Hiking lightweight is not a new concept. Since the advent
of what we consider backcountry hiking, there have been
those who have headed into the backcountry with little
more to accompany them than a blanket and a little food.
Indeed, anyone who has hiked for an extended period of
time knows the value of lightening the weight one carries.
A lighter backpack can not only help propel one up that
hill, or help ones knees on the backside of that hill,
but also can help one enjoy the overall venture even more.
Before I began my lightweight change, I would hike just
to get there. Now - with less weight - I can actually
hike just to hike.
As I look back several years ago, my backpack must have
weighed in at over 50lbs. It was an all to familiar feeling
for me to hike a few minutes, rest. Hike a few minutes,
rest. With my heart beating so hard and my head reeling
in exhaustion, I had a hard time enjoying what should
have been solitude and serenity, but was only downright
punishment. By noon, it was time to rest for the day due
to simple exhaustion. In fact, it had gotten to the point
of me disliking many of my trips (even though I pushed
myself to do it again). It was during one of these moments
several years ago when the ray of light in the form of
an ultralight PCT hiker dawned over the next hill. I knew
it could be done. So I set out to learn all I could learn
about the philosophy and methods behind lightweight backpacking.
Over the last several years, I have come to appreciate
the benefits of having a lighter pack. I am no where near
as exhausted as before, I can actually look up and around
when hiking, and the whole wilderness experience is profoundly
Ultimately, the philosophy and methods boils down to several
steps to lighten up that pack. The goal of these steps
is to lighten up the backpack without a loss to comfort
or safety. IMHO most of the descriptions below do just
this: but I leave it to the better judgment of the reader
1: Lighten the BIG three: tent, sleeping bag, and
backpack. These three items usually rank in the top three
heaviest items one carries into the backcountry. Cutting
down on these items can save pounds!
Tents: Many lightweight tents are out
on the market nowadays. These include superb tents manufactured
by Stephenson and Hilleberg, just to name a few. Although
many of these tents vary in weight and price, the lightest
3 season shelter that can be found is also the simplest:
a tarp. With the advent of extremely light silicone impregnated
nylon, these tarps weigh in at less than a pound, are
cheap, and are easy to make. Tarps are sold by multiple
manufacturers; including Integral Designs, Golite, and
the increasingly popular tarptent (aka Henry Shires).
When I first used a tarp I was quite impressed. The tarp
not only kept me and everything beneath it bone dry, but
with the openness of the shelter, I felt a better connection
to the world around me. The tarp survived a 30 minute
Sierra hailstorm, and also survived howling winds upwards
of 40 mph. In addition, the openness facilitated ventilation
- condensation can be quite problematic in some tents
to the point of having it rain inside while the stars
are shining outside. Although bugs can be problematic
with the open sides, a simple solution is to hang mosquito
netting from the crest of the tarp. This solution works
exceptionally well even when the bugs are swarming outside
and adds only a few ounces.
--> Sleeping Bag: This is one of the
items where cost is usually directly proportional to weight
and quality. Many manufacturers (such as Western Mountaineering
and Feathered Friends to name a few) produce bags which
are rated at 20F and are below 2lbs. However, accompanying
these advantages comes a hefty price: these bags frequently
exceed $300. A sleeping bag isn't always the only option
however. Quilts rank high in use by lightweight hikers,
and can fair as well as sleeping bags - the idea being
that insulation below your body is crushed, thus reducing
it's insulation power.
--> Backpack: Many backpacks are manufactured
to withstand large and hefty loads - at the price of its
own weight. However, if weight and volume of the load
is reduced substantially, the frame and volume of the
large pack become largely unnecessary. Many backpacks
are being manufactured by companies (such as Golite and
Mountainsmith) which eliminate these heavy frames and
thick fabrics, lightening up the backpack from anywhere
between 2-7 lbs! Yet, don't rush out to buy one of these
backs in my opinion the pack should be the last item to
change - after you know how much volume and weight bearing
capacity you may need.
2: Lighten up the smaller items: Many items within
the backpack can easily be replaced or eliminated, at
no loss to comfort.
Stove: With some exceptions, canister
type stoves (like the MSR PocketRocket) tend to be smaller
and lighter than the liquid fuel type stoves (MSR Whisperlite).
Yet other options allow one to go even lighter. Alcohol
stoves consume Denatured Alcohol (which can be found in
most hardware stores) and are typically made out of Pepsi
cans or cat food cans. These cans can be made at home
with such simple tools as a box cutter and file. In addition,
the alcohol stove does not require a custom fuel canister
to run - so fuel can be carried in a light plastic soda
bottle. The downfall of the alcohol stove is that it takes
longer to boil and no simple simmer option is available.
