Backpacking doesn't have to mean suffering - How to pack light.
The start of a multiday hiking trip into the backcountry is always exciting. In the weeks leading up to a trip there are many decisions – what clothing to pack? What equipment to use? Do my boots fit well? What food to bring? (unless you are on a guided trek with Aster Mountain Adventures, in which case we’ll take care of this one for you!). When you finally hit the trail it is a relief to have all of that behind you and be able to embrace the present moment. Inevitably though….a couple of kilometres up the path, when your back and hips start to protest, and your feet feel squashed under their new load of a heavy backpack….you start to question why this was such a good idea! I’ll tell you now – this doesn’t have to be the case!
Enter - “Packing Light”
There is baffling array of gear choices in stores today, and equipment is getting lighter and lighter. It is possible to comfortable on the trail and in camp and not suffer with an enormously heavy backpack. (Although some of the choices can make your wallet a lot lighter too!). In the end, it is a good idea to carefully consider your gear choices so that you can enjoy your time, and have energy for looking around and taking side trips, rather than staring at your feet counting the kilometres until you can take your backpack off. Spending $40 on the latest lightweight titanium fork may not make a huge difference, but an extra $100 on a sleeping bag will.
“The Big Items”
If you are going to purchase new equipment (or upgrade or borrow) – you can drop the most weight from your backpack with a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Spending a bit of extra money on these items can make a HUGE difference in your pack weight (5 kilograms less? yes please!).
Tents – New lightweight fabrics, innovative designs and lightweight attachment points have resulted in a huge decrease in the weight of tents versus those of a decade ago. Single person tents can be found in the range of 1kg, and two to three person tents 2- 4kg. If you are lugging around a bulky 6kg tent, then an upgrade to a new lightweight version is probably the biggest single improvement you can make. The lightweight versions are equally water resistant (although admittedly often less durable).
Sleeping bags – The age old debate here is whether to buy a synthetic sleeping bag or a down bag. Down bags are substantially more expensive, but much warmer for the weight (and typically lighter overall). That said, there are new synthetic insulations that are a big improvement over old synthetic sleeping bags, if cost is a limiting factor. When deciding which one to choose, people often cite that ‘synthetic is warmer when wet’. In my opinion, a wet sleeping bag is miserable no matter what it is made of! A better option is to learn to keep your sleeping bag dry – with a good waterproof strategy for carrying it in your backpack and a properly set up tent. My personal preference is down, and I think a good down sleeping bag is an excellent investment. They last a long, long time so you might as well get something you’ll enjoy using for the entire time you own it. I recently passed along an old -10°C sleeping bag that probably had upwards of 700 days of use, and still had lots of life left!
Sleeping pads – A good layer underneath your sleeping bag is a key factor for your comfort and warmth. An air inflatable mattress will accomplish both, while simultaneously being lightweight. I would recommend something like the Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pads or similar.
Some good guidelines for packing clothing are: (1) bring items with quick drying fabrics (2) only bring clothing that works in ‘layers’ and (3) if you are wearing it, then it isn’t adding weight to your back!. Think of your clothing choices as a ‘system’. If it is really cold, then you’ll probably be wearing every item that you brought. As the temperature warms up, you’ll be able to subtract some layers, but a full change of clothing isn’t necessary. Yes, you’ll wear the same clothing day after day – but you’ll be so much happier with less to carry. Merino wool fabric is a great choice for base layers – it tends not to smell.
“The Small Items”
As a friend of mine always says – “ounces turn to pounds, and pounds turn to pain”. It is really amazing how all of those small items in your pack (you know….all the things that weigh almost “nothing”) add up to a lot. You can cut a lot of weight by getting rid of packaging, or re-packaging in smaller sizes. Instead of bringing a litre of sunscreen and the largest can of bug spray, put just the amount you need in smaller containers or look for items in small travel sizes.
~Try to bring items that can serve more than one function. A bandana or a buff can work as facecloth, a triangle bandage and keep the sun or wind off your neck.
~Share items so that everyone is not carrying duplicates. If you’d really like a camera and binoculars – split it up so that you bring one and your hiking partner brings the other. If you really like to spend time reading on your trip, discuss book options with your hiking partners and carry a few of the lightest books you can find and can trade amongst yourself during the trip.
~A small kitchen scale is a great tool for keeping track of what all those small items weigh. I use one often when deciding what goes in my backpack and what stays home.
“Enjoy going without”
It is a common progression for new backpackers to carry too much, and eventually they become wise to the fact that hiking is more enjoyable with less of a weight burden. As time goes on, you’ll become more and more comfortable carrying less, as you gain confidence in what you really do and don’t need on the trail. Learning that you really can survive with a lot less than you think is one of the amazing aspects of being out in the backcountry.
“The backpack to carry it all”
As you reduce the amount of stuff going into your backpack, you can also downsize your pack! A large volume, robust backpack is necessary to carry big loads comfortably. However, as you reduce the contents of your pack, you can also use a smaller and lighter backpack – often saving a kilogram or two in the process! A word of caution here though – to use a smaller/lighter pack, you really do need to cut down the contents. There is nothing worse than carrying an overstuffed small backpack, with more weight in it than it can comfortably handle.
“A guide’s backpack”
To get an idea of just how much weight can be saved, here are the three ‘big items’ in my guiding backpack:
Tent - Big Agnes Fly Creek 1 person – 0.85kg
Sleeping Bag - Western Mountaineering Versalite (-10°C) – 0.90kg
Sleeping pad – Thermarest NeoAir – 0.34kg
Total weight of all three items is under 2kg. With the addition of the other essentials (stove, fuel, first aid kit, warm clothes), camera, and food, it is entirely possible to carry a backpack that is almost light enough that you forget you are carrying it.
If you aren’t yet confident enough to leave some of the ‘extras’ behind, or you don’t own gear yet and you are not sure what to get, consider joining one of Aster Mountain’s guided backpacking trips. We can arrange for some lightweight rentals, and teach you lots of tips and tricks for packing and getting the most out of your time on the trail. Or alternatively, if you like your luxuries (thanks for the tips, but I’d like to bring it all thank you very much!), we can also arrange for porters on most trips.