5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your Backpacking Gear

By Michael Lanza

The fact that you opened this story means you already recognize a simple backpacking truth: Reducing the weight in your backpack will make this activity feel like an entirely different and far more enjoyable experience. But how do you navigate the transition from heavier to lighter gear—what should you replace first, second, and so on? This story will guide you through the most logical progression of steps to a lighter backpacking gear kit—and more comfortable, happier days on the trail.

I’ve learned the tips shared below as someone who began backpacking when gear was much heavier—and who has spent more than three decades backpacking many thousands of miles all over the U.S. and around world, including a quarter-century testing and reviewing countless packs, tents, boots, bags, and other gear as a past Northwest Editor and lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and over a decade (and counting) for this blog.

If you have older gear, these steps can help you slash your base pack weight—which includes your gear and clothing but not food and water—potentially by 10 pounds or more. You will also significantly reduce your gear volume, allowing you to use a smaller, lighter pack. If you’re a new backpacker buying your first gear kit, use these steps to prioritize your gear purchases and focus on going as light as you can afford and that is practical for you.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker hiking through Kerrick Canyon in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to see my e-guides to this and other great backpacking trips.

As I write in my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” which delves more specifically into my approach to managing gear weight, my evolution toward a lighter pack was driven by comfort, but also emerged from a gradual rethinking about why I’m out there: It’s not about having stuff. It’s about experiencing a place.

The steps below are ordered beginning with the heaviest gear items because they offer the most potential to reduce weight and bulk. Please share what you think of my tips or your questions or suggestions in the comments section below this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Want to see my top gear picks? See my review of “The Best Backpacking Gear.”

Backpackers camped by Thousand Island Lake along the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra.
Backpackers camping with an ultralight tent by Thousand Island Lake along the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at this blog.

Step 1—Your Tent 

For most backpackers, their tent is the heaviest and bulkiest single piece of gear they carry—making it the item where you can make the biggest dent in gear weight. For example, switching from a two-person tent weighing from four to five pounds to a more compact one tipping the scales at two to two-and-a-half pounds slashes your shelter weight in half.

For many years, I have used two-person, three-season tents around 2.5 pounds or less and rarely found any need to use a backpacking tent weighing more than about three pounds. If you can afford just one immediate, major gear purchase, start with a new tent.

See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents” and my stories “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent” and “Ultralight Backpacking Tents: How to Choose One” (both of which require a paid subscription to read in full, as do other stories offering gear-buying tips linked below) and all tent reviews at The Big Outside.

Bonus tip—Using an ultralight tent that pitches with trekking poles sheds the weight of tent poles. My favorites: the Slingfin 2Lite, Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2, and Gossamer Gear The One. And forego the ground cloth.

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Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf in Grand Teton National Park.
Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to the Teton Crest Trail.

Step 2—Your Sleeping Bag

Backpackers hiking the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park.
Backpackers on the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to this hike.

A bag usually represents not only one of the heaviest items in your pack, but also one of the bulkiest—which means that switching to a lighter bag or an ultralight quilt (like the Sierra Designs Nitro Quilt) will drop ounces and greatly help you downsize your backpack.

But many backpackers, regardless of the vintage of bag they own, tend to choose one rated for the coldest temperatures they think they might encounter—and then proceed to use that bag in significantly warmer overnight temps on the vast majority of their backcountry nights.

Don’t get a bag rated for conditions you rarely encounter—get one for the temps you usually encounter, which for many backpackers most of the time are lows above 40° F on summer trips. For some people, that may be a 30-degree bag, for others a 20-degree, depending on how cold you sleep. On the rare frosty night, either wear more layers to bed or eventually buy a warmer bag for those occasional, chillier trips.

See all reviews of sleeping bags at The Big Outside and my articles “Pro Tips for Buying a Backpacking Sleeping Bag” and “10 Pro Tips for Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag.”

Bonus tip—For maximum warmth per ounce and packability, get a bag stuffed with 800- or 900-fill-power down. Two favorites: the Feathered Friends men’s Hummingbird and women’s Egret and Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 32.

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A backpacker on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to the Wonderland Trail.

Step 3—Your Backpack

After tackling those two large items, you can easily switch to a smaller, lighter backpack of anywhere between 40 and 60 liters, depending on your total gear kit’s volume and weight. Besides the weight savings of downsizing your pack, modern models are lighter, more comfortable, and more efficiently designed than older models.

As with a sleeping bag, resist the inclination to buy more pack than you need. If you intend to continue down the path of lighter, more packable gear and streamlining your kit overall, err on the lower end of the capacity range that you think you need. Now that you’re moving in this direction, you are not likely to reverse and decide you need to carry more weight.

See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The Best Ultralight Backpacks,” “5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” and all reviews of backpacks at The Big Outside.

Bonus tip—Get a versatile pack that balances low weight with the support to carry a midweight load, like these favorites: the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider, Deuter Aircontact Ultra 50+5 and 45+5 SL, Osprey men’s Exos 58 and women’s Eja 58, The North Face Banchee 50, and Granite Gear Blaze 60.

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A backpacker on the Tonto Trail, Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click photo for my e-guide to the Grand Canyon’s best backpacking trip.

