Going Lightweight: How To Shave Weight off Your Pack for Safer and Easier Hiking
Why would I feel the need to "go light"?
Switching to lightweight hiking is not a silly caprice or lack of ideas on how to spend the millions of $ I have hidden in my sock.
Carrying a heavy bag is not only tiring, but it can also be dangerous.
It’s hard on the joints and requires much more energy. We can't go as far or as fast as we would with a lighter pack.
We are not as nimble and can't react as fast when something happens. Crossing streams or climbing difficult rocky hills is also much more difficult with a heavy rucksack.
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But what exactly is "lightweight" hiking?
The general division I see around goes like this:
Traditional weight hiking:
base weight above 11 kg (that's me now)
base weight below 9 kg
base weight below 4,5 kg
"Base weight" means all your gear and clothes without consumables: food, water and fuel.
What I already have
When I was collecting all the gear I needed last year I had to buy a lot of things at once.
I tried to buy the best I could afford, but I had to make a lot of compromises. I cut the expenses by buying some clothing second-hand and some gear heavier than ideal.
Never compromise safety: good hiking boots and supportive backpack
What I didn’t even try to “save” on were my boots – I bought the ones that fit me well, no matter the price. I am glad I did - they are the best hiking boots ever (for me).
I seriously lucked out with those boots!
I also got a very good backpack by Deuter, although from the heavier ones.
By the advice of an expert, I got a sturdier pack with a very good support system – necessary when carrying heavier loads. You can never go ultra-light starting with your backpack!
Cheaper but heavier/bulkier sleeping system
I also compromised on my sleeping bag and mat. I got a synthetic one, heavy, but affordable (Deuter Orbit 5).
Down sleeping bags for the same temperatures were generally twice the price. My mat was a regular inflatable one, heavy and bulky.
I recently got a better sleeping bag. The synthetic one was not only heavy, but I felt cold many times. After a long exhausting hike, our body perceives the temperature differently.
This is why we should never get a sleeping bag with the exact temperature indicator as what we expect on a hike.
Women sleep colder, so we should check the indicator for women or choose warmer sleeping bag than advertised as "regular". Always get one with a safe buffer.
That's my baby :)
First upgrades towards the lightweight hiking
The sleeping bag I have now – a custom made down beauty is in theory for very cold conditions: down to -10 C at least.
I was using it when hiking in Catalonia in February. Most of the nights were cold with a big difference between day and night.
One morning I woke up to frost on my tent! Even so, I was never cold and sometimes too warm.
My bag is packed with 800g of pure and best Polish geese down of 850 cuin.
It was expensive (about $450) for me, but I know I have the best sleeping bag I can have and it will serve me well for many years.
Gradually lightening the load toward lightweight hiking
I want to exchange the heavier parts of my gear for lighter and smaller, so I can get a smaller and lighter backpack.
I use 55 L+10 now and it weighs 2,5 kg… yeah. A 45-50L-sized rucksack should force me not only to pack less but will weigh less by itself. I hope I will be able to cut my base weight (no food or water) to about 6-7 kg.
The Big Four of Going Lightweight Hiking
Shelter for lightweight hiking
This is the big one and most expensive. At the moment I’m using Vango Blade 200 which is a nice budget option for backpackers.
It’s only 2 kg which is great for the cheaper tents. It is also pretty big and I can fit in it with all my gear and also can seat with no problems.
My Vango Blade 200 - definitely not ultra-light, but a very good option for budget-minded backpackers, at 2 kg weight.
What are your lightweight hiking shelter options?
Generally, the ultra-light shelter options tend to be tarps. It's basically a rectangle of water-proof fabric that you spread above your sleeping bag and stuff using guy-lines, trees and your trekking poles.
Some tarps are A-shape, some are simple rectangular (more flexibility in set-up, but also require more experience).
But even the A-shaped tarps might be really difficult to set up, opposed to the most common two-pole dome tents, which can be pitched by a kid.
An excellent example of a high-quality tarp, made of cuben fibre by TrekkerTent.
As you can imagine, they hardly give you much of a protection from the elements or random creepy crawly stuff.
I admire all who use it, but I know I won’t be able to do that. I need the illusion of security around me. Even if it’s made mostly of a see-trough net, I want something that looks like a tent.
Maybe it’s because of hiking in Scotland but I have visions of my stuff (and myself) completely flooded by sudden rain in the night ;-).
