Based on an article written by Glen van Peski
Going lighter is a passion. We love to hike along with someone and opening their eyes to a lighter world than they ever imagined existed. At it’s simplest, it boils down to taking less, so you can do more. It's a journey you must make yourself, but perhaps our tipps help you to reach your goal.
The image on the right shows my equipment used for a more than 500 kms walk across Switzerland.
And now we hope to see and to meet you along the ultralight trail
Not everyone is looking for all the benefits of
going lighter, and not everyone will experience all the benefits of a lighter
equipment too. How far you want go is up on you and your needs.
Easier on the body
Even if you do manage to find the perfect backpack or pannier, with awesome padding, with a perfectly adjustable harness, compression straps, load lifters, canted waist belt, amazing frame, so that your shoulders aren’t sore, you’re STILL putting that load onto your poor knees and feet!
Now if you’re a young person, maybe you can get away with carrying 20 - 30 or more kilograms. But after a few years, you will feel it, and the damage to your knees and ankles may already be done. Carrying less weight will make your ENTIRE body thank you!
longer/later in life
Being able to lighten your load means you can keep doing travelling well into your ‘golden years’. And what could make the autumn of your life more ‘golden’ than travelling?
If you like to get away from the trailhead, and out past the crowds, having a lighter backpack will allow you to put in effortless strides that eat up the miles, and let you enjoy the solitude of the backcountry away from the hordes. If you want to see some countryside that not everyone can get to, taking less will help get you there.
More experience in a short time
You may not have a lot of discretionary time. Maybe you can only go out for a 3-day weekend for a backcountry recharge. But there’s nothing better to cure your "Wilderness Deficit Disorder" like a quick trip. Having a simple, light pack makes for quick getaways from town. A light load allows you to make the most of the time you have available, it extends your backcountry reach, and brings more of the wild within grasp.
If you like to get off the beaten path, or have never tried it but are looking for something different than the trail experience, having a lighter load will make it easier to leave the trail and start bushwacking. A smaller load is easier to force through brush, and a lighter load makes for easier going up steep talus.
That’s right. A lighter load, even with a reduced first aid kit, can be SAFER than carrying a heavy pack with a big first aid kit!
See more under What about safety?
Less gear to keep track of
Gone will be the days when you look like a gear explosion. If you’ve pared your load down to the essentials, you will find you’ll be quicker out of camp in the morning because there’s just way less gear to pack up. The simplicity of less gear will free you up to enjoy your surroundings more, spending less time worrying about your ‘stuff’.
And isn’t that one of the reasons you head to the backcountry in the first place?
Good news! You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to trim your pack weight. To get to some of the rarified levels of lightness, it is obvious that some significant coin may help. But a central tenet of going lighter is taking less, this means "making do with less". Leaving unnecessary stuff at home doesn’t cost anything. For some great cheap gear ideas, check out our Ultralight and Ultracheap Gear List. Some of the ways to save weight do NOT involve new gear.
Leaving stuff at home
As you analyze your gear list with weights, and think about what you actually use on trips, you’ll figure out things to leave at home. Most people take more gear, clothes and food than they actually use or need.
Looking for multi-use items
This is closely related to leaving stuff at home. If you can figure out that a bandanna can serve as a washcloth, bandage, prefilter, emergency hat, and towel, you can then leave some of those other items at home.
See lots of other ideas under Multiple use Items.
Borrow or rent lighter gear
Renting light gear is hard, since most rental operations go in for heavier, bullet-proof gear. However, depending on how old and heavy your gear is, you may find that the rental options give you a taste of equipment that is at least lighter than what you have.
Make friends with people who have lighter gear than you and see if you can borrow it. Sometimes people that are really into lightening their load may have multiple renditions of gear as they lightened up, so you may be able to borrow what was their lightest pack right before they got one that was 2 ounces lighter.
Depending on how
heavy your gear is, you may find rentals at Swiss Fun Rent that will lighten your load at least a little.
Make your own gear
If you can sew, or are willing to learn, there are many do-it-yourself projects that will significantly lighten your load. Many online stores have patterns or even complete kits for making your own gear. For example, the G4 pack pattern and materials is available for under $40 from Quest Outfitters, and there’s even a G4 Yahoo group if you have questions while you’re sewing.
Making your own gear allows you to customize it to exactly what you want. Start with easy stuff like stuffsacks and tarps before moving on to backpacks and clothing.