Step 4—Your Boots

Once you’re carrying a noticeably lighter and smaller backpack, the shift to lighter boots or low-cut hiking shoes becomes an obvious move: You no longer need the support of stiffer, heavy-duty boots as you did when carrying 40 to 50 pounds or more (except perhaps in really wet, snowy, or rugged, off-trail conditions).

Plus, lighter boots and shoes are not nearly as hot as heavier boots—which means your feet sweat less, improving your comfort and reducing the chance of blisters. Finally, lighter footwear also usually costs less—although it also tends to wear out faster than beefier boots.

See all my reviews of backpacking boots and lightweight hiking shoes and my “Expert Tips for Buying the Right Hiking Boots” and “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”

Bonus tip—Get lightweight low-cut shoes or mid-cut boots that cross over well from backpacking to dayhiking—saving you the expense of two pairs of footwear—like the Hoka One One Anacapa Low GTX shoes or Scarpa Rush Mid GTX boots.

Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.

Backpackers high above Twin Lakes in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Backpackers above Twin Lakes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Click photo for my e-guide to the best backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.

Step 5—Your Other Gear

With those core pieces of backpacking gear modernized and downsized, start working on smaller items, like your air mattressstove and cook setrain shellinsulation, and other general backpacking accessories.

While these items will not make as large a dent in your gear weight as a tent, bag, or pack, the collective weight and bulk reduction can add up. Plus, if you own old gear, you could probably use a technology (and comfort) upgrade.

See these reviews:

The 7 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking
The 10 Best Down Jackets
The Best Base Layers, Shorts, and Socks for Hiking and Running
Review: 25 Essential Backpacking Accessories
The Best Trekking Poles

Bonus tip—Scrutinize and weigh all the little stuff you’re tempted to pack. Are you carrying a book instead of an e-reader? Can you shoot photos of any needed pages with your phone instead of carrying that guidebook? Do you really need multiple base layers and pairs of socks? Are those tubes of sunblock or toothpaste far more than what you’ll use? How much water and food weight are you packing?

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Backpackers watching sunset at a campsite in Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Backpackers watching sunset at a camp in Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range. Click photo to see my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.

Hard to Decide? Ask Yourself These Questions

Triage your current gear by considering these questions:

Is it so old and/or damaged or worn out that there’s no question you need to replace it?

If not the above, then can you replace it with something that’s so much lighter, better quality, and/or a better fit that you won’t hesitate to spend the money?

Is the choice between a price that you can afford vs. your enjoyment and comfort every day out there?

I’ll tell you what I tell friends: If you have no reason to even consider keeping outdated or inferior gear, replace it. Read enough reviews at The Big Outside and you’ll see I almost never test and review cheap gear (unless it’s exceptional), mostly because I don’t want to use mediocre stuff. I also think many of my readers want high-quality gear that works well and lasts.

See more weight-slashing tips in my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.”

See also my “10 Tips for Spending Less on Backpacking and Hiking Gear” and “5 Things to Know Before Buying Backpacking Gear” and all reviews of backpacking gear and ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

Tell me what you think.

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Leave a Comment

8 thoughts on “5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your Backpacking Gear”

  1. I think the next piece of gear many of us need to reconsider is the water filter, which weighs a lot more than a steri pen or aqua Mira.

    • Yup, good suggestion, Tom, thanks. Both the Steripen and Aqua Mira work well, though I’ve seen the former fail on rare occasions and the latter technically requires waiting hours before drinking the water (which I’ve never done, without any negative consequences). But they both also are best for clear water sources. If the source is somewhat silted or murky water, as found in some desert streams, for instance, a filter helps clear that out.

  2. Totally agree with your comments. Worth respect to tents I love my Tarptent Aeon Li. It’s DCF. Tarptent specs say weight is 16 oz. (includes stakes) but my scale says 19 oz. I’m pretty OCD about caring for my gear and choose to carry a Tyvek ground cloth, though the manufacturer says I don’t need one. Carrying a ground cloth still gives me the option of cowboy camping if the opportunity arises. You are absolutely right about endeavoring to use a smaller pack. I have the ULA Catalyst and ULA Circuit. In my AZT thru-hike this year I took the Catalyst when in retrospect the Circuit would have sufficed. I tended to pack more stuff (that I didn’t need) in the Catalyst.

  3. Don’t forget your own weight! Most of the weight will come from our own bodies. Way cheaper to reduce that then the marginal gains from equipment.

    • Hi Paul,

      Well, I don’t think all the information in this article is obvious to all who read it. I believe your question about the Canadian Rockies is intended to suggest adapting your gear kit to specific places, seasons, and weather, and yes, that’s true, a point I delve into more deeply in my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” (linked above, too).

      Still, the Canadian Rockies have a summer season that’s a bit shorter than but otherwise similar to summer in neighboring Glacier National Park (photo above) and the U.S. Pacific Northwest (photo above from Rainier’s Wonderland Trail), and I saw conditions more severe in the first week of August on the Wind River High Route (photo above), where most of the 96 miles we backpacked were between 10,000 feet and 12,000 feet and we used ultralight gear, than I’ve sometimes seen a month later in the Canadian Rockies.

      So yes, these tips can be applicable to north of the U.S. border, but yes, you certainly should adapt your gear kit to your circumstances.

      Thanks for the comment.