On your next backpacking trip, why would you choose to lumber along like a weighed-down pack mule when you could spring up the trail like a mountain lion?
When it comes to hefting a backpack during multi-day treks over rugged terrain, cutting total weight to below 20 pounds for weekend excursions and below 30 pounds for anything longer brings a slew of benefits. A lightweight or ultralight load means fewer blisters, aches, and pains, and makes it possible to hike in lightweight trail running shoes rather than heavier hiking boots (a pound added to the foot is equivalent to five added to your pack). You’ll be able to explore more freely, and cover more miles more quickly.
So, how exactly do you lighten your load? The most impactful way is to start with the basic, essential items that, for the most part, you can’t go without: your backpack itself, your shelter, and your sleeping system. Taking it one step further, you can re-think what your ‘essential’ items are. The key is to balance comfort in camp with comfort on the trail; you just might find that it’s possible to be comfortable in camp with less.
As a general rule, if you’re aiming to shave pounds off your load, scaling down on the weight and size of your backpack is the first place to start. In general, you shouldn’t have a backpack that adds more than 3-4 pounds to your load. Savings can be achieved both by reducing the size of your pack and also by choosing a pack with lightweight construction (lighter materials, fewer pockets and zippers, etc.). If you’re carrying less than 15-20 pounds, consider a frameless backpack, and you’ll be able to drop your backpack weight to under two pounds.
But weight isn’t the only factor in choosing a backpack. Frame backpacks help distribute your load weight to take pressure off your shoulders, often feature wider, more comfortable straps than ultralight frameless backpacks, and many include enhanced ventilation features. Some people also find a larger pack to be less cumbersome and better balanced than a smaller pack with an overloaded main compartment and stuff strapped all around the outside.
That being said, some ultralight backpackers prefer going with a smaller frameless pack to force them to leave non-essentials at home and keep weight down. Then, they use techniques like shifting their backpacks from shoulder to shoulder for better ventilation and comfort or carry loads light enough (under 15 pounds) that the thinner straps aren’t a problem.
Once you have to carry your shelter on your back, especially for days on end, your definition of “shelter” can change dramatically, and going minimal has many advantages. If the weather’s dry, temperatures are warm to hot, and bugs aren’t an issue, you can easily do without any shelter at all. Simply string up a hammock, or spread your sleeping bag out right in the open. If you prefer a little more privacy or shelter from the sun or elements, a lightweight tarp does the trick. If bugs are an issue, set up a mesh shelter underneath the tarp that uses your hiking poles (rather than a separate set of poles) to hold it up.
With plenty of tents now weighing in at less than three pounds, an ultralight tent is another viable option. Ultralight tents will be slightly heavier and certainly more expensive than minimalist options, but they offer the most privacy and protection, particularly in cold weather. If you do opt for a tent, leave the footprint at home–it’s not essential, and you’ll save additional weight. If it looks like the weather’s going to be good, you can also leave the rain fly behind.
If you’re on a multi-day climbing route where you may be sleeping in tight quarters on an overhang, or you prefer minimal fuss with your camp setup during shorter trips, a bivy sack is another lightweight shelter option. Bivy designs range from minimalist sacks weighing in at less than a pound, to less claustrophobic mini-tent-style shelters.
Birds rely on down to keep them warm in the wild, and so should you. Pound for pound, it’s the warmest insulation choice, the most compressible, and the most durable. If you fork out some extra cash in only one area, pay the extra dollars to get a down sleeping bag with a high (more than 700) fill count.
One drawback of down is its ability to insulate when wet. Most down sleeping bags feature water-repellent coatings on the outer fabric, and a number of companies are treating the down itself so it repels water, enabling it to continue insulating even in wet circumstances. Using a down bag instead of a synthetic bag can save you nearly a pound of weight, its compressibility allows you to stuff it into a small corner of your backpack, and its ability to loft back up over and over again ensures, with proper care, that it stays fluffy and warm throughout years of backpacking trips.
Your choice of sleeping pad and whether or not you even bring one at all can be a highly personal choice. Options abound, ranging from foam to air mattresses in varying lengths and sizes. There are some great cushy, yet very lightweight, air mattresses like the Exped SynMat UL that weigh under a pound and include some integrated insulation to resolve the problem air mattresses have had with providing adequate warmth. Or, if you’d prefer to not risk a puncture deflating your pad, ultralight, closed-cell foam pads like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sleeping Pad or Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL (insulating) Sleeping Pad offer cushioning while adding less than a pound to your load. 3/4-length pads are another option. You can prop your legs up over your backpack to elevate them while you sleep (great for recovery), and less pad means less weight to carry.
There are countless other ways to lighten your backpacking load, ranging from only bringing dry food to limiting items to those that have multiple functions. You can limit the water you carry by continuously replenishing your supply each time you encounter a water source (and purifying or filtering the water). Planning and preparation are essential, and it is also important that you know how to pack, carry, and adjust your backpack for long-wearing comfort and stability.
While preparing for your backpacking excursion, lay out all of the items you plan to bring along in front of you, with your backpack close at hand. Be sure to account for the food and water you’ll be carrying as well, including a full water bladder or bottle(s), and food for as many days as you will need to pack between points where you can restock. If you’re traveling with a partner or a group, distribute items among you: one person can carry tent poles, another the tent, and another the rain fly, for example.
With your items spread out in front of you, go through them one by one and determine what is essential, and what is a luxury. Do you really need a fleece layering top if you’re bringing a down jacket? Your insulated coffee thermos? Don’t even think about clothing for going into town if you’re trying to keep weight down: stick to technical, durable apparel, and as few pieces as possible. If weather conditions will be variable, wear convertible pants rather than packing both shorts and pants; instead of bringing both a short- and long-sleeve shirt, just wear a short-sleeve shirt and use arm warmers.
One experienced backpacker I spoke with recommended packing one set of core clothing (top, bottom, underwear, socks) beyond what you have on, so you always have a dry set if you get wet—but no more, no matter how long the trip. A lightweight insulated down jacket and breathable, waterproof rain shell, along with a beanie and gloves, provide adequate warmth and protection in mild to chilly weather without the need for additional layers. Remember that you’ll get warm quickly when you’re moving, and you’ll be in your sleeping bag during the night and early morning, when it’s coldest.
As far as food goes, you don’t have to limit yourself to NASA-inspired silver bags of freeze-dried food: think of all that you can do with tortillas, instant oatmeal packs, tuna fish, instant pasta sides, and those free taco seasonings and soy sauce packets you’ve collected over the years from fast food restaurants. Dried and raw food options also abound, including nuts, fruit, and meat jerkies. Find a balance between what you want to eat and what is lightweight, and make sure to pack calorie-dense foods that will satisfy you. Don’t be afraid of salt and sugar here; they are your friends when you’re burning massive calories and sweating during long days on your feet.
As you’re going through the process of narrowing down what to pack, load everything you’re thinking of bringing into your backpack, then try carrying the load. When filling your backpack, the general rule is to keep heavier items toward the center (not at the very bottom or top) and as close to your back as possible. Fill every possible space (including the inside of small items like your cooking pot) to ensure items don’t shift and affect your load balance.
If you’re finding that you have to strap an excessive number of items on the outside of the backpack, you’ll need to work on cutting down your load further: too many items hanging off the outside of the backpack will affect your weight balance, stability, and long-wearing comfort. If you have a frameless backpack, your sleeping pad can be wrapped around the inside to create structure and cushion your back from other items loaded inside.
Once you have your backpack loaded, put it on and adjust the hip belt. The majority of your backpack weight is supported by your hips, so it’s important to get this set first. Then start adjusting the shoulder, sternum, and compression straps to compact your load for optimal balance.
Once you’ve got your loaded backpack set, the next step is to head out to a local trail with varied terrain, or find a stairway or steep road you can go up and down repeatedly, and see how the pack feels as you walk/hike. Continue to make strap adjustments as you go, if needed. If you had trouble editing your packing list before this exercise, you’ll be much more willing to cut down weight if your load feels uncomfortably heavy.
You can also play around with the placement of items inside your pack to find the most comfortable configuration, as well as try different configurations for different terrain types. Some backpackers suggest placing heavier items a bit higher when on a flat trail to feel less weighed down, or a bit lower for more stability when on rugged, uneven terrain.
By selecting large essential items wisely to reduce pack weight, packing efficiently, and determining how to configure your load for optimal comfort, you’ll feel lighter on your feet and be able to cover more ground in less time during backpacking trips. The biggest leap of all, though, will be to learn just how many ‘essentials’ you can do without. You may be surprised—and liberated—by what you discover.