The Art of Packing Light for the Backcountry

My friend once described her spirit animal as a mule, because she will stubbornly carry heavy loads long distances....and she loves snacks (shout out to Mariah solo hiking the PCT right now, keep trekking girl!). I can totally relate.

The elusive pack mule

I don't necessarily enjoy carrying a heavy pack, but something about going to remote areas, under the will of your own two feet, with everything you need on your back, being totally self-sufficient, is extremely gratifying.

But I will admit, I am getting old, my knees, my back, my shoulders, they are all starting to feel more fatigued, and faster. So in the last couple of years I have become more and more obsessed with carrying the lightest load possible. And it makes such a big difference! I have found with a lighter pack I am more comfortable and I can go further, which means exploring more!

It is truly an art, to bring only what you need. I definitely have not mastered it yet, but in this post I wanted share my tips and tricks I have learned along the way to shed those valuable pounds off your pack. Even just a few ounces can really make all the difference.

Step 1 to Lighten Your Load: Understand your Trip

Before you even start packing its super important to clearly define your trip, ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • Where are you going, how many miles are you traveling and how many days?

  • What are the conditions? check the weather, know the terrain, know your water sources, are there bears?

  • Why are you going? maybe its to go to come hot springs, maybe to fish, maybe to reach a peak.

For this river hike I had to bring a bunch of special stuff, having the right gear though was a life saver!

These answers will help you when deciding the items to bring. If you are not sure if you need to bring an item, refer back to your answers and why you are actually going on the trip in the first place. Maybe its that extra shirt or your favorite cooking seasoning, your not sure if you should bring. Do you really need that extra shirt if you are only going to be out there for 2 days? How much am you actually going to be cooking (maybe if its a fishing trip the answer is yes! if its to summit a peak the answer if probably no).

Sometimes when sports come into play it can be hard to pair down the items. I always hear myself saying "But there maybe rivers I can float down?" I need to bring 3 different lenses for my 2 cameras. If I find myself saying maybe or might or need, I always remind myself that I can always go back, a lot of times the first time on a trail for me is also a scouting tour, to find all the cool things the trail has to offer. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying don't bring those items, if its a river hike by all means bring your wetsuit, your drybags, your waterproof gear, but if it is a river trip don't bring your climbing gear on top of it, you can always go back to climb any cool rocks you scout along the way.

We clutter our lives with so many things, its hard to remember that the idea is to live simply, to just be in the outdoors is something to treasure in itself, why bring all that clutter into it, this is your opportunity to get away from it. That brings us to Step 2, the essential base items for survival.

Step 2: Start with your Essential Base

You're essential base are those things you will absolutely need, no questions asked. This is simple, you will need a pack, shelter, and a sleep system.

Backpack. I opt for a smaller pack, I hike with an Osprey Sirrus 36 liter, it offers some cool features such as a front zipper so I can access most of my items without pulling everything out of my pack and a back ventilation system that keeps me nice and dry on my back. However, it is a lighter pack, 3.2lbs, so you trade some bells and whistles for less weight with this pack, which is fine with me. Also it is pretty small, if you went to REI they would not recommend this pack for weekend backpacking trips, its too small in their eyes. But for me, it helps me pair down my items and keeps me to just what I need, because I can't even fit it all. I will even take out the built in rain-fly if I know if is not going to be raining just to save on the extra space and ounces.

My whole life is in that one little pack for 4 days.

Shelter. I am obsessed with my hammock, its lightweight, comfortable, and I swear sleeping with my feet slightly elevated reduces swelling and helps with recovery (btw, this is scientifically proven by the School of Quacks). I opt for the double nest ENO Hammocks,.There is nothing really special about the ENO hammocks over others, so get anything that is lightweight, but defiantly go for the double nest, so you can wrap it around you at night if needed.

