A lot of people getting into backpacking really struggle getting a gear list together that they feel both safe and confident in.
Before we talk about what we put in our packs let’s first talk about the psychology that motivates us when it comes to the consideration of each individual item we bring.
What do we pack
We carry things that we think we need or might need
We carry for comfort
But we mostly carry things out of fear
When we start hiking, fear is usually the number one driver of our decision making process when it comes to what goes inside our packs.
We are afraid of getting lost, so we bring a compass that we don’t know how to use, a complete set of maps that we don’t know how to read, and a satellite gps for that inevitable helicopter ride out of the canyon.
We are afraid of running out of food, so we bring more calories than we can consume in a day, and then throw three days worth of extra food in for good measure.
We are afraid of running out of water, so we carry 4 liters of it as we jump from rock to rock over an abundance of streams.
We are afraid of getting hypothermia and freezing to death, so we pack a huge sleeping bag rated for an arctic expedition.
We are afraid of being stinky, so we bring an extra set of everything so that we can put clean clothes over our dirty bodies and then roll around in them all night.
We are afraid of being uncomfortable, so we bring oversized inflatable mattresses, and camp chairs.
And when the sum of all these fears are added up, our packs can become oppressively heavy.
As our good friend Nimblewill Nomad says “Our pack’s burden is directly proportional to our degree of insecurity–our fear of the trail, that dreaded unknown.
The greater our fear, the heavier our packs become.”
When we first start to venture into the backcountry, being afraid is normal, and, in my opinion, it's pretty healthy.
So when we sit down and fill our packs before a trip, not only should we start thinking about what we are putting in our packs but more importantly, WHY we are putting these items in there.
We need to understand how each item added to our pack contributes to our Base Weight and the way that weight affects our enjoyment on trail.
Base Weight is the term used to describe the total weight of your backpack and its contents, excluding consumables like food, water, and fuel; whose weight varies by trip duration and expected weather conditions.
A higher base weight is generally associated with greater strain on our muscles, increased stress on our joints and impact points, higher risk of fatigue or injury, longer recovery times, and an overall slower pace while on trail.
With every step, and every mile, the weight of your gear stresses and strains your body. The lower we can safely get our base weight, the less impact our gear will have.
Lower base weights can allow us to cover more ground in a day, gain the ability to see more each trip, get to break spots and to camp with time to spare, and generally do it all with less pain and fatigue. The lighter weights are simply easier on your body and results in less stress and results in faster recovery times.
The philosophy is pretty straight forward, carry less weight and focus more on enjoying your time in nature instead of being distracted by the exhaustion and discomfort of lugging a heavy pack up a mountain.
There is an interesting phenomenon in backpacking that directly relates to the amount of weight carried, a kind of momentum paradox.
The heavier your pack is, the longer it takes to reach the next water source. This means you need to carry more water to get you to the next resupply, which weighs down your pack, which makes it take longer to get to the next water source.
The same rationale applies to food and the amount of days it can take to complete a section of trail.
In practice, the additional resources required to maintain a heavy pack end up compounding and actually result in an even heavier pack.
As you lower your pack weight, the opposite happens. You are able to move at a faster pace and are less encumbered which allows you to reach the next water source sooner. Reaching the resupply point earlier, allows you to carry less water which reduces your weight, which lets you move faster.
The weight of your pack is directly correlated to so many of the factors that will dictate the length, duration, and enjoyment of your trip. So how do we reduce weight?
Before we start removing anything from our packs, let’s ask ourselves, how can we save weight without removing a single item?
A lot of hikers will go over weights and potential savings and find some gains by cutting off labels, cutting toothbrushes in half, and cutting off extra straps. While these gains may seem minimal, they do add up.
The logical, and sometimes painful, next step to reduce weight is to upgrade and replace some of your existing items with lighter versions.
Ultralight gear companies, like Zpacks, have spent years developing lightweight equipment made with state-of-the-art materials, innovative designs, and optimal feature sets; all in the spirit of allowing you to do more with compromising safety, form, or function.
Hikers can achieve serious weight savings by simply swapping out their old gear and replacing it with ultralight versions; specifically when focusing on their “Big 3.”
The Big 3 consists of your backpack, your shelter, and your sleeping bag. Upgrading from traditional gear to ultralight variations can potentially save you more than 6 pounds. Yes, 6 pounds.
