“In that dimming past when backpackers were so few they weren’t called that, or anything else, choosing equipment was simple. For the feet there were boots, and a boot was a boot was a boot, unless it was a tennis shoe…Equipment wasn’t worth talking about, except to cuss at…Today the backpacker travels dry and sleeps warm in all but major convulsions of nature, quickly prepares gourmet meals, and carries a load lighter and easier-riding than elders believed awaited on the Golden Shore.
Yet luxury, too, has its ills. Backpackers, generally, are from the most environmentally well-educated level of society and feel wretched about their hoggish superconsumption, are worried by portents in the balance of payments and prime rate, uneasy about moral decay and eternal damnation. Nevertheless, so spoiled have they become that rather than taking satisfaction in staying dry 95% of the time, they pout about the 5 percent wet, and when yesterday’s miracle garment disappoints, they fling it aside and dash to the shop for today’s marvel.
In the shop the veteran watches the novices fondle boots brutal enough to give Attilla the Hun a laughing fit or suave enough for the dancing at Prince Charming’s ball, gape saucer-eyed at the array of packs so comfortable the wonder is the owners could ever bear to take them off to go to bed, salivate on the floor of the food department, and exit the shop towing a train of shopping cart, equipped for an expedition to the Karakorum or a flight to Mars.”
–Harvey Manning, “Backpacking: One Step at a Time”
The great majority of hikers carry far more than what they need into the backcountry. After more than 5,000 miles of trail travel, I can’t say I’ve seen it all, but it’s safe to say I’ve seen enough: knives as long as little swords thrust into sheaths, baking equipment, pot cozys, pot holders, pot scrubbers, soap, hatchets, comfy chairs, satellite phones, and more wardrobe changes than a Katy Perry show. It’s nice stuff to have in camp, but eventually all this extravagant tonnage ends up on some poor person’s back to be humped over the next mountain pass. Have you ever seen someone in an expectant partial squat, hands on thighs and baring teeth while a second person hoists on their backpack because it’s so full of unnecessary junk that they can’t do it themselves? I can hear Kevin O’Leary quip from his stuffy studio chair: STOP THE MADNESS!
Before I go much further, I want to say that I’m someone who’s been firmly on the “hike your own hike” side of things. If you want to bring 10 pairs of socks and a queen-sized mattress into the wilderness, go for it, I won’t judge…in front of you. But here’s something that irks me all the same: There are new people being introduced to the outdoors every day, quite often by a family member, and there’s nothing worse than someone having a terrible first experience because they had to haul their dad’s refrigerator over Muir Pass on his 1970s frame pack and sleep in his old seven-pound flannel bag that still vents moist scents of moldy compost and flatus. That person’s destiny is to either become disaffected with nature, broken, and/or both. There’s certainly a low chance of return to the wilderness by any means other than something with wheels and air conditioning. I want someone to have an overwhelmingly positive first experience in the backcountry so they’ll go back again and be willing to protect the land when it’s threatened. Being overburdened with useless stuff can ruin the experience.
So why do people encumber themselves? Lots of reasons. Some do it under the guise of “being prepared.” But in doing so, they completely distort the meaning of the important word “preparation” from “being ready to handle something that is a reasonable possibility” to “having something on hand in case of a nuclear holocaust.” Folks operating under this credo will claim to be ready for mating pumas and tornados. It’s more likely that they’ll be ill-prepared for more reasonable hazards like hypothermia as they dig through their flares, ammunition, and boxes of waterproof matches trying to find their warm clothing.
Some overloaders can’t bear the thought of being less comfortable in the backcountry than poolside at Club Med. These folks have spent a little too much time accessorizing at REI. French presses, remarkably clean and nice-smelling clothes, “biodegradable” soaps, and aircraft carrier-sized air mattresses are the hallmarks of this crowd. If you’re going to live in the woods for a little while and not be in a cabin, you might be less gross and sweaty if you don’t have to carry your house around.
Most people, however, probably just don’t know any better; they haven’t given lightweight hiking much of a thought. If they did, they might have dismissed the idea as something that only rich donkeys who don’t know anything about the wilderness do. I mentioned earlier that lots of people learn their first backcountry skills from people in their families. Good and bad alike, nothing beats a family at passing along generations of habits. I’ve enjoyed the excellent fortune of having a dad who associates the backcountry with firewood and maple syrup; tents and sleeping bags with the Army Reserves, and thus has left me to my own blunders in adopting a lightweight style for backcountry travel. Others haven’t been so lucky and have dutifully picked up Dad’s HAM radio and 15-foot marshmallow sticks.
