Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Lighter really IS better...
Definition | Cost | Trade-offs | Outfitters | Current Load | Ultralight | Heavier
What is lightweight backpacking?
For many years, I enjoyed hiking with some great gear and almost no thought as to the weight of the gear. Of course, I made sure to get "backpacking" tents, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags, but beyond that gear was basically weighed in pounds and I gave almost no thought to the weight of all the "little" items I was carrying.
I started hearing more about lightweight hiking before I started my Appalachian Trail thruhike when I joined a couple of on-line lists devoted to the AT and thruhiking. One person even introduced the idea of ounce-miles. That is, one ounce carried one mile is one ounce mile. One ounce carried 2,000 miles is 2,000 ounce miles or, if you divide by 16, ~125 pounds. Based on this, I realized that if you count the ounces, the pounds add up - especially over a long distance.
As a result, I made a few gear changes before I started my thruhike. I realized that I really didn't "need" a lot of the things I had once carried such as a candle lantern and extra changes of clothing. I also traded out some of my gear for lighter gear (stove, knife, tent, etc.) I started the AT with 42 pounds on my back including six days of food and a quart of water. I thought that was pretty light.
It was only during my thruhike, that I realized exactly how much lightening my load could mean to my thruhike. While I had always enjoyed my hikes with a heavier load, when you're only going out for a few days at a time, it was only when I was hiking day after day for weeks at a time when I realized that I could actually feel the difference a pound made on my back.
My feet felt the difference and my body felt the difference. Others I spoke with felt the same way. Those extra ounces and pounds can mean the difference between being beat at the end of a 15-mile day or being able to hike the 15 and still enjoy the evening with friends without being too tired to participate in conversation. Or it could mean the difference between wanting to explore the occasional trail town or just sitting in your hotel room with your feet up trying to will your feet to recover from the accumulated pounding you insist on giving them day after day.
At the other end of the scale, lightweight hiking can mean the difference between completing your objectives such as a thruhike or not. Heavy loads mean more chances for a hike ending injury. Plantar fasciitis, or foot pain, comes from compression of the nerves in the bottom of the foot. Tendinitis, shin splints, twisted ankles, wrenched knees, broken legs, arms, or other body parts are also likelier when carrying heavier loads. The heavier the load you carry, the harder you fall and the worse those types of injuries can be.
Just because you CAN carry a heavier load and still enjoy your hike doesn't mean you wouldn't enjoy your hike more if you were carrying a lighter load. With the lighter load, you can move faster - if you want to - or you can do more miles in a day - if you want to - or you can take longer breaks knowing that you'll have time to get to your day's destination - if you want to. A lighter load gives you more options. It does not necessarily change your hike - unless you want it to.
Does lightweight hiking have to cost more?
Not necessarily. Especially if you are aware of the concepts before you buy gear for the first time, or are in a position where you have to replace worn gear. Examples of items that can cost a lot less because you are buying lightweight are stoves and backpacks. Some of the most common, very lightweight stoves are homemade alcohol stoves made out of a variety of cans. There are many sources for directions on-line. Some are as simple as a the bottom of a soda can with a few ounces of alcohol. Others take more time and tools. If you are unable to make your own, you can buy them from such sources as AntigravityGear.com.
Pared down, lighter loads tend to be smaller and require less suspension in a backpack. For loads lighter than 20 pounds or so, a full frame (internal or external) is rarely necessary. It's possible to find packs for under $100 dollars that can carry the loads lightweight packers carry.
Other items do tend to get more expensive as they get lighter. Sleeping bags with the best down (850 fill or higher) are lighter and more expensive than (600) down, for example. Properly handled, they can last a lot longer so costs may be lower in the long run for active outdoors people. Lightweight tents may be more expensive than low end tents but comparable to medium and high end tents. Alternatives such as tarping or hammocking may also bring costs down.
Going lightweight may involve some trade-offs.
Each hiker must determine their own level of comfort. Going lightweight may involve trade-offs that affect your comfort. Only you can determine what's right for your experience. With the right choices of equipment, however, you can often minimize the effect of those trade-offs.