We rank possible backcountry injury/illness into three categories:
Experience shows that very few maladies fall into the third category. Discussions with Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel reveal that most people, when found, had what they needed to be safe. They just didn’t have the knowledge or experience they needed. The classic example is hypothermia, where the first thing that goes is the judgment. Victims are found dead having discarded gear that would have saved them if they knew the symptoms and treatment.
can actually have a negative impact on safety because of:
Never reduce your pack weight in excess of your experience!
The choices you make in lightening your load based on comfort will depend on how you “do” travel.
Which describes you better:
So think about
Take that into account
when making choices. If you like to be underway all the time, the greatest comfort
will be created by choices that lighten your luggage!
convinced of the benefits of going lighter, you just don’t quite
know where to start.
The first thing to remember is it’s a process. Don’t expect to achieve miracles right away, just start down the trail and learn and lighten as you go. One of the most powerful things you can do is to adjust your expectations. If you try to duplicate your everyday home experience in the backcountry, you are going to be carrying a heavy pack.
To figure out how to get somewhere, first you need to know where
You need to know the brutal truth about the weight of your gear. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming something is negligible, that’s a rare case indeed. Generally, if you watch the ounces, the pounds will take care of themselves.
Get some scales
You may be able to start this process with scales that you have around the house. But we recommend the use of a modern digital scale that is able to weigh even small weights with precision.
Weigh all your gear
Take out every piece of gear you’ve taken on a trip or might take on a trip. Weigh each piece of gear, and write down the weight with the accurate description. Don’t write down ‘shirt’, and be wondering later which shirt it was. Be sure to weigh component parts of your gear. For instance, weigh the trekking pole baskets apart from the trekking poles. Don’t just put down the first aid kit at 240 Grams, weigh all the pieces. Break everything down into its component parts.
Weigh your pack
Get into the habit of weighing your pack before trips. Take a hanging digital scale with you, and weigh your complete luggage at the trailhead before starting your journey. This will give you a true weight, not a weight at home before you stick in a few ‘just in case’ items into your pack!
If you have a competitive nature, you might enlist your journey companions in this exercise also. A common way to list pack weight is ‘base pack weight’. While definitions vary, generally this is the weight of the pack without food and water (since this depends on the length and locale of the trip), but including containers you use to carry food and water, all your gear including stuff generally carrying in your pockets, but not including the clothes you would normally be wearing in the middle of the day (no rain gear, jackets, etc). Since you’re just tracking your own progress, your personal definition will work if it is consistent.
If you find yourself cheating, you can always go to the ‘from skin out (FSO)’ method, which includes ALL gear and clothing, but no food and water. The FSO weight, of course, is not quite as convenient to ascertain at the trailhead unless it is pretty remote.
List all your gear and the weights. If you are handy with a spreadsheet program, that is a great tool for accomplishing this list. Then you can sort the items by weight, so that the heavier stuff is on the top (or bottom). Take a look and analyze the total of your standard gear list for a trip. Most people are surprised to find how many individual items they take with them. Sometimes people look at an item of gear they always take with them, and realize they can’t remember the last time they actually used it on a trip. Look at how the weights of clothes add up. Compare the weights of different options you have, like a down vest compared to a fleece vest. Spend some time looking the list over and see if you can write down a couple of observations/ideas based on what you see.
Taking less ‘stuff’
So now that you’ve weighed everything, you have some data to start with. It’s time to dive in and start figuring out how to take less so you can do more.
Leave things at home
One of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to reduce pack weight is to leave stuff at home! If you see something you never use but always take, consider going without it. If it’s a first aid item, you will want to think carefully about it, but the same logic can be applied. Consider the ramifications of not having it, the ‘worst case scenario’, if you will. If you can live with that, then leave the gear at home. Consider the particulars of the trip to fine-tune your gear list. If you are heading out in the late fall, insects are unlikely to be an issue, so you can leave your head net and insect repellent at home. If you are hiking in the desert, maybe you don’t need the snow baskets on your trekking poles. If you can figure out how to eat everything with a spoon, you don’t need to take a fork.
Taking less items saves weight.
Take smaller quantities
The other part of taking less stuff is taking smaller quantities. You would be surprised at how quickly the seemingly minor weights of soap, sunscreen, skin lotion, and insect repellent add up. Strive to only take what you expect to use on a particular trip. Comb the travel sections of the stores you shop for small sizes or samples of products. Buy mini containers and decant products into them after labeling. Check out Minimus.biz for a huge variety of items available in tiny quantities.
Somewhat related to taking less stuff
is looking for multiple use items.
If you can find a piece of gear that does more than one function, you can leave something else at home. Now, they may not be perfect for all the functions, but if you decide it does a serviceable job, it’s a great way to lose weight.
