavy!

      • I found I drink more water, more quickly, from a bladder. That’s fine until I’m still an hour from the summit on a hot summer day on an exposed ridge and I hear the soft sucking sound of no more water from my hydration tube. Last time I used a bladder. at least with bottles, I do a better job rationing water.

    • I’m more consistent with drinking water from a bladder, but learned the hard way to also have a reserve bottle in my pack. Once the bladder is empty, I know there’s always one bottle left. Yep, I pack my fear! Running out in 104 degrees on a Texas trail is all it took… Anyway, this works for me!

    • brian g. You might consider a Zpacks Aqua Clip Holder for putting your water bottle someplace convenient, rather than running a hose to your mouth. http://www.zpacks.com/accessories/aquaclip.shtml

  2. I know it is not for everyone, in fact my first attempt at dehydration of my own food was when I was still working. Time, questionable results and a cheap dehydrator were limiting factors in not adopting the practice. However next to carrying too much water, which I learned to control (as you state) by knowing where the water is and only carry what you need – my food was the major place left to lose some weight and volume. Based on an article you posted on the Backpacking Chef book, I bought the book and started my dehydration foray again (now retired though, which was a huge advantage). I replaced my dehydrator and started by experimenting/following some of the recipes in the book and things I found on the internet. Never have looked back and now I package all my major meals for trips. The weight/volume is actually less than the commercial meals I was buying and carrying. Variety of meals is much broader and I found now that many of the things we eat at home dehydrate well, so when I have a trip coming, I just dehydrate the leftovers, vacuum seal them and stick them in the freezer until I leave. This has been an adjustment for sure, but well worth the effort.

  3. Somehow I manage to bring uneaten food back home from every trip, although I’ve gotten better at it. It’s easy to overestimate how much you’ll eat. I’ve found I don’t need 3 full meals a day – a light snack mid-day gets me to dinner. Also, during trip planning identify opportunities to skip into town and grab something. It’ll be one less meal to carry. A good example is hiking thru the Shennies – between the waysides and campgrounds you can practically eat your way thru 100 miles and carry minimum food.

  4. Great tips, thanks Philip!

    A rule of thumb we use for Scouts – between 2000 and 3000 calories per day is fine on a weekend trip. We always follow up with a restaurant meal where they can make up any deficits!

    For safety purposes with our group, we still bring a canister or other non-wood stove on overnights in shoulder season. But stoveless or wood stove makes a lot of sense other times!

    Not true for most Scouts, but for most of us – easiest pounds to drop on FSO is extra pounds on our “frame”.

  5. Great article, but I must take issue with a couple of points.

    “Reduce or eliminate the amount of toilet paper you carry. Use natural materials (leaves, sticks, rocks) instead” Natural materials, including rocks, really? This is a recipe for monkey butt, which will turn your pleasant trip into the Bataan Death March!

    “Carry a collapsible wood stove to cook with wood you find on the ground”, While in theory this sounds good, my experience with burning wood has not gone well. If you hike in dry climates this will work OK (I guess), but in the Northeast and Midwest finding dry wood to burn is a real pain. Instead, I carry a lightweight alcohol stove (the Toaks Titanium Siphon stove that will boil 2 cups of water with .5 oz of alcohol), and four ounces of fuel. With windscreen, the total extra weight is around 8 ounces. I only do one burn a day, so I can get a week out of this setup.

    • Hobble bush makes great TP – the big leaves. And/or wash yourself with water. The universal solvent works wonders.

      Carry esbit to augment wood, when it’s not available or dry. Burns great in a wood stove, which acts as a windscreen and pot stand. When you carry liquid fuel, you carry a bottle too. Not arguing with you. Just making a point.

    • A couple years ago, I did an overnight mountain trip in fog and rain… I was desperate to hit the trail! I found long damp grass clusters near my “lonely tree” and they worked amazingly well for TP. I felt I had made it to ultralight hikerdom–I finally achieved Turdvana!

      Shedding hike weight is also dependent on regulations. Some places won’t let you use a wood stove–only containerized fuels are allowed. Of course, when I asked the Ranger if alcohol or Esbit met the definition of “containerized”, I got a blank stare until I assured him the stove didn’t burn wood but fuel I brought in a “container” (When pulling my permit, I was trying to see if I needed to bring the JetBoil or not). Another regulation that affects weight is bear resistant food storage–is it required and do Ursaks count as such? The Ursak question may sometimes end up in the same interpretation family as “What’s a container?”

  6. I’ve kind of given up on Ultra light when it comes to food.

    I splurge for backpacking meals, mountain house and instant oatmeal in a cup. Basically if I can cook it in its own container by simply boiling water, I’ll pay a weight penalty.

    This allows me to stick with esbit for 3 season backpacking.

    I use to crack down and try to give myself weight limits per day, but my meals got boring and I hated cleaning up. Meals are something I greatly look forward to and I’ll spend more and carry more weight because it makes my overall experience more enjoyable.

    • Bret - trail name Rocky

      I sacrifice a little weight for convenience.

      I have found that if “it ain’t easy” I’ll skip eating. Honey buns for breakfast, candy bars for morning and afternoon snack, packaged danishes or pastries for lunch, and mountain house for supper with pop tarts for dessert. The most difficult thing that I have to do is boil water to pour into my mountain house. No clean up, just put the paper in my garbage bag. I use a small gas stove to heat the water for the mountain house. The stove, lighter, and canister all pack into my cup. I get the 2 or 2.5 serving mountain house packages. With this and pop tarts for dessert, I go to sleep feeling stuffed. :)

      Happy Hiking!

