Do you dream of hiking up a mountain with less effort? Has backpacking been more of a task than a joy due to a heavy pack? Are you a beginner to backcountry travel? Creating a lightweight backpacking system is an accessible goal for anyone with the inclination or desire. There are many benefits to lightweight backpacking including the ability to hike faster, hike further, lessen fatigue, and reduce the risk of injury caused by a heavy load. Lightweight backpacking makes it possible for people of all ages to do more outdoors.
Starting your journey to taking less may seem like a tall task, but with some support and guidance, it can be easier than you think and more rewarding than you ever expected!
The first steps in lessening your load and transitioning to lightweight backpacking are focusing on the big three: your sleep system, backpack, and shelter. These three items offer the best opportunity to shave some significant weight, and allow you to begin reveling in the benefits of a lightweight backpacking system.
A sleep system consists of a sleeping bag or quilt and a sleeping pad. When considering what to bring on your trip, it is especially important to consider the possible temperature range at night for the elevation and location where you’ll be sleeping. For example, you wouldn’t want to bring a -10 degree rated sleeping bag for a summer trip where the lows are in the 50s, or you will be sweating inside the bag, and too cold outside the bag. Generally, thru-hikers on the PCT will carry a 20 degree rated bag for their entire trip as it is a well balanced rating for the various conditions they will encounter along the way. Some PCT hikers find that they sleep cold (women especially) and require a 10 degree bag, whereas some people generate heat like a furnace and are perfectly fine with a 30 degree bag. As a rule of thumb for 3-season (non-winter) hiking for beginners, a 20 degree bag or quilt is a great place to start to encompass a wide variety of trips at various elevations. Some great lightweight sleeping bag manufacturers include Katabatic Gear, Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, etc.
As for sleeping pads, it is surprising how much warmth can be drawn away from you through the ground. Having an insulated sleeping pad is key and should not be underestimated. Back and stomach sleepers do very well with foam pads. Side sleepers do best with an inflatable pad in order to keep their spine and head in alignment to avoid shoulder and hip pain. Foam pads have the benefit of not having to worry about possible leaks and repairs, as well as being able to fit into the mesh panels of a Gossamer pack. On the other hand, inflatable pads can be stored inside your pack, and offer a more mattress-like experience.
Having this information and knowing how you tend to sleep can help you save pounds in your pack while staying comfortable at night.
If you have an older tent, you may be surprised by how much weight you can save by upgrading to a shelter with a modern design and high-tech fabrics. There are three main types of shelters to consider: double wall shelters, single wall shelters, and tarps.
Double wall shelters are your traditional setup: a mesh inner tent with a detachable rain fly on the outside. They are usually freestanding, meaning they can be setup without staking into the ground and are very maneuverable in terms of campsite selection, making them a great option for beginners. But because they require you to carry a dedicated tent pole set and two layers of fabric, they are the heaviest shelter option. Although, it is great to be able to see the night sky on those clear nights when you don’t need to have a rain fly to protect from weather.
Single wall shelters are the lightweight standard: a single wall of fabric that acts as a rain fly and inner tent all in one. Single wall shelters like The One and The Two, are able to be setup with trekking poles, saving you the weight and volume of having to carry dedicated tent poles. This multi-functional approach allows you to carry a much lighter and more compact shelter setup. The downsides to a single wall shelter are needing to use stakes to set up the tent, which limits site placement and requires a little more skill, as well as increased exposure to condensation. Condensation happens with every tent due to two reasons: 1) the inside of the tent being warmer or more humid than the outside of the tent due to your body heat and breath, and 2) dew point, which is the atmospheric temperature at which water vapor condenses to droplets on everything in a given area from blades of grass, to the inner walls of your tent. A double wall shelter collects this moisture on the rain fly, allowing for some separation. Single wall shelters don’t offer this protection, but condensation can easily be combated with a small pack towel and adequate ventilation.
Tarps are for skilled ultralight enthusiasts. They come in different shapes and allow for a highly modular approach depending on your chosen campsite. Tarps are as minimal as it gets; just enough wind and rain protection while remaining fully connected to nature. Many people combine their tarp with a bivvy to stave off bugs depending on their location. While tarps are the absolute lightest options, they require the most skill, and are something to be approached with ample research and experience.
Also, for those of you interested in hammock setups, check out our ¼” hammock pads.
