Everyone benefits from carrying less weight. Whether you’re a mileage-driven thru-hiker, a fast-packing weekender, or a comfort-seeker who just wants to make room for camp luxuries, you’ll enjoy a lighter load. Easier said than done, you say? We’ve devised this 12-step program to help you slash pounds today.
Admit you have a problem
Load your pack (everything but food and water) for a summer weekend. No cheating—include the extras you carry, like a book, wallet, and camera. Now weigh it. More than 15 pounds? You can—and should—lose weight.
Downsize your pack
Conventional wisdom dictates—and we’ve advised before—that you should change your pack last, since you’ll overwhelm an ultralight model if you don’t upgrade your other gear at the same time. But consider this option the cold-turkey method: Buy a lightweight pack and adapt your gear to fit. “Make your pack constrain your other gear choices,” says Erik Asorson, PCT thru-hiker and guidebook author. Switching to a trim 40-liter pack, for instance, forces you to shrink gear across the board and prevents you from hauling “just in case” extras. For the lightest load, choose a frameless pack that weighs less than two pounds and keep your total payload below 25 pounds (our pick: the GoLite Jam Pack, $150, 1 lb. 15 oz., golite.com). Want to balance a light pack with the versatility to carry bigger loads when needed? Opt for a pack with a light-but-rigid suspension, like Granite Gear’s Blaze AC 60 ($200, 2 lbs. 15 oz., granitegear.com).
Ditch your dome
This is the low-hanging fruit of an ultralight makeover. If you’re carrying a traditional freestanding dome, you can cut shelter weight in half or more. The lightest option: a tarp. You can’t beat the space-to-weight ratio, but expect to practice a bit to achieve a sturdy pitch. And of course tarps offer no protection from bugs or pooling water. Our pick: Integral Designs SilWing ($110, 12 oz., 56 sq. ft.). Not a tinkerer? Get domelike protection for tarplike weight with floorless shelters like the GoLite Shangri-La 2 ($225, 1 lb. 10 oz., 45 sq. ft.). Prefer a traditional tent? Save weight with a model that uses trekking poles for support (NEMO Meta 2p: $370, 2 lbs. 15 oz., 36 sq. ft., nemoequipment.com) or a nonfreestanding hoop tent (Mountain Hardwear Lightpath 2: $175, 3 lbs. 15 oz., 30 sq. ft., mountainhardwear.com).
Change your bedding
If you’re going to spend big on one piece of gear, make it your bag. A $30 tarp may offer shelter comparable to a $300 tent, but a cheap bag is likely to be cold or heavy—or both. Aim for a three-season pad/bag combo that weighs three pounds or less. Splurge on a premium down bag to save weight and bulk. Our pick: Marmot’s Plasma 15 ($469, 1 lb. 14 oz., marmot.com). For maximum cushion, get an insulated air mattress, like Pacific Outdoors Peak Elite AC ($80, 14 oz., pacoutdoor.com).
Start cooking light
Reduce fuel consumption to save mucho weight on trips longer than a weekend. Start by painting the bottom of all silver pots with flat black Rust-Oleum stove paint, which boosts efficiency by 30 to 40 percent. Never leave a stove burning without a pot on it, and always use a lid. Choose quick-cook foods (such as couscous instead of pasta) and plan some no-cook meals (think granola instead of oatmeal). Stick to one-pot meals and limit hot drinks. Tip: Skip the paint job with an integrated stove/pot like the Jetboil Flash Cooking System ($100, 14 oz., jetboil.com).
Pay attention to the menu
“If you hike with an extra day’s worth of food, you might as well carry a rock in your pack,” says long-distance veteran Mike Daniel. Yes, carrying extra “emergency” food is tempting, but how many three-season trips turn into unplanned epics? And in a survival situation, water and shelter will be much more important than food. Choose items that deliver at least 100 calories per ounce, like candy bars, trail mix, and cheese. Total weight: Two pounds per person per day is a good starting figure—but individual needs may vary (more for cold weather and strenuous trips).
Step 7 Carry less water
Don’t risk dehydration, but be smart when water is plentiful. Use a map to plan refills. Chug at each source. And skip the filter unless you expect murky water. Instead, opt for a chemical treatment or the 2011 Editors’ Choice Award winner SteriPEN Adventurer Opti ($100, 3.8 oz., steripen.com).
Thru-hiker Jack Haskel limits his three-season layering system to pants, a tee, a puffy, a shell, one pair of underwear—and, um, no deodorant. He cautions not to go too light on the shell for alpine travel. “With raingear, a few ounces can mean a much safer hike.” Our pick: First Ascent’s BC-200 ($199, 11 oz., eddiebauer.com).
Stay fresh with less
Ditch the deodorant and comb. Carry a travel-size tube of toothpaste and toothbrush, and pack hand sanitizer along with your TP and trowel. And don’t stow it all in a heavy ditty bag that weighs more than the contents.
The more you know, the less you can carry. “I pack two lighters and matches—that’s it,” says Daniel about his survival gear for short trips. His first-aid kit? Prevention, as in—he stops every four miles to air out his feet and avoid blisters. Our pick: caution and improvisation, like making your bandanna a bandage.
Does going ultralight mean going ultraprimitive? Nope. But your gadgets should have a clear purpose and, whenever possible, replace other items. For example, Haskel listens to podcasts on his iPod instead of packing a book. The ultimate multitasker: an iPhone or Droid loaded with tunes, audio books, a star chart, and, ahem, our navigation app (GPS Trails Pro, $3.99, www.backpacker.com/apps).
Give your feet a break
Would you strap on three-pound ankle weights before a hike? So don’t wear heavy, high-cut boots unless you need serious weather or ankle protection.