Lightweight Backpacking Tips for More Comfortable Miles
I don’t know about you, but when I go into the wilderness I like to picture myself floating gracefully through epic landscapes like a strong gazelle. Not clomping around like an overburdened hippo, a flurry of adorable small forest animals fleeing in terror before my menacing footsteps.
But gazelle-like grace and endurance are hard to achieve if it feels like you’re carrying an elephant on your back. A heavy pack that leads to sore shoulders and cranky knees can really suck the fun out of an otherwise lovely backpacking trip.
We have important gear to carry though. So what’s a backpacker to do? I like my cozy warm jacket and comfy sleeping pad as much as the next backpacker, but there are still ways to trim weight from your backpack without cutting the handle off your toothbrush and spending your life savings on fancy lightweight backpacking gear.
The answer: a universe of techniques and gear known as lightweight backpacking.
Like many lightweight backpackers, I started with heavier, generalist gear and over time have lightened my backpack one item at a time. I still don’t qualify for “ultralight” status, but I can get my pack down to a weight I can carry comfortably enough for the entire day, many days in a row. Success in my book!
In this article I’ll share all the lightweight backpacking tips – some easy, quick, and cheap, and others not so much – that I’ve learned over many years of hiking and backpacking.
I’ll break it down into these three sections below:
- Things you can leave at home
- Considerations for food and water
- Upgrading gear the smart way
Don’t Pack These Things
Let’s start with the easy part: leaving things at home.
If you’re just getting started on your journey to a less heavy backpacking setup, the best lightweight backpacking tip I can give you is this: figure out how to use fewer things, and to use the things you have more creatively and for multiple purposes.
With all the gear packing lists out there, it’s easy to over-focus on bringing everything we could possibly need. While it’s never good to skimp on survival items like warm layers and rain gear, there are plenty of non-essentials we bring into the wilderness simply because we’ve always assumed we need them.
Here are some things to consider leaving at home on your next backpacking trip. Try it once just to see! You might be surprised to find you don’t miss them.
If you’re not hiking solo your hiking companions might hate me for this, but I don’t think we need deodorant in the backcountry. After a day or two it’s a losing battle anyway, and deodorant just doesn’t make much of a difference. Plus, it usually comes in big and bulky containers, making it hard to bring only a small amount.
I admit it, I still bring deoderant on short trips with people who don’t do much backpacking, where we don’t all have an unspoken agreement to just go fully wild for a few days. But on longer trips, from a week to three, I have always left it at home.
Admittedly this works a little better if your baselayer is merino wool, which I am a huge fan of for hiking and travel. It’s naturally stink proof – how do sheep do that? – and even comes in very lightweight versions for hot weather. Which brings me to…
Spare Clothing (that’s not for layering)
In the “real world” we tend to think we’re not supposed to wear the same clothes two days in a row, but that’s the beauty of the trail – it’s not the “real world.” You don’t need a separate shirt for each day.
You really just need ONE baselayer shirt, regardless of how long you’ll be out. I hiked the John Muir Trail – 18 days – with a single shirt and it worked great. I had a warmer long-sleeve shirt that I would change into in the evenings, and then if needed I would rinse out my single baselayer and let it dry overnight.
This works best with magically stink-proof clothing, typically merino wool. My favorite for warm weather is the Icebreaker tech-lite tee (women’s here, men’s here). If you shop around on Amazon you can usually find a few colors that are a good $20-$30 cheaper than the rest.
It probably goes without saying, but this does NOT mean I recommend skimping on warm layers. This depends on the climate where you’re hiking, but if you’ll be in the mountains you should bring at minimum a warm long-sleeve shirt, an insulated jacket, and a rain jacket (and that’s just for your top half). It’s very important to make sure that if everything you’re wearing gets wet, you still have enough dry clothes to change into and stay warm.
For more recommendations on what to wear backpacking, from socks and undies all the way up to rain jackets, check out this post about my favorite clothing for lightweight backpacking.
If you’ve already decided to ditch deodorant and extra shirts, soap for washing your body or clothes isn’t going to help much. You can get clean enough without it – mountain streams and baby wipes both work wonders.
You don’t actually need soap for washing dishes either. The gold standard of leave-no-trace dish cleaning in the backcountry is to swirl some warm water in your mug and pot, scrape all the food bits off into the water, then drink it.
I know, eeww! It’s my least favorite part of backpacking. But this ensures that you’re not dumping food scraps on the ground, attracting animals to the camp area and causing future problems for both animals and hikers.
