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Think Like a Lightweight Backpacker


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 may help.

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 total weight.

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 lighter safely?

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 Philosophy.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Think Like a Lightweight Backpacker