I grew up camping and took my first backpacking trip with family around my 12th birthday. Later, when I was 16 or 17, my dad took me on a backpacking adventure to Crown Point, the site of a crashed WWII B-17 bomber.
Within the past few years, I’ve started venturing into “ultralight” backpacking. Ultralight means different things to different people, but the idea is to carry the lightest pack you can for a given trip (some say 12 pounds or less, before you add food and water). Lighter pack = easier hike, more distance covered, less sore feet, and more fun. Given the choice, I like to have more fun rather than less fun, so I’ve been working on my gear to get things as light and efficient as possible. I thought I’d share a few gear and organization highlights here.
First Things First: The Gear Spreadsheet
I’m showing a short gear list here; the real spreadsheet is 100+ rows. But, you get the idea. Putting an X in the ‘current trip’ column creates a total which lets me see pack weight for that trip. ‘Summer’ and ‘Winter’ columns give a general idea of seasonal base pack weight. A quick scan over this sheet before heading out can help make sure I don’t forget anything critical.
There are a couple key areas that helped me get my pack weight down significantly: the pack itself, clothing, and sleep gear.
For warm weather trips (and short duration winter trips), I use the Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin Peak backpack. It weighs just a pound but is capable of containing a surprising amount of gear. It also has a lot of little pockets, which is great for organizing gear without any added weight. I used to use a GoLite pack year-round but now use that just for longer or more gear-intensive trips, since it weighs in closer to two pounds.
High-quality, light-weight backpacking gear is pricey, so this is the area that’s taken me the longest to build up. Watching for Black Friday sales has helped with a few items, but the rest has just been adding a bit of gear here and there. Over time, I’ve eliminated something like 10 pounds of gear from my pack with clothing upgrades. I tend to get cold easily, so good winter gear is a must. Cheaper winter gear can be very bulky and heavy, and I’ve worked to replace these items with better down-filled jackets, pants, and sleeping bag. Reducing this bulk is part of what makes the small Salomon pack possible.
Another tactic that has helped with weight reduction and cost savings has been building some of my own gear. Creating a vapor barrier (waterproof) jacket out of a membrane silpoly fabric dropped about another 4 ounces from my pack and reduced bulk quite a bit. Coming up with the pattern took a few iterations, and I’d suggest making a trial run jacket out of cheap cotton or some other test fabric, before you start using the more expensive tech fabrics. The end result is super lightweight and a custom fit.
Sleeping gear is another great area to cut down weight and bulk. Three things have made a big difference here in my gear: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and bivy.
By far the best weight and bulk savings in my pack has been trading in a tent for a custom-made bivy (short for bivouac) sack. The bivy I built has a number of advantages over tents, from my perspective. I can see the stars. The mesh face panel allows moisture out of the bivy, meaning I don’t wake up in the morning in a tent full of condensation with Chinese-water-torture drips on my face. It is super light and compact, and I find it to be more comfortable sleeping than a tent. Ditching the tent for the bivy saved over 12 ounces. And, like making the jacket, building a custom bivy was a fun challenge.
Enlightened Equipment has awesome sleeping quilts, which you can customize to your exact specifications, including length, temperature, and inner/outer colors. You can buy non-custom, pre-made quilts from Enlightened as well if you’re in a hurry – there is a 1-3 week lead time required for the custom made quilts.
The NeoAir XTherm air mattress has been another great weight and bulk savings – it’s also warmer and more comfortable than the foam sleeping pads I started with.
FOOD & MISC.
It takes more than just a backpack and a sleeping bag for a fun trip, unless you’re going for full-out survival mode. Because this is an organization blog, not a backpacking blog, I’m not going to detail the individual items here but I do want to call out a few organizational highlights.
Ziploc bags are great for dividing out different gear into mini-kits. It can also keep water out so your fire starters (cotton balls soaked in Vaseline work great), Band-Aids, and toilet paper don’t get wet. Items I use less frequently, like first aid kit, chamois cloth, and cordage are zipped into one bag while more frequent use items like water filter, toiletries, and fire starter kit are in a different bag that’s easy to access from the pack.
Food for a backpacking trip usually includes several freeze-dried meals and a bunch of snack bars. The long-handled titanium spoon is super light and keeps me from getting food-hand when eating Mountain House meals straight from the pouch.
I’m not sure what my pack weighed on the Crown Point hike with dad. I do remember that we took a pretty heavy tent, and my backpack was visible over the top of my head. We had much more, and much heavier, gear than I would take on a trip today.
My GoLite pack with gear has a base weight of something like 25-30 pounds, and the current Salomon set up is in the 12-15 pound range. That’s about 50% lighter, and science has proven that it increases fun by 75%. Not bad!
If you’re a backpacker, I’d like to hear your lightweight hacks! And, if you’re not, give me a look into what your hobbies are and how you organize them to make things more fun.