Lightening Your Load
Part of Mark Verber's
Guide to Light Weight Backpacking
Everyone would agree that carrying less weight is a good thing. So no
matter whether you are a ultra-light or heavy weight packers, losing un-needed
pounds is productive. The following was posted by Steve Sergeant to
the backpackinglight mailing lists which is very similar to a study I remember
A Swiss military report suggests that everyone has a backpack weight
threshold at which they become significantly more encumbered. They
determined this weight by measuring how much it takes for a person's
balance-time to degrade by 20%. You can determine your balance-time
degradation by measuring the time that you can stand on one foot without
your pack, and then compare that to the time you can do so with your
pack on. Apparently the Swiss military sought to optimize the
performance of 'light fast' special-forces types. They found that for
their typical soldier, balance degraded by 20% when wearing a pack
weight between 8% and 10% of their lean body weight. The degree to which
the pack carrier's balance degrades directly relates to the rate at
which they'll become fatigued. This study suggests ways to improve
your backpacking experience. The traditional guideline of 25% to 40%
given by some how-to books on backpacking would seem quite high by these
standards, so you should try to go lighter. Experiment with loading your
pack to minimize the degradation of your balance time.
There are a number of ways to reduce the weight of your pack. Here are a few
ideas which have been very helpful to me:
- Create a gear list which records items you pack and the
weight of each of those items. The two most useful tools
for this task are a scale
which is accurate to at least 1/2
an ounce and a spreadsheet or gear calculator so it is easy to see how
your pack's weight
changes as you add and remove items. A decent digital scale can be found at any
office supply store or kitchen store. There are plenty of good options for
less than $30. If you don't have a good scale, you
can always take your gear to the post office and use their scale.
- Keep track of what you use and don't use on trips. After each
trip remove one or more items that you didn't use. Over time this will
eliminate items which you think you need, but in reality you never touch. For
example, nearly everyone I know takes an "emergency blanket"... yet how many
people use one. One a day hike, maybe. But when backpacking most people
carry a sleeping bag, additional clothing, and a tent, why would you use an
- Carry only the water you need. I have been amazed to see people carrying
3-4L of water on trails that parallel streams to pass lakes every couple of
miles. Take advantage of your water sources. Just remember don't be reckless. If you are in the desert without water supplies, you might need to carry several gallons :-(.
- Carry only the food that you need. Learn how much food you need to stay
fueled up. Don't bring more than that. This is save weight and
simplify cleaning your dishes because you don't have a small pile of remaining
food. If you are on an extended hike,
consider making use of resupply points. In many locations it is possible to
resupply with just a moderate adjustment to your route every 3-4 days.
Imagine you are hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail for 12 days and
you want 2lbs of food for each day. If you make two resupply stops you would
start each section carrying 8lbs of food. Alternatively you could start the
trip will all the food you need, 24lbs. Each day the food load would drop by
2lbs. You would be carrying more than 8 lbs (the max weight if you used resupply)for eight days. This doesn't consider other consumables like fuel.
- On trips that don't require melting snow for water, consider trying a
home made alcohol stove, a minimalist pot, and cooking food for that require
a modest amount of boiled water like ramen noodles or couscous. This
would cost a few dollars to try, and save a couple pounds compared to the
very common Whisperlite Stove + MSR blacklite cook set.
- Carry the right clothing. Wear performance clothing that dries quickly
which saves you from having to bring a second set of clothing. Take a
small thermometer and keeping track of your comfort -vs-
clothing -vs- temperature. You will find this enlightening. In particular I have found
that when I am in the midst of a backpacking trip, I tend to require less
insulation than I do at home to stay comfortable. As you learn your
comfort zones you can start to tailor the clothing you bring to the conditions
you expect. This often results in having to bring less.
- Remove excess "small items". Lots of little things add up. I used to
carry more band-aids and anti-biotic tubes than I could ever use. I
would also bring a sam's splint, sling, burn cream, etc. Rather than trying
to bring everything focus on life saving (which is typically about
technique) and a small amount of supplies for "day-to-day" issues.
Likewise, bring the amount of rope, sun screen, bug juice, etc that you will
use on the trip. Minimize the size, weight, and number of containers.
I known people who end up saving more than pound by reducing the
number and size of containers.
- As your budget permits, replace your heavier items with lighter items.
People often talk about going after the "big three" (sleeping bag/pad, shelter,
pack) since these items tend to be the heaviest parts of your gear. Unless
you are prepared to purchase multiple packs over time, I would suggest being
slow to replace your backpack. It really sucks to be
using a backpack that doesn't have an adequate suspension for the weight you are
carrying. I have a number of pages which recommend
for additional ideas and the most excellent book
Lighten Up by Don
Ladigin with illustrations by Mike Clelland. I have captures a number of other
resources on the web and in the book stores.
I have been strongly influenced by
ultra-light (UL) packing style, but I am on the heavier side of ultralight, or
maybe the low side of a lightweight style. My gear
is mostly ultralight, but I sometimes bring more gear than I actually need to be safe.
Hardcore ultra-light folks are willing to give up more comfort than I am to lower
their pack weight. A number of examples:
- One set of clothing which is used for hiking, sleeping,
etc. If these cloths need to be cleaned, rain gear is worn. If
the clothing is wet, body heat is used to accelerate the drying. As a
result, an UL will be wearing wet, smelly clothing longer than I might choice
I often have both hiking clothing and camp clothing. The camp clothing
can be layered with my hiking clothing if conditions turn truly cold, but I am
carrying more than is absolutely necessary.
- Selecting insulation for safety rather than comfort.
For example it is possible to be "safe" though feel chilled. Rather than
taking a sleeping bag or an insulated jacket which will keep you feeling warm
and cozy in all expected conditions, take insulation which will keep your safe
(away from hypothermia and exposure) in the worse conditions you expect, and
reasonable comfortable in the average conditions. Select insulation for your
body keeping in mind that you have a sleeping bag or quilt for when it will
be the coldest and you will be the least active and using physical activity
to stay warm. For example, on three
season trips I know people who bring just a base + shell because this is all
they need when they are active. If the evening is a bit chilly before they
are really to go to bed, they use their sleeping bag or quilt as a cape.
- Being a bit thirsty sometimes. You should always
carry enough water to be safe... but if there are reliable water supplies, then
you don't have to carry lots of water through the day. Just stop as you
need to acquire water. I personally don't like to stops too often to
acquire water, so I carry more water than strictly necessary.
- Push yourself further than you are comfortable.
Going UL might mean that you need to push yourselves more than you would on some days so you can get to a resupply, water supply, down below tree line,
Often this might mean starting your hike earlier in the day, or hiking later
in the evening,