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Simply Start Lightweight Backpacking

Do you dream of hiking down the trail with less effort? Has backpacking been more of a task than a joy? Are you a beginner to hiking? Anyone can be a lightweight backpacker if they put the effort in and do some research before they make gear purchases. There are many benefits to lightweight (ultralight) backpacking including the ability to hike faster and further with less fatigue or risk of injury caused by a heavy load. Lightweight backpacking makes it possible for people of all ages to do more in the backcountry. Starting your journey to transition to carrying less may seem like a daunting task, but with some support, it can be easier than you think and more rewarding than you ever expected!

 

Mariposa

Mariposa Lightweight Backpack in the Wind River Range – credit: Stephanie Baker (@thedancingwind)

 
The first beginning steps in lessening your load and transitioning to lightweight backpacking are focusing on the big three (your sleep system, backpack, and shelter).  These will be your biggest weight savings, and even if you can only shave weight with these three gear items you will really feel the difference!

Sleep System for Warmth

Camp bedding will likely consists of a sleeping bag, ultralight sleeping pad and a lightweight ground cloth (under your sleeping pad). Think of the typical conditions you will be camping in and plan accordingly. It is especially important not to get caught up in “what if” scenarios: Think realistically about your trip. What will be the average temperature be at night? Having this information and knowing how you tend to sleep can help you save pounds in your pack while staying comfortable at night.

Shelter from the Weather

There is a huge variety of shelters available now and if you’re using an old tent, you may be surprised by how much weight you can save by upgrading your shelter. There are many varieties including those that use trekking poles to support your shelter; eliminating the weight of tent poles (like our ultralight tarps).

Backpack to Carry your Gear

Switching to a lightweight backpack can save you pounds. Before making this purchase, make sure you know how many liters you will need to carry your gear and learn how to size a pack. Gossamer Gear has a wide variety of packs for all types of backpacking needs.

 

outdoor gear

Backpacking gear organization before an adventure – credit: @sommer_spring

Rethink

There are some items that may seem like a good idea, but in reality, won’t be necessary. If you are used to car camping, you may have brought some playing cards to burn a few hours at camp. While backpacking you will be surprised how much less time you spend at camp and items like cards will not be worth their weight. Think about the hiking gear that will safely and efficiently get you from point A to point B. Another great way to save weight is to leave your backpacking pillow at home and use a stuff sack with clothes inside as a replacement. Leaving out items is one of the biggest changes you can make to your overall pack weight.

Repackage

We really live by our motto: take less. do more. In addition to leaving certain items behind, you can repackage items such as toothpaste, sunscreen, and bug spray into small containers or eye dropper bottles. Avoid buying pre-assembled kits such as store bought first aid kits.  The containers themselves are heavy and bulky, plus you likely won’t use many of the items. A simple Ziploc bag is a great way way to store small items.

Replace

Buying new gear is the last option to consider, as you should be focusing on eliminating unnecessary gear before you spend any money on new items. However, there are opportunities to save weight and money by replacing items. Two examples include using a plastic water bottle instead of a Nalgene and swapping out your tent footprint for a polycryo ground sheet. Most shelters don’t come with a groundsheet so you can save good chunk of money by using the polycryo instead of buying the manufacturer’s ground cloth. You should also look to see if a bear canister is required in the area you plan to camp in. If not, hanging your food also saves a good deal of weight. When replacing items, you should spend your budget on replacing your heaviest and bulkiest backpacking gear. This will likely be your big three: sleep system, shelter, and backpack.

 

tarp

Ultralight backpacking tarp in camp – credit: Trinity Ludwig

 

Expert Hiking Tips

1. Think multi-purpose

One of the biggest weight savings is bringing gear that can serve multiple purposes. A pair of trekking poles can be beneficial for your knees on climbs and ascents, but can also be used at night to support your shelter. In a frameless lightweight pack such as the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, you can replace the SitLight pad with your own sleeping pad to give the pack more structure and provide additional padding for your back. A lightweight bandana can function in multiple ways such as a washcloth, towel, bandage, hat, water pre-filter, and handkerchief.

2. Learn some skills

It may take a little work (and lots of practice) but knowing how to set up (and where to set up) a lightweight shelter makes all the difference. A double walled freestanding tent doesn’t require a lot of skill to set up. But by gaining some knowledge and learning how to set up an ultralight shelter you could save pounds from your pack weight! Additionally, learning about campsite selection is also extremely beneficial to your comfort on the trail. Instead of setting up right next to a gorgeous lake, you can avoid mosquitoes, harsh winds, and morning dew by being in a more wooded area.

