Kerrick Canyon, Yosemite National Park.

Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

In Ask Me, Backpacking, Family Adventures, Gear Reviews   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , ,   |   3 Comments

Hi Michael,

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.

Best,
Rebecca
Aspen, CO

 

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Jan Roser backpacking below El Capitan, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Jan Roser below El Capitan, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Hi Rebecca,

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, 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.

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

My friend, Steve, backpacking with his family. Knew I'd get to use this eventually.

My friend, Steve, in desperate need of lighter gear for backpacking with his family.

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.

Check out my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The Best Ultralight Thru-Hiking Backpacks,” and all of my backpack reviews.

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.

 

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A backpacker crossing Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.

Todd Arndt staying light in Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.

After that, start working on smaller items, like your air mattress, stove and cook set, rain shellinsulation. 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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See all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear, categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert tips on buying gear at my Gear Reviews page, and these articles at The Big Outside:

5 Tips For Finding the Right Backpack
5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent
Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots
Pro Tips: How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

Hope that’s helpful. Thanks for sending such a good question.

Best,
Michael

 

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Hi Michael,

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!

Best,
Rebecca

 

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3 Responses to Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

  1. Tommy K. Hindman   |  September 19, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Thanks for the question and response. I have recently entered the world of backpacking, (about a year ago) and after having already gone to Yosemite, and multiple trips to the Smoky Mountains, (My backyard ;)) I’m beginning to already see the importance in lighter weight gear. However, being a graduate student and my fiancé being in nursing school we don’t have much money for the good light weight gear. We are making do with what we have. After reading this article and through other research, we have both decided we are going to invest in some quality ultralight sleeping bags. To start with at least. Love your blog! This has provided us with so much information. Keep it Coming!

  2. Steve Long   |  February 22, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    I’m so proud!
    Steve

    • michaellanza   |  February 23, 2015 at 5:55 am

      Keep up the hard work, Steve.

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