Top 10 Ways to Reduce Your Pack Weight

(9/11/06) Written by Ryan Jordan

(Permission to print granted by Ryan Jordan for www.perfectpace.com)

Carrying a light pack is easy. Carrying a lighter pack is harder. In Lightweight Backpacking 101, we extol the virtues of lightweight backpacking. More important, we offer practical advice for lightening your pack. Following is our "Top 10" list that includes some of the most effective techniques en route to enlightenment.

1. Analyze your current equipment kit

A computer spreadsheet and a postal scale provide one cornerstone to the foundation for lightening your load. The ability to visualize every item in your kit - and their weights - allows you to see the impact of gear selection on the big picture.

2. Select the lightest equipment

Next (financial resources permitting), begin to replace your heavier gear with lighter items. The first place to look is in the "big three" - sleeping bag, pack, and shelter. But don't go too light with your pack until reducing the weight of the rest of your load - or your musculature will pay the price for an overloaded "ultralight" pack.

3. Plan according to season and weather

It doesn't make sense to carry a zero degree sleeping bag and a four season tent on the Appalachian Trail in July. Carefully look at your clothing, shelter, and sleeping bag, to make sure that it's appropriate for the season.

4. Only take what you need

I don't advocate leaving luxuries behind; just don't take all of them. Camp chairs, binoculars, self-inflating pads, books, personal digital assistants, and fishing waders are among the more popular luxuries carried by backpackers. Look for lighter alternatives, go without, or carefully select one or two key items for any particular trip.

5. Choose jackets and sleeping bags with down fill insulation.

Down insulation in sleeping bags and insulating clothing has always been, still is, and will always be (at least in the foreseeable near future) lighter than synthetic alternatives for the same amount of insulating value. However, carrying down assumes that you possess the necessary skills and attentiveness to care for it in inclement weather - down provides precious little insulating value if it gets very wet. Replacing a Polarguard 3D sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees and a 1" thick Polarguard 3D jacket with down counterparts that are equally as warm can save as much as 1.5 to 2.5 pounds.

6. Wear a wind shirt

Wind shirts from GoLite, Montane, Marmot, and Ibex now weigh less than 3 ounces. Addition of a wind shirt to your clothing system can add tremendous comfort and significant warmth, allowing you to wear lighter base layers. The bottom line: a wind shirt extends the comfort range of your clothing system.

7. Share your gear

Hiking with a friend, you can pool resources, especially shelter and cooking gear. With some creativity you can extend the concept further - sleeping bags, ground sheets, light, maps, camera.

8. Look for items that have multiple uses.

Start treating your gear as a system of components that work together. The ability to recognize synergistic relationships between your gear, or to select gear that performs multiple uses, is a key skill in reducing your pack weight and increasing the level of simplicity in your approach to lightweight backpacking.
The classic example of ultralight multi-use gear: the poncho-tarp, which serves as both shelter and raingear.

9. Develop your skills

Expertise at backcountry hiking and camping is simply the accumulation of experience that allows you to solve problems using innovative solutions with minimal equipment or supplies. Facing challenges, and working through them, can allow you (over a period of years, probably) to comfortably reduce weight of your first aid and emergency kits, clothing, food, and other items. Attending backpacking clinics, wilderness medicine courses, wilderness survival programs, and of course, actually getting out there and logging some trail miles provides the best foundation for reducing your pack weight.

10. Recondition your mentality

If you want to go light, you really have to want to go light. Make sense? Exercise you will to reduce your pack weight, set some goals, and be willing to try different approaches, even if, after trying, they fail you. Try again. Learn as much as you can. Sleep out in the backyard a lot. Especially on rainy or snowy or windy winter days.


"Going Light" is not a task. It is a process - and an iterative one at that. It is as much a philosophy of mind as it is a philosophy of gear selection. Good luck on your path to enlightenment!


Backpacking Light - The Magazine of Ultralight and Lightweight Backpacking
Lightweight Backpacking 101 - A nine chapter book about how to reduce your pack weight. Beartooth Mountain Press, 2001. Ryan Jordan and Alan Dixon (Editors).

Clothing and Sleep Systems for Mountain Hiking Beartooth Mountain Press 2003. By Ryan Jordan, Jim Nelson, and Alan Dixon.

About the Author

Ryan Jordan is the publisher and editor of Backpacking Light Magazine. He is an avid flyfisherman, fastpacker, and alpinist. He calls Bozeman, Montana home, and lives within a short drive of the Beartooths, Yellowstone, Tetons, Wind Rivers, and several lesser mountain ranges. His "long-distance cup of tea" is sipped out of a pack with a five pound base weight while traversing the country's wildest roadless lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Ryan has pioneered several 200+ mile roadless routes in the area, most of them comprised of a significant amount of off-trail travel above the treeline. Ryan and his staff have established BackpackingLight.com as one of the Internet's leading sources for lightweight backpacking product reviews, technique articles, and gear for the ultralight fringe, and have been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press.

For more information about lightweight backpacking, visit www.backpackinglight.com.