Even if you’re not up for drinking your food scraps (you really should though), you still don’t need soap. Simply wipe your dishes out with a bandanna after rinsing them and leave them to dry in the sun. Bacteria won’t grow on smooth dry surfaces like pots and cups.
Even biodegradable camping soap can harm delicate water ecosystems if enough people use it, so by skipping soap you’ll be helping preserve your favorite hiking areas too.
And remember, don’t wash (yourself or dishes, with or without soap) directly in lakes or streams. Carry some water away from the source and do your washing there, to keep the water source as clean as possible.
I know, those little camp towels are cute and oh-so-absorbent. I used to pack one for every backpacking trip, until I realized they solve a problem (being wet) that solves itself in a few minutes anyway (evaporation).
When drying off really is important (maybe it’s cold out), follow that cardinal rule of lightweight backpacking advice: choose items with multiple uses. Since I can’t wear a 10″ x 14″ towel, instead I use my shirt (or buff, or tights, or whatever I’m not currently wearing or just changed out of) to dry myself.
If you’re worried about your clothes ending up wet, here’s another backpacking hack for you: sleep with damp clothes in your sleeping bag and, in all but the coldest weather, your body heat will dry them by morning.
When I first started backpacking, I bought a little inflatable backpacking pillow for those nights in the backcountry. Good sleep is important, right? But it wasn’t actually very comfortable, and eventually I realized I was already carrying the ultimate pillow with me: my clothes!
These days my pillow is simply an 8 liter dry sack filled with layers I’m not wearing to bed. I love that I can adjust the size and softness by stuffing more or less into it. It’s a rare frigid night that I need to wear ALL my layers (insulated jacket, rain gear, etc) to sleep, but on those nights I stuff my pillow with other stuff sacks, gloves, etc.
My sleeping bag is actually a sleeping quilt plus an insulated hood (more on this below!), so I don’t really need a pillow case. If sleeping without the hood then I wrap a buff around the dry sack to make it feel better against my skin.
During the day, my pillow dry sack provides an extra layer of waterproof protection for electronics or critical warm layers. Yay for multi-use items, a key principle of lightweight backpacking.
I’ve never understood the need for camp shoes. But that’s probably because I hike in my beloved Altra trail runners, which are so comfy and breathable that I rarely feel the need to kick them off when I get to camp.
If your feet hurt so much at the end of the day that camp shoes are a must, you might want to consider wearing lighter, more flexible shoes. The need for beefy shoes to support our ankles and feet is largely a myth, unless we’re carrying unusually heavy loads over very rough terrain or in really cold weather.
A lighter pack will also help your feet hurt less, reducing the need for camp shoes, which will make your pack lighter, which will make your feet hurt less, which will reduce the need for camp shoes, which will…
The exception is if your route has a lot of rocky water crossings and you need something to protect your feet while keeping your hiking shoes dry. Then by all means, bring some lightweight sandals and use them as camp shoes too.
If water crossings aren’t an issue but you still crave that camp shoe feeling, consider making your own ultralight sandals from old shoe insoles and some stretchy cord.
A tent footprint is an extra tarp that goes under your tent, supposedly to protect it from sharp things on the ground. I started backpacking without one (I didn’t know they were a thing) and never found the need to add one.
Instead of using a footprint, look for sharp items on the ground before pitching your tent and gently sweep them to the side. Consider putting them back when you leave, in an effort to leave no trace, if camping at a site that’s not frequently used.
If you must bring a tent footprint, try one made from Tyvek, or simply go to a hardware store and buy a sheet of this common lightweight material for cheap.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying don’t bury your poop. You should absolutely bury your poop at least 8 inches deep, away from water sources, and pack out your used toilet paper.
But, in many places you don’t need to carry a special hiker trowel to do this. If the soil is soft enough a pointy rock can do the trick, or a sturdy stick, or the end of your hiking pole. Be sure to leave yourself enough time to get this done, since it can take a little longer than using a trowel.
Only if the soil is really hard and/or rocky will a dedicated tool be necessary. In this case you can splash out on a fancy lightweight model in your favorite color, if you want.
Minimize Food and Water Weight
Food and water are heavy! Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, and backpacking food typically weighs 1 to 2 pounds per person per day. If you’re out for many days or hiking in dry areas, this can really add up. A good lightweight backpacking strategy takes all this into consideration.
Don’t Carry Too Much Water (Or Too Little)
This mostly goes for hikes in areas where you know water is readily available from streams and lakes every few hours. Instead of starting with water for the whole day, aim to take your lunch break at a water source so you can filter water for the afternoon while you eat.
