backpacking lightweight leave philosophy & practice

The Philosophy & Practice of
Traveling Light in the Backcountry !

INTRODUCTIONthe lightweight backpacker
In this day and age, outdoor gear manufacturers - eager to sell products - attempt to gain competitive advantage by advertising many of their products as "Lightweight" and/or "Ultralight", and in at least one case, "UltralightLightweight".

This marketing ploy has created sort of an irony in the backcountry community - that is, it is now commonplace to see novice as well as experienced backcountry travelers carrying 50-pound packs full of so-called "lightweight" gear.

On the other hand, there is an increasing number of backcountry travelers who carry packs - loaded with most of the same "gear functionality" as the packs above - which weigh about 1/2 as much. Why the dramatic difference ?

How is it that I carry most of the same gear functionality that you do, but my 7-Day Pack weighs only 27 pounds ? The answers lie somewhere within "The Packlight Weight-Reducing Process".

The following sections discuss The Packlight Process, in terms of Philosophy and Practice.



Most of us are accustomed to a certain living standard and comfort level. When we begin backpacking, climbing, hiking, or whatever, in the backcountry, we often attempt to take that standard and corresponding comfort with us. Consequently, we each have our stories of laboring under heavy packs, and hopefully, each of us has learned ways to shed some of that weight. If not, or if you want to join me in shedding more weight, read on.

I have to laugh at myself. About 29 years ago, I spent four months traveling around Europe and the British Isles. During that time I didn't carry much in my pack--just enough to stay dry, warm, and nourished. After I returned home, I quit backpacking for some years and, in that interim, forgot the basic principle of traveling light.

When I began backpacking again, it didn't take me long to remember.

It was August, with temperatures in the high 90's - a six-day trip into the Washington Central Cascades, Alpine-Lakes Wilderness, High Enchantment Lakes. A long, gruelling, 12-mile climb, with over 6000 feet elevation gain. It was not fun, primarily because my pack weighed 60 pounds ! I won't tell you what was in it, but I will say that if I made that same trip today, that pack would weigh less than 30 pounds, at the outset !

Six days later, it was a descent that included negotiating the infamous Aasgard Pass -- next thing to vertical, losing 2200 feet in 3/4 mile on small rocks that invariably slide under the boot as well as large slippery rocks. No trail, had to follow cairns. Not a good place to be carrying a heavy (now 45 pound) pack !

The primary message being conveyed by this writing, is that traveling light in the backcountry will increase your enjoyment level, significantly. A light pack will allow for increased awareness & enjoyment of the surroundings while en route to your destination. Once you get there, you'll still have energy to celebrate your arrival, as well as to explore further. Also, a light pack decreases the risk of fatigue-related injuries (from falling, heat-exhaustion, etc.) and injuries from undue stress on back, legs, knees, and feet.

The "Packlight Philosophy" emphasizes a never-ending commitment to (1) scrutinize packing habits in order to fine-tune minimum packing needs and (2) aggressively seek out the smallest, lightest-weight, highest-quality gear solutions available, to satisfy those needs.



Tenacious Attitude:

Ruthless scrutiny of each piece of gear is key. First, evaluate each item of gear for its necessity and functionality -- some pieces of gear can serve multiple purposes, some are along for the ride, just in case. The longer you look at each piece with an attitude -- i.e., is it worthy of being in your pack, ON YOUR AGING BACK -- the more its value will increase or decrease. The only "just-in-case" pieces of gear that I carry fall within the "Fourteen-Essentials" category -- e.g., first aid/last aid kit, emergency fire starter, etc. Everything else is a critical piece of gear that provides at least one function, every day.

Once you've selected the items of gear that are absolutely necessary AND have unduplicated functionality, then start your search for its smallest and lightest manifestation. Here is where complications arise. You may have the attitude, but no bucks in your pocket. Compromise ! Buy (and/or make) the smallest, lightest, highest quality you can afford.

My experience has been that most of the high-end expensive items that I have purchased have endured much better than their low-end counterparts, such that, the expensive stuff is actually cheaper in the long run. Like I say, that's my experience. You'll have to engage in your own mental gymnastics for what you can justify and what you can't.

" The unexamined life is not worth living ! "
Socrates (470-399 B.C.)

" The unexamined gear may not be worth toting ! "

The Lightweight Backpacker (1946 - ?? A.D.)

