Time and again, I’ve been confronted with the reality that on most backpacking trips, my pack is too heavy.
On my first major backpacking adventure, it came in well over 50 pounds for a four-day stay in the Colorado backcountry. This should not be a source of pride. That’s just way too much stuff.
But the rationale behind overpacking sometimes plays to our instincts of wanting to be prepared for everything. This often leads to overkill.
Extra sweatshirts and pants. Multiple pairs of socks and underwear. More food than you will use. Various campsite tools you think you’ll need to gather and chop wood, cut lines and start campfires. It all adds up.
I’ve been able to shave about 15 pounds off that pack weight over the years, but still find myself carrying more weight than I really want. There are people out there who take a minimalist approach, and others who spend big bucks on ultralight gear so they can hike with packs that weight 15 pounds or less. Pretty remarkable for people who do multi-day or even multi-week excursions. But that’s not in realm for most of us.
But there are some tips you can follow that will help cut your pack weight down and make your trip more comfortable.
Some things that I’ve learned:
Resist the urge to bring a firewood axe. You don’t need it. If you’re going to build a campfire, most of the dead wood you can gather should be small enough to break without needing a heavy steel axe. Most dead limbs can be broken by stomping on them. Leaving the axe at home will save you a couple of pounds.
Small knives are better than big knives. You don’t want to go so small that your knife isn’t rugged enough for the outdoors, but you don’t need some huge Bowie knife, either. Better yet, bring along a multi-tool that has a knife, pliers, saw and other components.
Down sleeping bags are lighter than synthetic-fill bags. They’re generally pricier, too, but much lighter and compress down into a small package.
Pack a tent that is compact. Resist the urge to bring along some big, roomy tent just because you want some elbow room. You’re just using the tent as a place to sleep or stay dry. If you’re out with several people, pack one tent and divide components between you — one person carries the poles, one person the tent, and one the rain fly.
For food, pack what you need and use dehydrated meals that can be eaten by adding hot water. Same thing with sports drinks. Powdered mixes are better than bottles of the drinks in liquid form. If you’re walking out with a bunch of food in your pack, you brought too much.
Looks for ways to eliminate packaging. One thing I did: I carry a couple of water bottles for storing filtered water that I get from a stream or lake. But on the way in. I’ll use one of those to store my first-aid kit. The package the kit comes in stays at home. You could do this with lots of things: coffee, food, toothpaste, etc.
A Web site I found is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. It’s called sectionhiker.com, and I’ve quoted it often here. On that site, I found several more suggestions that make a lot of sense. Citing sectionhiker.com, here are some of those:
Phase 1: Eliminate and Substitute
In the first phase, you need to understand how much your gear weighs and eliminate everything you don’t use on trips. After that, we look at three core components: your backpack, shelter and sleeping bag and substitute them with alternatives that weight less than 3lbs. each.
Buy a digital scale that can weigh up to 8 lbs in pound, ounce and gram units. They cost about $20.
Assemble all of the clothing and equipment (minus food, water, and stove fuel) that you carry on backpacking or camping trips and weigh it. Add up all of the weights. This is your base weight.
Go on a backpacking trip and keep track of all of the gear or clothing that you did not use. Subtract this from your gear total and see how much weight you can save by leaving it behind. You’ll be surprised.
Next, try to limit the weight of your backpack, sleeping bag, and tent to a total of 9 lbs, or 3 lbs each. There are a lot of very affordable mainstream backpacks, bags, and tents that you can purchase that will bring this number down quickly.
Finally, try to replace existing items in your kit with lighter weight alternatives. For example, don’t bring an entire can of insect repellent when you can bring 1 oz. to get through your trip; or replace an 8 oz. flashlight with a tiny LED that weights 0.5 oz.
Phase 2: Multipurpose Equipment
You can further reduce your pack weight by using a single item for multiple purposes. For example, my sleeping gear includes a tent, tent poles, a sleeping bag and pad, long underwear, a balaclava and a down vest.
I use hiking poles, so I replace my tent poles with them to erect my tent. This means I can leave the tent poles behind and reduce my gear weight by about 8 oz.
I have a frameless backpack. My sleeping pad goes into a special pocket in my pack that lets it act as an internal frame stiffening the pack and helping to transfer its weight to my hip belt. This lets me use a pack that is about 8 to 16 oz. lighter than backpacks that come with a built-in internal frame.
My sleeping pad is 3/4 length which means that it ends just below my knees. My legs and feet require less insulation than my core, so I position my pack and all my remaining gear under my lower legs. Additional weight savings can be 2 oz. to 8 oz. depending on the weight of a full length pad.
I wear long underwear, a down vest, and balaclava to sleep and to reduce the amount of insulation and the weight of the sleeping bag that I need to bring along. This layer doubles as an extra clothing layer if it gets very cold. The additional weight saved is about 8-16 oz.
Phase 3: Thermo-regulation
When you hike you generate a lot of heat and therefore you can carry a lot less clothing. The trick is learning what kind of clothing you need, how to layer it and how to build in a safety factor for different weather conditions and terrain. This takes a lot of practice, trial and error experimentation and careful observation, but eventually you can shave several pounds of gear off your pack weight.
This is some good material, folks. Check out that Web site for more tips.
Until then, see you all in the outdoors.