I know what you’re thinking. It’s winter. Why write a post about backpacking?
I admit this post is unseasonal. I’m trying to add more knowledge-based content to the site because I realized the majority of my posts have been general photo blogs–more valuable to me than to you. Backpacking seems a good place to start because Patrick hasn’t written about it. Although some may argue backpacking isn’t quite as exciting as skiing, climbing, etc, I believe it is the foundation of nearly all backcountry pursuits.
But hey, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere. Maybe you are making last-minute preparations for a thru hike of Te Araroa in New Zealand. If not, it’s never too early to start planning for your big summer trip. Also, these tips can be extrapolated to other fast-and-light endeavors, such as ski mountaineering. If nothing else, I believe you can apply the ultralight philosophy to improve your daily “front-country” life as well.
Bring Fewer Things
99.9% of the different “camping” items in REI should not be in your backpack. Unless you are on an expedition, a heavy pack is like a garage that is cluttered full of junk you never use. Your possessions begin to control you. That’s not what we want. Gear should be a gateway to freedom.
The easiest way to make your pack lighter is to simply leave behind what you don’t need. How do you decide whether or not you need something? For starters, if it doesn’t serve a purpose directly related to keeping you warm, dry, or healthy, it’s probably superfluous. Second, as a rule of thumb, if you can’t envision using something every day (excluding first-aid/emergency items), consider leaving it behind. If it’s a really tough decision, bring it. After the trip, be critical of each item. What did it do for you? Was it worth the weight? Just remember that even small items can add up to pounds.
Many times, the question of “need” comes down to deciding how comfortable you want to be in camp. You carry fewer, lighter things in order to be more comfortable while on the move. Naturally, you must sacrifice some camp comforts in order to do this. However, this sacrifice becomes less of an issue the more time you spend moving.
Let’s talk concrete examples.
You don’t need a stove. It’s possible to reconstitute dehydrated food with cold water. Just leave it in a screw-top container with water while you hike. For rehydrating food, I like to use empty 18oz plastic peanut butter jars. “Near East” brand cous-cous rehydrates very quickly and is a tastier alternative to Idahoans instant potatoes. Alternatively, you can eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked or rehydrated at all. Nutella and peanut butter wraps, anyone? Cafe Fanny granola has an insane calorie to gram ratio. In my experience, I can never bring too much cheese. Eating cold food every night certainly isn’t for everyone, but you won’t know until you try. (Edit: this advice assumes you are backpacking in relatively mild summer conditions. With wetter/colder weather, leaving behind the stove becomes less sensible).
Ditch the stuff-sacks. Use a garbage bag as a pack liner and stuff your clothes in all the nooks and crannies. Not only will this save you several ounces in weight, it also helps form your pack into a svelte bullet. Look good, feel good.
Don’t bring doubles of any clothing item, other than socks. Face it, you are going to smell bad no matter what you do. For my summer backpacking kit, I bring some variation on the following: 2 pair light merino wool socks, 1 pair med-weight wool socks, light-weight long underwear top and bottom for sleeping, running shorts, wind pants, long-sleeve synthetic button-up sun shirt, puffy jacket, wind shell, rain shell (consider combining the two), hat, and light gloves. Your clothing system should be just warm enough to keep you warm on the coldest night, wearing everything while in your sleeping bag.
Ditch the rain pants. If it’s raining in camp, get in your tent. If you try to hike in rain pants, your legs will get wet from condensation anyways. Wind pants are a great alternative and provide surprising warmth when the temperature drops or the wind picks up. Another option I’m really excited about is the Z-Packs rain kilt.
Bring Lighter Things
It helps a lot to have lighter gear, no doubt, The best place to start upgrading is with the “Big Three”–your backpack, shelter, and sleeping system. This is where the majority of weight savings will be made. In other realms, big savings can be made by following tip #1. A typical 70L pack can weigh up to 5lbs. That is a lot when you consider the base weight (pack weight w/o food or water) of many experienced ultralight backpackers is less than 10lbs. The less weight you have in your pack, the less burly your pack needs to be. Ultra-Light Adventure Equipment (ULA) makes great packs. Their most popular pack is a great intro to the world of UL. It has around 50L capacity, weighs 2.5lbs, and carries a max load of 35lbs. I’ve used it and love it.