Look for Multiple Functionality in Gear

Many items of gear can be used for multiple purposes. The practice of using one piece of equipment for more than one purpose will often allow you to leave other equipment items at home. Again, take the time to scrutinize each piece of gear as to the possibilities.

Multiple-Use Gear:

  • Parachute Cord--clothesline, securing splints, line for traction splint, food bag line,

  • Swiss Army Knife--knife, scissors, saw, awl......

  • Candles--light for reading/writing, wax as fire starter, wax as waterproofing agent

  • Duct Tape--moleskin substitute, bandage wrap, gear repair (packs, boots, poles...), splint wrap, emergency sunglasses

  • Sleeping Bag--emergency stretcher or litter

  • Cooking Pot--bowl for eating, cup for hot drinks

  • Water Bottle--cup for hot drinks

  • Backpack Metal Stays--splints

  • Ski / Hiking Poles--avalanche probe, splints,

  • Snow Shovel--sled for fun, sled runner for emergency litter,

  • Stuff Sacks--pillows,

  • Socks--hand warmers,

  • Safety Pins--securing bandages and cloth slings, clothespins, fish hook, hook for hanging items, ....

  • Clothing--slings, pillow stuffing, adds loft to sleeping system.

  • Stove Aluminum Wind Screen--candle light reflector, funnel for pouring liquids.

  • Dental Floss--sewing thread, ties,

  • Zip-Loc Freezer Baggies--carry items, bowl for preparing & eating food, carry-out container for garbage.

  • Backpack w/weather shroud--emergency bivy sack (for the lower half of the body).

  • Compass sighting mirror--personal mirror, emergency signaling device.

  • Tent Pegs--slender tent pokers with relatively sharp ends (like the titanium pegs sold by Simon Metals Company) can be used as a piercing tool- for instance, to pierce thick fabric or leather in order to run a cord through, to make a repair. Also, for grilling food over a flame.

" Pay attention to the ounces & the pounds will follow "

The Lightweight Backpacker

Look for Innovative Ways to Reduce Pack Weight:

Take time--before, during, & after each hike--to peruse your gear, your packing habits, even the clothing you wear, for ways to reduce the weight that you must bear. You may be surprised at the amount of unnecessary weight that you inflict on yourself. Keep in mind, though, it is a process. A long-term commitment and challenge. You will, undoubtedly, think of something new practically every trip.

Here is a compilation of Weight-Reducing Tips -- some are original, some are commonly known and used.

Weight-Reducing Tips:


  • 3 lb Pack, 2 lb Sleeping Bag, 3 lb tent

    This is, perhaps, your biggest opportunity to reduce weight. Seek out a good 3 lb pack that is relatively comfortable with 35 to 40 pounds in it. Since, most of the time, you will be carrying less than that, the suspension of that 3 lb pack should be adequate for you. Get a good 2 lb, 20 degree, goose-down (or comparable synthetic) sleeping bag and a good 3 lb 3 or 4-season tent. Let's see, 7 lbs minus 3 lbs (pack), 3.5 lbs minus 2 lbs (bag), 5 lbs minus 3 lbs (tent)--that's a weight reduction of 7.5 pounds. SEVEN AND A HALF POUNDS !!!

  • Seek out TITANIUM (or other ultralight) materials

    Pots, stoves, backpack stays, tent pegs, anything metal, if made of titanium, will be significantly lighter than any other metal. For example, my titanium cook pot (with lid & handles) weighs 6 oz. That compares to 14 oz. for comparable MSR or SIGG lightweight stainless steel and about 10 oz. for Traveling Light's Aluminum entry. For stoves, my titanium Primus butane/propane (with windscreen) weighs 3.4 oz, compared to MSR Whisperlite--12.7 oz, and Camping Gaz Micro Bleuet--7 oz. (both without windscreen). So far, in my experience, strength and durability of titanium products seem to be more than adequate.

  • Toothbrush / Tooth Powder / Dental Floss / Sewing Kit

    Assuming you use more than just your finger to clean your teeth, here's a tip or two.

    First find a toothbrush with a short head, say 3/4 inch. Next, cut off the handle--leaving about two inches to hold onto--and finish it off by sanding-down the rough edges. Oh yes, drill a few holes in the remaining handle -- if it's a fat handle, hollow it out with your drill. Be creative.