No tarp can protect me if the rain is falling horizontally because of heavy winds! And I won’t even mention the idea of all the creepy crawly beasties… At my last wild camping spot, I had night visitors – wild boars. I was glad for my flimsy protection that night!
The other issue is that tarps don't protect well from winds. If you plan on hiking in exposed, windy and cold conditions - go with a tent.
Some folks are hiking with trekking hammocks (you can't just take your regular garden hammock!), but I can’t convince myself to ever using it.
First of all – they work only in the appropriate area. No trees – no hammock.
Also, I can’t see myself being comfortable on it. I have visions of myself flipping with the whole thing when trying to change position or getting in.
And don’t your knees bend the wrong way on this thing? ;-)
I would also worry about my gear staying dry and safe lying under the hammock.
As you can see, a backpacking hammock is not your typical garden variety. It has protection from elements and is often equipped with mosquito net.
It needs extra protection from cold wind from the bottom. The one above is made by DD Hammocks. Good hiking hammocks weigh in around 1kg, so about the same as ultra-light tents.
Hammocks are better in areas with a lot of trees but poor ground.
To sleep on the ground you need somewhat flat surface... clearing it from stones and branches can also prove only partially successful. In such a situation hammock might be the better option - if you enjoy sleeping in it.
What is also important - hammocks have much poorer (or rather close to none) isolation.
You can't just use your sleeping bag unless it's a very warm summer night. There are various systems - some people use under blanket, some designated sleeping mat (regular one won't do).
You also still need protection from bugs and rain. People sometimes use the combination of a hammock with a tarp.
This "Jungle" hammock from DDHammocks looks almost like a reversed one-person tent. With all needed equipment it weighs 1,5kg.
Another option is basically a sleeping bag on steroids.
Bivvies protect from rain and insects but nothing more. Some use them under tarps.
Absolutely not my thing. But who knows? It might be just the thing for you!
As you can see in the example of Outdoor Research bivvy sack - it is basically a big bag for you and your sleeping bag, to give you the most basic protection from the elements.
Most have some kind of tent-like structure over your head so you don't sleep with the cover on your face. Hardly any room for hiding other things, although some managed to fit a small backpack in (in the feet area, I guess).
All the options above miss a very important to me quality: privacy.
Even if it's just an illusion - I would like to close the fly and feel sheltered from the world. I do sleep at campsites often and can't imagine sleeping under a tarp - everyone could see me!
Which is exactly the worst thing for a person with severe anxiety and social phobias ;-)
So what else is left? Well, tents of course. But in this category, we will find different kinds of light tents: tarp-tents, single-wall tents, ultra-light tents, modular tents or tarps on steroids...
Ultra-light regular tents.
I have seen many fancy tents that promise to cut some 300 – 500 g from my current weight, but for a scary price.
They tend to be delicate and some need special care with poles. The good side is, that they are typically two-walled self-standing structures, which is more convenient.
On the other hand, you do have to carry extra poles instead of using the ones you have already.
Some use extremely expensive materials - I don't think I will have the chance to check them out anytime soon. But they are not the only option.
Then I started to see articles on a bit different approach to ultra-light tents:
Modular tents (tarp tents).
In those shelters you can decide if only to use the fly by itself (in dry, bug-free conditions), net-tent only (dry conditions with no risk of any kind of precipitation or human spying eyes) and finally both together to make something of a typical tent.
But there are also lesser-known producers worth our attention:
I found British TrekkerTent company after someone on tweeter mentioned using their tent (out of mercy after seeing me carrying around the “mammoth of a pack”). Later, I found also an American company Tarptent, also with great light-weight modular tents.
Both producers' tents offer the options of tarp only and tarp with a light net tent to put under it. You use your own trekking poles cutting the weight even more.
I like TrekkerTent's Stealth 1.5, as it has not only room for my sleeping mat but also for backpack and gear.
Simple, with plenty of room and very spacious front porch. No problem getting stuck there during heavy rains! via
The heaviest version is… 800g.
Amazing, isn’t it? The smaller version for one person is less than 600 g!
With its big front porch, you would have enough room to store all your gear there. That’s an upgrade I would be willing to pay for!
Why should I pay $300 to cut mere 300 g? But if I could cut more than one kilogram? Now that’s an investment I would be willing to make.
The tents cost about £200.
I have no affiliation with neither of both companies.
