Seven steps to lighten your backpack

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Weigh your stuff. Get a digital scale and weigh your old gear. Add up the pounds and ounces, and then make a beeline to your local outdoor shop for some lighter gear. Ounces add up to pounds, and pounds add up to discomfort on the trail.

Trim the fat. Camp chairs, GPS devices, espresso makers, the latest novel — do you really need this stuff? You’re going into the backcountry to get away from it all, so don’t bring it all with you! Remember, we’re interested in experiencing the benefits of ultralight backpacking, not in transferring a car-camping philosophy to the wilderness.

Plan your trip and limit your contingencies. Do your homework and assess your destination’s terrain, climate, weather and natural hazards. Then plan and pack accordingly. How light you go will depend, in part, on your experience and skill — so don’t cut it too close. But at least grab a last-minute weather report and adjust your equipment list accordingly. And practice! Backyard and KOA camping in bad weather is a great way to tune your gear and take risks you normally wouldn’t take in the backcountry.

Consider function first. Take the lightest possible item that will do the job. Rethink your equipment list. Most backpackers think they need more than they really do. For example: “I need a tent.” In reality, you might only need an overhead shelter on a summer hike in the desert. Solution: an 8-oz. silnylon tarp that saves you pounds.

Consider multiple-use items. Taking multi-use gear reduces the number of items you carry and can dramatically simplify life on the trail. Some classic examples: using a poncho as both raingear and shelter; socks as mittens; or one pot for boiling, eating and drinking.

Don’t just take a bunch of stuff — build a system. Exploit the synergies among items to achieve maximum performance. This is especially true when planning your clothing, sleep and shelter system. For example, ultralight hikers who wear their sleeping bags around camp as insulating gear (or those who opt for a lighter sleeping bag and combine it with an insulating jacket at night) are able to save significant weight over backpackers who bring a jacket for camp and simply use it as a pillow with a too-heavy sleeping bag.

Learn to be an outdoorsman. Develop a solid foundation in backcountry skills, and you will lighten your load. Dealing with weather, injuries, route-finding challenges and natural hazards depends as much on your backcountry skills and ability to improvise as it does on your gear.


RYAN JORDAN, an Eagle Scout, is the program director of the Montana High Adventure Base and the chartered organization representative of Venturing Crew 2001 in Bozeman, Mont. He is a licensed wilderness skills instructor and guide, and the founder of backpackinglight.com.

1 Comment

  1. Experience and figuring out what is needed versus what is desired. When Scoutson crossed over from Cubs, we said in celebration we would buy him whatever he might want for gear. He chose a 5 D cell maglight. Took it on ONE overnight. After that, he retired it to the tool box and took along a 2AA cell light, like dad.

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