Ask Me: 5 Steps to Lightening Up Your Backpacking Gear
My husband and I have decided it’s time to invest in lighter backpacking gear to ease the impact on our bodies. Our kids are nine and 11, and backpacking as a family is an important part of our lives. Recently, we upgraded our mountain bikes so that we could still happily bike with our kids; it seems like we need to do the same with our backpacking equipment. Knowing that you are in touch with the latest gear compared to our old stuff, what would you recommend as the most important things to upgrade, with weight in mind?
Our gear is mostly 20+ years old (we got a great Big Agnes tent last year per your advice). With backpacking, there are so many elements, from stove to pack to sleeping bags. Do you think we can reduce our weight loads a reasonable/noticeable amount, and feel like our investment was worth it?
Our kids seem to be just behind yours in age… perhaps you’ve experienced the same need to lighten your load as you get toward your 40s and 50s yourself? Do you feel that lighter/better gear is essential to keeping you in the backpacking game at this point in life?
Thank you for any insights and advice! We’ve enjoyed our trips based on info from your stories: Teton Crest Trail, Laugavegur Trail, Iceland; and we’re considering a trek in either Patagonia or New Zealand next.
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Whenever I get that question from a friend or a reader and offer them advice, they are all, to a person, glad they got new, lighter gear. If your gear is as old as you say, you could reduce your base pack weight significantly, probably by 10 pounds or more each, as well as cut the volume of what you’re carrying, which allows you to use a smaller, lighter pack. (Base pack weight refers to gear and clothing, not including food and water.)
The transition will make backpacking feel like an entirely different experience. When you’re backpacking with young kids and have to haul much of their gear and food, this makes a huge difference. I lay out my approach to backpacking as light as possible in my blog post “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun.”
To anyone updating old gear to new, I always say start with the biggest items because they give you the most potential to reduce weight and bulk.
Do it in this order:
No. 1 Tent
No. 2 Sleeping bags
No. 3 Backpacks
No. 4 Boots
No. 5 Lighter items like air mattress, cooking system, and clothing.
If you hadn’t already switched to a lighter, more compact tent, I would send you to my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents” and all of my tent reviews. For most backpackers, their tent is the heaviest and bulkiest single piece of gear they carry—so it’s where you can make the biggest dent in gear weight. See my story “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent For You.”
But next you should invest in sleeping bags, because older models are so much bulkier and heavier than the best new bags. If you do most of your backpacking in the Rockies, with dry summers, you should get lightweight down bags; I use a down bag almost all the time. (I’m always testing out new gear, but I prefer to review lightweight down bags.) See my sleeping bag reviews for ideas. I use a bag rated around 30 degrees in summer in the mountains, when low temps drop to the 30s or 40s, but I don’t get cold easily. My wife, who does get cold easily, prefers a 15-degree bag in summer. For spring or fall trips, I’ll use a 15-degree bag.
You have to reduce tent and bag weight and especially bulk first, in order to fit everything into a lighter, smaller pack. Once you’ve tackled those two large items, you can switch to a smaller, lighter backpack of between 50 and 65 liters if you’re only packing for yourself. (When my kids were young and my wife and I carried most of our family’s gear and food, I typically used a 75-liter pack on family backpacking trips.) Modern packs are lighter, more comfortable, and more efficiently designed than older models.
Once you’re carrying much less weight, you can shift to lighter boots, because you no longer really need the heavy-duty boots you may be wearing when carrying 40 to 50 pounds or more (except in really wet, snowy, or rugged, off-trail conditions). See my reviews of backpacking boots and hiking shoes.
After that, start working on smaller items, like your air mattress, stove and cook set, rain shell, insulation. While these items will not make as large a dent in your gear weight as a tent, bag, or pack, the savings can add up to a pound or more and significant bulk.
Older, inflatable air mattresses are much heavier and especially bulkier than contemporary models—many of which actually fit inside your pack (instead of having to attach them to the outside) and don’t take up much space. Check out my air mattress reviews.
See my reviews of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking,” “The Best Base Layers For Hiking, Running, and Training,” “21 Essential Backpacking Accessories,” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets,” and my blog post “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
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Hope that’s helpful. Thanks for sending such a good question.
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Thank you so much for your great input on the process of lightening up our 20-year-old backpacking gear. It’s especially helpful to know the logic behind the order in which to make the upgrades, as well as your personal experience with the family factors. Your post “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun” was super helpful with specific suggestions for different scenarios. We’ll look at the gear reviews you mentioned.
Many thanks, Michael. As always, you and your site are our go-to sources for everything backpacking!
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