    Tooth powder is lighter than paste, and can be meted out much easier. I measure a small palm-full for each day on the trail and store it in a very-small, very light plastic container which resembles a 35mm film container, but is about 1/2 the size and weight.

    If you are going to carry dental floss, two suggestions. Take the floss, leave the plastic container behind. Rather than packing a sewing kit, use the waxed floss as emergency thread for gear repair.  Put a sewing needle or two in your first aid kit or somewhere else safe.

  • Water Is Heavy

    So only carry what you need. Here are two potential ways to reduce the amount of H2o you're packing (1) If you know the area you're in and can be sure there are watering holes up ahead, pack only enough to get to the next water hole. Also, (2) if you drink as much as your innards can hold before you hit the trail and at each water fill-up, thereafter, you won't need to carry as much, after you get going.

    I follow these tips and now, most of the time, carry at least one pound less on my back because of it. (Caution: If you alpine scramble or otherwise navigate cross country - esp. if you desert hike - you may need to pack it all - plan carefully.)

  • Eliminate Map Edges

    Cut em off ! I know, I know. This is some kind of neurosis, isn't it. Actually, it's attitude. If it doesn't have AT LEAST ONE FUNCTION, I don't want it in my pack. I cut off map edges (leaving just enough room for bearing calculations, notes, longitude & latitude markings, and other important map attributes.)

  • About Stuff Sacks

    I carry much of my gear in color-coded stuff sacs and zip-loc freezer baggies. Where I use stuff sacs, I adhere to the following. (1) Use the right size sack--wasted space means unnecessary weight. (2) Cut off labels inside sack (3) Allow just enough drawcord so sack can have full opening--cut off the rest and melt the ends so they won't unravel (4) Use the strongest-smallest plastic cord-locks you can find. All this may seem insignificant, but it adds up after a while.

  • Mete-Out Appropriate Portions !

    Sunscreen, bug-juice, toothpowder/paste, condiments, prescription medicine, antacid, vitamin I (ibuprofen), toilet paper, and anything else for which you can measure usage according to time (weeks, days, hours). Mete out portions of these items that will be appropriate for the time you'll be in the backcountry. For some items, estimate conservatively so that you'll have a little extra if conditions turn out to be differently from what you anticipated -- (for example, worse bugs, more sun, bigger headache, etc.). I use little plastic vials that are similar to film canisters but smaller -- but have same tight-fitting lids.

    NOTE:  I don't use film canisters because of the chemicals used on film & possible residual in the canisters.

  • Clothes

    Cut off unnecessary labels and lengths of cord. If garments have cord locks, replace them with lighter versions, or instead, use small doubled-up patches of light-weight leather with slits. I've noticed that some manufacturers have been doing this, also.

    If you carry extra clothes for emergencies, cut off pockets, cords, tags, unneeded linings, etc.

    I have saved some weight on hats by cutting out labels and replacing plastic adjusting straps with elastic. It feels better and won't break in the field as easily as the plastic ones.

  • Backpacks

    Shorten nylon webbing straps wherever possible. I once saved a quarter pound (4 oz) by removing the hypalon crampon patch from the top of my pack's lid and the nylon belt loop with foam backing from the inside (which allows the lid to double as a hip sack when removed from the pack). In addition, I removed a couple of plastic loop fasteners on the sides of the lid used as part of the hip sack configuration. Most of the time, I don't need those parts (and their corresponding 1/4 pound !).

    For the times I was taking a long trip which included some day-hiking or I needed the heavy-duty hypalon patch, I purchased a second lid.

  • Remove Manufacturer's Labels

    I couldn't believe it. I just bought this ultra, ultralight, high-tech tent and here's this big (5 1/2" x 3 3/4") label on the outside of the door advertising the tent makers name. The label's weight was added to by the waterproof tape applied to its opposite side, on the inside of the tent. Needless to say, I removed the label and the waterproof tape, then sealed the needle holes with a light bead of SeamGrip. That label, itself, was not waterproof and, in fact, soaked up water like a sponge. In the field, that label would have added two to three ounces of weight to my pack (depending on whether it was dry or wet).

    Remove labels & apply a light bead of SeamGrip onto the needle holes, wherever possible--tents, packs, bags, clothes, even on boots (where they put those useless metal gore-tex tags).