People often ask me, don't you have trouble finding trees to tie up to, and my answer is NO. Like, literally, I have never had problems finding trees to tie up to, and if I did I still have an amazing sleep system so I would just sleep cowboy style under the stars. But this is the thing with lightweight backpacking, you need to be able to roll with the punches and adjust to your environment.

I got all my friends using the hammock, its addicting.

I also bring a tarp it comes in handy on so many different fronts and  in a pinch you can use it for shelter. I have seen people use there trekking poles, a rope, and a tarp for shelter. But for me it comes in handy in case it rains, I rig it up as a rain-fly for my hammock. I like bringing versatile items like a tarp, instead of buying an expensive rainfly. First it saves you money and is just as good, also if it doesn't rain the rainfly is worthless and really has no other function, whereas the tarp can come in handy for so many different things (I have even used it as a makeshift trash bag in a pinch).

Sleep system. I always bring a lightweight sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. For the hammock the sleeping pad is key, the wind under your back will keep you freezing at night if you don't have the extra insulation. For the sleeping bag, I used to use a big, bulky, super warm sleeping bag and this was a huge expense weight wise. So recently I switched back to my old REI travel sack, its super old I don't even think you can get it at REI anymore. But it is rated for 55 degrees and is a polyester fill rectangle mummy sack. In the summer it works great, and in the winter I just bring my sleeping bag liner, I have the Caccoon Microfiber Liner, it adds up to 5 degrees of warmth. Also it can be multi-functional as a towel if needed. I would (post coming on how to keep warm at night). Then I just layer up, I always wear long underwear, maybe even my lightweight puffer jacket, and always a beanie.

When it comes to your sleep systems, play around with it, find what you can get down to for the lightest weight with the maximum comfort. Literally the worst thing is to have a restless night, also if you don't sleep well you will have a bad day on the trail, so find a system that works for you, its worth its weight in gold.

Step 3: Focus on the 10 Essentials 

Next I layer in my 10 essentials. The 10 essentials is definitely not my idea and is widely used by many hikers. Below is the list of the 10 essentials, for some of the items I have annotated with what I personally bring.

  1. Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger - I always bring with me a waterproof map, and my Garmin watch which has been a game changer for me when hiking. The watch helps me track how far I have gone and how fast, often helping me orient better. Nicer watches you can even upload maps onto, mines not that fancy though.

  2. Headlamp: plus extra batteries

  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes (hat) and sunscreen - I always bring a hat, polarized sunglasses, a travel size tube of sunscreen, and I bring a light long sleeved shirt to further protect my arms and back when I am backpacking. 

  4. First aid: including foot care, insect repellent (travel size), ibuprofen, allergy meds, hygiene (toothbrush, toothpaste, and baby wipes) - I recommend making your own first aid kit, general rule of thumb is if you haven't used it in 5 years you do not need it in your first aid kit.

  5. Knife: plus a gear repair kit - my repair kit consists of duct tape wrapped around my water bottle so I do not need to bring the whole roll.

  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove -stoves are getting so small now and you don't have to get an expensive one, my MSR pocket rocket was like $30 and I've been using it for years now.

  7. Shelter - we already covered this one.

  8. Extra food: Food is a big one, obviously, you are going to burn a lot of calories out there so always bring beyond the minimum expected. Rule of thumb is to bring 3,000 calories or about 1 lb of food per day per person. But not only does the food need to be high in calories it needs to taste good or all you will be doing is daydreaming about that burger joint on the way home from the trail.

          I always go back and forth on bringing my stove, between the stove and pot they can weight some extra precious ounces, but I have a light cooking system and generally cold food weighs more than freeze dried, so usually I opt for the stove, plus I need my coffee in the morning. I usually do some kind of bar and coffee for breakfast, tortillas and tuna packets for lunch (lots of people opt for a log of salami but this weighs a lot!), and freeze dried for dinner, also I bring lots of snacks, like a ton of peanut butter packets, trail mix, Emergen-C, and fruit snacks (they have like no caloric value but they are light and taste good and I'm addicted to sugar, so don't judge!) 