Some examples to get your creative juices flowing:
If you’re willing to plan ahead and adapt, you may find that you can use the same titanium cup or pot as
It may not seem like they weigh much, but carrying a separate compass, thermometer, timer, alarm, etc. can add up, not to mention the hassle of keeping track of a bunch of small stuff.
If you pick the right watch it can serve as:
This is one item that won’t set you back a lot of money.
Carefully chosen and used, it can be your
Dr. Bronner’s soap
If you haven’t heard of Dr. Bronners, you must have lived a very sheltered existence indeed, and it’s time to expand your horizons. I prefer the peppermint style. And while the writing on the original bottles can provide for hours of entertainment or thought-provoking discussions, this is very concentrated, so decant into smaller dropper bottles. It’s biodegradable, but use responsible "Leave No Trace" manners in the backcountry.
This miracle soap can be used as:
It’s nice to have the perfect pair of pants or shorts for every condition, and I’m sure your trail companions might appreciate different colors and patterns, but if you choose wisely and accept some minor compromises,
you may find that one pair of pants can serve as:
The right hat can provide:
One of those thin emergency blankets, particularly if you choose the ones that are gold colored on one side,
can serve as:
Of course, the polycryo ground cloth, besides being even lighter and having the advantage of letting you see pebbles through it before you sleep on them, can serve as a solar still in an emergency situation.
The hides sunglass strap also serves as a
Many lightweight gear packs are designed to use your sleeping pad as part of the pack frame. It can also serve as a sit pad during breaks. With the proper knowledge, a sleeping pad can be an important piece of first aid equipment. It can also make a cool toboggan for sliding off a snowbank into an alpine lake.
Many lightweigth gear packs are designed to allow the use of sleeping socks as shoulder strap or waist belt padding.
The sleeping socks may also make great protection for sunglasses.
After you’ve figured out what you can
leave at home, either because the function is covered by some other
multiple-use item, or you’ve just plain figured out how to do
without it, it’s time to start making sure that the stuff you do
bring is the lightest stuff you can find, or at least the lightest
you can afford.
Light stuff doesn’t always have to be pricey. Check out Mark Henley’s ultralight/ultracheap gear list for ideas.
some items you might want to consider:
You got down to one spoon, so don’t take a big metal one. Most outdoor stores sell nice Lexan and even Titanium spoons.
A plastic spoon found in an ice cream bucket can also be of use.
Consider carefully how much light you really need and what kind of features are really necessary. If you get a tiny light that can clip onto your hat, you don’t need the heavy head strap. Lithium batteries are a little lighter and will last longer in the cold.
Frogg Toggs, Rainshield and Driducks are very breathable and very waterproof products. I’ve used Driducks for years as my only jacket. It’s so breathable it makes a great windshirt, so there’s no need to bring a separate one. I don’t use the Driducks pants because they get shredded too easily on brush and talus, so I opt for chaps. But if you’re traveling on clear trails, the Driducks pants may serve you well.
We recommend the use of running shoes for hiking. They work very well even on rough surfaces. With light weight on your back, there is no need for heavy weight on your feet. If you use trekking poles, they help with balance and can keep you from twisting your ankle. Lighter loads will allow you to be more focused on your surroundings. Beeing less tired will help you to deny stumbling. And last but not least the use of running shoes will help to strengthen your ankles.
If you’re not willing to use your cooking pot as your cup, take the lightest cup you can find. A thin plastic cup cut from part of a large drink cup from a fast food place will do the job. Just make sure that there is something inside it when it was packed- Otherwise it might crack.
There’s a bunch of options for light alcohol or esbit stoves. And you can make your own for free!
Filters are heavy, and prone to clogging. Ultraviolet treatment is nice, but relies on batteries, and can sometimes malfunction. Chemical treatment such as Aquamira will effectively treat water, with no waste and for a fraction of the weight. Usually mini dropper bottles can carry a 4 – 5 day supply of this.
When you weighed all your existing gear, put it in a spreadsheet, and ranked it by weight, you probably noticed the three heaviest things were your pack, your tent and your sleeping bag. Since these are the generally the three heaviest items, it’s worth taking a look at these to shave some major weight.
A big internal frame pack can weigh over 2.5 Kgs. But today it is possible to keep the weight of the total pack under that. There are a number of great pack options out there, both by cottage manufacturers and mainstream manufacturers.
Think about what kind of trips you are going to take
with the pack
Try and stretch yourself. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, a big
pack cries to be filled. If you get a compact pack, it can be a tool
to help you lighten your pack load. Some of the superlight packs
weigh under 300 grams, and they are surprisingly robust. But, as with
much lightweight gear, one of the tradeoffs is taking better care of
it. There are people out there doing long trips with extremely small packs!
