Hiking Mount Rainier's Wonderland Trail

Gearing Up – If it isn’t a lifeline, don’t bother.

For each of us, there is a weight limit where hiking turns from a pleasant walk to chore of hauling a backpack. A few years ago I had a Gregory backpack that weighed over five pounds, an REI two man tent that weighed another six, and a fifteen degree North Face sleeping bag that weighed another four. Add in a sleeping mat, dual layer Gortex rain gear, fleece lining, a change of clothes, a stove, fuel, cookware, food, first aid kit, map, compass, novel, camera, and a few other sundries, and you’ve easily hit 35 pounds. Unless you’re a big old boy, that’s going to start taking a toll on you before long. Carrying a large backpack causes compression of the spine, and you really don’t want to go there. The only nice thing about a heavy backpack is when you take it off (and the accompanying feeling that you’ve just stepped into a low gravity environment).

Pack weight should and can frequently be kept under a limit such that you don’t notice your backpack most of the time. I wouldn’t have personally believed this was possible when I first started backpacking and forty pounds was my normal pack weight.

The Big Three

Ultra-light backpackers talk of the “big three” items that make up the most weight and are the easiest to replace: the tent, sleeping bag, and backpack. Usually replacing just these items is enough to get your load down to something quite comfortable. Another good idea for lightening up is devising multiple uses for the same item. For example, why not use a tarp tent that employs a collapsible hiking pole rather than a tent pole? How about getting an ultralight backpack that uses a sleeping mat as its frame?

Sharing the Load

So what are some things that can be done to lighten your load? The biggest help is to have a hiking partner since so many items can be shared by two or more people. Water filters, stoves, cookware, tents, and first-aid kits can all be shared – and what a difference it makes to only have to carry half of this weight. In addition, nearly everything is better in life when you have a friend to share your experiences with.

Tent or Tarp? How about a tarptent?

Next, ask yourself if you really need a tent. Most long distance backpackers who hike the Pacific Crest Trail don’t think this is necessary. They carry ultra-light tarps and tarp tents constructed out of high-performance silicone-injected nylon (silnylon) which is waterproof and weighs less than 1.5 ounces per square yard. In my opinion, all backpacking tents should be made out of this material as it allows you to do away with a separate rain fly. The only reason ten manufacturers don’t use silnylon is because it costs over $10 a yard, much more than coated nylon. Increasingly silnylon is showing up in high-end tent models. You might also consider making your own. There are some very good plans on the internet. Henry Shires makes an outstanding line of silnylon tarp tents. These are hybrids between tents and tarps. Henry Shires even has free do-it-yourself plans for his original tarp tent (located here). The one-man version weighs 18 oz, and the two man weighs 24 oz. Henry Shires used this tarptent for a five month trip up the PCT. People modify these plans to include silnylon bathtub floors and fully-sealed mosquito netting. At this point they become full-fledged ultralight tents. All of the materials for these projects can be purchased for under $75.

I was planning to build one of these but my wife wanted something with a little more privacy since campgrounds are often crowded. After a great deal of research, we bought the LL Bean Microlight 2 person tent for $160. As of 2010, I’m convinced this is one of the best ultra-light tent deals on the market. It weighs 3 lbs, 12 oz and is basically a mesh bug shelter with a bathtub floor and a full-coverage silnylon fly. At less than two pounds per person, we couldn’t be happier. It is sturdily constructed, has enough room to sleep 2 comfortably, and enough head room to make changing one’s clothes a reasonable prospect. I suspect we will still be using this in ten years.

Backpacks: Frames: external, internal, or how about no frame at all?

The second of the “big three” is the backpack: Let me address internal versus external frames: The external frame pack has startlingly gone out of style in consideration of its functionality. It is mostly a fashion trend. Unless you climb and/or hike cross-country through brush, you really don’t need an internal frame pack. They are designed to not get caught on things and sacrifice ventilation and comfort to do so. Most of my packs have been internal frames. Regardless of what the manufacturer promises, my back is almost always drenched in sweat when I hike. This translates to blisters – not a problem on a three day hike, but after a week it begins to get quite uncomfortable. There is only one major access point to the contents of an internal frame pack, so it’s often quite an ordeal to get at anything.

My wife has an external frame REI backpack from the 1990’s. She picked it up at a yard sale in like-new condition for $20 and it weighs less than half of what my internal frame pack weighs. It rests mostly on the hips and shoulders and hardly touches the back. Compared to an internal frame, it has much more storage access, and has the ability to easily strap things to the outside. Furthermore, you can move the compartments up or down the frame which allows you to fine-tune the weight distribution. Again, it doesn’t make much sense why internal frame packs have taken the lion’s share of the market.

If you’re going to buy an internal frame pack, you should go as light weight as possible. A lot of people never really consider the weight of the backpack, and if you’re not careful, you can easily walk out of the store with a six pound, overbuilt hunk of nylon. Pay attention to backpack weight because light weight designs have caught on in the market, and brands like REI, GoLite, and Osperey are putting out backpacks that weigh around three pounds and retail for under $200. If you would like to go lighter and cheaper, then consider building your own backpack. Consider becoming a member of Backpacking Light to see some different patterns. There are a number of multi-day pack designs that weigh less than a pound and rely on a folded closed-cell sleeping mat to hold their shape.

