How to lighten the load of your backpack
Like pretty much everyone who backpacks, I’ve been looking for ways for lighten my load to make the trips I do take less of a toll on my body.
A general rule of thumb is that you should carry no more than 25% of your body weight, though this is very subjective based on your overall body type and size, age, and physical strength. I’m 5’1″ and weigh about 110 pounds, so I’ve always been concerned about my pack weight but only recently figured out how to reduce it to be much more manageable. Over the past three years, with the purchase of a few new items and the leaving behind of a few more, I’ve cut just over 7 pounds from my pack weight!
When I initially bought all of my backpacking gear, I paid close attention to the weight of every item, but I wasn’t ready to spend a lot on ultralight gear. I was also worried about being able to sleep at night, and I didn’t want to cut corners when it came to comfort or 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, especially when you want to be comfortable while in the backcountry. Even after cutting my pack weight, I still carry a backpacking chair, full length air mattress and a pillow, so I’m definitely comfortable. And I still carry essentials for safety, including an InReach device, map and compass, rain gear, etc.
Here’s how to get started cutting your pack weight 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.
The Big Four
The first things to consider replacing are the “big four”: your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and backpack. Sometimes these are referred to as the “big three”, with the sleeping bag and pad combined as a sleep system. Regardless, these are the first items to consider when you want to reduce your pack weight since they make up the bulk of your base weight.
Two years ago, I replaced my first backpacking tent – the REI Quarter Dome 1– with the Tarptent Moment DW. My Quarter Dome zipper had completely quit working and the fabric had five tiny holes, so I figured it was time for an upgrade. I still wanted a one person double wall tent, and the Moment DW fits that bill plus gave me an extra door and vestibule. In 2019, Tarptent introduced a new ultralight tent made with Dyneema fabric, so I bought the Aeon Li, which only weighs 16 ounces.
A much bigger weight savings came when I replaced my heavy 48 ounce sleeping bag with a 22 ounce quilt. This change saved a whopping 26 ounces! I’ve been very happy with the change to a quilt and don’t miss being confined in a traditional mummy bag, even if I don’t have a hood on the quilt. (See my full review of the Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt)
My first sleeping pad was the Thermarest Xtherm, and while I did change to the Exped UL M pad, I didn’t save any weight since both weigh 16 ounces, but I gained comfort with a rectangular-shaped pad with side baffles to keep me from falling off the pad. And I use the included Schnozzel pump sack as a waterproof pack liner, placing my quilt and down jacket inside it.
In 2019, I replaced my Osprey Aura 65 liter backpack with the same backpack but in a smaller 50 liter size. I found that I no longer needed the extra capacity of the 65 liter backpack, but I love the comfort of the Aura. To me, it’s worth every ounce that it weighs.
And finally, while it’s not officially listed as part of the Big Four, I always take a pillow on trips. I’ve tried using no pillow, instead using clothes in a stuff sack, and I tried inflatable pillows, but I couldn’t sleep as well. For a long time, I used a Therm-a-Rest compressible pillow. It’s ultra comfy and works great if you shift positions a lot like I do. However, it weighs 6 ounces and is bulky to pack, so instead, I switched to the 2 ounce Klymit X Pillow. I was pretty skeptical about how I would like using another inflatable pillow, but the x-shape cradles your head so it doesn’t slide off and it’s actually very comfortable. I like to use it filled up about half-way, then slip it into my long sleeve hiking shirt so the surface is less slippery.
Carrying too many clothes is probably the area that most people who carry heavy packs overindulge on the most. I used to bring extra shirts and pants, but no longer do. Instead, I wear one pair of hiking pants and a short sleeve shirt while hiking and take one long sleeve shirt in my pack. 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 like to take three pair. Two for alternating for hiking, and one pair that is for sleeping only. I find that if I have clean socks, my feet do much better while hiking. If the weather is going to be hot, I might take a pair of shorts.
