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How to Become a Lightweight Backpacker

Dan Human shares what he has learned from several thousand miles of backpacking, hiking and paddling.

Tips for packing light on your next backpacking adventure.

Tips for packing light on your next backpacking adventure.

A Lightweight Packing List

Packing up your gear for a backpacking trip can be a daunting task, especially while keeping your pack as lightweight as possible. Reducing your backpack's weight all boils down to trail comfort. The more comfortable you are on the trail, the more you enjoy your surroundings, the more you connect with nature, and the more miles you travel.

Lightweight backpacking can be tricky; you eliminate what you can while carrying the supplies that you need for a backcountry adventure. Yes, traveling light is easier on your body, but venturing into the outdoors without the appropriate gear can be dangerous.

How Light Can You Go?

In the summer, I've gotten my equipment weight below seven pounds. Add food and water for three days, and the pack tips the scales around 14 pounds. When I started backpacking, my backpack easily weighed 45 pounds.

I developed the following three-season packing list with thousands of miles of backpacking experience. I do most of my backpacking now in the Adirondacks, but this gear can be tweaked for most wilderness destinations.

It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.

— Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft

Scenes like this from Flowed Lands in the Adirondacks are why we go backpacking.

Scenes like this from Flowed Lands in the Adirondacks are why we go backpacking.

Three Rules for a Lighter Pack

Lightweight and ultralight hiking is all about making the big changes. Though cutting the handle off your toothbrush saves you an ounce, downsizing your pack can save you four pounds.

Use these three general rules to begin your journey into lightweight backpacking.

  1. The biggest tip for people making an effort of reducing pack weight is to weigh absolutely everything. Record those weights into a spreadsheet. Cut and paste the item and weight into a new page for each trip you are taking. Print out the sheet, and keep it with your trip plan back home.
  2. There is no perfect gear for every trip. For example, I have four bivy sacks for different trips and conditions. Learn what works for you when and where you are backpacking.
  3. Sometimes, more expensive isn't better or lighter. Though I'm a big believer in quality gear, sometimes the simple things (like a homemade alcohol stove) can save you weight and money.
Mist in the Adirondack Great Range as seen on one of my ultralight backpacking trips.

Mist in the Adirondack Great Range as seen on one of my ultralight backpacking trips.

6 Lightweight Packing Tips

Below are some of my personal favorite tips for reducing your weight-load.

1. Carry a Lighter Pack

  • Carrying a smaller pack removes the temptation to carry more than you should.
  • Think about going to a lightweight frameless pack like the Golite Jam or Outdoor Research Drycomp.
  • Cut off ice axe loops and daisy chains if you don't use them.

2. Reduce Shelter Weight

  • Switch to carrying a tarp instead of a tent.
  • Carry a sleeping bag rated for the upper limits of comfort. Wear your clothing inside in case it gets colder.
  • Reduce the number of stakes you carry by tying stake loops to roots and trees. Use a lightweight cord like Kelty Triptease to extend the stake loops.

3. Reduce Food and Water Weight

  • Plan your meals and plan on walking out of the woods with an empty food sack.
  • Reduce the amount of water you carry. Treat water on the trail more often and hydrate well while stopped.
  • Think about going stoveless and not carrying any stove, pot, or fuel. Generally food will be heavier, but you carry less weight over time.

4. Reduce Clothing Weight

  • Carry quick-drying, non-cotton technical clothing that dries quickly and can be worn for many days in comfort. To learn why you shouldn't wear cotton, check out "Why Cotton can Kill You on a Hiking Trip."
  • Think of your clothing as a system that is meant to be worn together.
  • Avoid carrying a puffy jacket for camp wear by wrapping your sleeping bag around your torso and underneath your rain jacket.

5. Reduce Battery and Electronics Weight

  • Try to carry backcountry electronics (headlamp, camera, GPS) that use the same type of battery. That way you only have to carry one set of spare batteries, if any at all.
  • Switch to lithium batteries; they are about 35% lighter than a standard alkaline battery. Also, lithium batteries last much longer. I get 26 hours in my GPS with lithium batteries and about 17 with alkalines.
  • If backpacking with a group, think about carrying only one camera and one GPS. Let everyone use the camera while hiking, so there is a collaborative sense of picture ownership. When you get home, share the pictures on Google+ or Flickr.

6. Make Gear Multipurpose

  • Using a bandana as a washcloth, pot grabber, and backup first aid sling is an example of multipurpose gear.
  • Your sleeping pad is also a windscreen for your stove, a sitting pad, and a splint, and can be worn under your jacket for warmth.
Drying out after hiking in the rain is much easier when reducing the amount of gear you are packing.

Drying out after hiking in the rain is much easier when reducing the amount of gear you are packing.