So instead of asking how much weight a pack will carry, ask yourself how little weight you can put in the pack! Start with where you are. Even people just starting out should be able to fit their gear in a 30 litres pack, which weighs less than 300 grams.
Just to say
Based on own experiences we prefer today a standard not-so-light backpack with a stiff inner frame and a stiff hip belt. Even with few and low weight gear in it is way more comfortable to carry than an ultralight weak and lumpy pack on your back.
Not so many years ago, a 1.2 - 2 kgs tent was considered
lightweight. There are now so many more options. What you need for
shelter depends somewhat on the kinds of trips you take, but largely
upon your comfort level.
You need to consider
You can now get a roomy, single wall tent for one person for about
a pound, and a 2-person tent for about 1.5 pounds, so there’s no
reason to carry much more weight than that.
There’s a ton of options when it comes to sleeping bags
In general, the lightest option is going to be down. A higher fill power will be lighter and warmer. Personally I like a bag with no insulation on the bottom and no zipper. No zipper saves weight, and a completely enclosed bag minimizes heat loss due to conduction and convection, as well as keeping crawlies out. Insulation on the bottom is crushed by your body lying on it, so provides little or no insulation value. With no insulation on the bottom, you have to make sure to keep the bottom facing down when you turn. A thin Nightlight pad provides plenty of insulation from the ground.
See some of the research resources listed in More ... too to get more information in this area.
One of the main things you are doing when lightening your load is
trading knowledge and experience for weight.
The more you know, the less you can take.
The more you know, either from research or from traveling in the area previously, the lighter you can go.
Some of the considerations:
I know it’s kind of ‘old school’, but books are a great way to learn from the experience of others. Both how-to books, and books about trips taken by lightweight hikers are useful sources of information.
Some of our favorites
153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping 1st (first) Edition by Clelland, Mike 
Ray's book covers the basics of backpacking without any hype and dispels many of its myths. Important items, such as footwear, clothing, backpacks, food, cooking utensils and tents, are covered in unexpected detail and clarity.
Der Leser erhält einen Überblick, welche die leichtesten Outdoor-Produkte auf dem Markt sind und wo man diese kaufen kann. Er erfährt auch, welche Alternativen es zur teuren High-Tech-Ausrüstung gibt und wie man durch Mehrfachverwendung, Selbstbau und geschickten Einsatz viele Kilogramm und Euro sparen kann. Checklisten und zahlreiche praxiserprobte Tipps helfen dem Trekker - aber auch dem Kanufahrer, Radwanderer und Bergsteiger - dabei, seine Touren und auch sich selbst auf ultraleicht umzustellen.
full of colour photos and diagrams, this new title reflects a multitude of updated information, detailing Ray Jardine's lightweight backpacking techniques, his gear, and his methods for enjoyable and safe trekking and camping.
Reviewing other people’s gear lists is a great source of ideas. You get a glimpse of how they have solved the gear equation. Just make sure it’s a list they have actually used, and not an ‘armchair’ gear list. There’s a section on our website with some interesting gear lists, and many of our trip reports include gear lists. Often trail journal sites will include gear lists.
We live in an online world, and the amount of information available online is staggering. As you check out websites, you will see links to still other sites, so you can quickly bookmark a number of sites with useful information. There are also online groups and forums devoted to ultralight backpacking. We have a number of sites listed on our links page.
Wilderness First Aid
You have always to carry your brain when you’re backpacking, and it doesn’t weigh any more no matter how much you stuff into it!
Packing it with information will allow you to become lighter, as you learn techniques that allow you to improvise. Most people carry heavy first aid kits that they don’t know how to use. This is a case where knowledge of what to do in a medical situation is invaluable.
Find the nearest provider near you, and consider taking
Once great way to gain experience is to take trips with companies that provide a safe and engaging experience. It’s hard to find programs that stress lightweight backpacking, but it’s becoming more common.
As you gain a little knowledge, one of the great ways to learn more is to teach others what you have already learned.
Consider volunteering for your local Boy Scout troop, get involved in the Sierra Club or other local outdoor programs, and participate in online forums.
There’s no substitute for actually getting out there.
Be an intentional traveller. Take notes when you’re on a trip (keep pen and paper handy so you jot things down as they occur to you). Record what worked, and what did not. Note what gear other people had that seemed to work, or what food that looked tasty. Then review your notes before your next journey.
Have your gear packed up and ready to go at a moments notice, so if an opportunity arises, you’re ready to take advantage of it. Find people with lighter luggage than yours to travel with, so you are able to learn from them.
