By Michael Lanza
I field a lot of questions from readers about gear and backpacking, and I find the conversation often boiling down to one issue: how much weight they have in their packs. The biggest lesson I’ve drawn from more than three decades of backpacking—including the 10 years I spent as a field editor at Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—is that a major factor dictating my enjoyment of any hike is how much weight I’m carrying.
If I could convince my readers who backpack to follow one piece of advice— no matter your age, how much you hike, or how fit or experienced you are—it would be this: Lighten up. You’ll make backpacking more fun.
This article shares my five most effective tips for accomplishing just that.
The good news is you don’t have to embrace extreme measures or compromise safety or comfort—in fact, I’m convinced my strategy has made me more comfortable and safer than when I routinely carried a much heavier pack. Among many examples I could offer, when three friends and I backpacked the Grand Canyon’s remote and very rugged Royal Arch Loop, we moved more safely and confidently through that challenging terrain because our packs were relatively light—even with the weight of extra water. Other benefits include being able to hike farther, less likelihood of an injury, and just feeling much better at the end of every day on the trail.
My story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” goes much deeper into why and how I’ve greatly reduced my pack weight. (That story requires a paid subscription to read in full, but if you’re not a subscriber, you can purchase a downloadable copy of that story, my e-guide “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.”)
But here are my five most-important tips as you set out on—or continue down—the path toward lightening your pack. Please share your thoughts on them, or your own favorite tips, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
And click on any photo below to read about that trip.
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#1 Start With Nothing
The best way to fail at lightening up your pack is to start with your old gear list and remove items one by one. Don’t begin from the presumption that every backpacking trip requires the same gear and clothing. Instead, start with nothing on the list and add only what’s necessary for a particular trip. See my blog post “An Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”
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#2 Weigh Everything
I mean literally put everything on a scale, from gear to clothes and food. I do it all the time (especially with food). It may sound a little too obsessive, but this helps you assess the value of everything you carry—it motivates you to downsize when you see exactly how much weight each item adds to your pack. It makes you scrutinize everything that’s potentially superfluous and helps you establish a ceiling weight for your backpack.
A person can’t lose weight without stepping on a scale. The same rule applies to a backpack.
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#3 Don’t Be Miserable
I don’t sleep on a bed of leaves, harvest wild edibles or starve, or live in one pair of socks for days on end. I won’t use a wafer-thin foam pad or sleeping bag, because the energy saved through reducing my pack’s weight by those ounces of bag insulation or mattress would be eclipsed by the energy sacrificed to sleep loss. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added a little more comfort to my kit to ensure that I feel good out there, while still keeping a close eye on that scale.
Customize your own gear kit to suit your needs—including comfort—but don’t lose sight of the goal, which is to end up with a much lighter pack.
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#4 Plan Your Water and Food Precisely
Water and food are heavy: The average person eats two pounds of food and drinks eight pounds or more of water every day in the backcountry. Don’t subscribe to some antiquated rule about a minimum amount of water you must carry or hauling around far more food than you will eat.
Ask yourself: What’s the walking time to the next expected water source, and the likelihood of not finding water at it? What are the real chances of running out of food long before finishing the hike?
I plan exactly how much I’ll eat every day, carrying very little extra food, and I haven’t starved yet. I guzzle water at every source (better to carry it in your belly than on your back) and carry only what I’ll need to reach the next reliable water source.
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#5 Replace Old Gear
This is my only tip that costs money, and it won’t be feasible for everyone—or not immediately, anyway. But new gear is generally lighter—and more comfortable, and sometimes even more durable—than old gear. As you can afford to, replace heavy, bulky, old gear with new stuff. Consider it an investment in your personal pleasure.
See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page and all of my reviews of backpacking gear and ultralight backpacking gear.
And don’t miss my picks for “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “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 Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
See also “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking” and a menu of all stories about backcountry skills at The Big Outside.
12 thoughts on “The Top 5 Ultralight Backpacking Tips”
These are great tips. It is important to note that there’s a limit to how much you can use your belly as a canteen. You body can only absorb so much. Unlike a canteen, your body won’t store the extra. Rather, you will simply pee it out. Yes, I did validate this the hard way once in Lost River Range
Good point, Tom. The statistic I’ve seen referenced most often is that a person can absorb no more than about a liter of water an hour, but that can vary between individuals and depending on conditions, including whether you’re also eating food that helps your body absorb that water rather than just release it in waste.
Excellent tips – thank you!
Nice article. Not carrying too much water is key, and a mistake first-time backpackers—myself included—make. Know where your water sources are, camel up, and don’t be afraid to drink from nasty sources—that’s what a filter is for.
Agreed on all points, Tyler. Enough water is necessary. Too much water is like any other excess weight: It’s just excess weight.
It is not recommended for hikers to carry a heavy backpack as it will drain more energy while hiking or trekking. Great tip to plan food and water precisely as these things occupy most of the space in the backpack, thanks for sharing such great tips.
Agreed, thanks for the comment.
These articles are great! Thank you so much for this invaluable information. I do not backpack as much as I used to, not a spring chicken anymore but still do love the outdoors. Backpacking allows you to see the wonders of our world first hand.
Thank you for porting this article this will be a guide as backpacker and I would love to share
this article for those who are planning to backpack. 🙂