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.
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.”
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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Step 2—Your Sleeping Bag
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.
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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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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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.
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.
Step 5—Your Other Gear
With those core pieces of backpacking gear modernized and downsized, start working on smaller items, like your air mattress, stove and cook set, rain shell, insulation, 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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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.”