This awesome Platypus 4 liter gravity filter is my favorite for backpacking in a group of 2 or more people. It does all the work for you, so you can sit back and relax while clean water appears as if by magic.
If you know you have a dry stretch coming up or are hiking in really hot weather, forget about trying to reduce water weight. Take more than you think you need! Running out of water in the backcountry is a dangerous mistake.
Pack Lightweight Food
If you want to go crazy comparing the calorie to weight ratio of backpacking foods, go for it, it’s a good learning exercise. For everyone else, here are some general guidelines that will get you most of the way to a lighter food supply.
Plan out your full menu precisely, down to exactly how many calories you will eat per day. Most backpackers should shoot for 3000-4000 calories per day depending on your size, metabolism, and daily mileage.
Choose dense foods high in fat and protein, because they pack a lot of calories into a small amount of space. Nut butter, salami, hard cheeses, trail mix, and high calorie meal replacement bars are all good places to start.
Choose food that is NOT high in water content, since water is heavy, contains no calories and is usually easy to add on the trail. This means buying or making your own dehydrated or freeze dried meals, having just-add-water breakfasts like oatmeal with powdered milk, and cooking with dehydrated fast-cooking grains like couscous or ramen.
Remove all unnecessary packaging beforehand, or better yet, buy in bulk and portion out what you need.
If you have the time, you can make your own lightweight meals by purchasing freeze dried ingredients online and then mixing and matching in baggies. This works especially well for longer trips (since the ingredients come in bulk) and saves money compared to prepackaged backpacking meals.
Go Stoveless Or Use Alternative Fuels
Traditional fuel canisters are heavy and bulky. One way around this is to simply ditch the whole setup – stove, fuel, pot, metal mug – and just eat cold food out of plastic freezer bags or a lightweight collapsible cup.
Sounds horrible right? It’s probably not as bad as you’re thinking, but it’s true, a hot meal at the end of a long day IS one of the pleasures of backpacking. Going stoveless works well for trips where the focus is covering more ground instead of spending a lot of time relaxing at camp.
I can’t say I recommend it for all trips, but going without a stove worked great when my husband and I decided to hike 24 miles per day around Lake Tahoe on the TRT. We were so busy hiking, we didn’t have time to sit and cook food anyway!
Beware, when backpacking stoveless it can be tempting to bring heavier food that doesn’t need cooking, which cancels out the weight savings from leaving the cooking gear behind.
If you want to try going stoveless, I’ll share two secrets with you:
- Cold ramen tastes great after a long day on the trail. I’m not kidding! Just add cold water and wait 15-20 minutes, and it’ll rehydrate just as well as with warm water. The salty broth is delicious and you can add some olive oil and supplement with nuts for a filling evening meal.
- No-cook breakfasts are easier than dinner. Here are some of my favorites. Since we’re talking about lightweight options here, I especially recommend the granola.
If you’re willing to simplify your backcountry cooking but still crave hot ramen for dinner and a hot cup of instant coffee to start your morning, solid fuel may work for you. Esbit solid fuel is light, and you can bring only what you need, which is great for short trips. Use it with a tiny stove like this one, and cook directly in your titanium mug, and your cook setup will weigh almost nothing.
However, don’t expect unlimited piping-hot meals when cooking with solid fuel. I find that a couple tablets are barely enough to heat a simple meal of couscous or ramen. In cold weather or at high elevation, luke-warm may be as good as it gets.
Many ultralight backpackers eventually find their way to alcohol stoves, which are lightweight, easy to resupply with fuel on long thru-hikes, and can be made inexpensively as a DIY project. This is still on my to-do list of gear to try, so I won’t say much about it here. But if you’re going to experiment, do be sure you learn how to use an alcohol stove safely and responsibly.
Use Lightweight Dishes
While we’re talking about food: you don’t need to choose between fancy or heavy when it comes to dishes and utensils. If you don’t want to spend $8-$10 for a fancy titanium spork, just bring plastic utensils, the kind you can buy at the grocery store or smuggle out of a fast food restaurant instead of throwing away. These will be less durable and probably need replacing, but you can’t beat the price.
For eating, a lightweight plastic bowl is all you need. I’ve been using the collapsible Sea to Summit X Mug (note, the X Mug is larger than the X Cup and better suited for eating meals out of) for years and love how compact it is. My first one lasted a good 6 years of fairly heavy use before finally getting a small hole at one of the creases. If you’re on a budget, some hikers use tupperware with a lid so they can save leftovers for a snack later.
Another option: If you’re hiking solo, it’s efficient (and oddly satisfying) to eat directly from the pot/mug you cooked in. You don’t really need a separate mug for drinking if you’re trying to go light, though it can be a luxury to drink coffee and eat oatmeal at the same time.