So you’ve started the journey.
You’ve poked around on the internet, read a couple of books, and have made some changes in your gear. Your Christmas list now consists of gear that you didn’t want to buy for yourself. Initially, it seemed like the weight just melted out of your pack, as you applied the principles of leaving stuff at home, finding multiple use items, taking less stuff, and finding ever-lighter options for the stuff you did take.
But now you’ve found yourself at a plateau. You’ve enjoyed some big benefits from lightening up, and inspired some others along the way, but you’re hungry for more.
I don’t know what your base pack weight is, but
let’s look at a couple of ways you might break through to a lower
pack weight now.
You may have traded in your heavy tent for a lighter tent, but if your base pack weight is pretty low, even the light tent is still probably a significant portion of your load.
If you can jump to a
tarp, you’re likely to cut that weight in half!
The tarp shown here covers a surface of 2.5 x 3.5 square meters, and it weighs only 600 grams (including alle lines, and all spikes).
There are a number
of advantages to tarps
Like much of ultralight backpacking, as you take less weight, you
have to use your brain more. It’ll feel weird at first, but make
yourself do it for a few times, and it will get more comfortable.
Here are a couple of strategies for tarping
A sleeping pad is a personal
I know people who absolutely feel they can’t sleep on anything less than a thick air mattress, and I’ve hiked with guys who didnt even bother with a pad at all.
If you’re willing to
experiment, you may be able to get by with very little pad indeed:
When sleeping most of the pressure is between you and the ground. By this your sleeping bag insulation below you is pressed and of no value at all.
So we highly recommend to use a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. It is lightweight, has a small pack volume, dries fast, does not cost much, keeps you warmand it can be made by
yourself based on your specific measures and needs. Ray Jardine (see under heading More ...) offers excellent kits to make a quilt by yourself.
It really works - highly recommended stuff!
Most people, in my opinion, take way
too many clothes with them.
Take a hard look at those soft clothes, and consider if some of the following strategies could help you reduce weight. My personal feeling is that if Im not wearing every piece of clothing I have at night, the coldest part of the day, then I brought too much clothing.
Onion (Layering) Principle
Put on as much layers of thin and lightweight garments as needed to feel comfortable in a certain environment. This allows you to stay warm or cool without the need to carry specific garments for a lot of different climates.
A Driducks, or similar, rain jacket is an awesome piece of clothing. It is superbly breathable and amazingly waterproof, incredibly light, and its even inexpensive! I use mine for a windshirt, rain jacket, and with my sleeping bag, my puffy jacket. I like to take a size larger than I usually wear, so I have room to layer my sleeping bag under it around camp.
If you adjust your hiking style (see adjusting your hiking schedule below), you would be amazed at how little insulation you need. When you’re moving, the body generates an amazing amount of heat. I have hiked for days through snow in just long pants and wet running shoes and kept comfortable. Once you stop, you have about 20 minutes before the wet feet start to get cold, and you either need to get into the sleeping bag, or start moving again. With a size XL Driducks jacket instead of my usual size L, I can drape my sleeping bag around me, under the jacket, and have a puffy jacket around camp without carrying any additional weight.
Convertible pants are a great solution that give you the option of natural ventilation during the warm parts of the day, but the option of sun protection, bug protection, brush protection, and, in the cool of the morning or evening, a little extra warmth. Admittedly, a super light pair of running type shorts and a really light pair of long pants could be no heavier, and potentially even a little lighter.
Mesh liner/quick dry Underwear
For guys, a pair of shorts or pants with mesh liners provides nice, uh, ventilation, and is lighter than carrying a change of underwear. If your favorite pants don’t come with mesh liners, use a pair of lightweight, washable, nylon briefs like the ones from Ex Officio.
For years I carried three pairs of running socks: one on my feet, one clean one waiting for switching out, and one that was drying from having been washed. Now, you’ll have to experiment for yourself, but many times I’ve gone with one pair, and either worn them damp after washing, or hike for awhile with no socks at all while they dry. Everyone seems to have their own strategy, and every foot is different. I find generally I’m best off with a thin nylon (Coolmax or similar) pair of socks, low cut to save weight of course.
Clean clothes in Car
One nice trick is to stash some clean clothes for the ride home in the car trunk. It makes for a little bit less smelly ride back, and you don’t have to worry so much about how dirty or stinky you get on the trail.
