Backpacking in the wilderness can be one of life’s greatest pleasures, but it can also be miserable and injurious, depending on how prepared you are. One of the best ways to make it more enjoyable is to make it less painful. This can be accomplished by lowering the amount of weight you have to carry. There are two ways to achieve this: You can lose weight from your body or your backpack.
In this article, I am going to focus on ways to lower your backpack’s weight, but it is important to keep in mind that improvements in your body’s strength to weight ratio can make a huge difference as well.
Leave It at Home
The most obvious way to make your backpack weigh less is to leave unnecessary items at home. This is easier said than done. How do you decide what to leave behind?
My suggestion is to perform a thorough audit of the items you plan to pack and assess their necessity for survival. Under no circumstance should you leave anything behind that falls under that category. No matter what, you must bring shelter, a sleeping bag (or quilt), food, water, etc. Use this checklist to make sure you have everything. Now you have an idea of your essentials. We will explore some lightweight options for these later.
Next, you need to decide what to bring in order to make your experience good. Ask yourself, “What do I need to take in order to not have a bad time?” These are items that, if left behind, you would make it back alive and never want to backpack again because of how bad it was. For me, the following are highly desirable, among others:
- Toilet paper and hand trowel
- Rain jacket
- Fresh socks and liners
- Water treatment drops
- Dry bag (can be used as a pillow)
- Gaia GPS app (for navigation)
Can You Live Without It?
After so many backpacking trips, I have discovered for myself what makes sense to take and what does not. This is something you can only discover for you and everyone is different. The key to maintaining a lightweight pack is to figure out what you need to take by understanding yourself and the trip you are planning for. If you can live without it, stay safe, and still have a good time then do not bring it.
Here are some examples of items I have seen people carry that they regretted:
- Soft cooler lunch bag
- Cutting board
- Leather sandals
- Fresh fruit (try dried fruit instead)
- Glass containers
- Beer cans (try microbrew concentrates)
Now that you have gone through your gear and decided what to pack (and what not to), it is time to take things a step further. This is where one makes the transition from lightweight to ultralight backpacking, a methodical approach where you minimize your load by investing in ultralight gear. The fundamental tenet of ultralight is to get your base weight under 10 pounds. Base weight is everything you carry minus consumables, so all of it except food, water, and fuel.
To assess your base weight, you will need to weigh your gear. I advise finding the weight of each item by Googling it and saving the info to a spreadsheet or LighterPack. From there, determine what items you can replace with lighter versions.
My current base weight is about 10 pounds. Here is a list of the main items:
- Pack: ZPacks™Arc Haul-Zip Backpack (one of my favorite backpacking packs)
- Sleeping Bag: Marmot Hydrogen Sleeping Bag: 30 Degree Down
- Pad: NeoAir Xlite
- Tent: MSR Carbon Reflex 2 Ultralight Tent
- Rain Jacket: Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket (read my review)
- Jacket: The North Face Thermoball
- Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot Headlamp
- Camera: Sony A7
- Smartphone: iPhone 7
- Stove: MSR PocketRocket Stove
- Pot: TOAKS Titanium 1100ml Pot
- Lighter: Mini Bic Lighter
- Layers: Patagonia Men’s Capilene® Midweight Crew and Patagonia Men’s Capilene® Thermal Weight Bottoms
Note: Clothing you wear, but do not pack is not included in your base weight.
Another tip for shaving off pack weight is to repackage standard containers with lighter ones. For instance, take water bottles. I used to pack two 48oz Nalgene Bottles, which weighs 0.66 pounds without water. Nowadays, if I know there will be plentiful water sources on the trail, I bring one 34oz Glacéau Smart Water Bottle at 0.08 pounds and refill as necessary. In this instance, I am carrying far less water weight and a bit less plastic weight. These things can add up and anywhere you can make adjustments will make a difference.
Here is a list of items to consider repackaging:
- First aid (curate yourself or buy a kit)
- Freeze-dried meals (mylar bags)
- Limit food packaging
Note: Nalgene makes 2oz bottles that are great for liquids.
Take It Even Further
Once you start brainstorming ways to lower your backpacking weight, it is easy to go all in with the ultralight mentality. I have a friend that is somewhat of a mad scientist when it comes to this. He went so far as to take a pair of scissors and cut off excess straps from his backpack.
Another buddy (love music? follow him on Twitter) introduced me to the DIY alcohol backpacking stove, which uses Everclear for fuel. Though it has some disadvantages, the setup is ultralight and with the aid of an Emergen-C packet, allows you to craft the perfect “ultralight cocktail”. You won’t catch me drinking one of these, but I can’t argue with the ingenuity behind it.
Whether or not you decide to take lightweight backpacking to this extreme is up to you. However, I can guarantee that if you are able to reduce your pack’s weight by even a few pounds, your body will thank you. You will have more energy on the trail and find more enjoyment in backpacking.
If you’re looking for more lightweight gear suggestions, read my Best Backpacking Gear articles. Happy trails!
Not the cheapest option, but choosing merino layers makes it easy to go multiple days without swapping for fresh duds. In general, I find it’s possible to pack way less clothing than you think you need. You can dip dirty shirts and underwear in a nearby stream and hang them on your pack to dry while you walk.
That is a great suggestion, Hambone! Do you have any specific brands or items that you recommend?
Hi, the list of items included in your base weight list makes sense, but I was more interested in the other list. I think that what people consider essential items to take will differ from one person to the next. Like you, I would include a camera to capture the scenery at the places I visit but wouldn’t even consider taking a chopping board. My partner, on the other hand, would pack the entire contents of a hotel room to make the expereince more comfortable. It is hard to find a balance between the weight you carry and making your treks pleasurable rather than hard work. I love the ideas for repackaging things to save space and weight. I would recommend never wearing or carrying denim while hiking or backpacking. Not only is it heavy, but it rubs like mad and its difficult to dry.
Hi Liz, thanks for your comment but I’m a bit confused. Can you clarify for me? What “other list” are you referring to?
I agree that everyone is different, but when it comes to carrying a lighter load, tradeoffs have to be made.
People often rationalize their heavy equipment by saying it is comfortable. I’ve hiked with people that bring heavy gear and they’re never comfortable. In fact, they tend to be in a lot of pain! Backpacking doesn’t have to be that way.