Going Lightweight - Some Random Thoughts, Tips, and Tricks for Lightening Your Load

Going Lightweight - Some Random Thoughts, Tips, and Tricks for Lightening Your Load

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering


This article is a collection of tips and tricks for reducing pack weight. It is intended for 2-3 night backpacking trips but many of the tips can apply to longer trips or to other activities, like mountaineering or big wall climbing.

This is a work in progress and I will add new tips and tricks from time to time. If you have any tips, add them to the comments and I'll include them here.

Please use your best judgment and common sense when applying these tips to your specific trip. If you are going to be out on the JMT for 2 weeks you will obviously not be able to follow all of these. Again, this article is intended for weekend backpacking trips, 2-3 nights maximum.

External Links

Any good references for ultralight packing will be added here.

Tips to Reduce Your Pack Weight:

  • Calculate how many extra batteries you really need. If you are going on a 2 night trip and your flashlight will go for 140 hours on a set of batteries, you don't need to bring extra batteries for it. Use lithium batteries instead of alkaline because lithium lasts longer and has half the weight of alkaline.

  • Standardize all you elctronic gadgets so they all use one type of battery. Why carry spare AA, AAA, and a 9 volt if you can get away with just 2 AA?

  • Re-assess your first aid kit. Do you really need 15 band aids and six pieces of gauze for an overnight trip? Do you need a whole bottle of ibuprofen? Leave the medical tape home and if you have an emergency that requires gauze use band aids to hold the gauze in place.

  • Keep a comprehensive first aid kit in the car and bring just enough supplies with you to get back to the car. Even if you lose an arm or a leg, a shirt can become an emergency bandage held in place with your belt, which will double as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

  • Remove the tongue depressor, rubber gloves, first aid instruction booklet (if you have to stop and read that in an emergency you are probably about to die), alcohol pads, splinter remover,and cotton swabs from your first aid kit.

  • Don't carry a tube of antibiotic ointment. It will act as glue for dirt, leaves, and bugs.

  • Don't bring a bottle of peroxide, alcohol, or any other liquid antiseptic. A little soap and water will do wonders to clean germs from a cut.

  • Carry only enough water to get you to the next water source, with a little extra just in case you take longer than anticipated or need to wash out a cut.

  • Use the right size backpack. Generally speaking, a smaller backpack is lighter. The bigger the pack, the more tempted you are going to be to fill it with unneeded equipment.

  • When you reduce the weight in your pack, also reduce the weight of your boots. If your pack is down to 20 lbs or less you probably don't need boots. Use trail runners or even sport sandals.

  • Don't bring all that extra food along. Learn to identify a few kinds of plants and berries that you can eat in an emergency.

  • Forget that Rambo-sized knife or the multi-tool with 136 functions. A standard Swiss army knife with a straight blade, scissors, Phillips and slotted screwdrivers and a can opener is more than enough.

  • Use a flashlight that can double as a lantern and leave the LED lantern at home. A mini-Maglite can become a very effective lantern by completely unscrewing the lens holder and using it as a base to hold the flashlight upright in. This provides more than ample light to read or write in a tent. Eliminating the lantern also eliminates the requirement (or urge) to carry spare batteries for it.

  • Leave the container of floss at home. Cut your toothbrush handle down to about 2 inches long and use sandpaper to smooth the edges, then wrap a foot or two of floss around the handle. While you're at it, leave the emergency sewing kit at home and use the floss for thread. You can keep a sewing needle somewhere safe, like taped tothe backside of your map.

  • Do you really need that big bottle of peppermint oil soap or the separate soap and shampoo? Get the smallest bottle of multi-purpose soap you can find or get one of the tiny nalgene bottles and fill it with soap from a larger bottle.

  • Leave your full-sized toiletries in the bathroom. By travel-sized deodorant and toothpaste.

  • Do you really think you'll need a whole roll of TP for a weekend in the woods? Tear off about 10 feet of paper and put it in a plastic sandwich bag. Leave the rest at home for when you get out of the woods and are no longer constipated.

  • Don't bring the whole guidebook. Photocopy the pages you need and cut the borders from the pages or better yet, write the trail descriptions on a small piece of paper and laminate it. Don't forget to write on both sides of the paper to cut it's size in half.

  • Don't bring a folding chair, no matter how small or light it is. Use a rock, a log, your pack, or your bear-proof canister if you are carrying one.