Bounce bag in ar
You know the feeling, you want to go as light on clothing as you can, but you’re not sure about the weather. You’ve been watching the forecast for the projected temperatures, but there’s no substitute for being at the trailhead. So instead of make your call at home, take a couple of options in a bounce bag in the trunk. That way, if it looks warmer or colder than you thought, you have options for your final packing. This can save you from putting extra weight in when packing at home, due to the uncertainty over actual conditions. Weighing packs at the trailhead will keep you honest and prevent you from throwing in clothing ‘just in case’ at the last minute.
Beside not taking too many items of clothing, you for sure want to take the lightest items you can find. We’ve already mentioned the Driducks. For warm hats and gloves, check out Possumdown. There are a growing number of superlight down insulation pieces from Montbell, Patagonia and others that could help you shave a few ounces.
When you start to get the weight of your gear down, you begin to
reach the point pretty quickly where the heaviest part of the load is
food and water.
Obviously adequate food and water is important, but since they are both heavy items, you don’t want to take any more than necessary. There’s nothing worse than coming back from a trip with a couple of pounds of food you didn’t eat, knowing that you carried those pounds for every step of the trip.
So how can you
safely minimize your food and water weight ?
Calories per ounce
Make the food you carry count. I never take food having less than 100 calories per ounce, and am always looking for ways to goose the caloric content of meals. Minimus.biz and Packit Gourmet sell individual packets of olive oil and gravy that are great for stirring into meals to give them extra staying power.
Make it good
The food has to taste good so you eat it, otherwise it doesn’t do you any good at all. Collect recipes from friends, online, or magazines. Trailcooking.com and OnePanWonders.com are great sources for ideas. Observe what other people bring that seems good. For most people, variety is key, so mix it up. Take notes and review them before a trip!
Know how much you eat
This is probably the biggest key to saving food weight. Before every trip, weigh all your food. Then weigh any food you bring back. Very quickly you will learn how many pounds of food per day you consume. If I know I’m coming out in the late afternoon and will be eating dinner on the drive home, I don’t count that as a full day. Once you have your food number, stick to it. If you take more, you’ll just end up bringing it back. Ideally I like to arrive back at the car hungry (hopefully its not in bear country and I’ve been able to leave water and a snack there).
Water weighs 1 kg per litre, so it adds up quickly. You do NOT want to skimp on water, adequate hydration is key to peak performance, good decision-making, and enjoyment of your trip. Here again, knowledge is power.
You can get significant weight savings, simply by changing the way you travel.
Most people like to travel all day, or most of the day, get into camp, set up their tent, cook dinner as night falls, and sit around until it's time for bed. This means you are sitting around, not generating any heat from activity, during the coldest part of the day. In turn, this means you are probably bringing long underwear or a puffy jacket that is too warm to hike in, and the only purpose is to wear it around camp.
You’ve done the hard work, and you’ve reaped the big benefits. Your small, light pack is the envy of others you hike with. You quote gear weights to the nearest hundredth of an ounce. But, as any skilled practitioner, you’re always on the lookout for ways to save a couple of more grams. You’re willing to try new things if they promise to save weight, even if you decide after trying them that they’re not for you. So lets have a discussion about some areas you may not have fully explored yet.
There is some thought that one way to minimize your pack weight is
to take a lighter sleeping bag, then take a puffy jacket to make up
the additional insulation. In theory, this sounds attractive, but my
contention is you can save even more weight by rearranging your
schedule so you’re not standing around in the coldest part of the
day (see Changing your hiking schedule), taking no wearable
insulation to speak of, and putting the extra weight into a warmer
Wearable insulation is inefficient
A sleeping bag is very efficient insulation. It’s contoured to your body, and there’s no wasted fabric with extra appendages. In fact, if you follow my lead, there’s no wasted down on the bottom of the bag, it’s all concentrated on the sides and top. So, in my regular sleeping bag, I have about 10 ounces of down in a 18 ounce bag, a ratio of about 56% down, with a loft of about 3 inches. Now look at a jacket, say the Montbell Alpine Light Down Jacket. A size medium weights 11.3 ounces, of which 4.0 ounces is down, a ratio of only 35%, and say a loft of maybe 2 inches max. Because of all the extra fabric, even a light, well-made jacket of light materials is inherently inefficient compared to a sleeping bag. So the combo of the jacket and sleeping bag yield (assuming the bag is sized to allow the jacket to loft fully) 5 inches of combined loft, at least for the torso, for a weight of about 29 oz. In comparison, my warm bag has about 14 ounces of down in a 22 ounce bag, a ratio of 65%, and a 5 inch loft. So, for a system that is at least as warm, probably warmer, I’ve saved almost half a pound! If you carry a nice warm jacket, it’s likely way too warm for actually hiking in, so you’re really just carrying it to wear around camp anyway. If you revise your schedule so you’re not hanging around camp, you don’t need the jacket, and the additional weight is much better spent in a warmer bag.
