How to Become a Lightweight Backpacker
"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
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. Below the description of the item, I placed an example of the gear that I carry in italics.
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.
- 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.
- 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 for when and where you are backpacking.
- 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.
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.
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.
Reduce Food and Water Weight
- Plan you 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.
Reduce Clothing Weight
- Carry quick-drying non-cotton technical clothing that dries quickly and can be worn for many days in comfort. For 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.
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 picture on Google+ or Flickr.
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, a splint, and can be worn under your jacket for warmth.
5 Things to Stop Carrying Now
- The entire guidebook
- Camp shoes
How Heavy is Your Pack?
Three Season Packing List
- Backpack- internal frame, frame sheet, or no frame.
- Granite Gear Vapor Trail 3,600 c.i., 2 lb 5oz
- Macpac Amp Race 25 1,525 c.i., 1 lb 11 oz.
- Clothing and gear waterproof stuff sack
- Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Dry Sack: Make sure it is large enough to include everything you want to keep dry inside your bag.
- Hiking Poles
- Leki Super Makalu
Shelter and Sleeping:
- Tent, Tarp, or Bivy Sack
- 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.
- Sleeping Bag
- 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.
- Sleeping Pad
- Thermarest Ridgerest (cut 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.
- 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."
- MSR Titan Titanium Kettle
- Sea to Summit Alpha Light long-reach spoon: Perfect for eating out of food bags.
- 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.
- Water Purification
- 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.
- 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.
- Rain and Wind Shells
- The North Face Verto Jacket: Read my review of this 3.2-ounce jacket at "Gear Review: The North Face Verto Jacket."
- Sierra Designs wind pants - sometimes these can be left at home.
- Convertible Pants (worn)
- Eastern Mountain Sports Convertible Pants
- Synthetic t-shirt (worn)- one every 3 days.
- Mountain Hardware Wicked Lite
- Long Sleeve Fleece
- The North Face Summit Series pull-over
- Hiking Socks - one pair every day.
- SmartWool Medium Hiking Socks
- Boxer Briefs - one pair every two days.
- Ex Officio Give-n-go
- Warm Hat / Neck Gaiter
- Mountain Hardware Micro Neck Gaiter
- Outdoor Research Low Gaiters with Insect Shield
- First Aid Kit
- Make up your own first aid kit and keep it in a one quart freezer bag. Most people go overboard here
- Knife (worn around neck)
- Esee Izula Neck Knife
- Silva Explorer
- Garmin Map60CSX
- Hint: Carry a small tube of waterproof sunscreen or make sure your clothing is UV rated.
- Insect Repellant
- Hint: I don't usually carry insect repellent, but I treat my clothing with Permethrin before hand and carry a lightweight mosquito head net.
- Petzl e+lite
- Whistle (worn)
- Lighter and fire starter
- Map and Guidebook Pages
- Toilet Paper Kit with Pack out Baggies.
- 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.
- Paper and Pen
- 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.
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 page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human
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.