Go light, but don’t go crazy. My lightweight hiking philosophy in a nutshell. My younger self thought of the wilderness as an escape. Yet I dragged along enough stuff from home, that the escape became a 50 lb. (23 kg) burden on my back. My back ached while hiking. The weight threw me off balance on river crossings. It put unnecessary wear and tear on my knees.
How long did it take me to figure out something needed to change? Too long! For years, I stuffed my oversized pack with everything the “experts” deemed necessary. When I ran out of space, I attached gear externally with carabineers and bungee cords.
But I can’t blame it all on the experts. I admit doing a few crazy things on my own. My worst offense? I packed enough clothing to wear a clean outfit each and every day on the trail. Most of this clothing featured cotton or denim fabrics, not so good when wet.
Older and more experienced, I no longer care what others think I need to carry. I’ve finally stopped forcing myself to wear those three pound clod-hoppers known as hiking boots. And I absolutely refuse to carry a huge overstuffed pack.
It’s too much! I love to travel light and enjoy the journey. Hiking should be a pleasure.
While I’m a big fan of light, I’m not going to suggest leaving the toothbrush and toothpaste at home to save a couple of ounces. And please, do not cut the handle off your toothbrush.
Okay then, where should you start?
Consider Clothing when Lightening Your Load
Start here. In place of fresh, clean clothing for each day of the week, bring the clothes on your back plus pack one lightweight, synthetic, quick-drying tee shirt. You can wear it when the shirt you’ve been wearing is soaked and hung out to dry or getting washed after multiple days use. Perhaps you might also bring a spare pair of socks and underwear as well. But that’s it.
What other basic clothing gear should you bring? For 3 season hiking and camping, dress in layers. Bring one set of rain gear, a middle layer such as fleece, and a base layer such as long underwear. Choose quick dry lightweight fabrics over cotton, such as hiking pants rather than jeans. For more on this, check out my post, How to Dress Kids (& Yourself) in Layers for Three Season OutdoorAdventures.
Focus on the Heaviest Items in your Pack
So you’ve worked out your clothing. What’s next? When cutting weight, don’t start by attacking your toothbrush. Start by attacking the heavy items in the pack: (1) the sleeping bag; (2) the tent; (3) the stove and cook set; and (4) the sleeping mat.
Buy as light and compact as you can afford on these four items. I started out backpacking with bulky, heavy gear as a kid on a student budget. Over time, I’ve slowly worked my way down in weight (although not to an ultralight extent). My approach diverges from ultralight backpackers. Here's how.
If gear costs more than you can afford, you are not going enjoy your trip. Don’t buy it. Find an alternative. Borrow it from someone. If you must buy, and the $350 model only weighs a few ounces less than the $90 item, save the extra money and your sanity. Buy the $90 item.
In other words, allocate only the necessary weight to clothing, tent, bag, stove and mat to survive the trip comfortably. What do I mean by comfortably? A comfortable balance between a comfort in weight, comfort in price, and comfort in camp.
With experience, you’ll improve your knowledge of what works for you. If you focus on your heavy gear items, you won’t find yourself tearing the cover off your guide book and skimping on meals and water to save yourself ounces, while dragging around a 12 lb. tent. Hit it where it counts, folks.
The last area I’ll focus on is meal planning. To avoid carrying multiple gallons of water into the wilderness, invest in a good water filter and ensure you plan your stops around good, reliable water sources. When planning for trips, plan on light weight, compact, dry or dehydrated foods. Need help identifying foods for the pack? Check out these tips for 11 light weight low cost grocery store foods for the pack.
Are you a high performance athlete? Looking to cover 20-30-40+ miles a day thru-hiking a long distance trail? Forget everything I said. If you’re going long distances for several weeks or months at a time, you might just be happier spending more money for high end, super lightweight gear. If so, start Googling for advice on ultralight backpacking for long distance hikers. There’s a plethora of information out there geared towards ultra-lighters.
For those like me, a one week wonder and weekend warrior, this is my best advice. Travel light, but don’t go crazy. Backpacking should be fun. Not painful to your body. Not painful to your pocketbook.
UPDATES - changed and moved photos, adding a photo of my younger heavy pack Days. It's a digital photo copied from an old film photo. Added former pack mass in kg.