  • Forget the exotic dry sacks or hard plastic waterproof containers. Use plastic sandwich bags to keep things dry.

  • Bring the right clothing. Cotton has no place in the back country. It is heavy, does not readily dry, and loses it's warmth when wet. Pack clothing made of lightweight, high performance fibers like fleece, nylon, silk, polypropylene, or merino wool. Many outdoor manufacturers have their own patented fabric. I like Columbia's Titanium the best. The stuff is very lightweight, dries very rapidly, is very durable, and is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

  • Wear convertible pants instead of wearing shorts in the day and pants at night. You can find them made of waterproof ripstop nylon at most fishing stores for $20 or less.

  • Only bring one change of clothes and two pairs of socks. You don't need clean clothes for every day. You can wash your dirty clothes from the first day by getting them good and wet in a stream and wringing them dry. When you set up camp in the evening hang them on tree branches or spread them on rocks to dry.

  • Use Gore Tex or other lightweight, breathable waterproof fabric instead of heavy PVC ponchos. A waterproof backpack cover and a lightweight Gore Tex jacket is much lighter, smaller, and more comfortable than a heavy, non-breathing PVC poncho. If it's warm and there is no rain in the forecast, or a slight chance (40% or less), leave the jacket at home. Carry the backpack cover just in case. If you get caught in a storm the cover will keep all your gear dry and you'll enjoy the cool, refreshing rain. As long as you are wearing the right fabric you will stay warm and dry rapidly after the rain has ended.

  • Dress in lightweight layers instead of one or two heavy, bulky, insulated items. The convertible fishing pants mentioned above with a base layer of silk or polypropylene underneath is much more effective (and lighter) than heavy cotton or wool pants.

  • Take a long, hard look at your tent. It's probably too much for what you need. If it's warm and there is no rain in the forecast leave the fly at home. Swap out the tent pegs for lightweight nylon or titanium ones and shorten the guy lines that you always use doubled up anyway.

  • If you're using a mummy-style sleeping bag consider using just a tarp set up in an a-frame fashion and use a mosquito net hood over your head when you sleep instead of bringing a tent along. Or at least reduce the size and weight of your shelter by using a bivvy instead of a full-sized tent.

  • In warm weather I use a small, lightweight hammock that has a mosquito net integrated in it. The hammock is quick to set up, is much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, and is much less damaging to the environment than a tent is. If there is going to be rain I put a tarp over the hammock. In periods of constant rain showers I can take down the hammock and have a sheltered cooking area under the tarp. You can't easily or safely cook in a tent or bivvy.

  • If your tent's groundcloth is a 6x8 tarp that you fold in half, cut it in half and melt the edge to prevent fraying. Congratulations, you just eliminated half the weight and half the bulk of the groundcloth, and you have a spare one to boot.

  • Eat your heaviest and bulkiest food first. Getting rid of the heaviest stuff first will reduce the weight for the remainder of the trip, and getting rid of the bulky stuff can allow you to compress your pack more and get it closer to your back so it's more comfortable to carry.

  • Leave all the camera accessories at home, unless you are going into the woods specifically to photograph something.

  • You cell phone probably isn't going to work in the woods, even in an emergency, so leave it in the car at the trailhead.

  • GPS is easy and convenient, yet heavy and bulky. If you are on an established trail system and have a map or written guide you have no need for GPS. You really have no need for GPS at all, wherever you are. People survived for hundreds of years with a map and compass. You probably carry a map and compass anyway as a backup to the GPS. Leave the GPS at home for geocaching or for finding that obscure Thai restaurant. By eliminating the GPS you further reduce your need for spare batteries.

  • Bring a spoon. Lexan or Titanium. Leave teh fork at home and use your pocket knife if you must cut food. I prefer to carry one of the Light My Fire sporks. It is made of nylon and has a spoon on one end and a fork with an integrated serrated knife on one of the tines on the other end. It fits right inside my titanium cookpot, along with my stove, a mini lighter, a measuring spoon (handle removed of course), and some packets of instant coffee.

  • Leave the scouring pad at home. All it will do is take up space, and weight when wet, and provide a nice place for germs to thrive. Use some sand or soil to scrub the inside of your cup or bowl or whatever it is that needs scrubbing.

