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 seeing.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 emergency blanket.
  3. 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 :-(.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 light gear.

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 good resources on the web and in the book stores.

Ultralight Twist

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: