Going Lightweight: Tips for Getting Started

Navigating your wants and needs when packing for a backpacking trip can be a bit of a journey, especially if you don’t have that much experience.  Shoot—I’m more experienced than most, and I still get hung up on whether or not I should take a backup lamp… The answer is no. I don’t need that.

There are really only two ways to drop weight while backpacking.  The first is to buy lighter weight gear.  Ugh.  The second is to straight up not take things.  Neither are very appealing on paper, but the enjoyment of walking farther, stronger, and faster will reward you many times over for the sacrifices you make in your gear list.

A lightweight tent makes a huge difference in any trip.  This is 11 miles in on the Hoh River Trail at Lewis Meadows.

1.) The big three. By reassessing what you use as a shelter, sleeping system, and pack you can easily drop ten pounds.  These are often the most expensive items to upgrade, but you’ll certainly be glad you ponied up when you’re 12 miles in on day 3. If you’re serious about backpacking—really taking a hard look at these items will be your number one priority. If you want to go lightweight, your shelter, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and backpack should be sub 10 pounds altogether.  Here’s a few brands to check out just to see what’s out there.  This is by no means exhaustive, it’s simply to show that there are unique options available.

The big three. By reassessing what you use as a shelter, sleeping system, and pack you can easily drop ten pounds.

Sleeping bags: Enlightened Equipment, Sea-to-Summit, Western Mountaineer
Sleeping Pads: Therm-A-Rest, Sea-to-Summit,
Backpacks: Z-Packs, ULA, Six Moon Designs, Zimmerbuilt, Gossamer Gear, HLMG, Granite Gear
Tents/Shelters: Z-Packs, Tarptent, Terra Nova, Big Agnes, HLMG

2.) The not so big three. These items include your cooking system, your water purification system, and your rain gear. I’m clumping these three together because they don’t weigh as much as the big three, and they’re pretty much the only other items I can guarantee that everyone will have on the trail.

  • Cooking systems can vary widely in their weight and utility and trading off one for the other has always been a major source of heartbreak for me. I currently use a Jet Boil Mini Mo (14 oz.) and prefer to stick with freeze dried meals, so all I’m doing for prep. is boiling water.  Take only one pot/bowl/cup combo to keep excess weight down.  Don’t forget your spork!

    Getting ready to eat at Upper Wildcat Lake.
  • Rain gear these days is bizarre. Gore has a new Active Membrane that looks like it’s from space, people crush long trails in ponchos, and the blue tarp still has a home in the back country.  You’ve got to figure out a system that you are comfortable with and that will keep you dry. Shoot for under 24 oz. for top and bottom.
  • Water treatment systems: Water filtration pumps, squeeze filters, iodine or chlorine tabs, gravity filters, UV treatment, or just plain boiling your water. Picking an option can be a real source of anxiety for new comers because water is so crucial to any trip. As a suggestion to anyone who is new to this, pick up a Sawyer Mini for $25. Make a list of everything you don’t like about it after several uses and then make an informed decision to best fit your needs.  The Mini is hard to beat at only 2 oz.
Calculated my Big 3 + not so Big 3 weight at 11 lbs. 0.4 oz (Not picture here is The North Face Mica Fl 2)

If we got through all that and are under 15 pounds—we’re doing great.  Your base weight, which is everything except food, water, and fuel should be sub 20 pounds for lightweight categorization.  That means we’ve got about 5 pounds for anything else we need to take: map, compass, headlamp, first aid, pillow, camera, hygiene products, cordage, repair kits, etc.  Lay everything out and ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” The more you go out, the more you’ll realize that the answer is probably, “No.”

Lightweight over night in the woods: a tarp, pad, and 40 degree bag for shelter and sleep, a Jet Boil for food and water, and a good knife for camp chores.

3.)  Watch your water: What I mean by this is only carry the water that you need. Not feel comfortable with, but that you need. This can really be intimidating at first so I definitely suggest practicing on some day hikes close by with your treatment system, but the rewards here are big. 1 liter of water = 1 Kg = 2.2 pounds. Some of you out there with huge 3L reservoirs and 2 Nalgenes on the side are tipping the scales with 10+ pounds in water.  I try to carry a liter on me at most—and any time I refill, I do my best to put a liter in my system right there.

Watch your water. What I mean by this is only carry the water that you need. Not feel comfortable with, but that you need…

4.)  Clothing: You don’t need fresh clothes over a three-day hike. While a fresh t-shirt and underwear are nice, you can live without them. (As a matter of fact, I try to hike only in shorts that come with a liner built in.) Plan for the weather and give yourself a temperature buffer with your insulation.  Your layers should work together and there should be no redundancy. Except for an extra pair of socks—you gotta take care of your dogs.

Base layer, fleece, and insulation layer for colder weather trips.

5.)  Food: I’m not going to tell you how to pack your lunch, but I will say that packing your food rather than leaving it in its original packaging is typically lighter weight.  I use cellophane for wrapping sandwiches rather than plastic bags.  Oatmeal for breakfast gets dumped into one large baggie and divvied out each morning.  Chocolate and peanuts in one baggy saves weight.  Any alcohol I take goes into lighter weight plastic bottles or a Platypus flexible bottle.  Reuse as best you can and consolidate your trash to free up space. Lastly, don’t over pack food.  Calories are awesome—I love them. But you don’t need to bring four-course meals.  “Eat to live. Don’t live to eat.”

At Robin Lake: A great example of what not to bring if you’re trying to drop weight.  Although, I gotta say, the loaf of bread was a nice touch.

3 thoughts on “Going Lightweight: Tips for Getting Started

  1. All the magZines etc. This is by far the best synopsis I have seen.

    Congratulations to Jet Boil and the Author.my jet boil is about 15 years old, works perfectly summer and winter.



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