Switching to an ultralight backpack can save you pounds and drastically increase your enjoyment of the outdoors. We recommend buying a pack as one of your final lightweight gear purchases, so you are able to see how your other chosen gear fits, saving you from having to make multiple purchases or returns. Be sure to consider the amount of food and water you will have to carry on your potential hiking adventures, and learn how to size a pack.
Gossamer Gear offers a wide variety of backpacks for all of your possible needs, and we’re more than happy to help you choose the right pack.
Is this essential? Is it important? Is this multi-functional? Do I really need this? Am I already packing something that would do the same thing? What will happen if I don’t bring this? Would I compromise my safety by not bringing this?
Go through your gear and ask these questions about every item. The easiest way to lighten up your pack is to simply not bring something. You will find the first things to go are generally extra clothing, comfort items, and an excess of food. And remember, ‘knowledge weighs nothing’, so spend some time brushing up on your backcountry skills (link).
We really live by our motto: take less. do more. In addition to leaving certain items behind, you can repackage items such as toothpaste, sunscreen, and oils into mini dropper bottles. Avoid buying pre-assembled kits such as store bought first aid kits, as they most likely contain more than you need in a bulky container. A simple ziploc bag or cuben ditty is a great way to store small items. How can you repackage your food to not only save on the weight of packaging, but make the overall volume of the food you carry smaller?
Replacing gear is the last step, as you should focus on eliminating unnecessary gear, repackaging, and expanding your backcountry skills before you spend money on new items. However, there are some significant opportunities to save weight by replacing gear. Some basic examples include using a plastic water bottle instead of a Nalgene, or swapping out your tent footprint for a polycryo ground sheet. Most shelters don’t come with a groundsheet so you can save good chunk of money by using our polycryo instead of the manufacturer’s ground cloth. You can also downsize your full size lip balm to a mini lip balm. Replace some of your hygiene and first aid products with our green goo outdoor salve. If you’re camping in bear country, a smaller lightweight bear canister might work for those short trips. When replacing items, you should spend your budget on replacing your heaviest and bulkiest backpacking gear. This will likely be your big three: sleep system, shelter, and backpack. An easy way to think about this is, how much are you spending to save how much weight? A great rule of thumb is around $10-15 per ounce. Any more than that should be given careful consideration.
One of the biggest weight savings is bringing gear that can serve multiple purposes. A pair of trekking poles can be beneficial for your knees on climbs and descents, and can also be used at night to support your shelter. In a frameless lightweight pack like the Kumo, you can replace the SitLight pad with a foam sleeping pad to give the pack more structure and save you from carrying your sleeping pad elsewhere. A lightweight bandana or buff can function in multiple ways such as a washcloth, towel, bandage, hat, water pre-filter, and handkerchief. You can even use your polycryo ground sheet as a rain skirt, or use your clear pack liner bag to line the foot end of your sleeping bag for some extra warmth and water protection on those frosty nights.
It may take a little work (and lots of practice) but knowing how to set up (and where to set up) a lightweight shelter makes all the difference. A double walled freestanding tent doesn’t require a lot of skill to set up. But by gaining some knowledge and learning how to set up an ultralight shelter, you could save pounds from your pack weight! Additionally, learning about campsite selection is also extremely beneficial to your comfort on the trail. Instead of setting up right next to a gorgeous lake, you can avoid mosquitoes, harsh winds, and morning dew by being in a more wooded area. Envision possible scenarios and evaluate with realistic solutions. Read and research before a trip so you’re able to...
Go on multiple shakedown hikes before a big backpacking trip. When you return home take a look at your gear and make piles of gear used a lot, sometimes used, and never used. Unless it was a first aid or safety item (such as a location beacon or rain jacket), if you didn’t use it, consider leaving it out on your next trip. It is important to learn how to use your gear and make sure it’s practical.. By testing your gear on shorter outings, you are doing your best to ensure you have more successful adventures in the future. Bad weather in the forecast? Make sure you’re prepared for rain!
While on your journey to start lightweight backpacking, know that it’s a process and something that should be a gradual shift. With lightweight or ultralight backpacking, the focus should primarily be on getting more people of all ages outdoors, and having a good time.
But if you really want to nerd out and go all in– create a gear list spreadsheet. Get your typical setup together and weigh everything. To weigh your gear, you will need to use a kitchen scale so you can measure your gear in grams or ounces. The listed weight of your outdoor gear may not include items like tent stakes and stuff sacks so be sure to weigh everything instead of looking it up online. Once you know how much each item weighs, you can begin to evaluate and eliminate that weight.
Interested in learning more? Take a look at Gossamer Gear founder Glen Van Peski’s advice on going lighter.