Lessons Learned on Pack Weight From a Decade of Gear List Comparisons
By: Glen Van Peski
“They left me because I was only doing 20-mile days.”
Several years ago, we were in the San Jacinto Wilderness with our Boy Scout Troop from Vista, California. Since San Jacinto was a short hop from the avocado groves of North San Diego County, it was a frequent haunt for weekend trips to expose boys more familiar with the beach to the joys of the mountains.
Our route for this trip included a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and we had stopped to chat with a young man in short shorts carrying what looked like a daypack. We had inquired about the Ziploc bag of ramen behind his neck, and he had explained that the two friends he had started the trail with had taken the group stove when they ditched him. They had left him to cook with his own body heat because he was only hiking 20 miles a day, and they wanted to do higher mileage.
To this day, I remember standing there with my huge internal frame pack, desperately trying to wrap my head around the fact that he was hiking to Canada with a tiny pack, no stove, and logging 20 miles a day. In the years that followed, I worked to pare down my own load. I started to sew my own packs and shelters, and relentlessly pursued lighter options as I grew more comfortable with my backcountry skills.
The Evolution of My Pack Weight Over the Years
As an engineer, I create a gear list for every trip. It would be an interesting exercise to plot my base pack weight over the last 20+ years, but the earliest gear list I can readily access today is an April 2002 trip on Section A of the PCT (with a 6.5 oz. G5 pack, and an early Spinnshelter with only 2 stakes). The base pack weight for that 2002 trip was 11.31 lbs.
Of course, gear choices depend on the season and trip location, due to things like canyons, mountains, and bear canister requirements. Since I track the base pack weight – meaning the weight before food and water – the length of the trip is not a significant factor in a comparison.
A little more than 10 years ago, in September 2008, I did a 3-day trip in Humphrey’s Basin, in the John Muir Wilderness. It was a popular trip when I was working at sea level because I would sleep in my car at the North Lake trailhead at 9,000 feet and acclimatize my body. My gear list from that 2008 trip shows a base pack weight of 4.48 lbs, 4.71 lbs. of worn items, and 5.96 lbs. of consumables, for a total weight on my back at trailhead of 10.44 lbs.
Even more than a decade ago, my weight-shaving efforts to that point had paid off! And, the major items were pretty close to what I took last year for a section of the PCT in Washington. I still use a Murmur pack, a homemade DCF Wedge shelter, my trimmed-down 3/8” Thinlight torso pad, Polycryo ground sheet, my custom Sleeplight sleeping bag, a Smartwater bottle, and a Platypus 3-liter hydration system. Fuel tablets over a beer can pot is still my choice for cooking, and a bamboo spoon for eating. Some other items on that 2008 list have long since disappeared from the scene, like the Golite Sun Dragon shoes.
In August of 2019 I did a trip on the PCT in Washington, the first leg of which was a 4-day stretch. For that 2019 trip, I had a base pack weight of 4.76 lbs. and 4.75 lbs. of worn items. The 9.24 lbs. of consumables was higher due to the longer trip. The total worn and base carried weight of 9.51 lbs. is actually higher than the 9.19 lbs. from a decade ago, in spite of saving 4.8 oz. by taking my lighter sleeping bag on the PCT, due to the anticipated temperatures being 10 degrees higher.
What Changed On My Gear Lists Over the Years?
So, in the last decade, what changed between my 2008 and 2019 lists, and what was the weight impact?
Pack: + 3 oz.
The new Robic Murmur weighs a little more, but is more durable than my old spinnaker one. I try to take updated Gossamer products where possible, so it’s closer to what people can purchase for themselves.
Shelter: + 0.9 oz.
I still use my original Cuben (DCF) Wedge because it still does the job under the right conditions. Today, I take 6 stakes, 2 of which are beefier for the main tie outs. A decade ago, I had a slightly different line setup, which eliminated the need for 2 of the stakes. Maybe I should take another look at that old design…
Clothing: - 0.3 oz.
Packed clothing for the Sierra trip a decade ago totaled 16.8 oz., compared to 16.5 oz. for the recent PCT trip.
The old Possumdown hat and gloves were great warmth for the weight, but I grew tired of them wearing thin, piling up, and leaving me covered in hair when they got wet. I shaved an ounce with my new thin wool liners and light fleece hat, but they’re definitely not as warm.
The 5.1 oz. for my Berghaus Hyper jacket and my ZPacks rain kilt give me top and bottom rain protection for less than the 6.3 oz. Driducks jacket of 2008. The Berghaus is not as breathable as the Driducks, but more durable.
My Montbell Ex-Light down jacket at 5.7 oz. is way warmer than the 4.2 oz. Montbell down vest I made do with in 2008, even on a trip that was 10 degrees cooler.
Sleeping Bag: - 4.8 oz.
Since the 2008 trip was cooler than my recent PCT hike, I was able to get by with my lighter custom sleeping bag. As I get older, I have less tolerance for being cold, so am more liable to pack a slightly heavier sleeping bag and insulation. While in this comparison it saved weight, I find myself taking my “heavy” bag more frequently.
Cooking/Eating: - 0.3 oz.
My old cooking system weighed in at 3.3 oz. My current setup is basically the same, but weighs only 2.8 oz. I have a slightly smaller pot, and moved to paper matches instead of a mini lighter (made possible by the discovery of WetFire tinder). My current bamboo spoon is 0.2 oz. heavier than my old one, but is longer, which is handy for eating out of bags. My new plan is to go back to using chopsticks that double as tent stakes, so that will save some weight.
Food: - 4.2 oz.
