Packing Lighter – Increase your Miles and Smiles

Backpacking is something that people seem to either love or hate. Those of us that love it might think of the simplicity of travel by walking, mountain sunsets and sunrises, and peaceful solitude. Those that don’t might equate backpacking with heavy packs, sore shoulders and feet, bugs, and bad food. If you’re in the love it crowd, you either forget the occasional pain and suffering, or you’ve found ways of packing lighter, eat better, and up the fun to misery ratio. Here I’ll discuss ways to lighten your pack, which is a good way to start enjoying your hikes more.

Perfect early September weather - I'll leave some 'just-in-case' items at home
Perfect early September weather in GTNP – I’ll leave some ‘just-in-case’ items at home

The Big 3
Lightweight backpackers often discuss the Big 3 as the key way to lighten your load. The Big 3 are: backpack, sleeping bag & pad, and tent/shelter. Choosing light versions of these items is the easiest way to cut weight from your backpack. It’s also potentially the most expensive way to do it.

High quality down bags, for example, are built the loftiest down to create a light, packable, and warm bag. A high quality down bag costs a lot more than a bag made with synthetic insulation. A good down bag will also last longer, and is a true investment; you’ll have it for many years. Can you go backpacking with a less-expensive synthetic bag that weighs more and still have a good time? Yup.

Tents and other shelters (tarps, mainly) are another of the Big 3. Most campers and occasional backpackers use a tent. Shelter choice should be dictated by your environment more than anything else. Around here, I want something enclosed, to provide a barrier (even if only psychological) between me and wildlife. Camping in grizzly bear country with an open ended tarp is something I’m not going to do often. In other environments, I might use a tarp when I expect weather, or sleep under the stars.

Sleeping in a hammock, with a lightweight tarp is both light and comfortable. You’ll need a sleeping pad; more for insulation underneath you, not so much for padding. In fact a thin foam pad works really well for this, and such a set up costs quite a bit less than some fancy ultralight tents. If you are looking for a great lightweight backpacking tent, Big Agnes is a brand worth checking out.

Backpacks, the last of the Big 3, should match the overall weight category of your sleep system, cook system, and other items. Ultralight backpacks are great, if your load is truly ultralight. Once the load is heavy though, they’re very uncomfortable. For hikers around Jackson Hole, who might have to carry extra clothing, climbing gear, a bear canister, or other heavy supplies, usually do better with a good light internal frame backpack that can still carry a substantial load. We carry packs like the Deuter ACT Trail and Gregory that can handle an overnight or a week, as well as a trip up the Grand.

Packing light in Arizona

Cooking and Eating
Backcountry food can be so much more than just oatmeal and mac & cheese. Ready made dehydrated and freeze-dried meals from brands like Good To-Go and AlpineAire are easy to make, and tasty. The offerings go way beyond mac & cheese and beef stew. Alpine Aire offers some interesting choices like Himalayan Lentils and Rice, and the protein-rich Black Bart Chili. Good To-Go’s gluten free, and vegetarian or vegan offerings are distinctly worldly; the Thai Curry is a good backcountry version of the classic, their Korean Bibimbap ‘mixed-rice’ is spicy and flavorful, and Indian Vegetable Korma is savory and satisfying. All of these are easy to prepare; just add boiling water, and wait about 15 minutes.

Beyond that, you can make your own meals with a food dehydrator. It’s surprisingly easy to dehydrate foods that you love to take into the backcountry. Fruit is easy; the hardest part is just cutting it all into slices or pieces that’ll dehydrate well. Pineapple has become my favorite.

As for dinners, I recently took a long backpacking trip, and came up with some light, tasty and nutritious meals that were pretty inexpensive as well. Quinoa is one of my new favorites for the backcountry. I cooked a batch in a rice cooker, then spread it out on parchment and dried in my food dehydrator overnight. I then added dried veggies, and what could be described as a curry bullion cube. This was all put together in a freezer bag, in meal-size portions. One can then add hot water, wait about 10 minutes and eat. Another favorite was dehydrated canned chili. I know, kinda sounds gross, actually pretty good!

Beyond dehydrated foods, my go-to backpacking ingredient is couscous. You can add all sorts of ingredients, add boiling water, and eat within a few minutes. And to be honest, the water doesn’t even need to be hot. You can add cold water, let it soak for an hour, and eat. No fuel, no stove, no problem.

What all of these foods get you is lighter weight; because you’ve eliminated water from the food itself, and because you’ve reduced the amount of fuel required to cook them.

Cooking dinner in Alaska Basin. Packing light makes getting there more enjoyable.
Evening in Alaska Basin


Everything Else
If you’re primarily going on trips up to 5 days or so, a lightweight setup is just fine. Saving weight is as much about packing the right amount of things needed as it is in having light gear. If you’re doing a single overnight hike, you don’t need to bring an 8oz tube of sunscreen, or a large tube of toothpaste. Travel size toiletries, small Nalgene bottles and GoToobs allow you pack only as much as you need. This also eliminates heavy glass bottles.

I have one SilNylon stuff sack that includes my first aid kit, headlamp, space blanket and other necessities. It’ll get me through an emergency, but is packed with a minimum of luxuries. It goes with me on day hikes and backpacking trips, and weighs about 1.5 lbs. I keep it stocked, so I know I have the basics with me, just by throwing it in my pack.

Depending on the trip, I usually keep ‘extras’ to a minimum. If it’s a social trip, I might bring extra stuff like a lantern, a kite, fishing gear, etc. But if it’s a trip where I’m trying to hike more miles, and do it quickly, I’ll forego the fun stuff, and focus on hiking. This is especially true for solo trips; in this setting, I prefer to walk all day. I sometimes find hanging out in camp by myself to be boring, so instead I spend all day walking (taking breaks throughout the day), and hiking until not too long before I’m ready to go to sleep. When I find a nice place to camp, I set up and lie down. I’m often sleeping as soon as it’s dark out.

Having the lightest possible stuff isn’t the most important. Having pretty-light stuff, and leaving out unnecessary items works well for the average backpacker wanting to hike more miles, spend more time looking at the mountains, and less time at the trail in front of their feet.

By: Andy Edwards

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