  • Boots, Shoes & Laces

    Two tips here. The first, definitely do it. The second, consider it a potential way to significantly reduce relative pack weight, but don't take it as gospel. Analyze your own situation, experiment, and do what's safe and healthful.

    Firstly, on shoes and boots, I cut off excess shoe lace--for two reasons (1) excess shoelace means unnecessary weight and (2) excess shoelace means safety hazard in the bush. Ever have a big lace-loop catch on an exposed root or tangly bush ? After you cut them, scorch/burn/melt the ends so they won't unravel.

    And secondly, as your pack weight goes down, your requirement for heavy boots is reduced, as well. Since each pound on your feet is supposedly equivalent to 5 pounds on your back, you can reduce the relative weight of your pack by getting a pair of lighter weight boots.

    If you have, as one lightweight packer terms it, entered the new paradigm where your pack weight is really low--25 pounds for four or five days--you might even want to consider going with a sturdy pair of 2 pound cross-trainers or running shoes. Like I said, though, there's potential here, but experiment. What works for me, may not work for you.

    Consider the implication. Assuming the "1 pound on the foot is equal to 5 pounds on the back" theory is true, trading-in the 4 pound boots for a pair of 1 3/4 pound running shoes (with vibram soles) would decrease your relative pack weight approximately 11 1/4 pounds ! It's at least worth a second thought !

  • Pillows

    Instead of carrying a pillow, stuff your clothes in one of your larger stuff sacs--makes a dandy pillow. Your clothes will be dry & maybe even warm in the morning.

  • Scouring Pads for dirty Pots & Pans

    Use sand or fine gravel instead of a scouring pad. No soap suds in the water & no dirty pad to mess with.

  • Camp Shoes

    Although camp shoes are considered a luxury item for neurotic minimalists, they have multiple uses, most notably, a haven of rest for weary feet. If you carry them -- and I sometimes do -- look for lightweight water shoes, rather than lugging along your much heavier tennies or running shoes. I used to carry a pair of Speedo Surfwalkers which are several ounces lighter than the Nike Aqua Socks.

    Another solution, if you want something just for shuffling around camp, get a cheap pair of cloth night slippers from one of the local chain department stores. The slippers are practically weightless, and if you're lucky, they may even last an entire season.

    NOTE:  If I'm on a venture which includes river crossings or swimming in shallow lakes, I'll still carry my Speedo Surfwalkers.

  • Batteries are Heavy--use Candle or Oil Lamps Instead

    Because batteries are heavy, I use my head lamp only for night travel or answering the midnight call.

    Otherwise, for in-tent activity, I use a candle lantern or, more recently, a candle-lantern converted to oil (it's lighter, cleaner, and lasts longer). Both can be purchased at just about any outdoor shop. In addition to providing light for reading and writing while in the tent, they are excellent for starting fires, even if the wood is damp.

    Keep in mind, this may not be advantageous to you. It depends on how long you're in the outback and how much light you require after dark. The longer you are out there and the more you require artificial light in your tent, the more advantage and relative weight saving you will realize by using the lantern.

  • Replace your Alkaline Batteries with Lithium

    Replace the AA Alkaline batteries in your flashlights with AA Lithium batteries. Lithium AA batteries weigh 50% less than alkaline and last about 3 times longer. They only cost about $5.00 for two, so you actually come out ahead in the long run. One reader at The Lightweight Backpacker website says he doesn't carry a candle lantern because the lithium batteries are so light and last so long - he just uses his Petzl Micro head lamp for everything.

  • Thermal Mugs

    If you use an insulated mug (hopefully a lightweight one, like the ones sold by REI, LLBean, Campmor, Backpacker Magazine, etc.), do you need to take the lid during the summer ?

    Actually, other than during the Winter when a thermal mug is important to keep your hot drink hot, do you need a mug at all ? You can save four or five more ounces by leaving the whole mug at home and using your cooking pot or water bottle for hot drinks.

  • Water Filter

    After using your water filter, pump it to flush out remaining water.

  • Using Your Gear for Emergencies

    Rather than carry triangular bandages, SAM splints, bunches of medical tape and such, consider the following:

    You can fashion a sling by using a safety pin (or pins) to (1) attach a shirt sleeve or front shirt-tail to the top of the shirt or (2) attach two legs of a pair of fleece pants or thermal underwear bottoms which have been draped around the victims neck.