If you are backpacking somewhere with little or no mosquitos, ditch the bug netting and just bring a tarp. If you hike with trekking poles, find a tarp that can be set up with your poles (see tip #3). Tarp Tent makes some really great trekking pole shelters, most of which have waterproof flies than can be pitched on their own.
Sleeping quilts are a relatively new piece of equipment that have garnered a lot of appreciation from UL backpackers for their versatility and improved warmth-to-weight ratio. For insulation from the ground, I like to use a closed-cell foam sleeping pad cut to just above my knees. It’s light, I don’t have to worry about it popping, and it doubles as a sit pad. The Thermarest Neo Air is another popular option.
Besides the “Big Three,” an easy way to save some weight is to swap out your Nalgene bottles for a cheap, plastic bottle. My go to is a 1L SmartWater bottle w/ squeeze nozzle lid. If you use a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, it can screw right onto your plastic bottle, eliminating the need for an extra receptacle designated for unfiltered water.
Lastly, the less weight you carry, the less support your feet need. Rather than wearing ankle-high, thick-soled hiking boots, consider trail runners instead. I liken this to SkiMo racing, in which light skis and ski boots make all the difference. The same is true with your shoes when you are hiking 30-50 miles a day.
Bring Multipurpose Things
This is really an extension of tip #1, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. An easy way to bring fewer things is to have one thing be able to do the job of two things. For example, I use a mosquito head net (replaces tent bug net) to hold all my sundry items (i.e. toiletries, first-aid), rather than carry an additional stuff sack. At night I empty the headnet and then fill it with extra layers to use as a pillow (if there aren’t bugs). Also at night, I place my empty backpack under my legs to compensate for my extra-short sleeping pad. In a more extreme application of this idea, some companies make single-person shelters that double as rain ponchos. This is where backpacking becomes a creative exercise. Let you inner MacGyver shine.
Develop a Routine
Okay, so your pack is a lot lighter than it used to be. Now it’s time to make the most of it. With less time spent thinking about how heavy your pack is you can spend more time appreciating your surroundings. You can also walk further in a day and therefore see a lot more. However, having a 20lb pack doesn’t automatically let you start cranking out 30+ mile days. You still need to be efficient in your daily backcountry routine. In SkiMo racing, making fast transitions is key. The same is true with backpacking. A lot of daylight can be lost in the morning without an efficient system for getting out of bed, getting packed, and hitting the trail. Small actions can add up to a significant chunk of time. Good habits include changing into your hiking clothes as soon as you wake up, packing your bedding right away, etc. Another way I improve my efficiency is by preparing my lunch in the morning and packing it at the top of my pack. That way I don’t have to spend time unpacking and repacking my food bag (and often my entire pack) to eat lunch. Find what works for you and stick to a system.
It can certainly be energizing to take a break for lunch, but many UL backpackers prefer to simply snack all day. In that case, it’s critical to be able to eat and drink without taking your pack off. I like to organize the day’s snacks (bars, gummies, etc) in the morning. I keep them in a waist belt pouch so I don’t have to dig through my pack when I need a little boost. There are multiple solutions to having water accessible, but I don’t like bladders because removing them from your pack, refilling it, and putting it back in your pack takes a long time. Water bottles are better, but make sure your pack has side pockets you can actually reach. Alternatively, find a way to fasten water bottles to your shoulder straps.
A lot of ultralight backpacking is trial and error. There is no hard and fast solution, no magic gear list that will transform you. Don’t start by going out and buying a bunch of new UL gear. Start by leaving behind items you don’t need. Less is more. Live simply. Happy trails!
To give you some more ideas, here are some of my favorite lightweight items in my backpacking kit.
Also, here is a great opinion piece about UL backpacking from one of my favorite blogs.