Ever wonder how those hikers with the tiny overnight packs manage to survive the night with such small packs. Read on and I’ll tell you, so 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 hiker. Personally I got a hair across my ass that said “Buy a pack and go hiking, it will be fun!” I did and I had foot issues and labored to hike a mere 7 miles the first day. 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. 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 before I started I was that person with the 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 didn’t have the confidence to carry less. This is where the catch 22 comes in. One needs experience and confidence to carry less but you have to first carry more gaining experience to get there or you need to go ultralite/lightweight from the start by doing a lot of research.
I hope this post can help others limit the experience part and they can add the confidence part themselves and save some weight before they buy a bunch of gear they don’t need or want to carry. There’s a 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. If you must do these after you’ve done what follows.
The last thing I will say is making the decision to carry less can be a compromise. It can be anything from less comfort to gear short falls in certain conditions. One needs to be aware of these so they can coupe or make decisions that counter the undesired conditions. There are 3 major areas where weight can be saved: The Big 3.
- Sleep System
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 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 confidence part comes in and most people, myself included think OMG, 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 else 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.
I would guess the average pack weight for the average hiker is about 6 pounds, while the average lightweight pack is about 2 to 2.5 pounds. You’ve already save 3.5 to 4 pounds! Ultralite packs are around a pound or so.
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 shelter. Single wall tents can have condensation issue depending on design, improper set up or simply due to changes in weather. Tarps offer shelter from most weather but one needs to be care full in extra bad weather.
I would guess the average tent weight for a two person; double wall tent is about 4-6 pounds, while the average lightweight tent is 2 pounds, tarp 1 pound or less. Ultralite would be 1.5 pounds to 8 ounces. There’s another 4 pounds!
So many people grimace when I tell them I used a down sleeping bag on my AT thru-hike. (Psst, I used one on the LT and PCT too!) My bag got wet twice, once because I put a trash bag on the foot of my bag and the condensation got trapped and the other I was forced to sleep on the ground at the front of a shelter in the Whites while it poured and the water from the roof splashed on me as it hit the already soaked ground. The reality is this. If you protect your bag properly it won’t get wet. Don’t let anyone tell you other wise. My trick was to put my bag in water proof stuff sack, which was put in a trash bag, and then it was placed in my pack. On the AT I had a pack cover, total waste of money, space and weight in my opinion. On the PCT and LT I just put a trash bag inside my pack and everything went inside that. So to recap that’s four separate barriers against water touching your down bag. Moving on.
Your sleeping pad options are many, open cell foam, closed cell foam, air, 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. 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 ¾ Z-rest, you can save about another 6-7 ounces.
So let’s recap so far what our savings are:
4 pounds, Pack
4 pounds, Shelter
1.7 pounds, Bag/pad
9.7 pounds in total! There are still lots of ways to save more. They are smaller and less costly as the first three.
If you want to see how I saved these ten pounds check out my post called, Pack vs. Pack.
The first area where most people can save is in what they carry for clothes. Most carry too much and at the end of the day probably have more than one piece of clothing with them they never wore on their whole trip. Make note of what these items are. Next time you go out to hike or camp leave them home! Don’t be tempted to bring them. The next step is to look for items that are serving only one purpose. A lot of people think they need ‘”town clothes” or “camp clothes” when on a thru-hike or overnight trip. This is not so. Put on your rain suit and presto. It’s not a fashion show so just go with it. Why carry shorts and pants, just get a pair of zip offs. Long sleeve and short sleeve shirts? I think not my smelly friend. Buy a wool short sleeve like Ibex, then get a pair of arm warms. That short sleeve just became a long sleeve at a fraction of the price and weight. Trade that heavy fleece in for a puff jacket.
There’s not a ton of weight be to saved in ones kitchen set up but there is a lot of bulk. Get started by checking out my post on my cook set up; it will explain what is to follow. Start with a small titanium pot. If your going solo a .9 liter is plenty big enough. Next look into making yourself a integrated pot stand/windscreen like the one my dad made me for the PCT.
The screen is barely taller than my pot so it easy wraps around the pot and stores inside the same bag as the pot. The two bicycle spokes which act as the supports for the pot fit too. Inside my pot I can fit either my soda can stove or my MSR SuperFly, a lighter, bandanna, and my spoon.
Lastly, why carry a mug or bowl to eat from? You have to wash both, they take up space, and add weight. Now I’ll admit, I carry a recycled Gatorade bottle to drink from while in camp. It’s one thing to drink all day from my hydration pack, another weight saver which serves two purposes if not three (drinking, showering and transportation), but I enjoy not sucking from a tube during dinner. Eat from your pot, it will stay warmer as it’s already hot and you don’t have to clean a bowl.
If you must carry a bowl or other kitchen items look at the cool stuff the good people over at GSI Outdoor make. They have everything from bowls, mugs, pots to serving wear. It’s all light weight, well thought out, and packs down small.
Though I believe the media has created the false idea that most water is dirty and will make you sick, I don’t take chances by gambling their wrong. That said I use Aqua Mira. It does the job most filters do and leaves no after taste. I will not take 5 months off to go hike a trail like the 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.
Because you’re now carrying so much less you don’t need big heavy leather boots. You can hike in trail running shoes. I believe the saying is “A pound on the feet is like five on your back.” Trail running shoes are 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. For more tips on preventing foot issues check out my post on preventing and treating blisters.
Look into finding foods that are highly packed with calories that are light. 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.
- Big Three
- Items that do more or serve more than one purpose
- Trail and error
- Test different combinations
- Gear Research
If your 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.
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 mean the lightest but the more efficient. Do tons of research. Hopefully you won’t have to buy everything 3 times like me to figure it all out. Remember, start with a small pack then go from there. Good luck.
Get out there!
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