Reader, I want to reset things for you when it comes to traveling in the backcountry. What follows, therefore, is a simple guide to lightweight hiking. I’m going to break down the contents of a backpack and talk about what goes in and what you should keep out. You might call it “how to travel in the backcountry without carrying so much garbage that you smash your knees into tiny bits.” You, Mr. Overburdener; I want to change how you think about things. First timer, I want to tell you how to do it right and enjoy yourself. Banjo-toting hippy dude with the 5-megawatt solar array? You’re doing your own thing and I respect that. This post isn’t for you.
I’m going to cut right to the chase and define lightweight so you know what the heck I’m talking about. When I say lightweight, I mean less than 15 pounds of pack weight, excluding food and water. I mean 2 or fewer pounds of food per day. It’s realistic and do-able for everyone, so keep an open mind.
Outside the wilderness, we use clothing for things such as looking professional at the workplace and attracting others. In the wilderness, clothing serves only one purpose, protection from the elements. Since this article is about what’s being carried in the pack, I’m not going to focus on what you’re wearing to hike in when the weather is nice. I’ll assume that you’ve made the smart decision to wear clothes for hiking that match the environment: light, comfortable garments not made of 100% cotton that allow moisture and your body parts to freely move. If you’re expecting high sun exposure, you’ve chosen long sleeves and maybe some convertible pants as well as a sun hat and sunglasses. Whatever the conditions, you’ve planned ahead and made the right choice. Nice job. Let’s get to what’s in your pack.
Two principles apply here, and you will see these themes recurring throughout this article. The first principle is to take clothing that is versatile, meaning that it can function in a variety of climate conditions and can be mixed and matched.
The second principle is to be happy with dirty and uncompromising about a dry camp. You will not pack changes of hiking outfits or more than one extra pair of socks. You will wear the same hiking clothes every day. You will keep backcountry kosher: dry clothes stay dry and wet clothes stay wet. If you get soaked while hiking and arrive at camp, you set up your shelter and change into your dry clothes. The next day, you meticulously put your dry clothes away so they stay dry and put your wet clothes back on, no matter how cold and clammy they feel. You’ll warm up as you hike. You will routinely rinse and change your two pairs of socks. Now here’s what goes in the pack and what doesn’t:
In: 1 extra pair of socks, 1 inclement weather system consisting of a weatherproof shell capable of venting body moisture, a thermal layer (fleece, down, synthetic insulation), 1 warm hat, 1 dry shirt made of synthetics, 1 pair of lightweight leggings for cold rainy days, 1 pair weather-resistant mittens or gloves.
Out: More than 1 change of socks, any changes of hiking clothes, town clothes (ship these), anything made of cotton or denim like hoodies and jeans.
Meh: Rain pants: Unless you know your legs get frozen when hiking, even when wearing leggings, rain pants don’t really add much. You’re going to have to accept wet legs in a day of rain in order to commit to hiking lightweight. Legs have large blood vessels and typically need just a small amount of insulation to stay warm in a cold rain when hiking. Usually, lightweight skintight leggings do the trick. If you must pack rain pants, pick the non-insulated kind and combine them with your leggings.
Underwear: My experience is that underwear is not needed for protection from the elements, but may be needed for hygiene. You can eliminate the need for underwear by picking hiking shorts or pants that come with a thin liner. Running shorts often have these. If you must wear underwear, chose synthetic underwear without prominent seams that can rub. You might have to experiment with brand. Bring no more than two changes if you are wearing underwear for hygienic purposes.
Shelter and Sleep System
I don’t really care whether you go with a tent w/ rainfly, tarptent, tarp, bivy, hammock, or choose to sleep in one of those communal shelters found every 8 miles or so along the Appalachian Trail where you get to enjoy the fetor and personal bedtime habits of others.
Just don’t be a cheapskate. Get rid of your 7 lb sleeping bag and 10 pound tent and buy something modern and lightweight. Get used to the feel of a mummy bag. You’ll be glad you did.
When it comes to shelter and sleeping bag, you get what you pay for. To a point. Here in 2014, there’s a pretty firm dollar point that separates lightweight and reliably warm and dry from leaky and maddening. It’s about $225 or so. If you’re paying less than $200 for a shelter or a sleeping bag, you’re rolling the dice on quality and probably buying something too heavy. So if you’re gonna splurge on a few things, shelter and bag are it.
A quality, modern lightweight shelter for two people should weigh no more than 3 pounds. Solo shelters should weigh less. A modern mummy-shaped sleeping bag should weigh no more than 3 pounds. In many cases you can go for less poundage and spend a little more money. But you don’t need to spend more than $400, which is often what things cost when they’re funny looking, gimmicky, or more than you need for 3-season hiking. If you’re an eBay ninja, bravo.
Ground pads. Air or closed-cell foam, it’s up to you, but go ¾ length or less. Feet can be propped or padded with your pack or rolled up extra clothing.
In: Lightweight, high quality shelter and sleeping bag, ¾ length ground pad, mylar blanket
Out: Anything weighing more than 3 pounds or designed for 4-season use, full length ground pads.
