How to Lighten the Load of Your Backpack
Like pretty much everyone who backpacks, I learned that I needed to lighten my load to take less of a toll on my body.
It doesn’t take long to realize that carrying less weight in your pack has great benefits. It’s less stressful on your body and makes it easier to cover more miles or hike in difficult terrain with less weight on your back. It also doesn’t zap your energy like carrying a heavy load does.
A general rule of thumb is that you should carry no more than 20-25% of your body weight, though this is subjective based on your overall body type and size, age, and physical strength.
My Gear Evolution
I’m a small person and struggled a lot with carrying too much weight when I started backpacking, so I needed to figure out how to reduce it to be more manageable. Over time, I’ve been able to cut over 10 pounds from the pack weight I started out with. I still carry a professional full-frame camera and a backpacking chair which are included in my base weight, but overall, I’ve been able to greatly reduce the load of my backpack.
When I initially bought all of my backpacking gear, I wasn’t ready to spend a lot on ultralight gear until I knew that backpacking was something I’d want to invest more in. I was also worried about being comfortable – and I didn’t want to cut corners when it came to safety. Carrying the essentials and being prepared for emergencies is important to me. However, it didn’t take long before all of my gear started adding up to too much. It’s easy to get in the “just in case” mentality.
Over several years, I was able to replace a few big items, including my tent and sleeping bag with lighter (albeit more expensive) options. I also reduced the overall number of items I take on trips by carefully considering every item, and repackaged others using mini containers. For example, instead of bringing full containers of sunscreen or insect repellent, I only take a small amount of each. An additional savings of 12 ounces came from reducing the amount of items in my first-aid kit. I also cut back on the amount of clothing I carried. And I saved more by removing a few gear items I could do without. By only taking what I needed, my fully loaded pack weight (with food and water) went from 35 pounds to 25 pounds.
Even after reducing my pack weight, I still carry items for comfort such as a backpacking chair, and items for safety, including a satellite communication device and more. But I struggle less on trips since I’m not pushing my body past what it can handle.
Low (or no) cost tips for lightening your pack load
Here’s how to get started cutting your pack weight without spending money by considering items to replace, and more likely, items to leave behind. The saying “ounces makes pounds” certainly applies when you take this approach to every single thing that you put in your pack.
Weigh your gear: Begin the process by knowing how much your gear weighs, and make note of your base weight – everything except food, water and fuel. A kitchen scale works well for smaller gear, and a luggage scale is useful for weighing a fully loaded pack.
Save weight by taking less: One of the best ways to save weight without buying new gear is to take less gear. Sounds simple, but many of us are hesitant to give up items that provide some type of comfort. Go through everything you typically take and consider whether or not each item is needed. It may seem like a few ounces here and there don’t matter, but even small changes can eventually add up to big weight savings. If you are able to eliminate just four items that weigh four ounces each, that’s a pound you won’t have to carry.
Take what you need for specific conditions: Another consideration is to only take gear needed for the conditions you expect to encounter. On trips where I’ll mainly be in the forest and not exposed to the sun or bugs, I leave the sunscreen and insect repellent at home. Or if I don’t expect it to rain, I don’t take rain pants (but I always take a rain jacket, regardless of the forecast – safety first!). Carefully consider what is needed instead of packing the same gear for every trip.
Multi-purpose gear: Anything that has a multi-purpose and reduces the number of items needed can help to cut overall pack weight. For example, instead of taking a lantern for my tent, I use my headlamp and hang it from a loop at the top of my tent. Maybe you can use your cook pot as a mug… or swap out a hydration bladder for a lighter water bottle. Avoid duplication and consider ways to use fewer items on trips.
Take less of these gear items
Carrying too many clothes is one the most common ways that pack weight adds up, but it’s easy to solve without spending any money. I used to bring extra shirts and pants, but no longer do. Instead, I wear one pair of hiking pants and a long sleeve shirt while hiking but don’t take extras of either one. I also take one pair of base layer pants and one base layer top for sleeping. And one extra pair of underwear. The only item that I take extra of is socks. I find that if I have clean socks, my feet do much better while hiking. If the weather is going to be hotter than normal, I might take a pair of shorts and a short sleeve shirt. But I usually just roll up my hiking pants and wear a sun hoodie instead.
Staying clean with less clothing: It is possible to stay clean on trips without extra outfits to change into. If you do camp laundry, you can have a clean pair of underwear every day, and you can wear your base layers while washing hiking pants and shirts. I take an extra gallon-size plastic bag for doing laundry. Most of the time, I don’t bother with using soap. Fill the bag with water to rinse clothing items, then wring out excess water. A small amount of cordage can be strung between trees to hang items for drying.
Keep your body clean by taking a sponge bath in your tent after hiking each day. I use wipes and/or pack towels for this purpose. A benefit of using pack towels is that they are washable and re-useable so there’s less trash to carry out. Wash them with your camp laundry and they’ll be clean to use each day. You can purchase lightweight pack towels that are antimicrobial for this purpose.
Staying warm with less clothing: Another reason people tend to take too many clothes is to stay warm. As part of my essentials system, I take a puffy jacket with a hood and rain jacket on every trip, regardless of the forecast. The weather can change unexpectedly and it’s good to be prepared. With the base layers that I take to sleep in, and the long sleeve shirt, puffy, and rain jacket, I can wear all of these layers at once and stay plenty warm without needing to bring anything else. And I can wear the puffy to sleep in when the temperatures dip lower than expected. Need more warmth? Try placing a sit pad with a reflective surface like the Therm-a-Rest Z seat pad under your torso (on top of your sleeping pad), and it will reflect your body heat to keep you toasty.
