Carrying a light load on the Colorado Trail — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
The backpacking industry has seen a revolution over the past decade that is really reaching some fabulous new heights. Gone are the days of needing to miserably slog 50 pounds of gear over a mountain pass. With today’s new innovations, you can move faster for longer, and cut your suffering quotient by at least 50%, leaving you with a lot more time to smell the roses. Here are 10 tips and products to keep in mind when planning your next backpacking adventure.
1. Make the move to a lighter pack
Lightweight nylon packs make for easier days — Photo courtesy of Six Moon Designs
Old-school packs tended to weigh 4-5 pounds. By carrying overall lighter gear, you no longer need as large or heavy a pack. A whole industry of packs made from super lightweight nylon (Robic, Cordura, Dyneema) has dropped weights down to 1.5-2.5 pounds.
Check out something like the Minimalist V2 from Six Moon Designs, which even comes with a vest harness that features a unique six-point connection between the pack and your body, transferring weight to your core and eliminating sway. Packs like this or Gossamer Gear's Gorilla weigh in at around 2 pounds, meaning you've already saved 3 pounds from your old pack.
2. Opt for a down sleeping bag, preferably a quilt
While expensive, down gives you an incredible warmth-to-weight ratio and packs down to almost nothing. The old adage was not to bring down to wet places (as it clumps and loses insulation when wet), but shelters today keep things dry, and most good bags are made with a water-resistant outer shell.
Going even a step further, trekkers are now opting for quilts instead of sleeping bags, as quilts omit zippers and hoods and instead focus the warmth on the areas of your body most likely to get cold. Katabatic Gear makes a 22° quilt from 900 fill goose down that only weighs a minimal 21 ounces. Considering that older model sleeping bags were 3-5 pounds, you've shaved yet another few pounds from your kit.
3. Lighten up your shelter
Featherweight tent and sleeping system — Photo courtesy of Six Moon Designs
A tent is usually the heaviest item in a trekker's pack. Most two-person tents weigh around 5-6 pounds. At least, they used to. Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) has revolutionized the tent industry. This laminate is stronger than steel and is used in making sails for competitive yacht racing. It is completely waterproof, and you can now find tents that come in under 2 pounds.
If you're willing to forego a liner or floor, it can get even lighter. Six Moon Design's two-person Wild Owyhee can be set up using your trekking poles and weighs a grand total of 16 ounces. Some hikers now just carry a Dyneema poncho which doubles as their rain gear and can be strung up as a shelter.
4. New air mattresses don't sacrifice comfort
Most hikers are familiar with Therm-a-Rest products. Back in the '90s, one of these comfortable air mattresses ensured a good night's sleep but weighed in at several pounds. These days, the company's NeoAir XLite only weighs 12.5 ounces, further reducing your load.
5. Pay attention to your base weight
Trim your base weight to 15 pounds or less — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Base weight refers to the weight of everything in your pack other than consumables like food, water and fuel. While super ultralight hikers now aim for base weights below 10 pounds, this involves skimping on comfort and sometimes safety. Yet if you aim for 15 pounds, you can be both comfortable, safe and have room for extras.
If your "big 4" of tent, sleeping bag, pad and pack weigh a combined total of around 6-7 pounds, you still have another 7-8 pounds left to cover all your other essentials. By having a base weight of 15 pounds, you can carry a couple liters of water, five days of food and still be below 30 pounds, which is both a comfortable weight and doesn't exceed the comfort limit of the new lightweight packs.
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6. Aim for multi-use items
Down gives the best warmth-to-weight ratio — Photo courtesy of Raquel Mogado
Rather than carrying a wind shirt/jacket and a rain jacket, just have your rain jacket serve as both. And speaking of rain gear, it might not be for everyone, but plenty of thru-hikers are swearing by rain kilts, which are far more comfortable and breathable than traditional pants. ULA Equipment makes one that is only 3 ounces.
7. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and embrace merino
Shorts and merino tights work even in snow! — Photo courtesy of Raquel Mogado
Merino wool is very popular amongst today's ultralight hiking crowd. It provides excellent warmth for weight, breathes well, keeps you insulated when wet and perhaps its most endearing quality is that it doesn't stink. For someone carrying only one backup pair of clothing, not to mention rarely showering in the backcountry, this is pretty sweet – and your significant other will thank you.
Smaller cottage industry players like Voormi make top-notch merino shirts and also hoodies, which have become popular base or second layers, removing the need to carry a hat.
8. Choose your layers carefully
Carbon fiber umbrellas repel rain and sun — Photo courtesy of Raquel Mogado
There are a vast array of fabrics and products to opt for in terms of keeping you dry, warm and protected from the elements. Most hikers wear a non-cotton base layer against their skin (cotton doesn't insulate when wet), made of either merino or polypropylene, which wick moisture, or else a sun shirt or something to keep the bugs off in mid-summer.
A second insulating layer for walking when cold follows. Try out some of the new Polartec Alpha fleece jackets, which are lighter than traditional fleece and breathable yet warm. You can also find lightweight down jackets to use as your final insulating layer. Arc'teryx's Cerium weighs only 11 ounces yet is perfect for fighting the chill on three-season adventures.
Finally, don't forget your rain jacket to go on top of it all; they can be as light as 5 ounces these days. Or perhaps opt for an umbrella. Six Moon Designs makes a 5.5-oz. carbon fiber one that can even be attached to your pack, leaving your hands free.
9. Think about ditching your boots
Trail runners let you walk longer and faster than boots — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Carrying that 50-pound pack meant needing more ankle support and cushion, but most of today's long-distance hikers wear trail runners. This is because walking long miles in heavy shoes is twice as taxing, and also because trail running shoes now come with grippy Vibram soles and are suitable for a variety of trail conditions.
The other benefit is that when "waterproof" boots get wet, they take forever to dry out, leaving you cold and susceptible to blisters and trench foot, whereas trail runners will usually dry in a day.
10. Don't skimp on safety
Embracing the hike with a lighter load — Photo courtesy of Six Moon Designs
While choosing your gear, make sure to keep a basic first aid kit in your pack. It's the only thing you'll carry that you hope you don't have to use. Make sure you have navigational tools such as a GPS or phone app like Gaia. Even better, carry a map/compass and the knowledge of how to use them, as electronic devices can and will fail.
Even as you're lightening your load, make sure you keep what are known as the "10 essentials" in your gear: navigation, headlamp, first aid, knife, fire starter, sun protection, shelter and extra food, water and clothes). Happy lightweight adventuring!