You will not wear a pack that weighs more than 3 pounds, you will ignore retailer’s suggestions for what constitutes a lightweight backpack or a long haul pack versus a multi-day pack, and you will not exceed a carrying capacity of 4,000 cubic inches (65 liters). You don’t need anything bigger if you’re going lightweight and resupplying every 6-7 days or less. If you’re going on 10-15 day jaunts without resupplying your food, you might need to look at a bigger pack volume, but I’m guessing this is rare for most backpackers. Simple is better.
In: A simple pack with a few handy pockets that is comfortable to carry. Trimming your straps down to size and cutting off your ice axe loops (unless you expect to climb ice).
Out: ice axe loops, elaborate suspension systems (needed for heavy loads), more than few external pockets and zippers, top lids, 1,000 different ways to get inside your pack. If you pack smartly, you won’t have to go digging around from 1,000 different zippered access points to get what you need out of your pack during the day.
You will not carry any water treatment device weighing more than a pound. Plenty of water treatment approaches for solo hikers and groups weigh far less. For solo, there are extremely lightweight, inexpensive solutions like squeeze filters. Chemicals are also very lightweight but some leave a taste in the water and others can get expensive if used over the long haul. For couples or small groups, gravity filters are an easy lightweight solution and avoid the monotony and frustration of messing with the lines and tubing of pump filters.
In: Using other tools in your pack to treat water and save space: Use your cook pot lid to scoop water in shallow pools. Use your cookpot to stir water with your UV pen if you’re using that. Using collapsible or semi-rigid bottles to store water and save space.
Out: heavy, rigid bottles for carrying water. Any treatment device weighing more than a pound. Thinking you need to filter out every last organism from water in order to have a comfortable hike. Catching a water-borne illness is a low probability event in the backcountry unless you’re drinking brown water from cow pastures.
Lightweight tip: If water is reliable and plentiful where you are traveling. You don’t really need to carry water around. It weighs 8 pounds per gallon. It’s heavy.
Backpackers waste a lot of weight and space with cooking gear. Not surprisingly, this category is where it’s easy to stock up on handy little accessories in the REI. Stove is a matter of personal choice and land use restrictions. Always pay close attention to the rules where you’re traveling.
In: A single pot, spork. If cooking: stove, fuel, lighter, windscreen (if safe to use with stove model). Optional: An extra lightweight bowl and spork for your partner if you just can’t stand sharing drool. If drinking hot liquid, a carefully protected Styrofoam cup or a $1 plastic Starbucks cup works nice. Bring a simple bag that resists odors and rope to hang your food. Bummer if you’re required to carry a bear canister. Use the lightest one that will hold your food.
Out: Pot holders, knives, forks, and spoons, cups for everyone, more than one pot, most anything you’d find in a real kitchen, soap (never use soap in the backcountry!!), scrubbies.
“The wind and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigator.” Edward Gibbon
Trails in the US vary from the white-blazed, bathroom-is-this-way AT to the shrugged-shoulders vague suggestion of trail often found on the Continental Divide. Some require map and compass skills and other simply the ability to read and walk. I love maps and will never criticize anyone wanting more than just the tunnel vision view of trail provided by many guidebooks and apps. It’s nice to learn about what’s around you. It’s also nice to have a way of letting family and friends know you’re safe and sound. Thankfully, you can accomplish all of this while staying lightweight.
In: Maps and guidebooks: Cut out only the parts you need and ship the rest to resupply points. Palm-sized satellite locators capable of sending distress signals weigh 3-4 ounces and are a rare example of how an electronic device has added to total pack weight in a truly meaningful way. A compass (learn to use one) is needed when trail is frequently vague and poorly signed or X-C travel is on the itinerary. A basic one will do (but not the little keychain compasses!!) I have not found digital compasses to be reliable for navigation either. Consider a watch with an altimeter feature for X-C travel to help pinpoint location. Not needed for straightforward trail travel.
Out: Carrying an entire map or guidebook set for a section. Elaborate compass and expensive digital navigation hardware unless you are on assignment for National Geographic.
Meh: Though popular, I’ve yet to see the real lightweight value in using smart phones for navigation via mapping app. First, there’s no real need to carry a phone on the trail since reception is typically non-existent and emergency functions and custom messages can be handled by satellite locators. Second, compared to smart phones, paper maps deliver the same information, permit more detail and terrain to be seen at once, don’t rely on batteries or the added weight of a solar grid, work just fine in the cold, and don’t suffer from glare problems in the sun. And the good ones are water resistant.
You will carry basic first aid supplies designed to treat most likely injuries encountered during three-season backpacking. These supplies will also permit you to stop life-threatening bleeding in a pinch. You will not rake the shelf at CVS into your backpack.
