Ten-plus years as a NOLS Instructor combined with personal light trips in the Tetons has left me with an overnight pack I can easily hold with my pinky finger. And a lingering question: Could this lightweight style of camping work on a NOLS course?
This question brought fellow NOLS Instructor, Phil Schneider, and me down to a haunting place of exceptional beauty and remote wilderness: Southern Utah’s Escalante Wilderness. It was late October when Phil and I turned our backs on the “civilized” world and walked into those beautiful sandstone canyons. After a summer of scorching heat, the nights were cold and the days were pleasant. This was that magic season, when the aspens turn electric yellow against the enormous sweeping red walls. Our goal was to camp and travel for six days, testing some advanced lightweight techniques for a potential NOLS course.
We started with a gear-weighing session at the trailhead. Meticulous with every decision and every item, we shamelessly challenged each other to get as light as safely possible. We weighed, trimmed and weighed again. There was no “just in case” gear; either we needed it, or we didn’t.
When all was said and done, our backpacks each weighed 25 pounds, including three liters of water each and six days of food.
Our ambitious route took us over steep terrain with a lot of difficult bushwhacking and river crossings that left our shoes wet. It didn’t quite feel like the desert; there was a lot of rain, and it got below freezing on some of the nights. This may sound challenging, but everything described was significantly easier with a light pack.
With light packs, we were able to move faster, chat more when hiking and (my favorite) walk upright instead of hunched over. We were less tired at night, had more energy during the day, ate less, and laughed more. We woke up early and eager to start hiking.
And — most important — with a light pack it was easier to appreciate the environment. We were much more capable of taking in the beautiful surroundings. On a purely spiritual level the experience was enormously fulfilling.
When we emerged, we re-weighed our packs. Without food and water, the packs came in at 11 pounds each! This included the trash and some leftover fuel. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it’s what the math told us on day one — but, WOW!
Every hiker has realized at some point that they’ve taken too much in their backpack. This realization usually comes at the end of a long day on a steep uphill climb. Freedom from the cumbersome pack, however, can be found. And the benefits speak volumes. Here are some basic tips to get you started:
1. Take only enough gear to be safe, comfortable and confident.
Lightweight backpacking is not about discomfort. It’s about being comfortable with less weight on your back. The gear can be very simple and basic, but it needs to provide shelter, a good night’s sleep, appetizing food and appropriate clothing for the conditions.
Psychological well-being is important too. You need to have confidence in the gear and the skills to maximize your use of everything in your pack.
2. Know the actual weight of every item you carry.
You’ll need to know the weight of each and every item that’ll get carried in the backpack or worn. Yes, everything gets weighed and all these numbers get written down. This may sound totally nerdy, and it is, but this deliberate act makes it very easy to take onlywhat’s really needed. A simple digital postal scale (inexpensive at any office supply store) has accuracy down to a tenth of an ounce. Every ultra-light camper has a notebook with a listing of their gear and exact notations of weights. This makes it easy to total up gear without weighing the entire pack.
The simple act of weighing the gear creates a resolve and focus that’ll force you to really think about each and every piece of gear. Record the totals, and also write out the “why” for each item; if you can’t answer “why” you need something - don’t take it! Get a pair of scissors and trim off anything you can and re-weigh things. The act of shaving off small extraneous stuff will really reinforce your goal.
3. Whenever possible, use multipurpose items.
A good example of a multipurpose piece of gear is the humble poncho. This can do quadruple duty as a raincoat, a pack cover, a ground cloth or a sleeping tarp. Any piece of gear is limited only by the ingenuity of the camper.
4. Reconsider your heaviest items first.
The greatest potential for saving weight is in the heaviest items. The three biggies are the sleeping system, the backpack and the shelter. What good is cutting off the handle of your toothbrush if you carry a nine-pound tent? There are exceptionally light options for all of these heavy items, and because they are usually very simple (in order to stay light) they don’t cost nearly as much as a tricked-out heavy alternative. Compare prices and weights of backpacks, and you’ll find that the ultra-light alternative is simple and usually very inexpensive. And, there are a lot of options for homemade gear.
5. When you select gear, use the smallest item that’ll meet your needs.
Larger gear is obviously going to be proportionally heavier than smaller gear. And the smaller gear might be just as effective. How big does that cook-pot need to be, really?
6. Choose lightweight hiking gear that’s useful, sturdy and dependable.
Judge the gear in this order, is it: Useful? Dependable? Lightweight? Compact? If an item is not genuinely useful, not bringing it will (of course) save 100 percent of its weight! Gear that breaks on an outing will be annoying at best, and could result in serious risk at worst.
Going out into the backcountry with a lightweight pack during the winter would be foolish and dangerous. Summertime is where the benefits of a light pack will change your attitude about camping. Doing more with less is a wonderful life skill, and it’s a skill that can be learned.