3. Reflect

Go on multiple shakedown hikes before a big backpacking trip. When you return home take a look at your gear and makes piles of gear used a lot, sometimes used, and never used. Unless it was a first aid or safety item (such as a location beacon or rain jacket), if you didn’t use it, leave it out. It is important to learn how to use your gear and make sure it’s practical before a big trip. By testing your gear on shorter backpacking trips, you are doing your best to ensure you have a more successful trip. Bad weather in the forecast? Make sure you’re prepared for rain!

Mt Whitney

Great friends backpack to Mount Whitney- credit: Jack Haskel

While on your journey to start lightweight backpacking, know that it’s a process and not something that happens overnight. With lightweight or ultralight backpacking, the focus really should be on getting more people outdoors and having enjoyable trips.

But if you really want to nerd out and go all in– create a gear list spreadsheet.  Get your typical setup for backpacking and weigh everything. To weigh your gear, you will need to use a kitchen scale so you can measure your gear in ounces. The listed weight of your outdoor gear may not include items like tent stakes and stuff sacks so be sure to weigh everything instead of looking it up online. Once you know how much each item weighs, you can begin to eliminate that weight.

backcountry_spoon

Weighing your gear- credit: Allison Driscoll

 

Make a spreadsheet of the gear you will be bringing for a specific trip or simply write it down. Remember, some of your gear (especially clothing) may need to change based on each trip because of the location or time of year you will be hiking. Make a spreadsheet online to easily edit your list. You can use an excel spreadsheet or Google Docs to share with friends.

We hoped this helps steer you down the path of lightweight backpacking. Feel free to leave your suggestions and tips in the comments below.


Interested in learning more? Take a look at Gossamer Gear founder Glen Van Peski’s advice on going lighter.

19 Responses to Simply Start Lightweight Backpacking

  1. Tucson Tom October 20, 2015 at 5:42 pm #

    I would have said the first thing would be to weigh every piece of your gear and make a list. Then change your mindset. Hate every truly unnecessary thing. Then do some short trial trips near home. Build confidence and learn that you can do without all kinds of things. As long as you can sleep, eat, stay warm, you got it covered. Don’t start by planning for the “big trip”.

    Then start looking at lightweight alternatives to truly essential things. You can make amazing progress without spending a dime. A light backpack is almost the last thing you should think about. Until you get your load trimmed you are just going to ruin it or overload it. But I was glad when I traded my 7 pound Dana for a pack that weighed under two pounds. 5 pounds GONE. yeeh!

  2. Stephanie Baker October 20, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    I second the recommendation to nerd out and create a spreadsheet with how much everything weighs! It has worked for me as a great way to decide which items can be cut from the list, and which items were/are my goals to buy lighter-weight versions of in the future.

  3. Cameron October 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    Love the article. Short, sweet, and to the point. Thank you for including the part about the spreadsheet. I have a love-hate relationship with spreadsheets because some people can go bonkers with weight scraping but spreadsheets help to put your gear into perspective!

  4. Shelly October 22, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

    I have a hate/hate relationship with spreadsheets so I’m a paper/pencil/binder kinda gal. Whatever works!

  5. Tucson Tom October 22, 2015 at 8:31 pm #

    Why do people always talk about a spreadsheet? I am a software developer, and I never made a spreadsheet. (But if it works for you, go for it.) I did make a list though with weights and it was a revelation when I really faced up to how much some of my non-essential items weighed. The first piece of ultralight gear anyone should buy though is a scale, ultimately several. I could not live without my digital “fish scale”. I can take it to the trailhead to weigh starting packs and I hang it up and then put items in those flimsy grocery bags to weigh them as I pack for a trip, food in particular.

  6. Catharine October 23, 2015 at 7:36 am #

    I use gear grams – it’s free but you can donate.

  7. Ralph Calhoun October 28, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    Which of the Big Three would you purchase first if you have to purchase one at a time? I can borrow some items.

