We have all been there. Everything is packed and ready to go, you try on your backpack and your spine snaps in three places… Okay maybe it’s not that bad, but it is way heavier than you were hoping. How did this happen?
Let’s assume you have a week, maybe a few days before you leave for your trip. Here I’ll share some tips on ways to lighten your pack quickly, and hopefully with minor cost.
A heavy pack is usually a result of two issues:
1- Your stuff is too heavy (individual items)
2- You have too much or unnecessary stuff
When starting out, it is very easy to make both of these mistakes. To be honest, it is easy to do this even as an experienced backpacker! Luckily nowadays with the help of social media and the interwebs, it is much easier to learn some tips on how to cut your weight.
Some may say they are fine with having a 40 or 50 pound pack and they are not willing to part with anything. Others are willing to do anything to shed ounces and pounds. I’m one that finds more fun in the hike when I’m not in constant pain, so I tend to try and keep my base weight as light as possible. Currently my base weight is just under 10 pounds.
*Base weight is the total weight of your entire gear kit, excluding consumables which are food, water and fuel. Consumables are not included because the amount varies by trip length and conditions. A lightweight backpacker carries a base weight under 20 pounds. -The lightweight Backpacking Conundrum, Gossamer Gear 2014
In this post I chose not to discuss sleeping systems or tents. Obviously they can weigh a ton and are a source of potential weight loss, but I believe are the subject of another post at another time. This post will focus on easy, last minute changes of smaller items.
Let’s get to it!
Your stuff is too heavy
This fits better in the “you have too much stuff” category, but we can also talk about it here briefly. Cotton and denim are heavy materials. If you are able to switch them out for lighter materials, do it. Instead of bringing that comfortable yet heavy and bulky cotton hoodie, you can wear your baselayer under your hiking shirt with your jacket on top. Think multi-purpose with all of your clothing!
Knives, rope, cordage- Instead of a bowie knife or a couple big folding knives, go smaller. Pick one small knife that is not easy to lose. Keep it in your toiletries bag or if it has a key ring, clipped inside your pack. I use the Miniature Swiss Army pocket knife.
If you are not going climbing or rappelling, or have a specific planned purpose for a rope, leave it at home. Same goes for cordage; unless you are stringing a food bag high into a tree, or have a specific need for it, leave it at home. It’s heavy, it’s bulky, and if you don’t have a reason- it’s unnecessary.
A common thing you see at outdoor stores are complete cook set like this one from GSI. A pot, pan, set of utensils, and sometimes even plates or bowls. They look shiny, seem handy, and give you some comforts of home. They are great for car camping or possibly for a basecamp, but for a long hike they are just so heavy and unnecessary!
The GSI minimalist. Pictured here with the GSI Ultralight Java Drip coffee pourover
There is no need for a frying pan on the trail, unless you plan on cooking EVERYTHING in it. Minimize down to a pot and a spoon. I use the GSI Minimalist, but there are many options available. Here are a couple I found on Amazon:
Nalgenes and Hydroflasks- I love them and use them all the time. On a hike however, you won’t find me with either. An empty 1 liter nalgene weighs almost 6.5 ounces. An empty 1 liter hydroflask weighs about 15.5 ounces. Add water at 2.2 pounds per liter, and you have a TON of water weight! Do yourself a favor and swing by the grocery or gas station and pick up some Smart Water Bottles.
They are cheaper and weigh about 1.2 ounces. 5 Smart Water bottles weigh less than ONE nalgene! They are made of a very durable plastic, are much more narrow and can be crammed pretty much anywhere in your pack.
Smart Water bottles bring me to my next part of the “water stuff” category- water filters. If you have the time before your trip, trade out your bulky pump style water filter and bag of hoses out for the Sawyer Squeeze water filter. Weighing 3 ounces and being the size of a toilet paper tube, you are saving a ton of weight and bulk by making the switch. The best part (and how it relates to the paragraph above this one), the Sawyer threads right on top of the Smart Water bottle. I recommend buying at least 3- a dirty bottle and two clean bottles.
