Whether you are a weekend warrior, who’d like to figure out how to lighten your pack a bit, or you spend weeks on the trail at a time, and you need to find ways to shave every possible ounce, most backpackers will have more fun on the trail with a lighter pack.
A lighter pack will not only help you travel farther on your next adventure, it’ll allow you to cover ground faster, enjoy better balance and safety while hiking, and feel better after the day’s hike is over too. So, no matter what type of backpacking you enjoy, try to employ some of the following tips and tricks the next time you are filling your hiking daypack.
How Much Should Your Pack Weigh?
Ideally, your pack should weigh as little as possible, while still containing everything you may need during your camping trip. But new backpackers often have no idea what a reasonable pack weight is.
Most experienced backpackers use the 20% rule – your pack shouldn’t weigh more than 20% of your body weight. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you’ll want to have a pack that weighs about 40 pounds or less. This isn’t always possible (particularly for very small backpackers), but it is a good target weight range.
Some campers like to break the items in their pack down into two categories: Your “base” pack, which includes your tent, sleeping bag, clothing and other items that you’ll pack in and pack out, and the “consumable” items, which includes things like food and some toiletries.
Splitting up your pack into these two categories allows you to better target the unnecessarily heavy portions of your pack. It may, for example, let you determine that your “base” pack weighs a reasonable amount, but you are bringing too much food. Some campers may find themselves facing the opposite problem.
Generally speaking, you’ll want your base pack to weigh less than 30 pounds, although small backpackers may need to shoot for a slightly lighter load. Many backpackers who embrace “lightweight” techniques like to get their base pack under 20 pounds, and hardcore “ultralight” campers usually aim to get their base pack below 10 pounds.
Achieving these super-lightweight base packs will take plenty of work, and you’ll usually have to spend a bit of money on high-end camping gear, but it is possible. It will, however, require you to sacrifice camp comfort in a number of ways, so be sure that you weigh the pros and cons of pack weight carefully before starting.
15 Helpful Tricks for Shedding Weight from Your Pack
Fifteen of the best load-lightening tricks around are listed below. You probably won’t be able to employ all of these tips, but most backpackers should be able to embrace a couple, which should allow you to enjoy a lighter pack on your next trip.
1. Opt for Dehydrated Foods Whenever Possible
Food represents the bulk of the weight from the “consumables” portion of your pack – toothpaste and toilet paper don’t really represent a ton of weight. Accordingly, your food represents a great place to target when trying to shed unnecessary weight.
But you need to understand an important point first: It isn’t really your food that is very heavy – it is the water inside your food that is responsible for the bulk of the weight. So, by simply foregoing fresh fruits, vegetables and meats in favor of dehydrated versions of these items, you’ll be able to shave a significant amount of weight.
There are a number of dehydrated camping foods on the market, but you can also make dehydrated fruits or meat jerkies yourself.
2. Swap Out Your Utensils for Chopsticks
Not all weight-saving strategies will knock pounds off your pack weight; some will only help you shave an ounce or two. But ounces add up, and if you are serious about lightening your pack, you’ll need to embrace weight-saving strategies that get big results, as well as those that provide more modest weight savings.
Relying on chopsticks instead of the knife and fork that typically come with camping mess kits is a good way to accomplish the latter. You’ll likely still need a spoon, but if you prepare your camping food properly (meaning that you pre-cut any large meats or vegetables into bite-size pieces), you’ll find chopsticks will effectively replace a fork and knife.
Chopsticks weigh practically nothing, and, if you use unfinished sticks, you can simply burn them on your last night at camp (this won’t save you much weight on the trip back to the trailhead, but every ounce counts). Chopsticks won’t cost you anything either – just ask for an extra pair the next time you order Chinese or Thai takeout and toss them in your pack.
3. Swap Out Your Synthetic Sleeping Bag for One Stuffed with Down
The choice between natural and synthetic fibers is a hotly debated subject among serious backpackers and hikers. In practice, both options present different benefits and drawbacks. Synthetics are usually lighter than natural fibers, and they usually continue to work when they’re wet. Natural fibers, on the other hand, are often more affordable and they’re usually quite effective when dry (wool is an anomaly, as it continues to insulate well when it’s wet).
However, in terms of weight savings, down is one of the best sleeping bag fillers you can select. Down sleeping bags provide a better warmth-to-weight ratio than most synthetic-based sleeping bags do, and they’re also quite comfortable too. Another option is to also bring a down camping blanket.
You will have to take steps to protect a down sleeping bag from moisture, as it won’t keep you very warm if it gets wet. So, you may want to store your down sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack or apply a water-repelling product to the outside.
4. Leave the Sleeping Pad at Home, or Go with a Three-Quarter Model
Shedding unnecessary pack weight occasionally requires you to be ruthless when deciding which things you need, and which things you can get by without. Your sleeping pad is a perfect example.