I love how much room there is in the porches! more than enough for backpacks, gear or dirty boots. During heavy rains, you can also vent the tent without flooding the inner tent. via
There are also single-wall tents which have the mosquito netting connected with the fly. It's especially good in desert hiking otherwise the condensation might be an issue.
Edit: I am now a happy owner of a Double Rainbow tent by TarpTent. It's just a bit above 1kg, two-person shelter. It feels huge inside, a lot of room for me and all my gear. After just one season of using it, I am really happy with it.
Sleeping mat for lightweight hiking
I am not switching to the lightest options: foam mats. No way. I am old and need some basic comforts ;-).
Especially when I can get inflatable (I keep writing inflammable which is not exactly what we want when camping) pad which is light and small.
It is also good for 3-season camping with R-value of 3,9. When packed its size is only about 25 cm x 10 cm which is tiny!
I've heard it is pretty squeaky but there is a new version out that's supposed to have better fabric to curb the weird sounds a bit. It is also a bit more delicate than more hefty mats, but as I always camp inside a tent I think this won't be much of an issue.
Edit: Just before the summer I got the NeoAir Xlite - what a great decision! It's tiny and light but very comfortable! Read my in-depth review of the Term-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite for women here!
Backpack for lightweight hiking
As I wrote earlier, you switch to light backpack only when you cut down the weight of the other gear first.
I want to cut both weight and size, which will be possible if I get a tarp tent and the sleeping pad above. There is also some stuff I don't need to pack with me.
The more you hike the more you learn what works and what is useless and can be left behind.
Osprey Aura 50.via
Lightweight or ultra-light?
There are many options of great, high-quality lighter backpacks.
There are also some ultra-light packs that look like they were made of shopping bags and some cord.
To be honest, that’s not for me. Some of the ultra-light backpacks tend to have no frame and very thin straps. I'm fine with a few grams more if it means more comfort.
Osprey viva 50. via
If I can hike pretty comfortable with this big and heavy (sometimes close to 20kg!) backpack, I would fly the mountains with 10 kg pack!
I prefer to have some kind of support and structure in my bag instead. I also need a hip belt with pockets. I want a secure and safe piece of gear and don’t have the need to go below 1kg on it.
Different hiking needs - different backpacks
It is quite natural that we need more gear during cold hikes. Extra layers, bigger and heavier sleeping bag add bulk and weight.
I also pack a lot of food when I go for longer hikes. This is the heaviest part! Which means that in a perfect world I would have a few different packs for different kind of hikes… and who knows?
I might get there over years.
Gorilla Gossamer Gear . via
Now I want to get a light 45 – 50 L pack weighing around 1 - 1,5 kg.
I already know what features I need and which are a waste on me.
Separate sleeping bag/wet clothes compartment? Never used it.
Front zippers to reach for clothes? Never used it.
Those add bulk and weight (additional fabric, zippers etc.).
I need a simple one-compartment pack, with some cords on the outside, good support and ventilation. I also need a good hip belt with pockets for a camera and snacks.
I don’t have a favorite right now, but I am looking around. I gather opinions and reviews for later. At the moment I like those four the most (from the photos above):
Sleeping bag for lightweight hiking
Wait, what? I just wrote I have an amazing down sleeping bag! Yeah, but it’s big and heavy still. It performs best in cold conditions with the 800g of down.
But when hiking during summer or hopping between shelters and mountain refugees what would I need such a big and warm sleeping bag for?
One size does not fit all (hiking situations)
For such times a much smaller one would suffice.
Hence, I would like to get a down or synthetic sleeping bag for warm summer (summer in Scotland doesn’t count as "warm" btw) and shelter hiking.
Why would I want synthetic? The lower you go with your temperature needs the more down matters.
But in warm conditions the difference in weight between down and synthetic becomes less noticeable. Quite opposite to their price. Besides, synthetic sleeping bags perform better in wet conditions.
If I get some extra cash (dreaming) I could go custom again with Robert’s. But only if I first get the other stuff (tent, sleeping pad).
I could get a 300g or 400g down fill ultra light bag that will weigh less than 700g.
The route to lightweight hiking: conclusion
And that’s it. What about the rest of my gear?
Well, those items above are the most important. I already have an ultra-light mug and spoon, I take very few items of clothing and toiletries.
But with a backpack weighing 2,5 kg those don’t matter all that much. I might one day get a titanium pot, but for the time being, the aluminum one I have is not too bad.
That's me after putting my heavy backpack down ;-)