Leave your shampoo, conditioner, hair spray etc. at home. You will live without your full size deodorant stick. One of the best parts of a long hike is the shower when you get to a town or back home! This stuff is all unnecessary bulk and weight. Trade out your toothbrush and toothpaste for travel size. Do you need a full bottle of Tylenol or can you get away with a handful in a small pill pouch? I use these for any meds I take along, plus for some of my food seasonings. Go through your toiletries and ask yourself- do I REALLY NEED this?
This is a huge subject that I am going to try and fit into a small paragraph. Canned food, MRE’s, boxes of food, etc are HEAVY! This is another way to lose weight quick. Go for dehydrated or dried foods that you only need to add water to. Knorr meals, Harmony House foods, and bagged backpacking meals are quick and easy to find foods for your trip.
If you have the time and equipment, dehydrating your own meals is a cost effective and delicious way to go as well. Remember to try and get rid of the containers the food comes in, if possible. I always try to re-package things like knorr, boxed mac & cheese and such in ziploc quart freezer bags.
I don’t eat the pre-packaged hiking meals often. There are a few brands however that I have found to be very tasty if you like to go that route. They both seem a little spendy, but the amount of food you get (they are usually 2 servings each) is not bad.
Peak Refuel (Chicken alfredo is my favorite by far
Good-to-go I recommend the herbed mushroom risotto. Throw a little tabasco in there too. I carry a 1/8 ounce mini-tabasco bottle in my food bag at all times, and send myself more in resupply boxes at town stops.
You have too much stuff
How much clothes to bring is always a point of debate. Here I will tell you what I do and why.
I carry a spare pair of socks (Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew), a spare pair of underwear, and sometimes a spare shirt. The type of shirt depends on the type of climate and time of year I am hiking. I carry a base layer for sleeping or cold days, and I have a puffy jacket and a rain jacket. I just really haven’t had the need for more.
A common mistake people make is waaaay overpacking clothes. I just don’t NEED a change of socks and underwear every day! I know that for some, this a hard pill to swallow. Yes, you are going to smell. And if you are out for more than a couple days, you are probably going to smell bad. Embrace it! It’s part of the fun!
Think multi-purpose when it comes to clothes. If you are bringing a warm base layer, use them not just as a layer when hiking, but use them for pajamas as well. Decide on pants vs shorts or a combination of both (Zip-off convertible pants) like these. 90% of the time I will be wearing shorts. If it is winter or I am expecting continuously cold weather and wind I will wear the convertible pants.
I used to have a clothes bag in my backpack. Yes, it is nice to have them all right there neatly in a little bag. Here is the problem- you can’t distribute the weight of the clothes evenly if they are in a bag, and bags add to the weight overall. I take my clothes and push them into void spots in my pack. Socks might go down next to my quilt, underwear may go next to the pot, etc etc. If you insist on keeping the clothes together, in lieu of a bag you can wrap them all up in a spare shirt or some other item.
Do you have camp shoes? If so, do you really need them? I have seen it a hundred times- A hiker with a Volkswagen sized pack on their back, with a pair of tennis shoes bouncing around on the back secured with a steel carabiner. If you feel as if you can’t live without comfortable footwear to change into at night, consider flip flops or some light slip-on shoes. Personally I carry neither. I take my socks off and go barefoot in my hiking shoes.
Accessories are an easy place to cut some weight, because usually we all have a lot of “accessories” that we just don’t need. There are exceptions to what I’m going to write below of course, but generally speaking it will apply to most hikers.
Fire starters: I carry a small bic lighter in my pot, a spare in my toiletries bag and a SOL striker/sparker. Gotcha carries a lighter as well in case she is by herself or if we lose the one in the pot.
For “tinder” in case of an emergency we always have some toilet paper and random trash to use. When we do start a campfire, we typically will find some small twigs, sap and dry moss or leaves to start the fire with. I would encourage you to research and practice starting a fire without commercial fire starting materials or tinder. You never know when you are going to need that knowledge.
Carabiners, snaps etc: Unless you are hiking somewhere to climb, or have a specific purpose for the carabiners, leave them home. So often you see people with random carabiners just hanging off their packs, with no real purpose. If you have a purpose for the carabiner other than climbing/rappelling, think of an alternative. Is the carabiner there to lash something to the outside of your pack? If so- maybe some p-cord or elastic straps will suffice. If you must use snaps/carabiners, these are a good small and light option.
