Why it Matters
When it comes to backpacking, weight equals work. The more you carry, the harder you are going to have to work, uphill or down. So we’ve spent a lot of time and effort thinking about how we can keep our pack weight down to a minimum, while still maintaining a modicum of comfort. When a trip is only a few miles and a couple of days, a few extra pounds really doesn’t make that much difference. But once you start looking at multiple day trips, over long distances and rough terrain, the weight of your pack will become a focal point of your attention, too.
Just to drive home this point, when we dayhike up a steep climb, we still manage to average about 1.75 miles per hour. On the flats, it’s closer to 2.5 or even three. But with fully loaded packs, those speeds drop to about 2 mph on the flats…and climbing up a really steep hill might take us an hour to go a mile. Cutting down on pack weight is just plain smart. John Muir carried a seven pound pack...but that doesn't count the heavy clothes he wore. Still, lightweight is the way to go.
As an example, there are three packs in the photo above. The closest one isn't one of ours. Ours are the two smaller ones next to P. Which ones do you think weigh less?
Where should you start? That’s easy. The heaviest parts of any pack are the tent, sleeping bag, the pack itself, your clothes, and the food you carry. Let’s take a look at each one to see how we can keep those weights under control.
The tent is often the heaviest thing in your pack. When we take our three-season three-man tent (pictured below right) on a short trip, it adds seven pounds to our pack. But we take it sometimes because it is really rainproof, has plenty of room in it for both of us and our gear, and sometimes there are three of us on the trip. But to cut down on pack weight, P sewed us a tent out of some waterproof rip-stop nylon and some mosquito netting, and it weighs only about three pounds, all up. That saves us four pounds, and it works great. You can find plans for such a tent on the internet…and it took him about a day to work out the details and sew it together. It’s just a layer of waterproof nylon for a roof, sewed to another layer for the floor, and some bug-netting in between. The door is actually just some Velcro closures along the netting at the front of the tent.
That was so successful that he made another one that uses M's hiking poles for support (so we don't have to carry separate tent poles) and weighs less then two pounds. And it seems to work just fine!
When P was in his teens, he would use a small tube tent, with no mosquito netting. It was very light, but in buggy campsites he suffered, because it had no mosquito netting. And M likes just a little privacy when we camp—she doesn’t like to lie out on the ground with nothing between her and the universe. So we’ve compromised on this light tent, and it works great.
To carry that tent, you will need a pack. We’ve had really good luck with a basic Eureka 3800 pack that we picked up at a discount store for under $50. These weigh about 3.5 pounds, and are perfectly capable of carrying more weight than we can! You can certainly buy lighter packs---there are some that weigh only a pound—but they utilize very lightweight materials, and you really need to make the decision to go ultra-light on everything for them to work for you. We sometimes carry up to 35 pounds in ours without a second thought. Most of the really lightweight packs suggest that 30-35 pounds is pushing the envelope. We don’t like to push the envelope in the wilderness. Having your pack fall apart two days into a six day hike is a really bad situation.
What you should avoid is getting a really big, heavy pack just in case you want to carry a lot of stuff. It’s very easy to fill up a big pack, and if you have a big pack, you will fill it up. In this case, bigger is not better. It’s harder to carry all that weight. A better idea is to put together your equipment; then get the smallest possible pack that will carry it all. Anything over about four pounds is probably more pack than you need for a week in the wilderness.
Our packs in the photo below left are Eureka 3800s--which means they have 3800 cubic inches of space. That's not huge, but it's enough for us. (And no, they don't always look like this--it was wash day, and P was drying his laundry as he hiked on the trail.)
We upgraded from the Eurekas a few years ago to a couple of Go-Lite packs that weight just over two pounds. Go-lite is apparently no longer in business, but we like these packs, and you might be able to find one that's used.
Those are our two new packs below right, and the shore of a lake where we set up camp. P's grey pack is half-empty because we've already started to set up the tent, which was inside.
One of the biggest things that you will put in your pack is your sleeping bag—and this is an area where the world has changed a lot over the past ten years. The old-fashioned sleeping bag, the size of a small garbage can, is a thing of the past. You can now find a bag that will keep you more or less warm down to about 30 degrees F. that weighs less than 3.5 pounds, and is not much bigger than a football. We picked ours up from HiPeak and they cost us about $75 each. If you only plan on an overnight trip, this isn’t an issue, but if you are going for a week or more, you will need the extra space in that pack for things like food to keep you alive.
A short note about sleeping bag temperature ratings: if your bag is rated to 30 degrees, that means it will keep you alive at that temperature. If you want to be warm and cozy at that temperature, you will need to sleep in a tent and wear a couple of layers of clothing as well. And you will need to zip up and lace up the bag so only your nose is showing. And they will work that way. Ultra-light bags are very expensive, very light, and very small. They are made of #800 goose down, and a summer bag might weigh less than one kilo. We long coveted a couple of these…and finally found a pair at REI that were on close-out, under $400 for the pair. We love them.
We take a little more than a pound of food per day for the two of us, and that seems to work pretty well. But that means a freeze-dried dinner every night, and only oatmeal and a hot drink for breakfast. And we don't take any alcoholic beverages, at least on the longer trips. If we're only going for a day or two, all of this becomes much more negotiable.
And then there is the rest of the stuff. P takes 20 ounces of fly fishing equipment. M takes a book and some extra lotions for her delicate skin. And you may decide to take an axe to chop wood, a skillet to fry flapjacks, or a banjo. Before you make that decision, weigh those things to see how much they are going to increase your pack weight. And then think about whether you really do need them to survive.
As a good starting exercise, we recommend that you leave ALL that extra stuff behind, just for one trip, to see what it's like. You may surprise yourself. And you may find that carrying that light pack makes the trip so much more enjoyable that you'll never add that heavy stuff again.