Staying clean with less clothing
While it might seem like not taking additional clothing items will lead to being too dirty and smelly, it is possible to stay clean on trips and not take an outfit for every day. If you do camp laundry, you can have a clean pair of underwear every day, and it’s possible to wash your hiking pants and shirts too if you can wear your base layers for part of the day. I take an extra quart or gallon ziploc-type plastic bag for doing laundry. Most of the time, I don’t bother with using soap. Fill the bag with water, then rinse or wash everything inside the plastic bag away from the water source. Wring out excess water and set out on a rock or the lower branches of conifers to dry. Another way to clean up is to take 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. A few years ago, I upgraded my puffy from a synthetic jacket with no hood (10 ounces) to the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer with a hood (7 ounces). I stay much warmer – and saved 3 ounces. With the base layers that I take to sleep in, the long sleeve shirt, my puffy, and a rain jacket, I can 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 warm. I’d been carrying this seat pad on trips but didn’t think of this until a friend shared her tip with me.
One piece of clothing that I added to my pack for cold weather trips is a pair of 7 ounce down pants from Montbell. If you don’t want to spend a lot for down pants, lightweight fleece pants would be a good option. I recommend this over purchasing a sleeping bag liner for extra warmth when sleeping since the pants can be worn while hanging around at camp but the liner stays in the sleeping bag.
I take a lot of photos when I hike, and while a smartphone can do the job, this is one area where I’m not willing to do without. I like to have a full featured camera that I can put in manual mode for complete control over the settings, plus, as a hiking book author, I need high-quality photos for printing. So, I upgraded my clunky DSLR with the Sony a6000 mirrorless camera for an initial weight savings of 24 ounces. A year later, I ended up replacing the standard lens with a much higher quality and heavier lens, so the weight savings is now 19 ounces instead. If you don’t need high quality images and don’t mind giving up control over the settings, then using a smartphone instead of a dedicated camera is a great way to cut weight.
Save weight by taking less
Finally, 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. I went through everything else that I carry and eliminated a few items, changed how much I take of some items, and switched out stuff sacks for a few.
For example, I decided to leave my solar lantern. I use it to journal in my tent at night, but I can use my headlamp. And changing to a headlamp that can be recharged using the same battery backup that I take for charging my phone and InReach device means that I don’t need to take extra batteries.
Here’s a list of the changes I made in 2018 to cut 5.5 pounds from my pack:
- 26 ounces: Purchased a quilt to use instead of a sleeping bag.
- 19 ounces: new mirrorless camera to replace heavier DSLR
- 6 ounces: I removed the top lid from my Osprey Aura backpack. There’s plenty of room in the outer pockets on my backpack, so I don’t really need the lid.
- 5 ounces: Purchased a new tent.
- 5 ounces: Changed how I carry my first aid kit, using a small ultralight stuff sack instead of the heavier divided pack it came in. I resisted doing this for a long time since I like to be organized for emergency situations but I grouped similar items in small plastic bags so I don’t have to dump the contents on the ground to find what I need.
- 5 ounces: Using a Platypus soft water bottle instead of a Nalgene. I was worried that it would fall over all the time and drive me crazy, but it doesn’t. It is more of a challenge to fill with filtered water, but I found an easy way to do so using my hydration bladder tubing.
- 4 ounces: Using the bowl on the bottom of my Jetboil Minimo for drinking coffee instead of taking a mug. I only use it once a day so I don’t really need it.
- 4 ounces: Leaving my solar lantern and using my headlamp in my tent instead.
- 4 ounces: Bought a new Klymit X air pillow to replace a larger foam-filled pillow.
- 3 ounces: Bought a new polycro footprint for $9 (for 2) to replace a Tyvek footprint.
- 2 ounces: Using a small pack towel instead of additional wipes for daily bathing.
- 1 ounce: Leaving my beanie. I can use the hood on my rain jacket or my puffy if I need it.
UPDATE FOR 2019
- 10 ounces: new stove/pan/mug setup (see my backpacking gear list for more info)
- 21 ounces: new Tarptent Aeon Li tent – only weighs 16 ounces!!
- 3 ounces: new stuff sacks made with Dyneema fabric
- 5 ounces: no need for an extra fanny pack with a new backpack that has bigger hip belt pockets
What do you do to cut weight while backpacking? I’d love to learn more, so if you have any tips to share, let me know!