  • Use freeze dried, prepared meals form manufacturers like Mountain House or Backpacker's Pantry. They are small, lightweight, and easy to cook. They require no condiments or spices, no extra ingrediants, and they can be eaten right out of the package so there is no bowl or plate to carry and clean. All you need is a spoon and a two cup capacity pot to boil some water in. Once you add the water to the package you seal it up and forget it for about 10 minutes, so you have time to do something else instead of constantly tending to your food as it cooks.

  • When selecting rope, understand the working load limits of the rope and only buy what is needed. You don't need 1/4" or 3/8" rope to tie a sleeping bag to your pack frame or to hang a food bag in bear country. You don't need extra rope, "just in case". If you aren't hanging a food bag in bear country you probably don't even need to bring rope.

  • Remove everything from it's package before you leave. Why carry something in a package into the woods, only to remove the item from the package and then carry the package with you for the rest of the trip?

  • Remove the manufacturer's tags and labels off of everything in your pack. Figure out how long you needs cords or straps or shoelaces to be and cut off the excess. The weight adds up, believe me.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-4 of 4
Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jul 31, 2008 3:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Some great tips!

Thanks for posting them.


Scott - Aug 1, 2008 10:41 pm - Hasn't voted

Some disagreement

I have to say that I disagree with some of it. It does have some great tips, but I do disagree with the following:

Carry only enough water to get you to the next water source, with a little extra just in case you take longer than anticipated or need to wash out a cut.

I strongly disagree with this one. This has been the result of many deaths in the SW. If you bring only enough water to get you to the next hole then even something as minor as a sprained ankle can easily kill you. Always bring extra water, unless you are following a reliable creek, especially in desert regions, but in other regions as well. If it’s hot out, running out of water can kill you in a matter of hours. Even when it is cold out, always bring extra water as well. Staying hydrated is very important in cold weather as well. If you are dehydrated then you are much more prone to frostbite since the blood thickens. Always take extra water.

Not every spring or stream marked on a topo map is reliable. Just last end of May and in Dinosaur National Monument we hiked from Ely Creek to Island Park. The map shows a permanent creek at Sage Creek, about half way and we intended to camp there. The creek was bone dry. Since we had a four year old and six year old with us, I would hate to think what could happen if we didn’t take extra water. Most of the people I’ve ran into in the backcountry that were in trouble had run out of water.

Learn to identify a few kinds of plants and berries that you can eat in an emergency.

This is not always possible depending on the region you are in, or even your elevation.

Cotton has no place in the back country.

Not so. Cotton may not be good in the cool and wet alpine areas, but not all backcountry areas are cool and wet. I wouldn’t take cotton say to the Cascade Mountains, but cotton is the perfect material for places like in the desert in the warm season or in the low elevation tropics.

You don't need extra rope, "just in case". If you aren't hanging a food bag in bear country you probably don't even need to bring rope.

I almost always bring a rope for things like exploring canyons that are unknown to me or on off-trail routes. Even if I don’t climb with it, it often comes handy to lower the pack while climbing down a pitch or as a quick handline.


nartreb - Aug 1, 2008 11:28 pm - Hasn't voted

some suggestions

The list is getting long; it might be useful to divide it up into chapters like: first aid kit; shelter; cooking gear; etc.

And what would really be handy is an indication of how much weight each tip might save. Bivy vs tent: probably a kilo, maybe two. Extra gauze pads: a gram or two.

Vic Hanson

Vic Hanson - Aug 2, 2008 11:58 pm - Hasn't voted

2 to 3 nights only?

Why limit it to a short hike? Long distance hikers use many of these tips and more. The longer your hike the more you need to keep the weight down. Pack, sleeping bag and tent are great items to save weight on. My pack is a Granite Gear Vapor Trail (2 lb), tent - Tarptent (1 person, 1 lb, 10 oz, 2 person 2 lb), sleeping bag - Marmot Helium, 20 deg. (1 lb, 10 oz.) Right there I saved over 5 lbs from my old gear. Add a soda can alcohol stove, Aqua Mira water treatment instead of a filter, Classic Swiss Army knife (sissors, knife, screw driver/file, tweezers - less than an ounce!) See my (and other's) gear reviews for some of these items. As you said, lightweight shoes or trail runners and layering are also big weight savers, and leave the extra clothes at home. My first aid kit is a few bandaids and a tube of antibiotic ointment, no problem with leaves and bugs - your going to get dirty no matter what. A LED headlamp is all I use, lighter than a mini maglite.

Viewing: 1-4 of 4