An Intro to Lightweight Backpacking

Pacific Crest Trail veteran Luke Kantola offers an initial guide to cutting the weight of your pack.

By Luke Kantola

Despite the additional gear required for packrafting, I managed to keep my base weight low on a recent adventure in Montana.

Lightweight backpacking has completely changed the way I interact with wilderness. In 2013, on the Pacific Crest Trail my pack weight plummeted to a mere 9 pounds without food and water. I can go further, and faster now which allows me to access wilderness that the general public simply cannot get to. The frontier of adventure has expanded exponentially with my ability to cover more distance.

Base weight: The total weight of all gear carried but not worn excluding food and water, but including the bags and bottles food and water will get carried in.

Less weight means less strain on your body. Less strain means more miles. Hiking more miles allows a hiker to carry less water because they are more frequently crossing water sources. Hiking more miles also means a hiker can carry less food because they can get to towns more frequently. Less food and less water means even less weight. This is often referred to as a knock on effect; the initial pack lightening leads to other unexpected lightweight benefits.

If you have gear, get it out

Cowboy camping on the South Fork Flathead River in Montana.

If a scale is available it helps tremendously to weigh all your gear. If you know your tent weighs 5 pounds it's a lot easier to judge how awesome it would be to carry a 2 pound tent instead. Lightening your pack load does not need to be expensive. In fact, in a lot of cases, it is free. Often times a hiker who is new to lightweight backpacking can shed upwards of 5 lbs. simply by removing redundant or completely unnecessary items.

  • A pillow can be replaced by a stuff sack full of extra clothes
  • A pack cover can be replaced by a trash compactor bag that lines the inside of the pack
  • A stuff sack for a sleeping bag can be eliminated -- the sleeping bag can simply be stuffed around other objects
  • Plates and extra utensils can be replaced by eating straight out of a cook pot with a spork
  • Heavy boots can be replaced with trail running shoes since a lighter pack reduces strain on knees and ankles
  • Extra-clothes should be minimized
  • Swap the giant tube of toothpaste for travel size (Same with the sunscreen, antibiotic lotion, soap, hand sanitizer, etc.)
  • Do you need both hand sanitizer and soap?
  • Break the plastic dispenser off of your floss

Hopefully some of these ideas shed some light on the philosophy. While some of these tips may seem of minor weight consequence this rigorous mentality applied to an entire pack can save pounds. Take only what you need and no more.

Start with the Big 3

If you want to purchase new gear it is best to start with the Big 3. The Big 3 are the three most expensive and heavy gear items that a backpacker carries. These are the backpack, the shelter, and the sleeping bag. The greatest weight saving can be achieved here for the lowest cost. Next to eliminating gear, maximizing the amount of weight saved per dollar is the most economical way to lighten up.

  • Swapping a tent for a tarp often saves multiple pounds. Some tents are supported by trekking poles and save weight too (we like: TarpTent and Mountain Laurel Designs)
  • Swapping a traditional mummy bag for a quilt can save multiple pounds (we like: Z-packs and Enlightened Equipment)
  • Hold off on changing the backpack if you already have one. If you are serious about revamping your backpacking gear you may be able to swap your backpack out for one without a frame (I only recommend doing this if the base weight of a pack is below 10 lbs.)
  • If you don't have a backpack I love my ULA Circuit which is the most popular framed backpack on the PCT

Typically, after changing just the shelter and the sleeping bag, a hiker might expect to save 5 or more pounds.

My personal Big 3 are an 8'x10' tarp made of cuben fiber, an Enlightened Equipment Revelate 20-degree quilt, and an old frameless GoLite Backpack. My tarp only weighs 6 ounces so it defies the standard definition of the big 3 being the 3 heaviest items.

Continue with the next heaviest item

A loaded down Granite Gear pack full of packrafting gear. This is not ultralight.

This might be a sleeping pad. Finding comfort in the wild is more about proper site selection than it is about having the most comfortable pad. A fluffy duff bed beneath a deciduous tree can be far more comfortable than even the cushiest of pads. Because of this, I choose a pad based on how much it will insulate me from the ground rather than how comfortable it is. Swapping an inflatable pad for a roll up foam pad is often the cheapest way to save a pound. Comfort comes with the knowledge and experience of selecting comfortable places to lie down not by pouring money into a pad. This, alas, is not true for all people, and if an inflatable pad is necessary for someone to enjoy sleeping outdoors they should definitely have one!

There are so many tips that can be a part of this article. Feel free to ask questions, and know that I plan to release a whole series of articles on this topic alone.