Dan Human shares what he has learned from several thousand miles of backpacking, hiking and paddling.
You can easily shave several pounds off your backpack without sacrificing comfort or safety. You don't have to spend a lot of money investing in titanium zippers or DCF underwear, either, as most of these techniques are free. I also promise not to mention cutting the handle off your toothbrush (even though you can save .4 ounces by shortening it a few inches).
1. Ditch the Pillow
Average Weight Savings: 6 ounces
Ditch my pillow? But what will I lay my little head upon after a hard day of hiking? First of all, don't be such a wimp. You are out to "rough it," right? Second, use something you already carry (preferably not your ice crampons) for a pillow.
Use Your Stuff Sack Instead
For years, even when car camping, I've used the stuff sack I carry my sleeping bag in. Simply stuff the bag with your extra clothes and—ta-da!—instant pillow. If you don't have any extra clothes, turn the stuff sack inside out and stuff it with pine duff or leaves. For a bit more comfort, wrap your neck gaiter around the stuff sack so it is comfy against your face.
2. Cut Down the First Aid Kit
Average Weight Savings: 1 pound
When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, do you know what my first aid kit was? It consisted of a tiny roll of duct tape, Neosporin, toilet paper and ibuprofen. With that, I learned I could take care of most cuts, scrapes, blisters and assorted ouches.
I love the organization of packaged first aid kits and use them for search and rescue and Scouting but not when out on a personal trip. Do you really think you are going to use 15 Band-Aids on a weekend trip? Let's get that down to one or two and have the ability to improvise if the need arises.
3. Carry Fewer Tent Stakes
Average Weight Savings: 5 ounces
When you buy a tent, they usually come with enough stakes to stake down a circus tent in the midst of an Oklahoma tornado. The thing is, you generally don't need nearly that many stakes. Carrying fewer also means that there are fewer to keep track of (and potentially lose).
I carry enough stakes for my tent or tarp corners but plan on using sticks, roots or rocks to anchor out my fly. Another option is to purchase lighter-weight stakes. Those nail peg stakes you can drive through a rock are over two ounces each but a lightweight stake like MSR's Groundhog weigh in at only 0.35 ounces each. The y-cross section design boosts durability while cutting weight in half.
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4. Limit Backpacking Electronics
Average Weight Savings: 1.3 pounds
From headlamps to GPS units, the modern backpacker has a slew of electronics to keep running. Just imagine the calamity if one was out in the wilderness and all of the sudden all of your electronics stopped working. It would be … peaceful.
Anyway, before delving even farther into the gadget's place in the outdoors, you should consider carrying fewer in the first place. If you have a phone, camera, kindle, GPS, satellite messenger, weather radio and solar panel, you probably have too much.
One device can do many things. Personally, I've got it down to my cell phone and satellite messenger/GPS.
5. Eliminate Stuff Sacks
Average Weight Savings: 10 ounces
Gear snobs like their gear. We like to study, buy, play with and accessorize our camping purchases and then brag about it on social media. Heck most of us keep our stuff sacks inside of stuff sacks. However that visually appealing organization system may be weighing you down a bit. I'd argue too that it makes things harder to pack. Having everything in a separate sack is like trying to jam 15 bowling balls into a mailbox.
For the last decade, I've used compactor garbage bags as pack liners. They are waterproof, cheap and everything fits nicely into one. When they get worn out, recycle them. I still store food in a separate bear bag to keep the shared odors down.
6. Carry a Tarp Instead of a Tent
Average Weight Savings: 3 pounds
In blackfly season, you'll want a tent to keep the nasty bloodsuckers at bay but most times of the year, you can use a tarp for shelter. Tarps are much lighter, less expensive and easier to set up in the rain.
In the quest for the lightest pack possible, I've carried miniscule tarps as small as 3'x6'. They work in fair weather but you'll get wet in anything heavier than a dew. My go-to is a 5'x7' silnylon tarp, but if the weather is threatening, I'll carry my 8'x10' monster.
7. Carry Less Water
Average Weight Savings: 2 pounds
Along the Appalachian Trail I found out I was carrying way too much weight in water in my three bottles. I quickly ditched one bottle and only consistently filled up one unless hitting a dry section.
So before heading down the Grand Canyon with a flask of Gatorade, take care to plan where your water sources are and how to purify it. If you have a quick mechanical filter, you can easily clean the pathogens out of water on the trail and refill as your bottle depletes.
Just make sure you are carrying enough water as dehydration is common among perspiring hikers.
8. Wear More Gear
Average Weight Savings: 1 pound
One trick to a lighter pack is to carry it elsewhere. Before you wrap the fuel line from your Whisperlite stove around your belt, I have a few better ideas. I generally carry many of my essentials and survival gear on me and not in my pack. This way, if I lose my pack in a water crossing or in some sort of weird trail mugging, I'll still have some gear to make it through the night.
I carry a knife, like my CRKT Minimalist or ESEE Izula, in a Kydex sheath around my neck. It keeps the knife handy for opening packages or trail muggings. The cord is handy for carrying your signal whistle too.
For navigation, a backup wrist compass is worn and my main compass is usually inside my shirt pocket. For lighting, I've found that the best place to carry a headlamp is in your cargo pocket as it gets dark quickly. Lastly, I always have at least one way to make fire in my pockets. I tried carrying hot coals, but it was uncomfortable.
9. Carry Less Food Packaging
Average Weight Savings: 1 pound
This may blow your mind, but the average backpacker is carrying several pounds of garbage into the backcountry. That is stuff we don't use and is just more to lose in the environment along the way.
I start with repacking snacks like gorp and granola bars into one reusable silicone baggie. Then coffee and other beverage mixes are transferred and combined into tiny medicine pouches. Lastly, dehydrated meals can be cooked inside of much lighter freezer bags or even cold soaked in a container.
10. Split Gear With a Buddy
Average Weight Savings: 5 pounds
Though I've been an advocate of solo backpacking, the advantage to going with a group is that you can have a lighter pack. Yes, the tent is larger and therefore heavier but you can easily split things up. One person carries the tent body, one the poles and stakes and one the fly.
Also, in a group you can share emergency supplies and cooking gear. There is no need for everyone to have their own stove but you'll probably need to tote an extra fuel canister.
Backpacking on the LHHT
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.
© 2022 Dan Human