Instead of using a sleeping bag liner for added warmth, I recommend taking a pair of lightweight down or fleece pants to sleep in on super cold nights. The benefit of this approach is that the pants can also be worn while hanging around at camp or hiking in cold temps, but a liner stays in the sleeping bag and has no other purpose. Multi-purpose items are a great way to save weight by taking fewer items.
Related post: What to Wear Backpacking
After using a Jetboil Minimo for several years, I updated my kitchen kit to be lighter weight and less bulky in my pack. The Minimo is a great backpacking stove but it’s a bit on the heavy side at 15 ounces, and it’s bulky. I also used a separate mug for coffee/tea that added another 4 ounces and even more bulk to my pack.
Everything for my new ultralight kitchen setup nests inside the larger cook pot and includes a fuel canister, cook pot, a smaller pot to use as a mug, backpacking stove, pack towel for washing and drying dishes, small scrubber for cleaning and soap in a mini-dropper bottle. This new setup saves me about 12 ounces over my old setup and also saves a lot of space in my pack.
Related post: Backpacking Kitchen Gear & Food Storage
Another category of gear that most people take too much of is toiletries. Even just changing the packaging can add up to significant weight savings. For example, instead of a full bottle of sunscreen, place enough for your trip in a mini container. I use small Nalgene bottles, GoTubb containers, mini jars, mini squeeze bottles, and mini dropper bottles for toiletries and first aid supplies. And instead of a big package of wipes, I like to take two small pack towels and use them with water to take a sponge bath in my tent. An added benefit of using non-disposable items is you’ll have less trash to pack out.
Related post: Personal Hygiene for Backpackers
When it comes time to upgrade gear, the first things to consider replacing are the “big three” since they make up the bulk of your base weight: your tent, sleep system and backpack.
A tent is one of the heavier items needed for backpacking, so it’s important to find one that works for you while keeping the weight to a minimum. My first tent was a lightweight option (2 lbs. 10 oz.) at the time I purchased it, but the market has evolved and now there are many options that are much lighter. The tent I use the most often now is the Tarptent Aeon Li – a single-wall shelter that weighs 16 ounces. It does take getting used to setting up a tent that relies on stakes and minimal poles (mine can be setup using a single trekking pole and six stakes), but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy.
You may have heard that single-wall shelters have problems with condensation, but all tents get condensation. The difference with a single-wall is that you need to be careful about touching the walls of the tent to prevent getting your sleeping bag wet. In a double-wall tent, the mesh inner prevents this from happening. However, I’ve had minimal issues with condensation in my tent due to the ventilation options it features, including two end vents, a vent at the top, and vestibule walls that can be set high to allow airflow. Additionally, where you setup your tent has a big impact on condensation. And sometimes it happens regardless due to atmospheric conditions, so I carry a small towel to wipe the interior tent walls when this happens.
Related post: Backpacking Tent Comparisons
Carefully choosing your sleep system is another way to save significant weight. My first sleeping bag for backpacking weighed three pounds, while the sleeping pad I initially chose weighed almost two pounds. I made the switch to using a backpacking quilt and a lighter air mattress and cut several pounds from my pack weight.
Tips for purchasing lightweight sleep systems:
- Down sleeping bags and quilts weigh less than synthetic options rated at the same temperatures, and they take up less space in a backpack.
- Purchase a size that fits your body. Bags that are too big won’t keep you as warm since there’s extra space to insulate. And bags that are too small will compress the insulation and prevent it from lofting – which is how the insulation keeps you warm. Also consider the length of the bag. Look for an option offered in small, regular and tall lengths to find the best fit for your body.
- Air mattresses are the lightest option for sleeping pads (other than foam pads, which are not as comfortable and don’t insulate as well). There are many, many options for air mattresses, with quite a few in the one pound range. I recommend looking for a high R-value for warmth, and learn which type of baffle system you find to be the most comfortable by trying them out at outdoor retailers.
- Like air mattresses, air pillows have come a long way in the last couple of years. Comfortable options exist in the 2-3 ounce range, so consider trying one of these if you find sleeping on a stuff sack filled with clothing is inadequate. I prefer to use an air pillow that has a small amount of synthetic insulation on top of the air bladder for better comfort, and the one I use weighs less than three ounces.
See the Sleep System section on my backpacking gear list for more info about what I use.
A backpack is the one piece of gear where going lighter isn’t always the best option. If your base weight is in the 10-15 pound range, an ultralight backpack might work out great for you. But if you carry much more than that, it isn’t going to be as comfortable as a heavier framed pack. Carrying less weight won’t matter if the backpack you choose rubs you the wrong way (literally) when it’s fully loaded. And if you have back issues, a more supportive frame can make a big difference.
I started out with the Osprey Aura 65 liter backpack and eventually downsized to the smaller 50 liter size. I found that after I reduced the amount of gear I carry, I no longer needed the extra capacity of the larger backpack. I’ve tried several ultralight backpacks, but for me, this pack is worth every ounce that it weighs. To save a bit more weight, I removed the top lid and use the flap to close the top of the pack. The REI Flash 55 backpack is another good option with a supportive frame while weighing less than comparable options. I’m currently testing this pack and will post a review after I have more experience with it.
Related post: How to Choose a Backpack
Get Started Reducing Your Pack Weight
Get out the scale and weigh all of your gear, then carefully consider what you can leave behind and what you need to upgrade. Your body will thank you for it!
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