In a pinch, you can drape your bag around you in camp. If you run the foot through the hood drawstring, it will hold it together, and if you upsize your shell by a size, the bag will layer nicely under it as a body shawl. Sure, it’s not super convenient, but did you notice I just took a half pound out of your base pack weight? If you were at 8 lbs., that’s a 6% reduction, not too shabby!
When you’ve gotten to the rarified heights of ultralight backpacking, you find that every ounce counts. The corollary is that you need to wring the maximum performance out of every item in your tiny pack. One way to do this is proper care of your sleeping bag.
I don’t use a stuff sack for my sleeping bag. It’s a waste of weight, and doesn’t allow flexibility in packing the bag. At the beginning of a longer trip, I might have to push my sleeping bag pretty well into the bottom of my pack. But, as the food load lightens, I let the sleeping bag take up as much space as possible inside the pack.
Keep it clean
Washing your bag with the proper cleanser and equipment, or having it done professionally, will help it maintain maximum loft. Your natural body oils will gradually degrade its performance without proper care.
Allow recovery time
If you are stopping in the middle of the afternoon for your main meal, take out your bag, allow it to air out and let the sun drive any moisture out. I like to have my bags made with black fabric on the inside, so I can turn them inside out for maximum solar gain. Also, when I roll into camp, as soon as I have my groundcloth down, I unpack my sleeping bag to give it the most time to fluff up before I climb into it.
Location, location, location
Where you bed down for the night can easily make a 10-degree difference. If you’re at the edge of your bags performance (which is the light place to be), you will want to learn to avoid katabatic flows. You can research it yourself, but basically cold air settles. You don’t want to be in an area that will collect cold air, or in an area that cold air will be whistling through all night. I’m sure you’ve noticed, hiking in the early morning, how the temperature drops precipitously when you cross a gully. Imagine sleeping in that colder air! Also you will want to be aware of where breezes will form during the night so you can pitch a tarp in the right direction to shelter you from them. You will want to become a backcountry ninja, learning to make maximum use of your environment. Look for sheltered locations which will make a difference in how warm you sleep.
Usually there’s nobody on the trip to turn your bed down and put a mint on your pillow (if this happens on your trips, let me know, I want to come along). If I’ve got a bag that’s going to be at the edge of the temperature rating, I want to do every little thing I can to eke every last degree out of it:
An evening walk
If for some reason I’ve been standing around long enough that I’m not still warm from hiking, I will usually head out for a quick walk before going to bed. This gets the blood pumping, and there’s nothing worse than climbing into bed slightly chilled.
Plump your bag
Before I head out on an evening stroll, I go through my plumping routine with my bag. The supreme master at this, at least as far as I’ve ever hiked with, is Don ‘Photon’ Johnston. Don is a serious, methodical guy, and he has a routine with his sleeping bag that is awesome to behold. I am but a poor student of his form, but my routine is to grab the bag by the two bottom edges, hold it horizontally upside down, and shake. This gets the down in the continuous baffles to shift around so its on the top of the bag. After I’ve done this for awhile, I will swoosh the bag around in the air a few times, holding the bag open, so it creates a windsock, and plumps up the top of the bag.
Nuts on your pillow
Better than mints on your pillow, is nuts on your pillow. For a long cold night, I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night shivering. I don’t have a lot of fat on my body (although this appears to be changing as I grow older), so I’m always looking to put some fat or oils into my body, to give my metabolism some staying power through the night. I like to eat nuts to provide that fuel, to keep the internal furnaces going. You can incorporate them into dessert if you take chocolate covered almonds or macadamia nuts (not recommended for desert trips).
There’s nothing quite like a hot meal on the trail to give you a boost of energy and morale. It can also be an important safety margin during an unexpectedly cold night, or an emergency situation. So let’s look at some ways to avoid adding too much weight for that warm meal.
Minimize the number of hot meals
It’s just common sense, but if you have a hot drink and hot cereal at breakfast, a hot lunch, and soup, a hot meal, and a hot chocolate at dinner, you’re going to need a lot more fuel than if you limit yourself to one hot meal a day. It’s all about what’s important to you. You may decide it’s worth an extra couple of ounces a day to have the extra hot drinks and meals. But I’ve hiked with people who cut down to one hot coffee at the mid morning coffee break, and a hot dinner, and found they didn’t miss all the other hot meals and drinks. Part of this can be changing your schedule, so you roll out and start walking in the morning, instead of lounging around in the cold.