I calculated food at 1.5 lbs. per day in 2008, but now use a figure of 1.4 lbs. It doesn’t seem like much, but over the 2008 Sierra trip, which I calculated at 2.6 days of food since it didn’t include dinner on the last day, it would have saved over 4 oz. Over a longer trip, getting your food dialed in can save significant weight.
Electronics: + 3.7 oz.
I try to minimize electronics when backpacking, since that’s one of the reasons I like to get away into the wilderness. In 2008, I was taking a Casio Exilim EX-510 at 4.6 oz. The iPhone 8, which serves as a camera now, weighs 5.2 oz. and, at least in my hands, hasn’t yielded the same quality of photos so far. The phone does have other functions, such as navigation, although I use it very sparingly to preserve battery life and avoid the weight of an extra power source.
Paired with a Garmin InReach Mini, the phone gives my wife Francie added peace of mind, as I can send her texts every evening. It’s another 3.4 oz., but works out to less than 3 grams for each of our 37+ years of marriage.
My beloved titanium Suunto Observer watch, an anniversary gift from my wife, finally gave up the ghost about 6 years ago. When Suunto declined to repair it, they graciously gave me a credit towards a CORE watch, which ends up being 0.3 oz. lighter!
Miscellaneous: + 7.3 oz.
It’s tempting to not focus on a bunch of items with individual weights measured in tenths of an ounce. I was amazed to see that my “miscellaneous items” totaled 13.7 oz. from my recent trip, compared to 6.4 oz. over a decade ago – more than double!
However, at least some of that is due to the different seasons and locations. On the PCT in August, I took a head net and DEET, which totaled 1.4 oz. that was superfluous for Humphrey’s Basin in mid-September above treeline.
The onset of old(er) age added 0.2 oz. for i4u reading glasses.
Flying instead of driving made the packability of the 9.2 oz. Lightrek 5 poles an asset compared to the 6.0 oz. set of old Lightrek 4 poles.
The PCT was part of a larger trip, so I had 3.0 oz. of maps, compared to 0.8 oz. for the Sierra.
The Petzl Bindi headlamp is almost the same weight as the Fenix L0D mini flashlights I used to carry, but is now counted as “packed” weight, since I don’t wear it around my neck anymore.
Using an entire 8.5” x 11” sheet of waterproof paper instead of just a Rite in the Rain sheet adds 0.3 oz., but is easier to file after the trip.
The addition of the Garmin is a big hit at 3.4 oz.
Gear Weight (in ounces)
Carried or Worn
What Were the Reasons for Gear Changes Over the Years?
Reasons for changes in individual pack items fall into a few categories:
As I need reading glasses, that’s something I have to pack. Similarly, I’m much more likely to take my warmer sleeping bag. I don’t know for sure if I just get cold more easily, or I’m just getting soft as I age. While I’m still as physically fit as 10 years ago in my own mind, Francie knows better, and prefers that I have a way to stay in touch from the wilderness with the Garmin InReach Mini and my iPhone. So far, I’m still sleeping on my 3/8” Thinlight pad, but it’s possible one day I might give in to an inflatable sleeping pad.
As I’ve gained experience in the wilderness, my gear needs changed. The bulk of this occurred in the first decade rather than the last decade, like deciding I didn’t need to carry the Leatherman, even if it was the 2.2 oz. Micra model. But, the switch to a small bottle of bleach for water treatment saved me 0.6 oz. over Aquamira on my last trip.
Advances in technology can work both ways. My pack today weighs more than my pack of 10 years ago, but it is much more durable. My trekking poles are stronger and more compact, but at the cost of weight. The InReach Mini weighs a fraction of earlier models, making it a realistic addition to a sub-5 lb. base pack kit. Advances in apparel fabrics mean that rain jackets weigh a lot less than they did 10 years ago, with advances in performance, as well. As a tinkerer, I had already taken advantage 10 years ago of advanced fabrics to save shelter weight, but now those advances are available to the general public through a variety of cottage and even mainstream brands.
Some added weight is for convenience and ease of use. My mini-snips add 0.2 oz., but are so much easier to use when trimming first aid supplies that I happily carry them. Generally, convenience costs weight, so I typically try to compensate with skills and patience rather than adding weight.
The added collapsibility of the LT5 poles are another example of added convenience that weighs more. Taking a pair of 0.7 oz. medical booties to wear around camp is another example of convenience. A decade ago, I got by without them, but it’s nice sometimes to slip out of dirty and maybe wet shoes, and put on some sleeping socks and booties for padding around camp.
The longer bamboo spoon makes mealtimes easier. My insulated cooking system stuff sack is twice the weight of my old nylon one, but that 0.2 oz. is well worth it to have a piping hot cup of soup while my dinner rehydrates in my sleeping bag.
My Lessons Learned from a Decade of Gear List Comparisons
For me, as long as I can maintain my base pack weight around 5 lbs., I’m pretty happy. I’ve made adjustments over the years to keep it around that level for most trips. But, spending some time doing this comparison revealed some surprises to me. To others hoping to lower their own pack weight, the lessons are:
- Document – You have to have data to analyze. Always create (and save) gear lists.
- Review – It’s great to look at the last trip, but sometimes going further back yields some surprising learnings.
- Experiment – Be safe, but daring. If you decide that it’s too uncomfortable without that inflatable pad, you can always add it back in. You won’t know how little you really need to be safe in the mountains without trying it.
And, finally, the most important thing is to GET OUT THERE!
Glen Van Peski is the Founder of Gossamer Gear and a leading proponent of lightweight backpacking.