9. Water, filtration system, and Camelbag: This is where you're questions come into play again, rule of thumb is if there is little water available on the trail carry 3 liters with you. The only thing that sucks though, is each liter weights 1.1 lbs so when you have the full 3 liters you have approximately an additional 6.3 lbs of weight in your bag....ulg. This is definitely not ideal, but water filtration systems are so good now-a-days, if there is water along the trail you do not have to worry about carrying the whole 3 liters. I bring with me either a Swayer Squeeze water filer or the Katadyn BeFree Water Microfilter with me, they are light and small and they get out most everything you need. However, if water is not readily available, you may just have to bite the bullet and camel pack it. I was also resistant for awhile to buy a Camelbag but I got one last Christmas and it has been a game changer. I drink so much more water on the trail when it is so readily available. But, be smart about limiting how much water you pack, because it doesn't matter how light you get your pack if you run out of water you will be miserable also you will get tired faster and it will take you longer to recover, so make sure you drink!

Way too happy to be pumping water.

10. Clothes: Ok, don't get me wrong I love my clothes, also I usually take a lot of pictures of the trail so I like to look cute, but clothes weigh a lot. So, dressing in layers is key. Think about how many days you are going to be out there, if I am only going to be out there for 2-3 days I will just bring one outfit for hiking (hiking shoes, wool socks, zip off pants, sports bra, t-shirt, light weight long sleeve, hat, sunnies) and one outfit for sleeping (another pair of wool socks, long underwear, lightweight jacket), the only thing I bring for every day is underwear. If it is more than 3 days I may bring an extra shirt, extra socks, extra sports bra. Also, all my clothes are quick dry, so if I really want I will bring some natural soap and wash them in the river, by morning they are usually dry and clean.

I pretty much exclusively hike with a long sleeve shirt, it's the only way to guarantee no sunburns.

Step 4: Layer in the Add-Ons

Anything beyond these items is not essential (even though you may feel like it is, it is not essential for your survival). Weigh your pack with only the essentials in it, this will help you understand how much weight you are actually adding for non-essential items. Remember add about 6 lbs or however much water you think you will be carrying, to this number. Some people say you should carry 15% of your weight, that's wayyyyy too much, I like to get my pack between 20-25 lbs this is considered light, its quite hard for me to get it down to ultra-light, the break down is:

  • traditional = 25 lbs and up

  • light = 20-25 lbs

  • ultra-light = 15-20 lbs

  • ultra-ultra-light (i.e. crazy) = 15 lbs and under

This is where the questions really come in handy, remember what you are there for and only bring those items, believe me you will regret it when you are lugging a 40 lb pack with you for 3 days. Add-on items I pretty much always bring include a journal and pen, a book, my phone (doubles as a camera), then it depends on the trip.

Love writing in my journal in the wilderness.

Step 5: Pack Creatively

Go throught all your items and make sure they all serve a purpose, if you have two items that do the same thing, remove it! Double points if you find things that have multiple uses. For instance a quick dry towel can double as a blanket, a dry bag can double as a bag to carry water. Tap into your inner MacGyver, find ways to use the items in your bag creatively to solve problems you may run into and lighten your load. You would be surprised what a tarp, a rope, and duct tape can do.

Also, it's not just the items you bring but the way you pack them. One tip is to pack light weight items on the bottom, such as your tarp, sleeping bag, hammock, jacket, then heavier things on top. This way the heavy things on the top will compact the light things on the bottom providing you with more space and less weight will be situated on your lower back. 

Step 6: Bring a Friend

Friends are essentially pack mules that can talk, jk. This is probably why I can't get anybody to go hiking with me, haha. No but seriously, breaking up the weight between two people can really make a difference, many of these items you only need one of, you only need one tent, one stove, one filter, etc. Plus sometimes they are fun to talk to and take selfies with :)

My favorite little pack mules :)

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