CUTTING PACK WEIGHT

Have you ever wondered how hikers with tiny packs manage to survive with such a small one? Read on and I’ll tell you how they do it, and how you can do it yourself.

It pains me greatly when I go hiking and see people laboring to carry massive packs through the woods.  I ponder what they have in those huge packs to make them so big and heavy.  Then I reflect and recall I was once just like them.  It’s seems like carrying a large pack is a right of passage one has to do to become a seasoned hiker.

Personally, I got a hair across my ass that said “Buy a pack and go hiking, it will be fun!”  I did just that and proceeded to have foot issues and labored through my first hike, a mere 7 miles .  At the time, the experience was terrible.  My feet hurt; my knees ached; my shoulders screamed out to have the weight lifted from them; but in the end I’m one of the lucky ones who kept hiking.

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Slowly (I stress slowly) I learned ways to bring less and my confidence grew, allowing me to carry less and less.  Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail taught me a lot, but I still started with an over sized pack.  Unfortunately, I had to keep that over sized pack throughout my entire trip because I was not willing to replace everything and I also didn’t have the confidence to carry less.  This is where the catch 22 comes in.  For most but not all, one needs experience and confidence to carry less, but you have to first carry more, to gain said experience.

With that said, it is possible to start as an ultralite or lightweight hiker. There is enough information online today that with proper research, planning, the right gear, and a big spoonful of what I like to call “Trail Confidence” you can do it.

I realize some people want to have every last luxury when they go hiking. For those who don’t need every last luxury, you can read on and I’ll show you how to hike with less. Personally, I think people carry the luxury items to make the experience of carrying a heavy pack better, when in reality it’s the luxury items that are creating the discomfort.

There is some debate to what lightweight is and what ultralite is, but for me lightweight is 8-14 pounds and ultra light is below that.  Any one who cuts their tooth brush or trims the edges of their maps is wasting their time, in my opinion.  There is no need to remove straps from your pack or make other crazy modifications to your current gear.  The reality is, it’s probably the wrong gear to begin with.

The last thing I will say is making the decision to carry less is as mental as it is a physical decision. It also involves compromise and motivation.  It can be anything from less perceived comfort, to gear short falls in certain conditions.  One needs to be aware of these so they can coupe or make decisions that counter those undesired conditions. I wrote about what I call the “Mental Big 3” where I discuss the mental side of cutting pack weight.

Knowing is Half the Battle... Trail Confidence vs. gear needed - cutting pack weight

THE BIG 3

There are 3 major areas where you can save weight. In the hiking world they’re called the  “The Big 3”. You can save the most weight within these three areas, and drastically reduce your base weight.

PACK

The number one thing you need to know about packs is if you buy a big pack you will fill it. I’m convinced it’s human nature to do so. Hell, people buy huge houses, fill them and then still pay for storage units. Don’t fight it, just accept it. So the easiest way to lighten your load is to limit how much you can carry.

This is where the trail confidence comes in. Most people, myself included, “Think oh my God, how will I ever get everything I need in there!” Most are not comfortable leaving items at home. Buying a smaller pack will force you to rethink everything on your gear list. So instead of trimming, modifying and tweaking all the other items on your gear list only to be left with a 6 pounds pack that is not full, buy a smaller lighter pack and change what you put in it and the way you think.

Not only will you cut weight from your base weight by buying a lighter pack, you’ll also save even more weight when you force yourself to change what you put in your smaller pack.

The average pack, for the average hiker is about 6 pounds, while the average lightweight pack is about 2 to 3 pounds. Ultralite packs start at around a little more than a pound. You’ve already possibly saved 5 pounds!

Pro-Tip

Statistics show that most people who say their pack is uncomfortable, also admit that they’re carrying more weight that is recommended for their pack.

Craig Fowler - AT Start - Cutting pack weight

Springer Mountain –  Appalachian Trail

Craig Fowler - PCT-finish - cutting pack weight

Sisters Wilderness – Pacific Crest Trail

Craig Fowler - CDT - Bob Marshall Wilderness - cutting pack weight - hiking gear

Bob Marshall Wilderness – Continental Divide Trail

SHELTER

Your shelter is the next heaviest thing you have to carry.  If you’re an AT thru-hiker you could almost not even carry a tent, but unfortunately we’re not all AT hikers and shelters do fill up.  Fabrics and designs incorporating the use of hiking poles have greatly reduced the weight of tents today.  Single wall tents or tarps are the simplest and fast way to save weight when it comes to shelters.

Consider using a one man tent over a two man. Chances are slim anyone is going to go back to your tent for the night. Single wall tents can weight a little as a pound! Don’t believe the rumors, condensation isn’t as bad you’ve heard around the water filter. Tarps can be as little as 8 ounces. Tarps work great in the southern portions of the PCT and CDT but they offer limited protection in severe weather or when it’s buggy.

