Pack Weight Revisited

Carry as little as possible but choose that little with care.
~ Earl Schafer

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Carrying 14 lbs. with food and water

I have an obsession with pack weight. I got it honest early in my backpacking days while carrying a base-weight that must have been in the 45-pound range. After a few trips with a 3-pound sleeping  bag, 4-pound pack, heavy stove, heavy leather boots, and lots of extra stuff I didn’t need, I began to make different choices when it was possible to replace or eliminate something. I have an older post, “Preparing for Multi-Day Backpacking Trips”, that was well received. For this post, I’m focusing specifically on pack weight.

Over the last twenty years and after a lot of trial and error, I’m carrying a base-weight of 9-10 pounds when I’m using my lightest options. Base-weight is your pack-weight before adding food and water. The photo above shows my pack with food for two nights and water included.

Going lighter is all about personal choices. I’m sharing the following, not because this is how it should be done, but giving ideas and possibilities for going lighter. If you have a trick that works for you, please share with me through the contact page. I love to pick up good ideas from readers. I will mention brand names for clarity in this post, but I’m not endorsing any company.

The big three: 1 Sleep System, 2 Shelter,  3 The Pack – Reducing weight in these three areas has the most significant impact on pack weight.

1 Sleep system: Rest is essential to your trip’s success, so this is no place to skimp on cost, but a good down quilt is less than a sleeping bag. I use an Enlightened Equipment 20-degree down quilt and a silk bag liner for a weight of about 1 lb. 4 oz. Twenty-degree sleeping bags weigh in around 2 lbs. 6 oz. to over 3 pounds.

I’ve used air sleeping pads with good results except for the occasional leak. There are lighter and more rugged options.

Thermarest pad labeled.001

If I’m going my lightest, I prefer a Therm-a-rest foam pad with two extra foam cutouts to avoid cold spots where most of my weight makes contact. I’m a side sleeper, so one extra 6×8 inch pad goes under my hipbone, and the other goes under my shoulder. I cut the two extra pieces from a full-sized RidgeRest to make it a 2/3 pad after cutting another piece for Hiker-dog. She loves her foam sleeping pad! In cold weather, I place my pack under my feet to get up off the ground.

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Platypus pillow

For me, a pillow is essential. I now use a Platypus water pouch filled with air inside a small pillowcase along with extra clothes. During the day and in camp, I use the pouch to store extra water. If there’s water in the pouch in the evening, I pour it into my cookpot for the next morning’s eggs and coffee. I like double-use items.

2. Shelter: Lots of options here, and I’ve tried several over the years. Right now, I’m using a Big Agnes Silver Spur 2-person tent (2 lbs. 12 oz.) when I expect cold temperatures and want to keep Hiker-dog in the tent with me. When I want to go my lightest, I use a ZPacks tarp. Love the tarp because it’s flexible, lightweight, and I can feel close to my surroundings. If it’s bug season, I pitch a screened Enlightened Equipment bivy sack under the tarp. I sometimes use a piece of plastic under the foam pad in non-bug season. A backpacking tent can easily weigh 4 lbs. The tarp, stakes, and plastic ground cloth add up to 16 oz. With a bivy sack it’s 21 oz.

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ZPacks tarp, Enlightened Equipment quilt on Therm-a-rest foam pad

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Crown 60 pack packed bear canister for the High Sierras

3 The Pack: On the John Muir Trail and for many Ozarks trips, I use my Granite Gear Crown 60 pack. Love that pack, and it handles a bear canister well. If I’m going my lightest and a bear canister isn’t required, I use a ZPacks Nero that is super light.

Packing the pack (my way) – Place all items that must remain dry in a trash compactor bag. Both the Zpacks and Crown 60 packs area simple tubes. Pockets, compartments, and zippers are nice but add weight. The foam sleeping pad is placed against the pack walls adding structure to the lightweight floppy pack. I press the tarp into the bottom so any moisture will move down from there. Then I press the trash compactor bag into the tube containing the down quilt, silk sleeping bag liner, and extra clothes. Last, I pack the food/kitchen bag. 

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Loaded pack next to Hiker-dog who is policing the campsite for any crumbs

Lightweight hacks: Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up from other hikers and reading.