Try solid fuel
Esbit or similar tabs pack more heat per ounce than alcohol. You can blow them out and reuse unburned portions of the tabs. Yeah, they do smell a little, so you want to make sure you use them in plenty of air. Yeah, they can make the bottom of your pot black, so you scrape it a couple of times on the dirt or sand and squirt a little water on it. Did you say you were serious about losing those last few grams or not?
Use a light pot (and windscreen, etc)
My personal favorite is the Caldera Keg. I strip it down to just the Caldera, the keg, top and the gram cracker. Its a great system. I usually boil some water for soup, then use the rest of it for a freezer bag meal. I wrap the dinner in my sleeping bag to cook while I finish my first course of soup. Then it’s time to tuck into my hot dinner.
Try natural fuels
This will depend on where you hike. Many areas require you to have a fuel stove. However, in those other areas, sometimes you can just make small cooking fires. This can be especially effective if hiking as a pair and eating out of one pot. Hiking with my buddy Read, we got it down to a system, with one of us lighting and tending a small fire under the pot perched on rocks, and the other finding tiny twigs and arranging them by size. We never used anything thicker than a little finger. The Bush Buddy or similar stoves are a great solution also. Very effective stoves, especially for groups. While the stoves are heavier than other options, for longer trips, especially for groups, not having the weight of fuel could pay off. Again, be responsible, observe LNT ethics, and obey all regulations. It’s not about you; when you’re out there, you’re representing all ultralight hikers.
The ultimate cooking option
The ultimate cooking option could be to not cook. Besides saving the weight of a stove, pot and fuel, it simplifies your load by reducing the total number of gear items. One note, I do not recommend trying this if you are hiking with people who are cooking. Some tips to try:
Take foods that can go either way
One option for easing into it is looking for foods that can be eaten warm or cold. Dried refried beans is an example. It can be mixed up cold and eaten over corn chips or wrapped in a tortilla, or warmed up.
Use your body heat
If the weather is warm, you can rehydrate and even add warmth to foods by carrying them between the back of your neck and your pack, or hanging them elsewhere (just be sure to double-bag). Sometimes just putting them in the back pocket of your pack when its sunny will work wonders.
Take bars and snacks
Especially if the trip is going to be short, there are many satisfying options in terms of bars and snacks. Everyone has their favorite, but I have not found anything that beats ProBars for easy-to-grab, whole food nutrition.
First aid kits is sometimes a difficult place for people to lose weight from. They are driven by the ‘what-if’s, and have been drilled to be prepared. We’ve talked a little bit about the importance of planning, education and experience (see Knowledge is power!), and this is particularly true of first aid. To really minimize your pack weight, you need to think carefully about every trip, and customize the load accordingly. When planning your first aid gear, there are a number of factors to consider.
Number and experience of people in party
If you are heading out by yourself, you will not want to cut it as close as if you are going on a trip with 4 other experienced backpackers. Numbers give you redundancy; in equipment, medical knowledge, and decision-making. If you are going by yourself, but the trip is along a well-used trail, this provides some modicum of backup. If your route is a remote cross-country traverse, you’re likely to really be by yourself on a solo trip, and need to plan accordingly.
Experience with the planned route in the same
If you are familiar with the area you will be hiking in, particularly in the same season, you can get by taking less gear than when you are heading into unfamiliar territory, or in a season you have less experience with.
If your planned trip has a number of points where you can bail out to civilization if things get dicey, you can take more chances than when you are heading into a remote wilderness that has one way in and out.
Pack weight of participants
If you are in a group with everyone carrying 50 lbs. on their back, and someone sprains their ankle, you have limited options. If you’re in a group of lightweight hikers with everyone carrying 20 lbs., it becomes easier to redistribute the struggling hiker’s load among the rest of you. God forbid, if you have a real emergency and need to go get help, you will be less tired from a light load, and better able to scoot down the trail for help.
First Aid training of hikers
If you are traveling with a certified Wilderness EMT, or members of your group have a current Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, or your hiking buddy is an active SAR volunteer, you have a better margin of safety. And of course, since you have to carry your brain anyway, and it doesn’t weigh any more no matter how much it holds, you should pursue wilderness first training yourself!
What first aid items have you used before?
Carefully analyze what you usually use, sometimes use, and have never ever used. You may still want to carry something you have never actually used, but be aware of it. Consider cutting down on the number of an individual item you carry (do you need 5 bandaids?). Whatever I use from my first aid kit on a trip, I leave the wrapper in my first aid kit. Then when I get back home, I know what I need to add so my kit is always ready to go. Avoid fancy, heavy cases. I like a small Aloksak waterproof bag, which lets me see where everything is.
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