5 Things to Stop Carrying Now

  • Pillow
  • Thermometer
  • The entire guidebook
  • Camp shoes
  • Saw

Three-Season Packing List

I built this list as a way to keep track of everything you'll need during your spring, summer, and fall trips. Any products I personally use are written in italics.


  1. Backpack: Internal frame, frame sheet, or no frame. My picks are the Granite Gear Vapor Trail 3,600 c.i., 2 lb 5oz and the Macpac Amp Race 25 1,525 c.i., 1 lb 11 oz.
  2. Clothing and Gear Waterproof Stuff Sack: Make sure it is large enough to include everything you want to keep dry inside your bag. I use the Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Dry Sack.
  3. Hiking Poles: I use the Leki Super Makalu poles.

Shelter and Sleeping

  1. Tent, Tarp, or Bivy Sack: I use the Sierra Designs Navassa Bivy Sack. At 1lb,1oz, this bivy with mosquito netting will keep you dry even in a mountain storm. If rain is in the forecast, pair it up with a 5oz sil-nylon globe skimmer tarp from Equinox.
  2. Sleeping Bag: My pick is The North Face Elephant's Foot. This 3/4 length bag, weighs only 1lb, 4 oz, and makes a comfortable sleeping system when paired up with a lightweight jacket.
  3. Sleeping Pad: I cut the Thermarest Ridgerest in half. Camp in places untrodden by many pairs of boots and you'll have comfortable duff from the forest floor to sleep on. Carry a half-length pad for your torso and use your empty pack to elevate your feet.


  1. Stove: Try the Esbit Titanium Wing Stove. At only 11 grams, this little stove boils water for your meal slowly (at about 7 minutes) but it is light. Use your sleeping pad as a windscreen. For more on stoves, check out my article "Types of Backpacking Stoves: Choosing the Best Stove for your Camping Adventure."
  2. Pot: MSR Titan Titanium Kettle.
  3. Spoon: Mine is the Sea to Summit Alpha Light long-reach spoon. It's perfect for eating out of food bags.
  4. Food Bag/Bear Bag: In the Adirondack High Peaks as well as other regions, bear canisters are required. However, if they are not, look at the bear-resistant Ursack at only 7.3 ounces.
  5. Water Purification: I use the AquaMira chlorine dioxide treatment. Check out my article "How to Purify Water on a Camping or Backpacking Trip" for more information on lightweight water purification methods.
  6. Water Bottles or Bladder–2 Quarts: Water bottles are heavier than water bladders; however, they are easier to treat (especially if using a SteriPEN) than a Camelbak bladder. Wide-mouth soda bottles are a third of the weight of a Nalgene and can be recycled after every trip.
This ultralight campsite along the Eastside Overland Trail is simple and close to nature.

This ultralight campsite along the Eastside Overland Trail is simple and close to nature.


  1. Rain and Wind Shells: I use The North Face Verto Jacket. Read my review of this 3.2-ounce jacket in "Gear Review: The North Face Verto Jacket." Also, check out the Sierra Designs wind pants–sometimes these can be left at home.
  2. Convertible Pants (worn): Eastern Mountain Sports Convertible Pants.
  3. Synthetic T-shirt (worn): Mountain Hardware Wicked Lite shirts. I switch shirts every three days.
  4. Long Sleeve Fleece: The North Face Summit Series pull-over.
  5. Hiking Socks: SmartWool Medium Hiking Socks. Pack one pair for each day.
  6. Boxer Briefs: I wear Ex Officio Give-n-gos and change every two days.
  7. Warm Hat/Neck Gaiter: I use the Mountain Hardware Micro Neck Gaiter.
  8. Gaiters: Outdoor Research Low Gaiters with Insect Shield.

Assorted Gear

  1. First Aid Kit: Make up your own first aid kit and keep it in a one-quart freezer bag. Most people go overboard here.
  2. Knife (worn around neck): Mine is the Esee Izula Neck Knife.
  3. Compass: Silva Explorer.
  4. GPS: The Garmin Map60CSX is my recommendation.
  5. Sunscreen: Hint–Carry a small tube of waterproof sunscreen or make sure your clothing is UV rated.
  6. Insect Repellant: Hint–I don't usually carry insect repellent, but I treat my clothing with Permethrin beforehand and carry a lightweight mosquito head net.
  7. Headlamp: Petzl e+lite.
  8. Whistle (worn)
  9. Lighter and fire starter
  10. Map and Guidebook Pages
  11. Toilet Paper Kit with Pack out Baggies.
  12. Personal Hygiene: For a three-day solo backcountry trip, I generally don't carry any personal hygiene stuff. Cue the ohhs, ahhs, and pinch your nose. I chew gum after every meal (then swallow it) to clean my teeth. It is more eco-friendly than broadcasting toothpaste. I use purified water with biodegradable soap leaves to clean my hands while eating. With a group, I usually bring hand sanitizer to avoid contamination of the GORP bag.
  13. Paper and Pen
  14. Identification, Cash, Car Key, Phone: Leave extra keys, cards, and your wallet at home. Bring what you need in a baggie and you'll save a few ounces.
The demands of winter backpacking add another dimension to lightweight packing.