      • I find adding cold water to the Mt. House packet several hours prior to dinner and it’s ready to go. Yeah, it’s cold, but I push pretty hard so by then, I just don’t care: I eat, bivvy sack & sleeping bag. I may not even brush my teeth…I simply pass out.

  7. Dry salami has excellent calorie density, and it’s packaged nicely (make sure to compare various brands, some are drier and denser than others).

    Dry your wet wipes at home, then add water on the trail. I’ve been doing this for years, using one of the light plastic grocery bags to pack out the used ones after they sit out overnight and dry again.

    • I also add water to reconstitute wet ones. Of course, for me, it’s because they dried out in my backpacking gear between trips.

  8. “Water weighs two pounds per liter. ”
    omg. The irony :D

  9. Some good tips there. One might think that re-portioning larger amounts of stuff and re-containerizing into lighter vessels would be common-sense, prevailing practice, but one would be wrong. A young couple at a tent-platform camping spot i was at last year had schlepped an entire glass bottle of wine. Another guy had a soccer-ball mass of cooked pasta in a large plastic bag he just pulled out and dug into for dinner. He was out for a number of days. I assumed he ate the same stuff every day. Simplifies prep, i suppose.

    I thought i’ve been living a fairly worldly life, but i confess i’ve never seen the words butt and wipes used together as a proprietary thing. Motivation to live another day; there’s always something new to learn.

    Speaking of butts; wiping with sticks? Rocks? (Cue Amber Says What?! on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Look it up.) I mean, how much does toilet paper weigh? Sticks… how does that even work? Nah, i don’t want to know.

    I’d think a few things would factor into whether one large USB-connected battery is better (lighter) than a few smaller extra AAAs or AAs.

    Not sure that “nutritious foods” and “potato chips” belong in the same sentence.

    And i always carry a day’s extra of food and fuel, just in case i have to spend an additional, unplanned night, or if someone i meet is running low. The weight weenie thing has its limits; different for everyone, no doubt.

  10. Oil, at 240, has twice the calories per ounce as starchy foods. It is a more complex chain of hydrocarbons and so releases its energy more slowly. Adding a tablespoon of oil to my breakfast oatmeal made a big difference in performance as Simple sugars break down first, then starches, then finally, oil. With oatmeal, I used to run out of energy after a couple hours of hike, however, with the addition of oil to my oatmeal i can hike at least an hour longer. I also have since replaced crackers in my trail mix with nuts, rich in healthy oil. Compared to crackers, oil is not only calorie-dense, but it also takes up space because it has no air. I carry 16 ounces of oil on a 10 days backpack and add a tablespoon or two to my freeze dried dinner so I don’t wake up hungry in the middle of night..

  11. I can polish off 2 liters of water on a 2 hour day hike here during the summer. Water sources can dry up. Not sure that skimping on water is a good idea in all situations, although I would love to save weight by carrying less water when I can.

    • Having been in that situation many years ago, I agree. A liter extra water and a couple days extra food do not hurt. Finding yourself in need because of a situation, and not having it will hurt.

  12. Yes fat is great regarding energy to weight. With that in mind, consider the amount of energy many Americans are carrying in the form of body fat.
    Hunger won’t kill you in small doses.
    Many gram counters would do well to stand in front of a full length mirror. If you drop those 5,10 or 20 lbs your whole load will be that much lighter.

    • CE, I can speak to that! I lost 20 lbs. last year and I can definitely feel the difference. Diet = endless misery (since keeping it off is the key) but 20 lbs… that’s my total pack weight(!) so it’s kinda like I’m not carrying a pack… kinda.

    • I’ve always believed that pack weight “Limits” should be calculated using one’s ideal weight and counting excess weight as part of the load. You can find your “ideal” weight by using the Body Mass Index (BMI) tables at http://www.cdc.gov.

      As an example, let’s look at two guys (or girls, I suppose) who are the same height (six feet tall.) One is 180 pounds and fit; the other is a 210 pound couch potato. Applying the traditional rule that you can carry a quarter of your weight comfortably, and a third of your weight if you need to, would say that the fit 180-pounder could carry 45 pounds, while our couch potato could carry 52 pounds comfortably. Does that really make sense?

      I prefer the following analysis: the BMI tables (if I’m reading them correctly) would say that the highest weight for a six foot person to be in the “normal” (not “obese”) range would be 180. Therefore, the maximum comfortable load for that person would be 45 pounds. So, our fit fellow should be able to comfortably carry 45 pounds. Our couch potato can carry 45 pounds: 30 pounds of excess weight, plus 15 pounds of gear and consumables. I think that makes a lot more sense, and squares with my observation of overweight folks who try backpacking (laudably trying to take up an activity that gets them moving and helps lose weight.) Carrying a 30 pound load, plus the extra weight, puts them at a third of their ideal weight, which means they should be needing to stop frequently on the trail, and be pretty tired when they get to camp after a 10-mile day. That’s pretty much what I see when I take such folks on their first or second trip (and how I felt when I was that 210-pound hiker.)

    • I’m about to embark on the AT–starting at Harper’s and going south to Damascus about 490 miles. I bought the Appalachian Trail Data Book for 2018 and will plan on how much food and water I need between refueling / watering holes. I’ll try and go

  13. Last year in Colorado I left behind my stove fuel at a campsite and went without cooking for two days, just eating bars. This brought home to me how little I really did need to eat. It wasn’t ideal, but still a good object lesson in really how many consumable you need.

  14. None of the trips I have done in the Sierras over the last several years would allow wood-burning, or even alcohol stove use. The fire danger in these ranges is real, as the heavy smoke we hike though every year attests. I’ve solved the problem; I now go stoveless.

  15. Camel up? As far as I know, water weighs the same in your stomach as it does in a water bottle.

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