Monday, August 15, 2022

Guest Post: Do You Really Need to Bring That? How to Audit Your Pack

November 18, 2013 by  
Filed under Trail Tips

Pack weight used to be a point of pride for me. When a fellow hiker began to struggle, I’d happily sling their share of the food and water into my own pack. My travel guitar, a thick novel — they all came along, because I could handle the weight.

That all began to change a few years ago, about the time I hit 30. It was a warm December day in that beautiful block between Christmas and New Years, when excuses aren’t necessary to unplug for a few days and go hit the trail. On day three of a four-day walk along the AT in north Georgia, I sped up to the summit of Blood Mountain and enjoyed lunch with views clear to North Carolina.

But on the way down, I buckled. I’d been feeling a dull but searing pain on the outer bands of both knees, a sensation that had been manifesting itself over my last two years of occasional distance hikes.  I adopted trekking poles in hopes that the better posture and better weight distribution would alleviate the pain, and it seemed to work — a little — until I hit that steep Blood Mountain downhill and could barely take each step.

At that point, I realized that I needed to make a change.  I was carrying too much weight, and I was risking having to hang up my long-distance boots for good.

These days, I rarely carry more than 30 lbs (I weigh 175 lbs) and I’m able to go as far as I need to. Here’s how I made the change:

Get Inspired

Ray Jardine has long been the guru of ultralight hiking, and his book Beyond Backpacking is an excellent place to start researching. Although I didn’t end up giving up my tent altogether, Jardine did inspire me to replace much of my gear with more efficient (although less luxurious) alternatives.

There is also an excellent community and forum called Backpacking Light that provides tips, advice and inspiration from like-minded folks.

Count Ounces

Even though it will never leave your house, a digital scale may be one of the most important pieces of backpacking equipment you can own. Grab a notebook and weigh each piece of your gear (it’s oftentimes a bit different than what the manufacturer says).  Putting your total on paper will help you spot your biggest weight culprits, and be extra incentive to make cuts when it’s time to pack.

Stick with Synthetics

Traveling and hiking in the same clothes that you wear when you’re at work or at home is foolish.  Not only do cotton pants and shirts weigh more than synthetics, they also retain water.  Stuck in a rainstorm wearing jeans?  You’ve just added the equivalent of a brick to your pack weight.

Look for Gear Alternatives

Once I realized that my tent, sleeping bag and stove were over 12 lbs combined, I realized it was time to make some changes.

Tent – Most tents include a separate screened section and rain fly, and perhaps a footprint.  Do you really need it all for the conditions you’ll be out in?  If I’m positive that it’s going to be dry but could be buggy, I bring only the net section of the tent.  Or if it could rain, but bugs are not an issue, I bring only the rain fly and enjoy the open air feel while staying dry.

Sleeping Bag – During the summer, I often sleep with my bag unzipped.  So when it’s warm, I’ve ditched it completely, in favor of an ultra-light blanket (mine is made by Thermarest) that still provides more than enough cover.

Stove – Although I love my WhisperLite, the aluminum can stove has changed my life in the woods.  They literally weigh only an ounce or two (plus denatured alcohol for fuel) and you can make it yourself (or order one from a Boy Scout troop selling them online as a fundraiser).   The only downside is that the setting is always on ‘high,’ but you can boil water in under two minutes!

Accessories – It was a bit sad not to bring my backpacking guitar along anymore, but that extra three-and-a-half pounds were significant.   Instead, I bring a harmonica, or just enjoy the music of nature.  Likewise, I no longer bring my hefty journal from home, replacing it with a tiny waterproof version. And if I’m reading a big novel, it doesn’t come on the trail.  When you come across a lightweight paperback, save it for your next big hike.

Let Someone Else Go Through Your Stuff

It’s easy to think that we need everything we’ve brought along on a trip, but someone else may disagree.  When we pack for a road trip, we logically bring an outfit for each day.  But on the trail, if you’re not wearing it, you’re carrying it, so two shirts for four days may be plenty!

Before stuffing your pack, spread out everything that you’re bringing and let someone else inventory the items and question you about their purpose.  Ask them in advance to be ruthless in their cuts.

Your muscles (and knee ligaments) will thank you, and you’re much more likely to be thanking your friend after a tough climb than to be sitting beside the trail cursing them over that fifth pair of socks they convinced you to leave behind.

Stratton Lawrence is an outdoors and travel writer, as well as a regular contributor for

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