Nobody likes to carry a heavy burden, especially when you’re
simply walking into Mordor backpacking for weeks and months at a time.
That heavy pack must be destroyed, and it can be done through a craft that we here possess.
Take the first steps toward ultralight backpacking supremacy and lighten your load!
Thru-hikers have a lot of time to think about gear and efficiency, especially when you’re crawling up a steep grade or descending with screaming knees. These lessons are won through endless days of trudging up and down mountains, like on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
The four steps may seem self-evident, but take your time here. Go in with an open mind, and a willingness to be critical of yourself. You’ll be thinking outside the box and shedding those pounds in no time.
Step 1: Write a list, of course.
Write it out on paper, on the laptop… make a spreadsheet if you want. This is your starting point. List every last item you normally take on a backpacking trip. Nothing goes unlisted – passports, iPhone, car keys, Ziploc bags… it all gets written down.
If you’ve never been backpacking before, go ahead and cheat from my gear list to get started. If you need to, use generic terms like backpack, shelter, etc.
Step 2: Determine every item’s function.
Really. Think about it.
Consider a seemingly redundant example, like boots.
Boots protect your feet and your ankles. What else do they do? They keep your feet warm.
Do your feet need protection? Probably. Do your ankles need protection? Not necessarily. If your ankles don’t need protection, then you need shoes, not boots.
Maybe your feet don’t easily get cold. Or you remember you have socks on your list, which also satisfy the function of keeping warm.
Maybe, now that you think about it, full foot protection isn’t a priority after all. If so, then you’ve discovered that you can hike in sandals! Chacos! Why not?
Identify the various functions of every item in your pack. If you’re serious about this exercise, write down those functions.
Step 3: Eliminate gear with an unnecessary function.
This is where things start to get messy. What is “necessary?” It depends on where you’re going, how far, and why… this subject of “necessity” has way more nuances than I’m going to dive into here. There’s too much room for variation.
At one end of the spectrum, I’ve done an overnight trip in the Grand Canyon where everything necessary was shoved into a small day pack… shelter and all, with success. At the other extreme, I’ve day-hiked the Canyon with a “necessary” 40-plus pounds of beer, ice, pizza, etc.
I will say this – for a thru-hike you need to be ruthless. You should find that most gear functions become unnecessary. Comfort and small luxuries have their place, but remember at the end of the day it’s all about getting from point A to point B (I’m assuming that finishing your thru-hike is a priority).
The often-peddled “tent footprint” is a great example of an unnecessary function. What does it do? It protects the floor of your tent, and it creates a lightweight shelter when you eliminate the tent body.
You’re probably carrying the tent body anyway, which renders the lightweight shelter function as unnecessary.
That leaves protection. Does your tent floor really need protecting? Are a couple of punctures in the floor really the end of the world?
I’d rather carry less weight, decreasing the likelihood of developing a stress fracture or lost cartilage.
“I developed this injury and had to quit my hike, but my fancy tent is still in shape!”
Step 4: Satisfy necessary functions with less weight.
This is the final step. You’ve boiled everything down to what’s necessary.
Have you? Really? Go double check.
Now take what’s left and replace it with something lighter that satisfies the same function. Here’s an example of how I used this process:
For over 10 years I’d been using the ULA Catalyst backpack. It’s a great pack, and one of the lightest on the market! What is its function? Simple:
A backpack carries things.
What else does it do? Nothing, really. Note that it’s unnecessary for it to ventilate the sweat from my back, or to convert into a stylish fanny pack, or any of that nonsense.
So is there a lighter solution for carrying things? You betcha.
First of all, I’ve come to realize I don’t need all that volume (4600 cubic inches). So I could go with their smaller pack, the ULA Circuit. That would save me seven ounces.
Or, comparable in volume to the Circuit, there’s the Hyperlite Southwest 3400. With the Hyperlite I shave an additional nine ounces! So I’ve just shed one whole pound with a simple gear replacement.
Keep your eye on the ball, or in this case the function… the Hyperlite carries things just fine, too.
Another item on my gear list was the ubiquitous rain cover. Function? It keeps my things dry.
But guess what? The Hyperlite is made of waterproof material, eliminating the function of a rain cover. Say goodbye to three more ounces!
Extra tips for your journey:
Remember that replacing your gear is the last step.
Most hikers don’t get to this stage until they’ve accumulated some solid experience and made some begrudging sacrifices through ditching gear with an unnecessary function.
Gear costs money – I get it. Maybe you can’t justify going out and spending hundreds of dollars just to save a few ounces… but they add up!
Someone once told me that if your watch the pennies, the dollars take care of the themselves. So that means…
If you cut the ounces, the pounds will take care of themselves.
Eventually you may be ready to invest in some cuben fiber, titanium, and down feathers.
First do everything else you possibly can, like…
Carry Less Stuff That You Don’t Need
I know – you don’t need me to tell you this.
…but you do. Really.
This is my number one tip and it’s worth repeating, as it’s so much easier said than done. I’ve been backpacking for 19 years and I still have problems with it.
You don’t need an extra pair of socks. You don’t need a shovel to dig a poop hole.
You sure don’t need an extra pair of shoes to wear in camp. If you find camp shoes to be necessary, then you need more comfortable hiking shoes!
You don’t need a camp pillow or baby wipes (despite how utterly delightful they are).
You don’t need a lot of things.
Leave them behind.
Respect the Big Three
The best course of action when replacing things is to look at your “big three.” These three key items are your shelter, your sleep system (sleeping bag + pad), and your backpack. They’re virtually always necessary, and tend to be your heaviest items.
They also tend to be your most expensive items! If you’re new to backpacking and on a really tight budget, try to get it right the first time.
Otherwise, just use some cheap crap until you figure out what you’re doing.
A great way to reinvent your gear list is to take a hard look at your Big Three. Replacing just one of these items can often lead to significant weight savings. Invest in your Big Three first, and hold off on that titanium spork for some point down the trail.
Watch Your Food, Water, and Fuel
Water is heavy! One of the best ways to lighten things up is to carry less of it. Rather than purifying a few liters and carrying them up the trail, why not take an extra few minutes to chug some right then and there at the source?
The same method applies to food. Try to leave town with a full belly!
You can also try to implement more items on your menu that have a high caloric density. One ounce of olive oil has more calories than an ounce of Cheeze-Its.
The math may seem daunting as serving sizes fluctuate, but it’s actually quite simple:
CALORIES PER SERVING divided by GRAMS PER SERVING equals CALORIES PER GRAM.
More calories per gram is good. Less is bad.
The math is a fun activity when you’re sitting on the trail reading the labels on your food – it sure beats reading the history behind the founding of Clif Bar Company for the thousandth time.
Consider not cooking
Pot, stove, fuel… all these things weigh precious ounces. If you’re doing a mid-summer hike in 90-degree weather, do you really want a hot meal every night? Probably not.
Mutilate Your Fancy Gear
Cut an extra foot off of that foam sleeping pad, and put your backpack under your lower body at night.
Cut the excess length from all those straps on your backpack (Seriously, it adds up).
…and my personal favorite, cut the long handle from your toothbrush!
Disclosure: I never have (and never will) cut my toothbrush, but everything else here is legit.
You Can Do It!
Most often it just takes a lot of time and a lot of miles to get that pack weight down, but with a dedicated mindset, you can make it happen sooner than you think.
And guess what? You wouldn’t be here at the end of the page if you didn’t already have that mindset.
You got this.