Bags: Ah, the bag dilemma- I too, used to be a bagger. I like organization, what can I say? I had a red bag for cooking stuff, a blue bag for water stuff, a yellow bag for toiletries, a green bag for food, another bigger blue bag for clothes, and so on… During a town stop in Mt. Laguna on the Pacific Crest Trail, I had the opportunity to have a “shakedown” performed by one of the local guides. He took every single item out of my bag and spread it out in the parking lot. One of the takeaways I had from that was bags, and I haven’t looked back. Is it really THAT necessary to have a big bag (packpack) carrying smaller bags, that sometimes also have small bags in them? Lose the bags.
Toiletries and 1st Aid: I use a single Ziploc quart size freezer bag for all of my toiletries and first aid kit. I do not carry a big commercially sold 1st Aid kit. What you carry is up to you and your comfort level. I have been an EMT and paramedic for a long time and have developed my own kit according to my comfort and experience. No matter your experience, I definitely would recommend Leukotape for your 1st Aid kit. It is the ultimate for 1st Aid and blister care, and has many uses beyond that. (Tip- rip off as much as you may need and wrap the tape around a broken pencil, and keep in your toiletries bag.
As far as toiletries, I mentioned some items above that you can leave behind or downsize to travel size. All I carry is a small foldable toothbrush, a travel sized toothpaste, and a small pack of baby wipes.
The only water stuff I carry aside from my filter is some spare O-rings for the Sawyer (in my toiletries bag) and one sawyer bag with the top cut off, so I can skim shallow water.
I carry all my food in the smallest bag that it will fit in, while still having flexibility to conform to the shape of the backpack contents, if that makes sense. I don’t pack it so full and tight that I now have a solid brick of food sitting in my pack. The only real organization I have in my food bag is that I separate the food from the drinks and condiments, just for ease of finding them. Also, if say a ketchup packet bursts, or a sugary powder spills, its not all over the rest of the food and runs the risk of attracting critters even worse.
For cooking I use a MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove. For a cook pot I use a GSI Minimalist . For utensils I use a Sea to Summit Alpha Lite Spoon. That’s it for a total weight of 15.6 ounces (including fuel). There is no need for forks, knives, extra cups or frying pans and such.
This subject can get pretty hairy, as there are so many opinions. I’m not going to get into a big debate over the subject, so I’ll just tell you my own personal preference…
I carry a miniature Swiss Army knife, and that’s it. The only things I can remember ever using it for was cutting some wrappers and food, and one time to make a pointy stick when I was sitting at a fire.
I don’t carry any weapons on the trail. I don’t carry a gun, I don’t carry big knives etc. I have nothing against guns and big knives except one thing- they weigh too much. Obviously this is situation dependent; Hiking in the backcountry of Alaska is a lot different then hiking on a maintained trail through the plains of South Dakota. (Please spare the “you never know”, and “you’re irresponsible and unsafe” comments. I understand where you are coming from. I am only telling you what I personally do). Do what you feel is necessary!
Bear spray can be included in this category I suppose. I guess my only input there is to say that you should research the area you will be hiking, look into the effectiveness of bear spray, and make that decision yourself.
Obviously I did not hit everything you may be carrying in your pack. There are many more areas where it is possible to lose some weight, but those may be the subject of another post at another time. Pulling everything out of your pack and laying it out, then really thinking about what you will really need is imperative if you want a decent weight.
My main concern when I’m evaluating a piece of gear is determining its possibility of multi-purpose use. In my own pack, I have managed to whittle everything down to necessities and not much more. Most of it has more than one purpose. Yes, it will take a monetary investment to get your weight down to where you like it, but the award is being able to travel long distances for long periods with less pain and frustration. Remember that the more gear you bring, the more opportunity for things to go wrong with that gear. I would also challenge that you may not need or use a vast majority of the gear you bring, past the necessities. (This of course does not include things you may bring for a specific purpose, such as binoculars for bird watching or something).
Feel free to contact me with any questions about specific recommendations or advice!
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