Some backpackers will decide a sleeping pad isn’t completely necessary. You don’t want to sleep directly on the ground if you can help it, as the ground will draw heat from your body (unless, of course, you are camping during the dog days of summer, when the cool ground would be a benefit). Also, the ground is obviously not a terribly comfortable surface for sleeping.
However, if you spend five minutes collecting flexible conifer boughs, place them on the ground beneath your tent, and cover them with a small tarp, you can enjoy a pretty comfortable sleeping spot, without having to lug a sleeping pad with you on the trail.
If you can’t imagine going camping without a sleeping pad, you can likely still save a bit of weight by choosing a three-quarter-sized model, rather than a full-length pad. Just place the pad under your head and torso, and then use your pack to prop up your feet and legs. In fact, doing so may also help your feet feel a little better after a long day on the trail.
5. Don’t Carry Unnecessary Amounts of Water
You obviously need to carry water with you on the trail, but you should be careful to avoid bringing more than necessary. This is especially true for that backpacking in eastern forests or other areas in which water is ubiquitous. If you are going to cross or walk alongside a stream or creek every half hour or so, you don’t need to worry about carrying a gallon of water – just replenish your stores as necessary while making your way down the trail.
Clearly, you’ll need to use sound judgment when taking this approach – you don’t want to underestimate your water needs and find yourself in a bind. But because water is such a heavy supply, it certainly makes sense to avoid carrying any more than is absolutely necessary.
Note that this is not a good practice for those hiking in arid regions, where water is difficult to find. It is far wiser to carry more water than necessary than it is to tempt fate in this manner.
6. Skip the Second Pair of Shoes
Just about every beginning camping book provides a similar piece of advice: Bring sandals, flip-flops or some other type of slip-on shoe that you can wear around camp. This is pretty good advice, as it’ll help keep your tent cleaner (no one wants to take their boots off every time they go inside), and it’ll help protect your feet better than going barefoot would.
However, if you are really interested in shaving every possible ounce from your pack, it is generally wise to skip the camp shoes. You’ll have to walk around camp barefoot or just keep your hiking boots on, but you’ll usually find it necessary to make sacrifices when trying to save weight.
Some minimalist-minded backpackers will take the laces out of their boots while in camp to make them easier to slip on and off. This can be a bit time-consuming, but it is a pretty good workaround for those who don’t want to haul camp shoes in their pack.
7. Scale Back Your Mess Kit
Most experienced backpackers have a trusty mess kit that is comprised of several different items. And while there are plenty of high-end mess kits that weigh very little and skip any unnecessary components, most mass-market mess kits will come with a large pot, a smaller pan, utensils and a plastic cup. Some may even include plates too.
But if you are trying to shave weight from your pack, you’ll want to leave most of these things at home. We already discussed swapping out your fork and knife for chopsticks, but you can also get rid of the plates and pans that come with the kit. If you want to save weight, you’ll need to use one pot for all of your cooking and eating.
Additionally, the small plastic cups that come with many entry-level mess kits are essentially worthless. Leave the plastic cup (which may melt if filled with hot coffee) at home and pick up a camping mug that is campfire-safe instead.
8. Eliminate Any Redundant Items
It’s often wise to embrace redundancy where safety is concerned, but you typically won’t need to bring multiple versions of the same item on the average camping trip. So, try to go through your pack and get rid of any doubles you may have.
For example, you probably won’t need a second flashlight if you are packing a good headlamp. Likewise, you probably don’t need matches with your kitchen kit and your repair kit. Do you typically bring a metal pot holder to help with cooking? Leave it at home and just use your multi-tool pliers instead.
In fact, eliminating redundancy presents a complementary strategy: Try to pack items that have multiple uses. For example, if you typically like to bring along a small fishing kit, you can probably use monofilament line instead of a thread when making any necessary equipment repairs.
9. Get Rid of Any Unnecessary Food Packaging
While foods designed specifically for camping rarely features a lot of unnecessary packaging, “regular” foods usually do. Most packaged foods, for example, will be sealed in a plastic bag, which is placed inside a larger cardboard box. There’s no reason for you to carry the box with you on the trail, so just discard the box when packing your food kit.
Similarly, avoid the temptation to bring along more food than you need. Maybe you like to buy rice in 5-pound bags when you go to the store, but you obviously won’t eat this much rice on a typical camping trip, so just pack as much rice as you need in a Ziploc bag, and leave the rest at home.
Condiments can also add up to a lot of weight pretty quickly – especially things like olive oil or butter.
10. Rely on Water Purification Tablets Rather than a Filter
It is always imperative that you treat all back-country-collected water before drinking it. Fail to do so, and you’ll likely regret the decision. You may only suffer mild intestinal distress by drinking untreated water, but in a worst-case scenario, you could become seriously ill, and require immediate medical attention.
But, while you must treat any water you drink on the trail, that doesn’t mean you have to bring along a heavy water purifier to do so. Instead, you could just use water purifying tablets, which will weigh much less. Water-purifying tablets won’t remove the particulate matter in the water, but you can easily use a bandana or similar fabric to strain out most of the silt and dirt.