Most single wall tents today don’t require a ground sheet, which means more weight savings, more room in your pack, and easier set up/tear down while in camp.

I the average tent weight for a two person; double wall tent is about 3-6 pounds, while the average lightweight tent is 2 pounds, and a tarp 1 pound or less.  Ultralite start at around 1 pounds.  There’s another 2-5 pounds!

Pro-Tip

Your shelter is your safe place, be sure you’re comfortable with using it, it’s set up, and that it offers you what you want from a shelter. Know it’s limitations and how to deal with them in the field.

Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight Tent - AT - Cutting Pack Weight
Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight Tent - AT - Cutting Pack Weight

Appalachian Trail – Shelters

Cutting Pack Weight - Tarp Tent Contrail
Gossamer Gear Spinn Twin Tarp- PCT Chicken Spring Lake - Cutting Pack Weight

Pacific Crest Trail – Shelters

Gossamer Gear Spinn Twin Tarp- CDT - Cutting Pack Weight
CDT - Wind River Range - Zpacks Soloplex - Cutting Pack Weight

Continental Divide Trail – Shelters

SLEEP SYSTEM

Today with so many waterproof breathable, a down sleeping bag is almost a no brainer. Most new hikers are afraid their sleeping bag will get wet and that they’ll be miserable. Once again, this is where trail confidence comes into play. The reality is, if you store your bag properly it shouldn’t get wet. Don’t let anyone tell you other wise.

My system was to put my sleeping bag in water proof stuff sack, and then it was placed in my pack. Everything in my pack goes inside a trash compactor bag. I learned on the Appalachian Trail, that pack covers are a total waste of money, space and weight. They don’t keep your gear or pack dry. Sometimes I ended up with a second plastic bag and would put my sleeping bag in that by itself. So to recap that’s three to four separate barriers against water touching your down bag. Over kill but your sleeping bag isn’t getting wet.

When it comes to sleeping pads there are many options: open cell foam, closed cell foam, air only, insulated, or some combination of the three or nothing at all.  Today pads like Thermarest’s NeoAir line are almost as light as a closed cell foam pad.  If you’re not winter camping I strongly suggest you use a ¾ pad. Put your pack under your feet for cushion and protection. This will save weight and money and you can raise your feet up as you sleep which will help your legs recover for the next day.

If you’re a “Shelter Rat” on the AT going from shelter to shelter I would say get a NeoAir or something of similar design, but if your sleeping on the ground then go with a closed cell foam pad and then choose your campsite wisely. Avoid camping in areas others have. The ground will be packed and harder than areas not used. A nice pine area will offer excellent sleeping as the duff will be thick and soft.

The following weights are from the Montbell website.

15 degree synthetic bag, 4 pounds 4 ounces

15 degree down bag, 2 pounds 15 ounces.

That’s another 1 pound, 5 ounces in savings.  If you substitute a full length Thermarest Prolite for a 3/4 Z-Lite Sol, you can save about another 8 ounces.

Pro-Tip

Comfort is key. Don’t skimp to save too much weight at the cost of being comfortable or safe.

Appalachian Trail Sleep System - Cutting pack Weight

Appalachian Trail – Sleep System

Therm-a-rest  Guide (the Trail Scout is today’s equivalent) pad and Feathered Friends Raven 10 degree bag/Marmot Arroyo 30 degree bag.

Sleep System - PCT - Cutting Pack Weight

Pacific Crest Trail – Sleep System

Therm-a-rest 3/4 Z-Lite Sol and Feathered Friends Hummingbird 20 degree bag.

Continental Divide Trail Sleep System - Cutting pack Weight

Continental Divide Trail – Sleep System

Therm-a-rest 3/4 Z-Lite Sol and Feathered Friends Hummingbird 20 degree bag.

Summary

So let’s recap so far what our savings are:

3-5 pounds, Pack

3-5 pounds, Shelter

1.8 pounds, Bag/pad

6.8 – 11.8 pounds in total!  There are still lots of ways to save more.  They are smaller and less costly as the first three.

Obviously, the above doesn’t represent everyone’s pack, but what I’ve shown you here can be applied to anyone’s pack. When it comes down to it, these three areas offer the most potential weight savings. Much more so than trimming tags and cutting tooth brushes.

As I’ve alluded to cutting pack weight is more than just what is discussed above. There is a mental component to it as well as rethinking what goes in your smaller and lighter pack. Below I discuss ways to save more weight by going over weight saving options for what you put inside your pack.

