Light Packing

Posted by Terry Mcadams on Jun 10, 2004

Someone just e-mailed me for my notes on light weight backpacking, but I couldn't respond to them due to security code restrictions (govt. worker, I presume). Notes pasted in below, which may be useful for kayakers also.




I've given my thoughts on light packing below. I do think it is a very good idea for packers to use the lightest gear that's practically affordable, and leave any extra gear home. I've had a very bad back since I was 19 and I suspect that doing heavy packing with my brothers in my teens was a factor in causing it. Also, packers with heavy loads are more prone to falls, as well as leg, back, shoulder and neck injuries. In addition, light pack weights open up the sport to more smaller, older and younger people. Lastly, it's more pleasant to hit the campsite at the end of the day feeling good, rather than pushed to crabby exhaustion by a heavy load.

Basically, I just examined every item and asked myself:

1. Do I really need this?

2. Can I make do with a smaller and lighter one?

3. Can the item do double-duty for something else? e.g. pack covers can keep your feet warm at night or keep your butt off the wet ground; space blankets make good tent ground cloths.

Some of the ideas below may seem silly, some not. I've learned that shaving as much weight as possible from each item all adds up to many pounds off your shoulders.

A good source for gear info is Backpacker Magazine's Gear issue every March.

Tents: There are several new tents under 3 lbs. that are dry and vent well. I don't believe any of them are freestanding. I like the Eureka Gossamer. It's cheap, very versatile and just roomy enough for my gear and myself. REI has a similar solo tent that looks good also. I use a space blanket in place of a ground cloth. Weight savings: 1-4 lbs.

Packs: With lighter, smaller gear, you can use a smaller pack. I use a Gregory Banshee at about 4 lbs. (2800 cu. in.). It seems the packs that are lighter than that lack the proper padding, rigid frame and hip belt to be comfortable and safe. Savings: 1-3 lbs.

Bags: There are some great sleeping bags out there under 3 lbs. and warm. Look especially at the ones designed for rock climbers. Down is warmer for the weight and compresses well, but useless if wet. I use synthetic fill instead, as the newer versions of these fills approach down in weight and compressibility. Savings: 1-2 lbs.

The new LED head lamps are lighter and burn longer on smaller and fewer batteries. I usually leave the headlamp home and use a Micromag flashlight - 1 oz. with one AAA battery and a surprisingly bright halogen bulb. It can be taped to a sweat band or bandana if you need a head lamp. Savings: 3-5 oz.

I carry a water filter and 1.5 quarts of water, instead of 3 or 4 bottles (but check with the ranger/leader to see if trail water is available). And wrap some duct tape around one of the bottles, a good place to store this remarkable stuff. Savings: 3-6 lbs.

The new iso-butane micro stoves weigh under 10 oz. with fuel, will boil six quarts per fuel canister and are easier to light and quite a bit cheaper to buy than the white gas stoves (but they work poorly at higher altitudes) I also carry a small, 1-quart titanium pot with a lid. It's foreign made and I can't remember where I got it, but it's lighter and much cheaper than the MSR pots. Titanium is much stronger than aluminum for the weight and won't get crunched in your pack. My stove, lighter and other small, fragile items fit in the pot for protection. Savings: 1 - 1.5 lbs.

A single-edged razor blade is a lot sharper, more versatile and lighter than any of those pricey little backpacker or Swiss Army knives. Savings: 1-6 oz.

I use a shorter but comfortable Thermarest pad - just over a pound (the Prolite model, I think). It fits in my Thermarest chair, about 11 oz. The pad is an important comfort item, so if you need a thicker pad to rest well, carry it, but do think about a shorter one. I sleep on my side, and, rather than carry a very thick pad to keep my hip point from resting on hard ground, I carry a small piece of closed cell foam to stick in my bag under my hip - doubles as a butt pad for trail breaks. The chair is profoundly comfortable and very important for resting my back well while sitting, so I carry it. Savings: 1 lbs.

I carry a pair of warm fleece tights (much warmer/lighter than fleece pants) and a long sleeve coolmax shirt and fleece windbloc vest - both versatile and light. I also carry a pair of neoprene socks for warmth in the lighter sleeping bag and as an emergency pair of socks. If I'm cold in the campsite, I don my rain gear to keep the heat in and/or I get in my bag. Savings 1 - 2 lbs.

Teva sandals are nice for the camp site, but heavy - a pound or more, depending on size/style. Instead, I carry a pair of light (5 oz.), slip-on sandals I got at K-mart for $4.99. Savings: .5 - 1 lb.

Several places sell very light rain gear. I use a Marmot Precip jacket and REI ultra light Gore-Tex pants. 21 oz. total. Bike catalogs also often have light stuff on sale. If you're buying breathable gear, get good quality with a warranty. Be sure all seams are taped. Cheap breathable fabrics either leak or don't breath. It's better to buy a cheap, plastic rain suit and use it until you can save for good quality breathable gear. Backpacker Mag tests raingear. Wear new gear in the shower for several minutes to see if it keeps you dry. Savings: 1 lb.

All food is freeze dried. Tasty and very light, but pricey. One exception is nuts - probably the best pack food ounce-for-ounce. Savings: 1 - 2 lbs. for a two-day pack.

Don't have a bunch of folks on the pack carrying duplicate gear. If the leader has first aid training and carries a good kit, leave yours home. Same goes for cell phones (which don't work much in valleys anyway), GPS's, tarps, maps, trail guides, binoculars, candle lanterns and bear bags. Four or five stoves for ten packers are plenty. Savings: .5 - 5 lbs.

I used to carry spare shoe laces. Now I just carry 30' of parachute cord (1/8" dacron polyester is best as it doesn't stretch - available at marine stores). I can cut a shoe lace off it if I need one, and it works to hang a bear bag, support a tarp or cloths line and for gear repairs. Savings: 1 oz.

I do still carry spare pack buckles and hiking pole tips, as it's a pain if you break one. Speaking of hiking poles, I strongly recommend using them on all packs in the mountains. Knee injuries are very common for packers, particularly women, and poles save knees and backs by distributing loads to all four limbs, in addition to being great balance aids and cloths line/tarp poles. I also strongly recommend spending the extra $ and getting the spring loaded poles, as the pounding of the poles on rocks or ice for hours on end can yield very sore or even injured wrists and elbows. Extra weight of poles: 13 oz. - 1 lb.

I find two of those mini Bic lighters to be lighter and more reliable in rain than matches in a waterproof case. Savings: 1 oz.

With lighter gear, you can go with lighter boots or trail-running sneakers. I used to always pack in Limmer boots. HEAVY - over 5 lbs.- but great for my days of heavy packing with 45-70 lbs. Now, a bad back dictates light loads (25 lbs. max. for an overnight, 3-season pack) and I use much lighter LL Bean Knife-edge boots for cool/wet weather and trail sneaks for warm/dry weather. The lighter foot weight makes a BIG difference by the time you hit the campsite. Savings: 1 - 3 lbs., depending on foot size.

I remove all tags and labels and save them in a file. I shorten all long strap and cord ends. This can add up to a half pound or more.

Some untralite geeks go out with as little as 10 lbs. But I like to be comfortable in my tent, have a good pack harness and have a good chair to rest in, so I carry more stuff - but it's all LIGHT.

New packers tend to buy a lot of expensive, heavy gear and then quickly discard or replace it as they get more experience. I freely admit to having a pile of old, lightly used gear in our attic. One can save a lot of money, sweat and injury by carefully considering each purchase.

That's about all I can think of. Trust me, going untralight is more fun and much safer.

Any questions, corrections or suggestions, kindly e-mail me at

terry mcadams