OT AquamiraHydrating light – If I use a filter, it’s the Sawyer mini squeeze filter. If the water is cloudy, I sometime pre-filter with my bandana and then the Sawyer filter. If I’m going my lightest, I use Aquamira water treatment drops, rebottled in small plastic bottles. I prefer the drops and leaving the filter in the bag or at home. Sometimes I carry both drops and a Sawyer, depending on what I expect to find out there.

Cooking light – Sometimes, I cook on a fire if there’s already a fire ring and it’s a high impact campsite, but the stove I carry is a titanium Esbit stove with two fuel cubes for each day. I have a pocket rocket type stove that works well, and sometimes I carry that, but it’s heavier, and I despise giving pack space to fuel canisters. I have a Jetboil and would use it for a large group where we wanted to boil lots of water quickly without having a bunch of stoves. A Jetboil could save weight for a group, but it’s heavy for an individual. One of my main trail friends uses a Whisperlite and he’s masterful with it, but it is a slightly heavier option.

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Gourmet coffee and eggs with bacon bits

My cookpot (Toaks 550 ml) and cup are titanium. Some prefer a larger pot, but this one boils water for coffee and scrambled eggs though it does get close to the rim with evening meals. I made a pot cozy using foam and Gorilla Glue that extends the cooking time and keeps the food warm while I eat it. I love coffee and have a somewhat unique coffee recipe. I sometimes wish my mug were bigger, but it fits nicely inside my pot.

Food is generally heavy. I rarely use commercial freeze-dried meals, preferring to pack my own using soups, instant potatoes, and Knorr meals as a base. Add dehydrated vegetables and freeze-dried chicken to make good meals with less packaging and weight. I carry trash in an empty coffee bag. It’s light, durable, and I don’t have to look at my trash as with a plastic bag.

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Black Diamond trekking pole & titanium tarp stakes

Trekking Poles: Hiking poles aren’t a necessity, but I find they improve my stability, especially going downhill. They can also serve a dual purpose as tarp poles. Lightweight and simple are my favorite features. I don’t care for fancy adjustments/shock absorbers and sometimes see hikers playing with their stick lengths to the point of frustration because of tricky mechanisms. I use Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles (non-adjustable).

Shoes and socks: I wear lightweight, low top hiking shoes or trail running shoes. I use crocs for creek crossing and around camp. I carry two pairs of Darn Tough socks with one pair on my feet and a backup pair in my pack. Everything adds up, so wearing lightweight clothes makes a difference in the weight your knees and feet will feel on the trail.

Personal items…what do I really need? I used to tweak around with toothbrushes, trying to lower the weight. I settled on tooth powder for a while instead of toothpaste. Now I just carry a roll of floss, that’s all. I floss each evening. Each morning a snap off a green twig and “brush” my teeth while walking along. After a few minutes, my teeth feel as clean as ever.

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Luxury Item: Give yourself one. It might be an iPod or some other item that adds to your enjoyment.  I love my double wall titanium mug, but it would qualify as a luxury item, so it never makes backpacking trips. My favorite luxury item is a package of wet-wipes. It feels good to clean up before sleeping, keeps the silk bag liner cleaner, and keeps down the stink.

Speaking of stink…. Proper pooping is important! There’s a whole book on the subject! For the Ozarks, bury your business away from the trail or water and pack out any toilet paper. I like to use leaves when possible to reduce the use of toilet paper though I still carry a little.  I like what Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips by Mike Clelland has on this subject and many more.

Life is all about nuanced choices, and the same is true of packing light. Experimenting with your gear can be fun and add to the anticipation of a trip, or it can drive you crazy and annoy those around you.

I think maybe “closet ultra-light backpacker” is the way to go. Quietly make decisions that reduce your pack weight, but don’t initiate conversations about subtle differences between the Toaks titanium cookpot over the MSR Titan Camping Kettle. Better to have campfire conversations about the trail, scenery, and life.

Enjoy your light pack, and the places your happy feet will take you!


If you want to hit some beautiful Arkansas and Missouri trails, pick up my book, Five Start Trails: The Ozarks.

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Happy feet on the John Muir Trail in the High Sierras of California

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