    • Tucson Tom October 29, 2015 at 10:55 am #

      Hopefully others will chime in. I think you have to take a look at what you are currently using and decide which will yield the biggest benefit. I am tempted to pick shelter and say if you can make the switch from a tent to a tarp that is a big win. If you have reduced your load to where you can carry it in an ultralight style pack and are currently using an excessively heavy pack, that can be a huge win. Changes in the sleep system can be the most expensive. I switched to using a quilt along with a bivy bag (which addresses shelter and sleep system together). If you can get into the bivy sack style, this is a great way to go. I am on to hammock and tarp now.

    • autrefaire November 5, 2015 at 11:41 am #

      Your best bet is to make a spreadsheet to determine what will have the biggest impact. I did one with 5 columns. The first column was a list of all of my current gear. The second was the weight for each item in oz. I then searched around online and found possibly replacement items. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th columns outlined the replacement item, its weight (in oz), and its price online. I could then quickly scan through and see what replacement items had the best weight savings to cost ratio.

      In my case, my tent, air mattress, and sleeping bag were my three heaviest items. Upgrading my tent to a ZPacks Triplex gave me a weight savings of ~3 lbs, but cost about $800. Upgrading my air mattress to a small NeoAir saved me about 1 lb and only cost about $100. Upgrading from my old sleeping bag to a nice down quilt gave me a better temp rating, saved me about 1.5 lbs, and cost about $300.

      Once you figure out what your immediately budget is, you can figure out how to drop the weight the fastest.

    • Ethan Buyer (@ethanbuyer) July 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

      Certainly go for a pack, your gear will expand to that space and a smaller, lighter pack is the best foundation for your gear to start on

  8. Pat October 31, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

    Grams add up to Ounces and Ounces add up to Pounds.

  9. Nico November 4, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    Are you okay without a bivy bag?

    • Tucson Tom November 5, 2015 at 11:28 am #

      Bivy bag? Under a decent tarp in a sleeping bag – no need for a bivy bag (except in perhaps severe conditions).
      A bivy bag is a nice alternative to a tarp for a solo camper – in most conditions. When I transitioned from a sleeping bag to a quilt, I found a bivy bag almost essential to keep out breezes and drafts. I have done many trips with a pad, quilt, and bivy bag (but now have transitioned to a hammock). Notice all the mention of conditions. A key aspect of going ultralight is knowing the expected conditions (including unexpected semi-worst case scenarios).

  10. GitRdone November 22, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    Most backpacking trips are short. 1-3 days, so pairing down your equipment for these kind of trips first and evaluating your gear choices from those trips is an excellent suggestion. Thru hiking the AT or any other long trail takes a whole different mind set but yet it first starts from those short trips and gaining experience.

  11. Paleo/Primal Ireland (@PaleoIrish) April 2, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    So much good information here, in both the article and the comments – thanks everyone! I’m planning to walk the Portuguese Camino de Santiago next year if finances work out, it will be likely about 35 days of hiking, staying in hostels along the way. So no shelter will be required except for unplanned (or impulsive) nights under the stars, also no cooking gear to carry, just a sharp knive and a spork I think.
    I’ve started the spreadsheet and am already finding the cost of a new backpack and lightweight poles to be off-putting however i know that they will both make a big difference over the 400+ miles.
    I’m putting the gorilla 40 backpack on my wish list… wish me luck!

  12. Småland outdoor April 17, 2016 at 2:56 am #

    I recommend lighterpack dot com to make packlists instead of spreadsheets. I’ve been using it for a while now and I really like it. You get a good overview on how much every category in your pack weighs.

    • Paleo/Primal Ireland (@PaleoIrish) June 4, 2016 at 8:40 am #

      Thanks @smaland outdoor, I’ll check it out, I appreciate the help.

    • bitchingamergrl July 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      gear grams does the same thing. It gives you an overview of how much every category in your pack weighs. They’re essentially the same thing.

  13. LightDan April 18, 2016 at 1:42 am #

    I agree on every single point in this article, except that there is some kind of order to make changes that are inherently “better”.
    Usually there is great potential to reduce weight from the Big Three, but for the hiker on a budget it’s better to start by cutting out the things that’s not getting used, and buy a cheap postal scale to find out wich of their existing stuff is lightest.

    That way they can cut out quite a few pounds for maybe $10 for the scale, while they wait to save up to replace the Big Three.

    Also, to exclude some pots and pans from the cook kit and replace a heavy burner with a homemade cat can stove or soda can stove or an Esbit burner can give free weight savings.

    Reduce weight at your own speed and in the order that is best suited for your circumstances, so you feel comfortable, safe and confident in your equipment

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