The demands of winter backpacking add another dimension to lightweight packing.

What About Winter Backpacking?

For the winter backpackers out there, you need even more gear. This is the one time of year that you can't get your pack weight down below ten pounds.

Check out my "Winter Backpacking and Hiking Gear List" to see a packing list of what I carry for a standard winter trek.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on January 25, 2020:

I'm waiting on law enforcement to do their jobs with multiple perpetrators stalking me for years, and serious spinal and other injuries criminally inflicted, still unprosecuted or compensated for, so I need to keep a backpack light. I generally try to get a bag on wheels, but am heading toward needing just a backpack. They have ripped off or caused me to lose everything else, repeatedly, resulting in no charges. Thanks for the helpful and insightful article.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on September 03, 2018:

There are two safety concerns when sleeping without a tent: the environment (getting wet) and insects. If using a tarp or a bivy sack, the environment is not much of an issue. However insects, ticks especially, could pose a problem when sleeping directly on the ground. Using a bug net and utilizing repellents would help. As far as comfortable goes, spongy duff on the ground is quite comfy to sleep on.

Janisa from Earth on August 29, 2018:

How safe /comfortable is it to sleep without a tent?

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on January 28, 2013:

Generally I find that a block of esbit will heat a cup and a half of water. Most backpacking meals require between 1.5 and 2 cups, so I plan accordingly. Then I always bring at least one extra - just in case. Esbit is also great in the emergency fire starting kit!

My favorite snow camping stove (and the one I used this weekend) is the MSR Whisperlite International. I use a Dragonfly too, but I rarely simmer in the winter - I just need a fast boil for melting snow.

I do have a Jetboil, but I usually use it for day hikes. I like the practicality and ease of use, but I am not a fan of the weigh on longer trips. I may pick up one of the titanium ones though.

There is no magic bullet for lightweight backpacking and you are right is doesn't happen overnight. It has taken me thousands of miles of backpacking to refine my style. Of course, I wouldn't trade the trails and tribulations of gear experimentation and experience for anything.

Every year I discover some new trick, some new piece of gear that lightens my load or enhances my backcountry experience.

Thanks again for reading and commenting Availiasvision!

Jennifer Arnett from California on January 27, 2013:

I love the gear recommendations. I've been curious to try the esbit stoves. For a 3 season weekend trip how many cubes did you bring? What's your favorite snow camping stove? I use a Jetboil, but it's getting a little bulky for my lightweight tastes.

I've been trying to get my gear sized down into a 30 L pack. It really is a journey more than a destination. Every trip I go on I come back with a mental list of what did and did not work. I'm constantly asking myself what I can live without for a few days and not be totally miserable.

Going lightweight is all about replacing weight with knowledge. I would not recommend beginning backpackers to try to get a pack weight under 10-15 lbs. That said, I think you did a good job of making your way of "going light" accessible to newer backpackers.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 17, 2012:

This is why I always recommend the bags of wine that you find inside wine boxes. They don't break like the bottles do. Once I had a bottle of blackberry brandy open up in my pack...that however, is another story...

Thanks CC!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on May 17, 2012:

On a short backpack trip about ten years ago, I learned the true value of "lightweight" - I don't recommend packing canned food or a bottle of wine. Hahaha.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 17, 2012:

The Grand Canyon is on my list, someday I'll make it down there. I'll look forward to a Hub on your journey.

I'm glad you are learning something here, it helps me too - to organize my thoughts.

Yeah, my ziploc baggie with the phone, key, and cash usually stays in the pouch, but you never know what you'll find. John's Brook Lodge in the interior of the Adirondacks often has baked goods for $1.00. There is nothing quite like a homemade brownie while backpacking.

Thanks for leaving a great comment as always bankscottage!

Mark Shulkosky from Pennsylvania on May 16, 2012:

Another great Hub and great advice. I don't hike like you, but I still consider weight and making sure I have the correct equipment. Just did a day hike on Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon. Had my convertible EMS pants, Mountain Wear Wicked Good t-shirt (never was drier), Columbia UV screening long sleeve shirt, smartwool socks, and a hat. I had low cut hiking shoes and even though the trail was in good shape, I still wish I had the extra support of a mid- or high top. I guess I am learning something from your hubs.

I always carry a cell phone. I even got a call 1000 feet below the south rim (if I could only get that kind of service at home). I also carry a few bucks so that I can buy ice cream when I am done (unless there is a place to get a beer).

Voted up and useful.