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by Sara Thompson November 26, 2022 6 min read

"Just in case… I should take this."

The thought runs through my head for the third time. I cautiously put an extra light back into my bag. I see my headlamp resting on the floor, ready to be packed last for quick access.

“Well… I will have my headlamp…”

Out it comes again. Have you ever been packing and not known what to take? How about packed something that you definitely did not need? Packing light and being prepared is tricky business, a balancing act between being underprepared and having a pack that feels like hardened cement.

Heavy packs are draining physically and mentally, keeping you from enjoying the outdoors and staying positive on the trail.

With a few quick adjustments, you can shed some weight from your pack and enjoy hiking a little faster, lighter and more energized!


The Big Three

To get a grip on how heavy your bag is, use a reliable scale while packing. Weighing individual items will show you what items are heaviest, and show you possible areas to cut excess or upgrade gear.

The three classically hefty items, affectionately dubbed “the big three,” are where you will pack in the bulk of your base weight. These are backpack, sleeping bag/pad and shelter.

Your backpack itself is not the easiest place to trim down on weight. Though there are ultra-light options on the market for hikers with exceptionally low base weights, most hikers should not use one with their conventional gear set-ups. While ultra-light bags are durable and significantly lighter than other options, they typically lack the structure and suspension to handle base weights over 15 pounds over long distances. If you are moving towards an ultralight set-up, switch bags as your final step. For most, the simplest and most practical way to cut pack weight is to swap out the pack cover for a trash bag. While keeping the contents completely dry, trash bags are lighter, less bulky and easily replaceable.

When it comes to a backpacking shelter, light options depend totally on weather, environment and personal preference. Tarps are a popular option, cutting out the weight of walls and a tent floor while keeping you covered from rain, dew or other inclement weather. Tarps not only have less surface area than tents, but they also can be set up using cords and trekking poles. The additional weight cut in tent poles and stakes is significant for hikers willing to doze with only a cover above them.

When adding in a footprint, light tent options quickly become comparable to a tarp system. For my husband and I, a three-season ultralight tent has made our bags significantly lighter while still providing the level of shelter we want for most of the year. Check the weight of your current shelter, and consider a lighter option especially if it weighs in over 2 pounds per person. If you are not quite ready to make any big changes, lighten your load by leaving tent stakes behind. On the trail, use cord tethers or rocks to secure your tent in place.

Much like with shelter, there is no “one-size-fits-all” for the perfect, light weight sleep set up. Knowing the weather you will be sleeping in and knowing your own body are key in discovering the best set-up for you. First, down insulation is far lighter and more compact than synthetic materials. A down sleeping bag will instantly save notable weight and space in your bag over synthetic. Next, ditch your compression bag. With a light sleeping bag, over-compressing creates a dense, awkwardly shaped blob that takes up space and carries weight oddly in your bag. Try to cram your bag into the bottom of your pack, keeping it more moveable and manageable without the added ounces of a compression sack.

When it comes to sleeping pads, there are a few options. First, lighten up with an inflatable pad or an ultra-light foam pad. To go even lighter, cut your foam pad to cushion the length of your torso only. You can put your legs and feet on your pack to keep them elevated and off the ground. If you are not prepared to cut so much off of your foam pad, try snipping the corners to cut some surface that tend to go untouched.


Optimizing Your Clothing System  

In all areas, one of the easiest and most efficient ways to lighten up a pack is to do your research. Not sure if you should take microspikes? Call the ranger district or land management service for trail conditions.  Uncertain about how many layers you will need? Keep your eyes on accurate weather reports, elevation considered, every day leading up to your start. The amount of items brought along that could be cut simply because of information is greater than you might imagine! Know the weather and your body, and plan to take emergency gear (like a bivy) in case of the worst. Aside from that, pack according to what you know.

Bringing along multiple shirts or pants is not necessary on the trail, especially when the ones you have are made from wool, hemp, or synthetic fibers like polyester. Embrace a few items on the trail, and leave extras behind with your stinky self-consciousness. Like with sleeping bags, puffy jackets are lightest and most compressible when insulated with down. Lastly, how heavy are your hiking boots? The standard for most light hikers and thru-hikers has become trail runners. If your ankles can handle the switch, try a pair of sturdy, light trail runners to cut significant weight that keeps you feeling light on your feet.


Keeping Food and Water Ultralight

Planning is not a factor when it comes to food and water on the trail. Just kidding! Its most important, and I am sure that is unsurprising to you. Water weight, much like when dieting, will add or subtract entire pounds in a short time. To keep your bag light, plan reasonable places to filter and re-stock water supplies as you go. Be sure to find out if water sources marked on your map are accessible and running in the season, and figure in time for chemicals to work or for you to manually filter water before being able to drink. On the three major American thru-hikes, opportunities for water re-supply are never more than a few days away. Research these beforehand, mark them on your map and make stopping for a re-supply part of your day plan.

For lightweight food, backpackers love dehydrated meals. While some “cold soak,” meaning that they re-hydrate food without the added weight of a stove and pot, there are also light options that allow you to eat a hot meal and drink hot coffee in the morning. Alcohol stoves, which can also be made out of a soda can, are inexpensive in body and fuel as well as light on the trail. Though they are less efficient, heating water once or twice a day could be worth it depending on your preferences and the season. Light propane stove options are available, giving you a light way to quickly heat things up, for a bigger price on the body and fuel.


Whittling Down the Extras

While the big items have been covered, backpacking calls for many smaller items to be brought along. Think about how much of each thing you will need, and try to do simple things to narrow down on size and weight.

Repackaging foods, hygiene products (like soap, sunscreen and toothpaste) and select items in your repair or first aid kit can help. Try small, resealable plastic bags in place of plastic containers and boxes. Repackaging also allows you to cut down on the amount your bring, so think through how much of each item should go into the bags.

For a simple backpacking pillow, use a water bladder or inflate a resealable plastic bag and cover with clothes or a jacket to soften. This cuts the added weight of bringing along a pillow.

Electronics are heavy. Bring as few phones, Kindles or tablets as possible. Besides, getting off the grid is part of the joy!

If you are not going alone, plan together and share some gear. There is no need for each person to have a stove, or for everyone to bring along a first aid kit. Consolidate, making sure that there are enough things for the full number of hikers, and then disperse the weight of shared gear between backpacks.

Lastly, think carefully about each item as you are packing. If you come across an item you are not certain about, think if you have used it on your last three trips. If not, try a trip without it to see how necessary it really is (10 essentials excluded!!)

Feeling lighter? Enjoy getting out and getting away, embracing the minimalist rhythms that come with backpacking. Who knows? Maybe you will find yourself cutting down off of the trail, too.

Sara Thompson
Sara Thompson

Sara is a Seattle native and enjoys hiking and exploring in her Westfalia Van with her dog Wally.

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