OTHER SAVINGS

Outside the Big 3, there is plenty of areas you can save even more weight. As pointed out before, a smaller pack is going to force you to look at everything that goes in it. You could just stop with the Big 3, but you’d find that your pack wasn’t comfortable due to carrying too much weight.

The way around this is to rethink the rest of your gear, how you use it, and how you approach hiking. Going ultralite demands you do certain things differently. It’s not just about a super light pack.

Clothing

Almost everyone carries too many clothes. Know your body and know what it takes to keep warm. Below are some ways to eliminate clothes.

  • The first thing to get rid of is “Town Clothes”, use your rain suit.
  • Next, lay out your clothes and look for items that serve only one purpose. Instead considering using one item to serve two or more functions. A buff is a great example.
  • Learn to layer. Test different combinations of clothes at home on day hikes.
  • Ditch the camp shoes.
clothes - outdoor research astroman l/s shirt & ferrosi shorts - cutting pack weight

Cooking Set Up

The main three components of a cook set up are: stove, pot, and fuel. Depending on how you cook or if you even cook at all, the weight savings can be a lot or minimal. Those who choose not to cook don’t need to carry a pot, stove, fuel or extra water to cook and simply use a container with a good seal.

For those of us who enjoy a hot meal you can still save some weight.

  • Consider using a pot just big enough for your largest meal.
  • Construct an alcohol stove and lightweight windscreen, (see my cook set up)
  • Carry a small mug to heat your water and let your meal steep in a sealable/insulated bag (This one saves you from having to do dishes).

No matter which set up you go with, simply eating/drinking out of your pot and not carrying extra dishes will save weight and space in your pack. You can save weight another way in terms of cooking. This will not save weight off your base weight but it will save you carrying extra weight while on trail. If you can eat  at a water source instead of carrying water to where ever you eat, you save having to carry the extra weight.

Filtration

Though I believe over the years the false idea that most water is dirty and will make you sick, has been accepted as truth, I don’t take chances by gambling it’s not true.  That said I’ve use multiple lightweight filtration products, including Aqua Mira, Sawyer Squeeze, and MSR Trailshot.

I will not take 5 months off to go hike a trail like the AT, CDT or PCT to not filter or treat my water only to get giardia and shit my pants daily or worse, have to quit the trail altogether due to fatigue.

Scott Richardson - MSR Trailshot Filter - Cutting Pack Weight
La Sportiva Ultra Raptor and Akyra Trail Running shoes - Cutting Pack Weight

Shoes

Because you’re now carrying so much less you don’t need big heavy leather boots.  You can hike in trail runners.  I believe there’s a saying, “A pound on the feet is like five on your back.” Using Trail running shoes isn’t going to save you weight in your pack but they will help with your energy levels, strain on your body, and help your hike further.

Trail running shoes are also easier to break in, lighter, breath better and are easier to find a good fit.  All of those are great ways to prevent foot issues and keep you hiking.  For more tips on preventing foot issues check out my post on preventing and treating blisters.

Food

Look into finding foods that are highly packed with calories that are light and compact.  You’ll carry less and go further with less weight.  My issue has always been getting to the next town and having food left over.  Though I don’t always practice it, I like to say “Eat it or carry it!”  Find foods you enjoy and make sure to to eat them. If you’re not eating it, you’re carrying dead weight.

Example of a Resupply for hiking or bikepacking - Arizona Trail Resupply Guide - Tour Divide Resupply Guide - Colorado Trail Resupply Guide

Recap

  • Big Three – Pack, Shelter, Sleep System
  • Do your homework
    • Know what works for you
    • Research gear
    • Test different combinations
    • Trail and error
  • Items that do more or serve more than one purpose

If you’re curious to just how different the AT is compared to the PCT then take a look at my post, AT vs. PCT.  It shows you just what cutting 10 pounds from your pack will do for your daily average. I also have a comparison of my PCT vs. CDT hikes.

The key to the whole process is to look at everything you take with you, from your pack to what’s inside. Lay it all out.  See what can be obviously left home; then find items that serve more than one purpose, eliminate the others; then test different combinations of gear finally finding that perfect balance of weight, comfort and confidence. The key is doing your homework and finding the best gear. That doesn’t always mean the lightest, but the more so the most efficient. Do tons of research. Hopefully you won’t have to buy everything three times like me to figure it all out. Take a look at my gear list over the course my Triple Crown. Remember, start with a small pack then go from there. Good luck!

MORE RESOURCES

Read these next or checkout the main resource page.

Gear lists from the AT, PCT and CDT; Pros & Cons; Things I’d do different; and Tips.

Ultralite hiking - Wind River Range - Wyoming
PCT vs. CDT trail comparison -
Craig Fowler packs of the triple crown - Cutting Pack Weight

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