Whatever you do, don’t bring heavy glass or ceramic. But you probably already knew that.
Choose The Most Important Gear to Upgrade
One complaint I often hear about lightweight backpacking is that you need to spend a lot of money on gear to do it properly. This is untrue. Well, kind of.
It’s true that if you can afford to buy the latest and greatest gear, you will have an easier time getting down to truly ultralight backpack weights. But there are plenty of clever budget hacks out there too.
My personal approach is to shop for the best balance of value and performance. If you are willing to spend a moderate amount of money upgrading one or two key pieces of gear with a lightweight focus, here is my advice:
- Start with the heaviest gear you have. Usually this is your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and your backpack itself.
- Weigh each of these pieces of gear and put the results in a spreadsheet.
- Research alternatives. Whenever you find a good one, record the weight and price in the same spreadsheet.
- For each item you’re thinking about buying, subtract its weight from the weight of the version you currently own. Then divide the price by the weight difference. This gives you cost per unit weight saved for each item.
- Prioritize your list in order of lowest cost per unit weight saved, and spend your limited budget on the items at the top (lowest cost per unit weight saved) first. With one important caveat…
- Not all gear in a category is equivalent. One sleeping mat may be much warmer than another, or a backpack may be more durable and better reviewed than its lighter counterpart. A tarp may save a lot of weight per dollar spent but would be a dangerous upgrade unless you know how to properly use it in a storm. So take your calculation results with a grain of salt and make sure you know what you’re getting for your money and weight savings.
This method led to many of the key gear purchases I still use today: my lightweight tent and bivy sack, sleeping quilt, sleeping pad, and a few different lightweight backpacks. It takes a bit of time but it really works, and hey, gear research is kind of fun.
Because those instructions can be a bit confusing, I’m sharing the spreadsheet I use for this process. Use this form to get a link emailed to you:
I made a free gear upgrade worksheet for you.
Choosing the best gear from so many options can be overwhelming! To help, I’m sharing the free interactive gear spreadsheet I use to make my own choices. My goal is to help you cut weight from your pack in the most cost-effective way possible.
Just enter your email address below, then click the link in the confirmation email and I’ll send you the google spreadsheet link right away. I love all the gear I’ve chosen using this method and I hope you will too.
Where to find good lightweight backpacking gear at reasonable prices
There is a whole other world out there, if you know where to look, of small online businesses selling custom-made lightweight backpacking gear. Many have reasonably priced versions that won’t cost any more than the typical REI purchase, if you do your homework (see the cost per unit weight saved calculation advice above).
To get you started, below are a few of my favorite pieces of lightweight backpacking gear. Each was purchased because it won my ounces saved per dollar spent contest in its category, and I have been very happy with all of them.
For even more gear ideas for all budgets, you can also check out my list of favorite lightweight backpacking gear.
Tarptent’s Double Rainbow tent is our go-to when my husband and I hike together, including our 3 week JMT hike. It’s great for 3 season use, but I wouldn’t trust it to stay dry in heavy rain and wind.
The Big Sky Soul 1 Person Tent is my go-to solo camping tent (they have a 2-person version as well) for backpacking, bikepacking, and travel. Its all-mesh walls work great alone as bug protection, and the rainfly keeps things nice and dry in bad weather. The freestanding design is super simple to set up anywhere, and is fairly roomy for a 1 person tent.
The Borah Gear side-zipper ultralight bivy is a great alternative to a full tent in dry weather. It keeps the mosquitoes and creepy-crawlies out while providing a bit of extra warmth and a nice view of the stars. This is my go-to when trying to save as much weight as possible and move fast in summer weather, like my one week thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Six Moon Designs
The Six Moon Designs Haven tarp pairs well with the above bivy sack (which isn’t fully waterproof) if rain is a possibility. It’s not the lightest tarp on the market, but it’s easy to use and doesn’t require any fancy skills or trees in the perfect places. It can be pitched with two trekking poles.
The custom sizing option is a game changer if you’re a smaller person. A quilt that’s properly sized to your body will keep you warmer, contain less material to lug around, and even cost a bit less than the full-sized versions.
For more detail, see my review of the Convert sleeping quilt.
