How to lighten the load of your backpack – updated for 2020
Like pretty much everyone who backpacks, I learned that I needed to lighten my load to make the trips I do take less of a toll on my body.
Almost all backpackers wish they had focused more on the weight of each item when initially purchasing gear. 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.
How to Get Started
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. I’m a small person, so I’ve always been concerned about my pack weight but only recently figured out how to reduce it to be much more manageable. With the purchase of a few new items, and the leaving behind of a few more, I’ve cut just over 10 pounds from my pack weight.
When I initially bought all of my backpacking gear, I paid 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 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. 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, maps, 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.
Begin the process by knowing how much the gear you have 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.
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.
See my full review of the Tarptent Moment DW tent.
Then in 2019, Tarptent introduced a new ultralight tent made with Dyneema fabric, so I bought the Aeon Li, which only weighs 16 ounces. While I would not have wanted a single-wall trekking pole tent when I first started backpacking, now I wouldn’t want to take a heavier freestanding tent. 😉
Here are the weights for these three tents, including stakes, poles and stuff sacks:
- REI Quarter Dome 1: 42 ounces (2 lbs 10 oz)
- Tarptent Moment DW: 37 ounces (2 lbs 5 oz)
- Tarptent Aeon Li: 16 oz (uses one trekking pole for setup, or add 4 oz for a separate pole shown above)
Another significant weight savings came when I replaced my heavy 48 ounce sleeping bag (Big Agnes Roxy Ann 15) with a 22 ounce quilt (Enlightened Equipment Revelation, shown above). This change saved 26 ounces! I’ve been very happy with the change to a quilt and don’t miss being confined in a traditional mummy bag.
See my full review of the Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt.
My Exped sleeping pad comes with the Schnozzel pump sack for blowing it up. The pump sack also doubles as a waterproof pack liner. I use it to pack my quilt and down jacket inside my backpack to keep them dry. Anything that has a multi-purpose and reduces the number of items needed helps to cut on overall pack weight.
In 2019, I replaced my Osprey Aura 65 liter backpack with the same backpack but in a smaller 50 liter size, which saved a few more ounces but is also less bulky to carry. I found that I no longer needed the extra capacity of the 65 liter backpack, but I love the comfort of the Aura. I tried several ultralight backpacks but to me, this pack is worth every ounce that it weighs. Keep in mind that carrying less weight won’t matter if the backpack you choose rubs you the wrong way (literally) when it’s fully loaded. To save a bit more weight, I removed the top lid and use the flap to close the top of the pack.
Carrying too many clothes is one the most common ways that pack weight adds up, but it’s easy to solve. 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. But I usually just roll up my hiking pants instead.
See my How To Layer Clothing for Hiking and Backpacking for more info on what I take on trips.
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, a long sleeve shirt, 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.
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. Again, multi-purpose items help save weight by taking fewer items.
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 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, 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.
For a full list of what’s in my kitchen kit, see My Backpacking Gear List.
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 sunscreen, place enough for your trip in a smaller container. I really like the 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.
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.
One more thing to consider: 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 your needs for each trip instead of packing the same gear for every trip.
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.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for some items, which means that I make a small commission if a purchase is made. This does not change the price of the item. I am not sponsored by any gear companies and the items listed here are owned by me and unless otherwise stated, are purchased with my own funds. All gear reviews are honest and not paid for by any company. Thank you for supporting this blog!