As we all know, a low pack weight matters when backpacking, especially when an excursion extends beyond a long weekend. The lighter the pack, the more pleasant the hike. Of course, the moments spent not hiking are also important. Without appropriate gear, a backpacker risks discomfort, dehydration or heat exhaustion as well hypo- or hyperthermia. Discomfort will not make for enjoyable relaxation. To support having a great time backpacking and relaxing on Isle Royale, I have collected the best, lightest gear to suit my needs with limited trade-offs.
Remember, the lightest gear is not necessarily the best. The lightest and best is the gear that provides for what it is designed and weighs as little as possible.
Let’s talk light tents. Single-wall tents weigh the least, especially when they use trekking poles to set up. These are lighter than my freestanding or semi-free-standing double-wall tents. Why I choose the semi-freestanding is for weight and because it is a double-wall, meaning that it does not capture and deposit moisture inside the tent. Why does this matter? If the tent deposits moisture inside, I get wet, and I risk losing loft in my sleeping bag when it gets wet, which can lead to hypothermia on excursions in the early and late season. Moisture also increases pack weight unless I am willing to wait up to a couple hours for the tent–and potentially longer for my sleeping bag–to dry, depending on conditions. Whether freestanding or not, double-wall tents are worth the extra weight.
As with the tent, the lightest sleeping pad may not be the best choice. Again for early and late season excursions, I need a minimum of an R-4 rating to ensure that cold doesn’t infiltrate my bag from underneath. Sleeping bag ratings are only accurate when employing a properly insulated pad and when wearing a base layer and socks. An insulated pad can increase base weight by a pound, but it is an extra pound worth carrying. Nothing can ruin an excursion more quickly than lack of sleep due to cold, so the insulated pad is worth the extra weight.
So where can you shave weight? Acquiring lightweight gear is where to start.
Let’s talk stoves. A Jet Boil pot and stove weighs in at 16 ounces without a fuel canister. We had an Optimus pot with a wind-guard stove and feet that weighed 14 oz. Recently, Duane purchased a Fire Maple stove which weighs 1.5 ounces and paired it with a Toaks 750 ml pot for a total of 5.5 ounces. I paired my Fire Maple stove with a 500 ml pot for a total weight of 3.5 ounces, 12.5 ounces less than the Jet Boil and 10.5 ounces less than the Optimus setup. It was a good start.
Water filters and storage are also areas to shave weight. Always the lightest, the Sawyer Squeeze is not recommended except as a backup filter because of how cumbersome it is to use and the high potential for contaminating the clean water with droplets from outside the dirty bag during the filtering process. The MSR Miniworks EX pump weighs 18 ounces. A 4-liter gravity setup weighs 15 ounces, a difference of 3 ounces, but my Platypus system can generate 4 liters of clean water in short order. Further, trading out two standard Nalgene bottles with a screw cap (6 oz) for two Smart Water bottles (1.5 oz) saves 9 ounces. Using the Platypus and Smart Water bottles saves 12 ounces.
Make trades carefully and be aware of the consequences of the compromises.
It is possible to reduce weight by choosing a lighter pack, but that has significant tradeoffs. The lighter packs can be less comfortable and less durable. Both my Osprey Ariel and Aura weigh similarly at about 5 lbs. I also have an REI Flash 55 that weighs 2 pounds. The Osprey packs’ Airscape Suspension structure allows for airflow between the pack and my back. REI’s ventilated back panel is not as effective, so I tend to sweat more using the Flash 55. As well, it is 10 liters smaller than the 65-liter Osprey packs, so it’s suitable only for shorter excursions.
Finally, the lighter-weight construction of the REI pack makes it less durable. I have accidentally ripped off the sternum strap from two Flash 55 packs. The first I sent back because I thought it was defective. On the second one, I replaced the sternum strap with an independent strap that I wrap around and through the front straps of the shoulder harness. It’s cumbersome, but it works. Here, the jury is out. If you MUST drop three pounds, I recommend the Flash 55, but I carry the extra three pounds when I can afford the weight.
All trade-offs are not equal. I base choices on specific hikes and my specific needs.
