There’s no reason to suffer under a 40 pound pack on your next backpacking trip. I’ve included some of my favorite ideas below for reducing pack weight without compromising safety or comfort.
If you’re not careful with clothing choices you will easily add unnecessary pounds to your pack. Here are some basic tips for ultralight clothing: synthetics are lighter and dry faster, use layering to match conditions and choose clothing that can work in multiple situations. Down is still a favorite for it’s light weight and high loft (puffiness).
A typical cotton t-shirt can weigh 10oz (size large). Throw three of these into your pack and you’ve added about 1.9 pounds. Instead, pack one Mountain Hardwear t-shirt that weights 3.8oz and wash it on the trail.
There are high-end ultra lightweight down jackets that weight in the 5oz to 7oz range but these come at a steep price, as much as $300. Examples include the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper and the MontBell Plasma 1000. One budget friendly alternative is the Hawke & Co. down vest which can be purchased for under $30. In size medium, the Hawke & Co. vest weights 6.4oz. Despite it’s use of low-end down, it’s packable, warm and works well when temperatures are in the 35F to 60F range. This vest layers well with a lightweight shell for added warmth.
There are some really good options for lightweight wind shells with many weighing less than 2oz. The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 1/4 zip with no hood weights a mere 1.7oz (with tags removed).
- Best t-shirts: Mountain Hardwear Double Wicked Lite
- Best down jacket: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jackets
- Best value down vest: Hawke & Co. Down Vests
- Best fleece shirt: Columbia Klamath Microfleece Shirts
Recently at a trailhead, I overheard a man say to his wife, “We’re good to go, I’ve got six liters of water in my pack”. That’s more than one and a half gallons of water for a 5 mile hike with eight stream crossings and one alpine lake. About half a mile into the hike I found this couple “broken down” on the side of trail, packs off and exhausted. Instead of carrying all the water you might need for the next 24 hours, use a lightweight water filter like the Sawyer which weights 2oz. Of course you can go even lighter if you can tolerate water treated with tablets. The foul chemical taste of these is not worth the weight savings for many backpackers. Another easy way to save around 5oz is to leave your wide mouth Nalgene bottle in your dorm room and instead take a free plastic bottle that weighs an an once, or less.
- Best water filter: Sawyer mini water filter
- Best water bottle: A free 500ml – 1000ml water bottle with a squirt nozzle.
Stoves and Cooking
For ultralight backpacking, carry no more than you need to boil water. A 600ml titanium cup is a good compromise between weight, size and utility. This is enough to boil two cups of water which is typically the most you’ll need to re-hydrate large meals. Two cups is also enough for a large cup of coffee or tea and oatmeal in the morning. A 600ml cup will hold your windscreen, ultralight stove (see below), lighter, backup matches and fuel.
I really enjoy using a homemade alcohol stove that weighs 0.025oz (about 8 grams). But this is not a good choice for everyone and I don’t recommend this type of stove for those who are especially clumsy. The alcohol typically used in these small stoves burns with a near-clear flame and in bright sunlight can be impossible to see. The fuel in these stoves can spill creating a very dangerous situation. If you think a homemade alcohol stove is for you, I recommend a simple side burner design which boot faster and waste less fuel compared to other designs.
The other popular lightweight stoves for boiling water are canister stoves and solid fuel stoves. Canister stoves are easy to use, have adjustable flames can can also be used for normal cooking. Solid fuel tablets are super simple, weight competitive with alcohol stoves but take longer to boil water and burn with a strong odor. If you enjoy tinkering with stoves and consider this to be an enjoyable part of your wilderness experience then alcohol and solid tablet stoves are a good choice. If on the other hand you want to boil water quickly with minimal fuss, go for a canister stove.
- Best cup/pot: TOAKS Titanium 600ml Pot
- Best soda can alcohol stove: Make it yourself, see how in this video: http://youtu.be/ui8t3pivqtk
- Best canister stove: Snow Peak LiteMax Stove
- Best solid fuel stove: Esbit 11.5g (0.4 Ounce) Ultralight Folding Titanium Stove for Use with Solid Fuel Tablets
My lightweight suggestion on trekking poles is to take one and not two. You’ll get about 90% of the value from a single pole as you’ll get from two. I have switched to poles with cam locks and will never go back to twist locks. Cam locks are very easy to set and in my experience don’t slip like twist locks. I also use my trekking pole as the single tent pole for my tent thereby eliminating the need to carry a separate tent pole.
- Best value trekking poles: Pace Maker Flip Lock Expedition Trekking Poles
Tents and Shelters
The lightest 1 to 2 person tents weigh about one pound and are made from cuben fiber. These tents typically require a single pole and you can use your trekking pole for this. For comparison, a traditional ultra lightweight tent made from nylon, with sectioned tent poles and a rain fly will weigh around 2 to 3 pounds. It’s possible to reduce your shelter weight to around 8oz by using a bivy sack or a tarp.
ZPacks makes some of the best ultra lightweight backpacking gear and their tents and backpacks are popular with experienced backpackers. Occasionally ZPacks gear shows up on eBay (search for ZPacks gear) or on Craigslist but don’t expect to find a super bargain. This gear is highly valued and even when used can fetch a premium.