In: A small roll of gauze (I prefer this to pads since the roll can be torn into different sizes), a small roll of ACE wrap, single antibiotic cream (triple is overkill and unnecessary), tweezers, 3-4ft of athletic or duct tape, painkillers (not the entire bottle). Epipen if prescribed. Small tube of sunscreen if high sun exposure is expected. Small tube of DEET or other insect repellant if needed (smallest tube you can find or transfer into your own tube). Small stick of Body Glide to prevent chafing. Chapstick with sunscreen for expected high sun exposure. Antifungal cream. Prescription medication if applicable.
Out: Multiple sized rolls of different wraps, saw, flares, big knife, crank radio, hatchet. You aren’t traveling with a search and rescue operation.
Meh: A knife. I’ve had rare occasion to ever use one in the backcountry and often go without. When I usually do carry one, it only weighs an ounce or two.
You will NOT use soap in the backcountry. Ever. Even if it’s “biodegradable.” It’s not a necessary item like food (which creates gray water when cooked) so it’s best to keep soap residue out of the wilderness entirely. You will bring some basic things to stay hygienic and avoid passing the bubonic plague to other hikers.
In: 1oz bottle alcohol-based hand gel, small square wipes like you’d find at McDonalds, toilet paper, something to dig a cat hole for pooping, feminine hygiene items, toothbrush and a tiny bottle of toothpaste or tooth powder.
Pack your toilet paper out! I like to use foil lined food packaging or used Ziploc baggies for this.
Out: Huge packs of body wipes, soap, towels, washcloths, deodorant, perfumes, anything that comes in sizes > 1oz.
Even the beautiful sounds of the wilderness can get a bit monotonous on long outings. Keep entertainment at a manageable size, or you’ll be less than entertained.
In: tiny ipod devices. I like the shuffle. Sections of books, newspaper, magazines not to exceed a few ounces. Send the next chunk of book ahead on the trail. Cameras of a manageable size. I carry one that is a little bit fancy and weighs a pound but the battery lasts forever. Probably could cut down to something lighter. Smart phone users can take advantage of some decent cameras, but batteries don’t last as long on smart phones as they do on actual consumer level digital cameras. Anyone want to prove me wrong?
Out: Cameras with interchangeable lenses unless you’re a professional.
The final topic of this post is how to apply lightweight travel techniques to food selection. For hikes where there are just a few days between resupply points, it’s not so important to be choosy about food since it’s easy to restock on calories in town and carry them over to the trail. For hikes where resupply is taking place over longer periods of time, say every 6-7 days, food needs to be chosen carefully. If food is to bulky and heavy, it will be a huge drag on pack weight. If it doesn’t contain enough calories or the right blend of nutrients, a hiker will not have enough stamina to sustain the strain of a long hike. I explain a complete philosophy on food selection, called the Achilles Method, in my book, Long Distance Hiking, which is available from this website and from booksellers nationwide. Here are a few tips to maximize the energy obtained from food and minimize weight:
- Food should not exceed a calorie density of 110 calories per ounce.
- Aim to pack about 3,500 calories of food per day.
3,500 calories per day ÷ 110 calories per ounce = 32 ounces (2lb) of food per day
You can mix and match this equation. If you decide you need 4,000 calories per day, then you should raise your calorie density requirement to 125 calories per day because:
4,000 calories per day ÷ 125 calories per ounce = 32 ounces.
Note: The original Achilles Method advocated 100 calories per ounce. The concept has evolved.
Calories per ounce is easy to calculate on the back of food packaging.
The calorie density of the food pictured above is:
620 calories ÷ 6.4 ounces = 97 calories per ounce
- Repackage food from cardboard boxes and other bulky packaging into small plastic bags to save space and get a tiny boost on calorie density.
- Focus on fats and carbohydrates. They are the most important nutrients for sustaining long term energy. Simple carbohydrates like crackers and chips are easy to digest and make for excellent snacks during the day.
- Don’t forget to take in plenty of salt, especially on hot days!
“Better is bread with a happy heart than wealth with vexation” -Amenemope
Equipment used for backcountry travel was once limited to creative use of post World War II military surplus. We now have tiny devices that link to satellites and track our every move sold in stores up to 100,000 square feet in size. Today, you can find gear that will do everything for you in the backcountry except maybe wipe your bum. So it’s important to keep it simple.
Ready to re-think your packing strategy? After reading this post, my first suggestion would be to weigh your pack with everything in it and get your base weight. Next step, start taking out things that don’t belong. You can use this post as a guide, that’s what it’s meant for, but for each item in your pack, you should determine if it’s something you really need in the backcountry or whether it’s along for the ride just as a convenience or in the event of an worst case scenario circumstance. Is there another item that will do the same job? Can you get away with a lesser quantity? Do you really need pack straps that are 3 feet long? Everything in your pack has to EARN its keep. Best of luck!
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