Another option is to use solid fuel tabs such as the Esbit
Fuel Tabs. These are extremely light, yet have some disadvantages
such as smell (they tend to emit a foul odor), emissions
(although listed as non-toxic, they leave a black soot
on the bottom of your pan), difficulty to light - especially
in windy conditions - and slow boiling times (including
a lack of simmering).
--> Pot: I have seen many people (I
used to be one myself) carry multiple pots and pans, including
plates and silverware, into the backcountry. An easy way
to lighten up is to bring only the essentials: a single
pot and a single spoon. The pot can be used to cook in
and can be eaten out of. This is easier done when out
solo. However, with a group of people it can get a little
frustrating when everyone is reaching into the same pot.
When traveling in groups and this equipment is to be shared,
good communication prior to the trip about how dinner
will be prepared is important.
--> Sleeping mat: This is a difficult
issue for many, as comfort is quite dependent upon the
person. I am lucky enough to enjoy my closed cell foam
mat. Yet there are some who refuse to leave home without
the air mattress. Understandably so. However, the mattress
does not have to be full length - legs aren't essential
to have a mattress under, and if one would like a little
cushion/insulation down there, unworn clothes and even
an empty backpack work quite well.
--> Clothes: Every day there seems
to be another, lighter option popping onto the market.
So the choices are always there. Things to look for in
lightweight clothing: synthetic material (stay away from
cotton), minimum amount of pockets and zippers, thin fabric,
and breath ability.
--> Shoes: although easier said than
done, wearing tennis shoes or trail running shoes can
have an immense difference. Not only are they more breathable
than hiking boots, they are lighter and practically eliminate
the need to bring along sandals (for stream crossing or
lounging in camp). In my experience, blisters form less
in tennis shoes, the shoes dry within a few hours (at
most) after a full soaking (if it isn't raining of course),
they are more comfortable, and easier to remove to air
out ones feet. Caution must be heeded though: these shoes
provide no ankle support, increasing ones chance of injury
if you have weak ankles or knees and/or a heavy pack.
--> Seek multipurpose items: Many items
you cart off into the backcountry can serve dual purposes.
For example, an empty backpack can serve as a ground mat
for the upper or lower body. Hiking poles can be used
as tarp poles (and also fishing rods if one is really
ambitious). A bear canister as a stool or a wash basin.
Extra clothes as a pillow. The more items that can be
used for 2 or more functions, the less items one needs
3: Eliminate the unnecessary: Unnecessary is a very
relative term - where one person might consider a book
quite unnecessary, another might consider it precious
as a backcountry companion. The key here is to analyze
what you carry, what you want, and what you need.
4: Trim and Trim: I would consider this the last Step
and the step where you know you've really crossed the
line into an obsession. Trimming means to cut up current
equipment, such as cutting the handle in half from your
eating utensil and toothbrush, cutting of brand name tags,
removing un-necessary zippers or pockets, etc. (An additional
step to this is purchasing a scale where one can weight
all of the equipment, giving you a better sense of what
up can appear to be quite a daunting task, especially
when questions of equipment functionality arise. For example,
will a tarp actually work in certain conditions that one
may face? Or how about a frameless backpack? One way to
try and overcome these obstacles is to bring along both
the old and the new piece of equipment. For example, if
you want to try out a tarp, bring it along with the tent
and set up both in camp. Sleep under the tarp to see if
you like it. Test the tarp out in stormy conditions. In
my earlier (and even current) struggles to lighten up
my backpack, I have found the barrier for lightening up
is more mental than anything else - overcoming that barrier
was essential to my progression.
It took me over two years to achieve the backpack weight
that I now carry (which is about 10lbs without food, water,
and stove fuel plus some luxury items which all vary tremendously
upon the trip), signifying that lightening up is not an
overnight venture. It can take many trips and a lot of
experience not only learn how to, but also to be able
to reduce pack weight. The key is to lighten up safely,
without putting yourself or others at risk to certain
backcountry dangers. Although some may criticize that
ultralight hikers are minimalist risk seekers (hopefully
after reading this you don't think so), I have found that
nothing could be further from the truth. I feel safer
in the wilderness now than I ever did.
Backpacking, by Ray Jardine: A very comprehensive
guide to lightweight backpacking. Although it does contain
some biased opinions about certain lightweight alternatives,
it is an extremely good reference to have.
Complete Walker, by Colin Fletcher: Colin
Fletcher is one of my favorite outdoor writers, and with
this comprehensive guide to backpacking he outdoes himself.
Ultralight Backpacker - the Complete Guide
to Simplicity and Comfort on the Trail, by Ryel Kestenbaum.
Nice guide to the basics of lightweight backpacking.
- A great website for information on lightweight philosophies
and methods. Great discussion forums with knowledgeable
- Another great website with information on lightweight
hiking, making your own gear (with raw materials for sale),
as well as excellent forums.