    Improvise a splint by using (1) a closed-cell foam, self-inflating sit-pad or sleeping-pad (2) backpack aluminum stays or (3) ski and/or hiking poles.

    Improvise an emergency litter or stretcher using (1) a sleeping bag with hiking staffs or wooden branches for carrying handles or (2) a closed-cell foam, self-inflating mattress.
    Use parachute cord to fashion traction devices for traction splints and for securing improvised splints.

    Duct tape is also useful for securing splints, as well as holding protective bandages in place and as an effective alternative to moleskin.

    If your sunglasses break, especially if you are in the snow, cut small peep holes in duct tape or paper and secure to your head. If you happen to be carrying cardboard, that works well, also.

    NOTE:  I've mentioned the above for the purpose of illustrating the multi-functionality of gear. To learn more about HOW to use your gear for medical emergencies, take a mountaineering survival or first-aid course or study the appropriate literature and practice with a friend.

  • Eating Utensils

    Select ultra-lightweight - yet strong - lexan utensils. As with the toothbrush, cut off as much handle as possible and sand down the cut corners. Do you really need anything other than a spoon ?

    NOTE:  I've looked at the new titanium utensils & the lexan utensils appear to be, at least, equally lightweight and strong, for my purposes.

  • Carry Less Stove Fuel

    Test how much fuel your stove uses to cook your favorite meals & drinks, plan accordingly, and only take the necessary amount of fuel. If you are using white gas, factor in extra for priming purposes. Also, regardless of what kind of fuel you use, factor in a little extra if you are going to higher altitudes where the air is thinner.

    Always cook with a lid on your pots. This enables better heat retention, so the water boils faster, which uses less fuel, which reduces the weight on your back !

    Also, try to take foods which don't require cooking. Lunches and snacks, especially. This will reduce the amount of stove fuel you will need to carry.

  • Blacken Your Pots !

    Another tip for using less fuel is to blacken your cooking pots. A blackened pot will absorb heat faster than a shiny surfaced one.

    Most pots do not come pre-blackened, but over time may become that way, especially if you use them in an open fire. Of all the pots in the "kitchen inventory" section of my "gear closet", my SIGG Inoxal pots are the only ones that actually came with a black outer surface. However, no matter, I always paint my pots with flat-black stove paint, as soon as I get them. I recently did this with my Evernew Titanium pots. The black surface absorbs and distributes heat faster than a shiny surface.

    NOTE:  Heat resistant black paint can be procured at hardware stores - look for stove paint - and at automotive supply stores - look for engine block paint.

    Here's a couple other cooking pot tips that help maximize the efficiency of your stove:

    Flames/heat from your stove can more easily move up the sides of the pot, thus more surface area is covered.

    A tight-fitting lid is critical in order to maximize the efficiency of your stove. If you have a tight-fitting lid, the contents of the pot will heat faster and, thus, you'll consume less stove fuel.

  • Try Sugarless Drinks !

    Try energy drinks, hot chocolate, etc., either unsweetened or litely sweetened. Sugar is very heavy. Gatorade powder--laced with processed white sugar--weighs 2.3 oz per quart.

    Just a caution, brought up by Rob Kelly, that before using a vitamin and mineral supplement make sure your body is okay with the dosages contained in each package that you consume. Ten miles into the backcountry is no place to have adverse physical reactions. Don't just take someone else's word for it, do your own research and make your own judgement as to whether a product is right for you.

    Another perspective, submitted by Travis Moulton. "Whatever happened to Multi-function? You need carbs to keep hiking, and getting a few simple carbos every time you take a drink gives the body a (relatively) continuous flow of calories without waisting the energy to digest complex carbs. If you go for sugarless drinks all you are really doing is making yourself carry those extra ounces (and probably more) in the form of snacks and/or lunches."

  • Eat Heavy Foods, First !

    Foods such as, mealpack bars, fresh fruits & veggies, canned foods, semi-dried sausages, etc., add the most weight to your pack. Eat them first to lighten your load.



    Charles Lindsey

    Charles Lindsey, author and publisher of "The Lightweight Backpacker" website, enjoys hiking, backpacking, and alpine scrambling in the Pacific Northwest, with family, friends, and acquaintances from The Mountaineers.

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    by Charles Lindsey - The Lightweight Backpacker