When I first starting backpacking, I needed a really good light so that I could shine it all those things that go bump in the night to make sure everything was still OK. Now, I know things always go bump in the night. It's natural, it's not scary, I sleep through most of it, and I no longer feel the need to see things that are 30' away. I only really need a light that's enough to find the latrine at night and maybe cook a dinner if I get in late.
Using Esbit tablets means that I need to have sufficient maildrops to get my fuel. Esbit tablets are rarely available in towns along the way. For some people this might be a problem, for others, it isn't. Alcohol stoves, another lightweight option, means fuel is available in most towns even if you don't have maildrops.
Using a tent made of very lightweight silnylon with no ground sheet means that I have to be a bit more careful as to where I pitch my tent. I make sure the area under the tent is clear of anything that might otherwise puncture the tent. It takes an extra few seconds to do but after my thruhike, the floor of my tent showed no wear and tear.
On the other hand, my 1.5 pound tent gives me a lot more room inside of the tent for myself and my gear than any other heavier solo tent I've seen. It also holds much less water weight after rain than a more typical backpacking solo tent. In this case, going lightweight actually improved my comfort level along the trail.
How come my outfitter tries to sell me heavy gear?
Most outfitters will not carry much of the lightest gear. These lightweight items are deemed too "fragile" for the majority of users who do not take care of their gear. Outfitters don't want to deal with the higher rates of return likely with more fragile gear (silnylon tents). Some of the items don't carry enough profit for them to bother carrying it (soda can stoves). Some items are so individualized that they can't carry a wide enough assortment (high end sleeping bags). Some are just items for which there is limited demand (top bags instead of sleeping bags).
Where do I find out more about my lightweight gear options?
The best sources I've found are on-line. Click here to go to a page of links to lightweight backpacking resources including discussion groups, ezines, gear reviews, and manufacturers that may have appropriate lightweight gear options.
How light is my load now?
Since my thruhike, I've pared down my load even more. I did a two year anniversary hike in March of 2001 and started the AT as if I was thruhiking again. At that point, my pack was at 28 pounds with four days of food and a quart of water. 14 pounds was a huge difference for me and I felt like I had sacrificed very little in the way of comfort.
As of 2004, when I go out for a true summer hike, my base pack weight (without food and water) is as little as 13 pounds. Add a couple of pounds for a three season hike.
My representative lightweight gear list.
Lightweight versus Ultralight
I often hear the terms "lightweight backpacking" and "ultra-lightweight backpacking" bandied about. In my mind, I see the differences as follows: Lightweight is better understanding your true needs in the backcountry and making educated choices to carry the lightest gear that will meet those needs without exceeding them; Ultra-lightweight is where I see some hikers making trade-offs that significantly affect their comfort level in the backcountry. Ultra-lightweight backpackers are the ones that may decide to hike through the night to stay warm because they didn't bring a warm enough bag, etc. I believe you must have a much better knowledge of backcountry and survival skills to go ultra-lightweight than lightweight.
I see myself fitting solidly in the lightweight realm. I am not willing to give up comfort or safety to hike with an ultra-lightweight backpack.
Another way to think about it is this way... Novice hikers will be just as safe with lightweight gear as with heavy options but sending novices out with an ultra-lightweight setup without teaching them the extra coping/survival skills for tough situations could easily get them into serious trouble.
Why do some hikers carry heavy gear knowing about lighter options?
I've never met a "new" hiker who prefers to carry heavy gear. That said, there are plenty of hikers who like to carry their heavy gear because it's what they have and it's what they know. For some people, change can be difficult. Almost always, the folks that continue to carry their heavy gear even after finding out about lighter options are those that can't afford to replace their gear and/or they are the naturally athletic types who don't seem to ever have to worry about overuse injuries, tired muscles, degenerative knee conditions, etc.
For new people starting out, going lightweight is no more expensive, and often cheaper, than a heavy load. It's just those of us who started heavy and had to buy a second set of gear to go light that have wasted lots of money.
Last updated, June 26, 2013.
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