Think Like a Lightweight Backpacker
By Steve Gillman
How does one think like an ultralight or lightweight backpacker?
I was asked this in a recent interview. After a moments thought,
I realized that there are some basic questions that seem to automatically
come to mind when I am either planning a backpacking trip or
looking at gear. Here are six of the most common ones.
1. How can I make this lighter?
This is something to habitually ask of every item you might
carry. Tags can be cut off of things, sleeping pads can be trimmed
to a smaller size, a sleeping bag stuff sack might be left behind
if the bag can just be stuffed into the pack directly. Six tent
stakes might work as well as ten. Cutting the edges off maps
and shortening a toothbrush won't really lighten the load much,
but these kinds of modifications are possible with many different
items, so the weight savings can add up.
2. What lighter version can I carry?
This is the real load-lightener, especially if you start with
the "big three;" the backpack, sleeping bag and shelter.
Apart from buying new gear, you can also find the lightest choice
among the things you already have. Weigh your t-shirts before
choosing one, for example. Use a light tarp for an easy trip
in an area without many bugs. Finding lighter alternatives can
make a big difference. Years ago, I went from a 88-ounce (5 1/2
pound) backpack to a 14-ounce one.
3. Can I leave this behind?
Ask of each item, "do I really need to bring this?"
A small kettle can be used to fry things, in, so leave the frying
pan home. Another question to clarify this is, "will I use
it?" I carried a small chess set on more than one backpacking
trip, but never found another player. Also, if you are with a
group, does someone else in the party have one? One stove, for
example, may be plenty for a group of three. If you are not sure
if you can leave something behind, the following three questions
4. What multiple-use items can I use to cut weight?
When backpacking alone, if I cook at all (I usually don't),
my pan is my bowl/plate. A spoon is used as a fork. The right
kind of poncho can be a shelter for short trips. Duct tape can
be wrapped onto a tiny tube of lip-balm rather than bringing
a roll. A walking stick or trekking pole can be the support pole
for a tarp shelter. A sleeping bag stuff-sack can be filled with
extra clothing to use as a pillow. Look for any way to use the
things you have for more than one purpose, and consider buying
things that have multiple purposes, if that will reduce your
5. What strategies can I use to go lighter?
This and the next question are for lightweight backpackers
who not only enjoy the usual advantages of reducing weight, but
also love the challenge of finding new and better ways. For example,
did you know that by eating a low-carbohydrate diet for a few
days, and then loading up on pasta the day before a trip, you
can store up to a couple pounds of extra carbs in your system?
Now you don't need to carry as much food. "Carbo-loading"
as it called, has been used by endurance athletes for decades.
Another strategy is to plan according to the weather. If there
is virtually no chance of rain, you can leave the rain gear behind.
If you know there will be many water sources, you can carry just
a plastic soda bottle and be sure to fill it up every time you
come to a stream or lake. You'll find strategies like these throughout
the pages of this site.
6. What skills and habits can I develop to be able to go
This question verges on "survivalist thinking."
The point, though, is that being at home in the wilderness makes
it safer to go light. For example, knowing how to make a warm
bed of dried leaves and grass makes it safe to try that light
sleeping bag which might not be quite warm enough. Knowing which
plants you can eat makes it less dangerous to reduce on the calories
you pack. With sufficient survival skills, an ultralight or lightweight
backpacker can be prepared for virtually anything regardless
of how light they go.
For more on how to think like an ultralight backpacker, see
the page; My Backpacking