Fast and Light: 6 Tips to Carry Less Stuff in the Outdoors

By Liz Thomas 

Everyone knows that when you carry a lighter pack into the woods, you can hike longer, stronger, faster, and in less pain. But the nuts and bolts of lightening a pack can be intimidating—how do you know you’ve got what you need to be safe when you’re entering areas far from rescue crews? Over my ten years of long distance backpacking trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and John Muir Trail, I’ve developed tips to keep my pack slim, trim, and to just the essentials. Here are six tips to getting your pack weight down that won’t leave you feeling out in the rain:

1)     Tailor your gear to your trip: The first time I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I started with a guy who had climbed Everest—and it looked like he was carrying the gear to do it again! Meanwhile, my ultralight set-up was tailored to the desert (e.g., a small tarp and minimal rain gear) with the goal of being able to move 20+ miles per day from water source to water source. The poor climber didn’t make it 100 miles with his 100 pound pack before having to quit the trail. His back hurt from trudging through the sand and his mountaineering boots gave him blisters in the desert heat. Before you start a trip, think smart and check the weather forecast, other’s trip reports, maps, guidebooks, and topos to get an idea of the conditions and terrain. By tailoring your gear for your trip instead of for an Arctic expedition, you can reduce the amount of stuff you need.

Olympic National park Sentinel Peak
Atop Sentinel Peak in Olympic National Park. Photo credit: Grant Sible

2)     Turn everything into a multi-use item: Carry half the stuff by using one item for two purposes. Your gloves can become potholders, sports tape can double as temporary tent repair and blister care, and your hiking pole can hold up your tarp instead of tentpoles! If you want to get extreme, check out the Brooks-Range Elephant Foot Bag—a ¾ length sleeping bag that works as a sleep system with the Mojave jacket. With this system, your down jacket is the upper half of your sleeping “bag,” but you can also wear it while getting a pre-dawn summit.

3)     Drop the deadweight. Take your gear on a test overnighter or three. If there is a piece of gear you haven’t touched at all, maybe it doesn’t need to come along next time.

4)     Use your knife: Straps, tags, logos, and handles may seem inconsequential in altering your pack weight, but it’s amazing how chopping those grams and ounces off your gear can add up to pounds off your back! Just because a doodad came with your gear doesn’t mean that you will need it for the type of trips you take. Some packs come with two ice axe loops. For what I do—mostly long distance hiking—I only need one. If you don’t use a hydration pack, chop out internal pockets and loops designed to hold it up.  Figure out what all the features on your gear do and if you know you won’t use it, become the butcher with the lightest pack.

5)     Shrink the packaging: Just because the store sells sunscreen in 16 oz bottles or Sriracha in 24 oz bottles doesn’t mean you need to take the whole jug on your overnighter. Buy some travel size bottles and repackage everything before you hit the trail. You can find single serving options of almost any product you could ever want at www.minimus.biz

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6)     Question Your Boy Scout Leader: We’ve all been raised to think of tents as A-frames and sleeping bags as a big roll up. But does your tent really need a floor? The Brooks Range Guide series of tarps provides shelter from wind and rain at an amazing weight by leaving out the floor. On a similar note, if you’re using a sleeping pad, ask yourself if you really need sleeping bag insulation under you? The Cloak series of sleeping quilts works on the principle that the back of a sleeping bag gets compressed at night. It’s the top of the bag that delivers the most heat per ounce you carry. Remove the back of the bag, and suddenly, you cut the bag’s weight almost in half without sacrificing warmth. When you’re willing to try out innovative designs that take a modern spin on traditional gear, you can easily chop off pounds from your packweight.

Carrying less stuff frees you—mentally and physically—to focus on the beauty of nature, where your route is taking you, and the companionship of your friends. Get out there and do a little experimentation and find out what having a lighter pack will free you to do.

Humphrey's Basin 2014-2
Backpacking in the High Sierra along Humphreys Basin. Photo credit: Alejandro Pinnick

Liz Thomas is an adventure athlete based in Denver who has backpacked over 10,000 miles across the U.S. on long distance hiking trails. You can follow her adventures at www.eathomas.com

2 thoughts on “Fast and Light: 6 Tips to Carry Less Stuff in the Outdoors

  1. No one has been raised to think of tents as A frames and bags as big roll ups. I was a boy scout in a small town in PA in the 70s and we used double wall nylon tents and tarps and down and polyester sleeping bags. As a scout leader now I teach about cutting-edge gear.

  2. I like my tent with floor. I have been attack twice from mountain lions at night while sleeping, without a tent I would be dead. You can’t hear them sneaking up while your sleeping. They either put your head in their mouth or your neck and break your spine then they eat you while your alive and paralyzed. Mountain lions are really super strong they can break an elks neck like nothing. Humans have no chance, one lion was a four hundred pounder way over normal size.

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