After the Big 3, I consider clothing to be the next biggest opportunity to save weight. A lot of hikers bring big, bulky, and heavy clothing that not only weighs down your pack but also takes up a ton of space.
A lot of these items can be replaced with similar garments made from lighter and more technical fabrics which will greatly reduce your total carried weight and take up significantly less room. It’s usually not too hard to find an additional pound or two extra weight savings here.
After you knock out your Big 3 and your clothing, there is still a decent opportunity to find some additional weight savings. The process is a little more laborious but, in my opinion, it’s worth the time. Now let’s get into full Gram Weenie mode!
Let’s take every single item out of our pack, and one by one, analyze if there is a way to save weight by modifying it or by replacing it with a lighter weight version.
Consider trimming your maps to only the sections you need and your data sheets to only the pages covering the section you’ll be hiking.
Some of the weight gains may seem insignificant but if you’re able to save an ounce on 16 different items, you’ve just saved yourself a pound.
If you add up the potential weight savings between your big 3, your clothing, and your smaller items, it’s entirely achievable to save anywhere between 6 to 10 pounds; all done without removing a single item from your pack.
Now for the painful part…what can we take out of our pack?
Before we take anything out of our pack, we really need to know what we DO need in our pack. To do this, we’ll need to research our route, know what to expect in terms of terrain, water availability, and typical weather conditions.
Only after we have this information can we truly analyze what we can safely leave behind.
Obviously, there are certain items that we are going to absolutely need on a multi-day hike; a backpack, a tent, a sleeping bag, proper clothing, food, and water.
Then there are things like our first aid kit, navigational tools like maps and a compass, and, when in areas with spotty cell coverage, emergency devices like an In Reach or Spot GPS.
Even with these things, we must be honest with ourselves, and really consider what we’re bringing.
When it comes to clothing, it’s common for a lot of hikers to bring a decent amount of extra clothing; a lot of time carrying clothing for each specific circumstance. We’ve included a link in the description to another video that talks about how to save weight by layer your clothing for 3 season hiking.
Does your first aid kit have sutures? Do you know how to use sutures? If you don’t, do you magically plan on learning how to use them in a panicked moment? Even if you do, do you have enough medical knowledge to know when you should and shouldn’t suture? This approach can be taken with almost your entire first aid kit.
Bringing a compass and a map? Do you really know how to use them? Can you pick out where you are on a map from only looking at topographic lines and geological features and then guide yourself to safety?
If you don’t know how to use something that you’re bringing with you and you feel it’s important enough to bring, please let’s take the time to learn how to use it. If it isn’t important enough for you to learn how to use, consider leaving it at home.
Another tip is to analyze the gear that you’ve taken on your past hikes. My personal rule of thumb is that if I’ve taken something on 3 consecutives trips and haven’t used it, safety items and rain gear aside, I probably don’t need to take it on a fourth.
After coming to terms with the necessities, we’re usually left with the age old battle of Camp Comfort vs Trail Comfort.
Ask yourself, is it more important for you to be comfortable at camp than it is to be comfortable on the trail?
Is the extra weight of that camp chair, a hardback book, machete, or oversized inflatable sleeping pad worth the extra strain on your body step after step, mile after mile? For some people it is and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
It’s also perfectly okay to push our limits in terms of what we think will make us comfortable and find out where our personal limits are.
Every person has their own unique threshold when it relates to comfort versus masochism and you’ll find with more time in the backcountry that that threshold is a continually moving target.
And with that, I give you one of my own sayings…”The most important thing you can put in your pack is experience.”
Experience allows us to replace gear with skills.
I encourage everyone to go out on short practice hikes called shake downs. These hikes should be used to put your gear to the test and find out what works for you and what doesn’t.
It’s only through practice and experience that you’ll learn what will truly make you comfortable in the backcountry.
Regardless of our experience level, we should never feel pressured or shamed into leaving for a trip with a set up that we aren’t confident will get the job done and keep us safe.
Each persons set up will vary depending on their experience level, their ability, and their personal comfort threshold. In short, we must acknowledge that there is no one right way to hike and that we should encourage everyone to Hike Their Own Hike.
We’ve included a link to a sample 3 season gear list in the description. We hope that you’ll take a look and be inspired to look at your pack in a whole new light.
So get out there on some shake down hikes.
Find a setup that works for you.
Be willing to challenge yourself.
And see what you taking a mindful approach to your pack weight can help you achieve.
As Nimble so elegantly says…
“When you experience the joy of trekking unburdened, it is near magic”