Sleeping bags

The last of the big three items is the sleeping bag. These can weigh a lot when made from synthetic materials. I live in the PNW, don’t do snow camping and have always used fifteen degree bags. This rating has always worked well for me in this climate. Down fill is the lightest insulator and this is what I prefer. Down is completely useless when it gets wet, however, so it is crucial that you keep it in a waterproof bag. I keep mine sealed in a durable plastic bag which is then stored inside of a water resistant stuff sack. It could be submerged in water and would still stay dry. If you ever desperately need your sleeping bag, it’s probably going to be after falling into water or becoming rain soaked, so pay careful attention to packing your down bag every morning – pretend it’s your parachute because your life could truly depend on whether or not it stays dry. Synthetic material is heavier than down, but can retain some of its loft when wet. If you’re concerned with your ability to stay dry, you might opt for synthetic rather than down.

Again, I’m a big fan of home-built gear – and this is another project that will save you lots of weight and money. Carrying six feet of heavy-duty YKK zipper adds a lot of weight, and many ultra-light hikers have done away with the zipper all together. Some of the most popular home-brew designs for bags retain the shape of a rectangular sleeping bag, but are only sewn halfway up for easy entry. The top is made to be oversized so you can wrap up in it. This is especially nice for moderating your temperature on warmer nights. Some people employ Velcro patches to keep the bag sealed on colder nights. You can purchase the highest-quality 800+ goose down in bulk and make your own ultra-light quilt for under $90. This may seem like a lot for a homemade bag, but you’re getting the Rolls Royce of materials and a similarly-built brand-name model would retail for at least three times as much.

Beyond the big three, cut every corner you can to shed weight without compromising safety, and you will be thrilled with how much more you enjoy backpacking.

Stoves: Say goodbye to an old friend

The next item to target is the stove. Once the hallmark of light weight, the Whisperlite is no longer considered the most economical option. For a fraction of the weight you can use a solid fuel stove. Esbit makes fuel tablets that retail for about $0.65 a piece and burn for about fifteen minutes – enough to bring about a pint of water to a rolling boil. You’ll probably end up using under $3 worth of fuel each day if you’re cooking morning and night for two people. Yes, it’s more expensive than white gas, but it’s a cheaper initial investment and is still not going to break the bank over the long run. You can buy a little solid fuel stove for under $20 or you can build your own. One interesting design is a beer can solid fuel stove that employs a 24 oz beer can as a cook pot and eating/drinking dish. It weighs 4.4 oz including the stove stand, windscreen, and beer can. The entire apparatus can stay assembled when you’re eating, working as a double-insulated thermos. It only costs $15.95. If you’ve ever had to do surgery on your stove in the backcountry, you will probably appreciate the fact that the only thing that could go wrong with the stove is having it get eaten by a bear. The alcohol stove is also rising in popularity, and many people fashion them out of old tin cans or buy one of the many low-cost models now available on the market. Do a search query to find a plethora of sites on ultralight stoves.

Cookware vs ultralight beerware?

Cookware can cost a fortune if you want brand-name titanium everything. Go ahead if you like spending your time paying for things like this. The best options in my opinion are to cook and eat out of a 24 oz beer can with a titanium spork (usually under $10). If you want a larger pot or are not keen on being seen in the backcountry with a jumbo beer can, consider that my wife decommissioned my expensive MSR cookware set for a super lightweight aluminum pot she found for a few dollars at Goodwill. I was horrified to realize that it weighed less than half of the weight of the MSR kit and had five times the volume. These simple options really will suffice. Usually the deer and marmots aren’t checking to see if your cookware is the most stylish design. Give the cheap alternatives a try before you fall for the marketing and fork over you’re your hard earned cash. And if you’re concerned that you can’t boil water in sixty mile an hour winds in low-oxygen environments with your beer can solid fuel cooking system, face the facts: there’s a good chance you’re probably just doing fat-person backpacking like the rest of us and aren’t going to find yourself halfway up K2 anytime soon.

Raingear: staying dry without remortgaging the house.

The next necessity is raingear which can be both heavy and expensive. You can pay hundreds of dollars for raingear which probably works great, but unless you’re visiting the Hoh Rainforest in the winter or hiking on ridge lines during foul weather, it will largely live in your backpack most of the time. The last time I did the Wonderland, I tried something daring and bought a set of Dri Duck rain gear for $30. The material is waterproof and breathable. After seam sealing, it works surprisingly well for something so inexpensive. The weight of the entire rain suit is under a pound – lighter than my Columbia Gear rain pants. My only complaints are that the seams will leak a little if not sealed and that the thin fabric could tear if it catches on a branch. I suspect with enough use, the backpack will also wear through the shoulders.

If you want to be the coolest person on the trail, you might consider an oversized poncho that covers your backpack as well as you. This saves weight because you can ditch the backpack cover. In addition, imagine how menacing you will look to cougars with your extend-o-hump! This is also the most ventilated option, and you may not even have to wear pants at all with the right poncho. You can get a nice poncho for a song since they don’t need to be breathable. On the downside, ponchos probably aren’t the best bet on windy days.

If you’re doing much hiking at higher elevations or in exposed landscapes, you should probably just stick to Gortex. It is wind-proof, the pants will last you for years if you only wear them when it rains, and you can use the jacket regularly around camp in the morning and evenings. Cabelas sells a set of ultralight Gortex rain gear for about $200. They occasionally offer the pants for free with the full-price purchase of the jacket. If you’re patient, you can find Gortex rain gear at the thrift store – it probably won’t be that lightweight unless you really luck out, however.