Food is also an area to drop weight, but sufficient nutrition is required to hike well. That said, choosing dehydrated meals is the easiest solution. If you want protein rich options, consider Packit Gourmet or Next Mile Meals. These weigh much less than packages of tuna or peanut butter. Of course, hiking requires ready energy as well, so having some more carb-rich options can also be important. Peak Refuel is protein-rich with a fair amount of carbs. Mountain House, Alpine Aire, Backpacker’s Pantry, and others are carb-heavy.
Packing only dehydrated meals is not sufficient, though, so I consider the weight and density of alternates. I find that I hike best with a protein-rich meal, a protein snack, carb support like a snack bar or granola, a small sweet, hydration support, and coffee. I don’t need two meals per day. Instead, I need a meal and variety of snacks to eat throughout the day. In all, I take about 2,000 calories per day, less than what is recommended, but more than I originally took.
Food packaging offers opportunities for shaving weight, but there are risks. Some people transfer dehydrated meals to Ziplock bags, taking a bowl to support the Ziplock containing the meal being rehydrated. Others have had their Ziplock bags come open, creating a mishmash in the bottom of the dry sack. They have not said much positive about a mixed meal of Pad Thai, Chicken Alfredo, and Chili Mac with Strawberry Granola. Measuring out the mixture and deciding on the amount of water for rehydration is also challenging. Others trim the tops off the dehydrated meal packaging, again at some risk. If you repackage, be sure to nestle the rebagged individual Ziplocks into a larger Ziplock and pack them tightly into a dry bag to limit their movement and thereby the propensity to accidentally come open.
Still, staying with finger food and dehydrated meals limits the need for plates and bowls, which in turn eliminates the need for cleaning products for dishes. Limiting meals that need cooking reduces the need for fuel. In sum, reduced weight meals, fewer utensils, fewer cleaning products and less fuel all reduce pack weight.
I try to think outside the box as well. Or to think inside the pot to enhance the variety of food I take. Crackers, for example, offer welcome crunch to soft rehydrated meals, but saltines generally get crushed. To keep them whole, I store them in a Ziplock in my pot or cup. Tortillas also offer variety and don’t get crushed. Maximizing variety by utilizing hidden storage areas that already exist adds interest without added weight.
Limit toiletries and luxury items. Duplicate items in your group only when necessary.
I take one Chapstick, not two, and a small sunblock container, not a large. I rinse my hands more, and trade the large hand sanitizer for a smaller bottle. I leave the towel and take a hanky. I take a blow-up seat cushion and leave the chair. I use shampoo packets or dry sheets and insect repellent wipes, not a tube or an aerosol can. I have traded my brush for a small comb and squeeze out toothpaste I won’t need. While I think I need make-up, I never use it, so that is also left out. I keep tweezers, nail clippers, bandages, and moleskin.
However, I don’t leave behind the base layer or the puffy or the sock hat. I use a down puffy, not synthetic. I don’t leave the rain gear or my gloves. I take a light hoodie, and leave the sweatshirt. I take a full change of clothes and some extra socks and underwear, but skip daily changes. No one should take an axe or a bowie knife–there’s nothing to cut. Instead, I bring a tiny multitool. Bear spray is not necessary and not allowed. I use a piezo instead of a lighter and take small cannisters of fuel for shorter excursions. When I hike with Duane, we share gear. With groups, we don’t need 5 stoves and 5 pots, but we make sure to have sufficient fuel and back-up water filters of various types within the group.
Keep in mind that the goal is balance. If you feel deprived or cold, you won’t have any fun. If you feel like a pack mule, you also won’t have any fun. Strive for balance.
My gear choices include a very tiny stove and a tiny pot with a small canister of fuel and Smart Water bottles, along with the Flash 55. My tent weighs 2 lbs. 6 oz. with a footprint, and my R-4.5 sleeping pad weighs 12 oz. because I ordered the petite. I chose the mummy bag, not the hour-glass, to shave weight. My rechargeable headlamp is 1.5 oz. When I guide, my tarp weighs 11 oz. with stakes and rope. My food weighs well less than a pound per day, and I don’t feel deprived. I have weight room for my GoPro, my phone, a battery pack, and when necessary an iPad as well as my Garmin inReach+. I am connected.
The choices I make represent my values and needs, which include seeing and capturing the beauty that surrounds me, being safe during any excursion, and staying connected with my ongoing work, including fielding questions from potential clients when I am in the field. Before I leave for the Island, I pack my backpack and climb the steepest trail near me which I call the goat trail, like mountain goat. When I can do that trail, my pack is good.