I haven’t tried any gear from these brands (yet…), but here are a few more respected lightweight backpacking gear manufacturers to check out:
- Ultralight Adventure Equipment
- Hyperlight Mountain Gear
- Katabatic Gear
- Gossamer Gear
- Feathered Friends
If you’re intrigued and want to dive in further, check out this list of small-scale backpacking gear manufacturers for even more ideas. Beware, lightweight backpacking gear can be a deep (but wonderful) rabbit hole…
Consider Alternative Lightweight Gear Choices
If you read the list above you might be wondering, what is a sleeping quilt? And what’s this bivy sack thing? I like my tent!
Well, I’m a big fan of both these alternative choices. Here’s why.
From Sleeping Bag to Sleeping Quilt
A sleeping quilt is just a sleeping bag that’s missing its underside (the part you lay on) and a hood. It attaches to your sleeping pad with adjustable straps to keep the warm air in, is lighter than a traditional sleeping bag for the same warmth, and it works surprisingly well.
Turns out, the insulation on the bottom of a sleeping bag doesn’t keep you warm anyway because it’s compressed (insulation works by trapping air). A good sleeping pad is more important (I use the Thermarest Neoair Xlite, still going strong despite patching a few small leaks over time).
As for the hood? You probably already have a hat for keeping warm when not sleeping, right? Just wear it to bed. And if you need more warmth, you can add a lightweight insulated hood that can double up for sleeping as well as keeping warm around camp.
I absolutely love my sleeping quilt from Enlightened Equipment: warm, light, colorful, and great value for money. I haven’t used a traditional sleeping bag since 2013.
From Tent to Bivy Sack and/or Tarp
Sometimes I like the privacy and coziness of a tent, especially if I’m camping in a crowded place. But if I’m out in the backcountry with no one around for miles, it can be lovely and liberating to sleep out under the stars.
I do value keeping mosquitoes and scorpions out of my space at night, so a lightweight water-resistant bivy sack is the perfect compromise. In late summer in the Sierra mountains rain is infrequent, so I’ll bring a tarp for insurance but rarely need to use it.
Your Backpack Itself
Your backpack, though a very important part of the lightweight backpacking gear puzzle, is one of the last things you should optimize for weight.
Many traditional packs weigh 3 or 4 pounds even when empty. All that extra weight makes them structured and durable, helping you carry a heavy load in (relative) comfort.
But once you get your gear weight below 25 – 30 pounds (including food and water), you no longer need all that extra structure in your pack. Now you can knock off another few pounds (and reduce the temptation to pack heavier next time) by upgrading to a smaller and lighter backpack.
Many of the online companies I linked to above make lightweight backpacks designed for lightweight backpacking. For ideas, check out this post on the most popular backpacks used by thru-hikers on the John Muir Trail.
You can also get creative. My go-to lightwieght backpacking pack (pictured above) is a beat up 33 liter pack by Inov-8 designed for adventure running and fastpacking. It’s basically a day pack. I bought it during a Black Friday sale for about $40 and it’s held up like a champ. It’s a little small for all my gear but the straps on the outside allow me to attach one bigger item – like a sleeping bag or even my solo tent – to the outside.
Unfortunately Inov-8 no longer makes that pack or I would most definitely link to it. The closest thing I can find now is something like this fastpacking pack from Ultimate Direction, though that’s quite a bit more expensive (and I haven’t tried it personally). But my point is that if you find something that works for you, go with it! It doesn’t need to be the same as what everyone else is using.
A note of caution: light backpacks are light because they usually lack the internal frame that transfers weight from your shoulders to your hips, making them quite uncomfortable for heavier loads. I learned this the hard way while carrying 9 days of food on the southern half of the John Muir Trail.
They’re also not as durable and could break under heavier loads, even if your shoulders don’t. So make your pack the last thing you upgrade, as a reward for having achieved your lightweight goals in all other areas.
Experiment Safely and Enjoy
For me, lightweight backpacking is about experimentation and cleverness. I like to experiment to find out what I really need and what I don’t, so I can enjoy the wilderness more comfortably.
But, I have a responsibility to suggest that you experiment safely. Don’t head off into the mountains without enough warm gear. Don’t skimp on food and water. Always weigh the risk versus benefit of testing a new piece of gear or leaving an old one at home.
One great approach is to experiment on short trips in places that aren’t too remote. Where I live in the California Bay Area, there are places I can hike and camp and still bail to my home within half a day if anything goes wrong.
This kind of trip is perfect for testing new and lighter packing strategies, which can make an otherwise less-than-epic hike near home seem a lot more interesting.
So in conclusion, I hope these lightweight backpacking tips help you pack lighter, hike farther (or the same distance but more comfortably), and enjoy the outdoors even more than you already do. Happy trails!
PS: If you found this post helpful, you’ll probably like these other backpacking and hiking resources too.
More Backpacking Resources
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