You could also boil your water to treat it (you’d have to use the bandana in this case too) to avoid having to carry a filter. But, this will mean you’ll have to bring more fuel, which may offset any weight savings you enjoy from leaving behind the filter. Unless, that is, you follow the next tip on our list.
11. Forego Your Stove for Short Trips
If you are traveling to a place where campfires are allowed, and you are secure in your fire-starting abilities, you can simply leave your entire camp stove at home and cook over your fire. It’s a little trickier to cook with a fire than a stove, and it’ll take a little more time (you have to build the fire and wait for coals to form), but if you are trying to shave as much weight as possible, this is a very effective strategy.
It is a good idea to watch the weather very carefully before the trip if you plan to take this approach – a couple of rainy days could make things very tough on you. You don’t want to end up eating all of your snacks on the first few days because you can’t get a fire started.
But, this brings up another, related, strategy you can employ: You can simply bring foods you don’t need to cook. This is an especially attractive option for short trips. You can probably get by for several days while eating canned meats, trail mixes, peanut butter and jerky – it may not be gourmet dining, but meals on the trail rarely are.
12. Skip the Middle Layer of Your Tent
Tents are comprised of three basic layers: A ground cover that blocks moisture, a middle layer which is primarily there to keep out the bugs and provide privacy, and a rain fly that protects you from the rain. And while it is certainly an aggressive strategy for shaving off some weight from your pack, you may be able to leave the middle layer of your tent home on some trips.
To be sure, this is not a great option for cold-weather locations. The walls of your tent don’t provide very much insulation, but when you are trying to sleep through a long, cold night, every little bit helps. Similarly, this is not a great idea during heavy rains – the rainfly will keep you dry in light rain and gentle winds, but it won’t work very well if the winds are howling and the rain pouring.
Bugs can also be a problem for those who choose to employ this strategy. But, bug spray will help some, and you can also use a bug net (which will weigh less than your tent’s middle layer) when you are sleeping.
13. Don’t Bring More Flashlight Than You Need
It’s not only convenient to be able to see in the dark, being able to do so will keep you safer too. You don’t want to step in a hole or on top of a snake while walking around camp at night because you can’t see. But, a lot of campers take things a bit too far when selecting and packing flashlights for their trip.
First of all, if you are really serious about shedding unnecessary weight, you have to limit yourself to one light source. You can’t bring a flashlight and a headlamp, nor can you bring a lantern to use in camp – lights simply weigh too much for you to do so. Just pick a good headlamp or a hand-held flashlight that works in conjunction with a headband.
And for that matter, don’t buy more flashlight- or headlight-power than you need. You aren’t trying to explore the dark side of the moon; you are trying to make sure you don’t trip on a rock while walking back to your tent after dinner. By all means, select a light that provides adequate illumination, but weight matters more than candlepower, once you get above a minimally adequate threshold.
14. If You’re Bringing a Cellphone, Don’t Bring Any Paper
Bringing a cell phone on a camping trip is a bit counterproductive from a weight standpoint. Some of the larger models weigh nearly half a pound – that’s a significant quantity of weight for someone who is trying to create a lightweight pack. Besides, part of the reason you are going on a camping trip is to escape daily life anyway. Why would you purposely bring along a tether to the real world?
The truth is, cell phones do provide significant safety value (assuming you are camping in a place with cell service), and many modern campers will consider them mandatory equipment. This is hard to argue with, although it bears mentioning that you only really need one person in your party to bring a phone for emergency use. Everybody doesn’t have to bring one in order to have an emergency form of communication.
Nevertheless, if you do decide to bring a smartphone with you, take full advantage of it. Your phone won’t weigh any more than it normally does if you fill it up with data, so instead of bringing along books, field guides, permits or big, fold-out maps, bring digital versions of these items instead. Just remember that battery life will become an issue, so use your phone as sparingly as possible.
15. Strip Down Your Pack
You’ll obviously want to keep weight in mind when selecting a new pack, as it is one of the heaviest items you’ll carry, and there are plenty of places manufacturers can shave weight. You may be able to shed a couple of pounds by swapping out your old sporting-goods-store model for a high-end, ultralight pack.
But there are also several ways you may be able to make your existing pack lighter. For example, most packs feature several connectors, buckles and other miscellaneous pieces of hardware that you could do without. Just take these things off and leave them at home.
And although it may pain many campers to do so, you should probably cut off all of those airline tags hanging from your pack. Many campers like to leave them attached as mementos of previous trips, but it doesn’t take many of these tags to add up to a couple of ounces, and if you are serious about weight savings, every ounce counts.
Don’t hesitate to come up with your own creative ways to lighten your pack either, such as bringing ultralight trekking poles – just be sure to keep safety at the forefront of your mind, make sure you don’t leave out first aid supplies or other necessities, and you should be able to enjoy a lighter pack.
Of course, some backpackers prefer being comfortable in camp, so they’re willing to carry an extra couple of pounds worth of gear. There’s nothing wrong with this approach either – it’s all about planning for the kind of backpacking adventure you want.