1) Find the excess and don't carry it
I remember passing several hikers who were in their 70's on the John Muir Trail and they all had very small, light, packs. I don't think it was a coincidence. It takes time to figure out exactly what you need, but luckily there's a fast track to a light pack. All you need to do is look at some of the most common places where excess exists. I've hiked with enough new backpackers to realize that they almost always carry too much:
Beyond an extra pair of socks and underwear, you really don't need more clothing than that. Some people would even say that socks and underwear are not necessary. I include an extra pair of socks, because keeping your feet dry is crucial for preventing blisters and keeping your feet in good condition. If you're in a cool, dry area, you may not need extra socks.
Bring all the toiletries you want, but don't bring too much of any single item. For example, you'll need very little toothpaste for an overnight backpacking trip, so don't bring a full-sized tube. Find small travel-sized tubes that contain only the amount you need. It's amazing how quickly weight adds up in items like toothpaste, sunscreen, bug spray, and other small items. While you don't want to skimp on any important items (like sunscreen) carrying too much across a number of small items can quickly make your pack the heaviest on the trail.
If a piece of gear is in your pack, but not on the list of 10 essentials, it might be excess. Here are the 10 essentials:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses, hat, sunscreen)
- Insulation (rain gear, down jacket, gloves, hat, sleeping bag)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- Fire (lighter and dry tinder)
- Food (and whatever you need to prepare it)
The nice part about the 10 essentials is that there is some flexibility in the list. If you're just going on an overnight trip in the summer, you won't need as many insulating layers. You may not need a hat and gloves on the Colorado trail in August, but it would be a mistake not to bring one on the John Muir Trail in April. If you're going on a week-long adventure, you'll need to carry more fuel to make sure you can cook your food and you may need an extra water bottle to ensure you can meet your hydration needs. The 10 essentials apply differently to different trips.
The 10 essentials is a good list of what's necessary and can help you discover what isn't.
2) Take a look at the, "Big 3"
The "Big 3" include your tent, sleep system, and your backpack. These items are called the big 3 because they are traditionally the heaviest items you bring with you. Since they are the heaviest items, they also are the items where you'll be able to save the most weight. For example, a 20 degree synthetic sleeping bag may weigh three pounds where a 20 degree down bag might weigh in at just over one pound. Going with the down bag would eliminate 2 pounds out of your pack, and that's just for one item. You can't really get that weight savings many other places.
Tents are the same way. You can find 1 person tents that weigh only 27 oz or you could carry a 1 person tent that weighs over 60 oz. That's a 2 pound weight savings.
While lightweight tents, backpacks, and sleeping bags usually cost more, it's worth the investment. Spending a little more for the lightest version of these three items will significantly reduce your pack weight.
3) Know the trail
Another big culprit for weight is water. A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, and that's a lot of weight to be carrying around. There are definitely dry trails where you have to carry that much water....Always carry enough water.
However, if there are water crossings every couple miles, you may be able to significantly reduce the amount of water you carry. You can purify water at the stream and drink it before going again. Drinking the water you need at the water source means you don't have to carry the water on your back. This doesn't work if the water sources are farther apart, but it's a great tip for the times when water is plentiful.
When planning a trip, see if you can pick a route that features more water sources. Once you're out on the trail, be sure to keep an eye on how far it is to the next water source. Knowing the trail's water sources will make sure that you don't run out of water, and it'll also help you from carrying too much excess water weight.
How do you like to save weight? Let us know in a comment below.