Ever wish that backpacks in real life could be like those in video games that hold tons and weigh ounces? Most backpackers dream of the day when those bags become a reality. Magical bags might not be available today, but light, well-prepared travel is still very possible. Fortunately for you, this guide has all the backpacking savvy you’ll need to do just that.
The Problems with Heavy Backpacking
You probably know someone that fits the description of a “closet packer”: they stuff bag after bag with “essentials” until almost their entire closet is packed. It might be news to them, but well-prepared and traveling heavy do not have to be synonymous! In fact, the most experienced backpackers tend to pack the least.
Ask a seasoned backpacker why they emphasize traveling light and they will have a multitude of answers:
- Avoid back pain. We peak biologically in our early twenties. Medical science might be advancing, but it definitely has not come far enough to prevent aging. Injuries, especially those of the lower back, become more likely for older backpackers.
- Mobility. Unless you figure out a way to pack a car, you will be walking or pedaling every day. Too many trips are ruined and turned into marathon haul-struggles by cumbersome bags. Backpacking should be liberating and fun!
- Transportation. Transportation companies, especially airlines, place weight limits on luggage and backpacks. If you travel with extra weight, you might find yourself denied boarding. Airport and train station waiting areas are not optimized for a good night’s sleep!
- Unnecessary and expensive. To put it simply: a heavy packer will not use everything they pack. Backpacking is a game of ounces. Even experienced backpackers end up shedding weight throughout a trip. Additionally, some adventurers need to camp on a budget so there is no room for excess spending.
Quite frankly, a seasoned backpacker will never run out of reasons to travel light. Bodyweight alone is enough for legs to endure on a longer trip – there’s no need to amass in vain.
How to Slim Down a Heavy Backpack – the Essentials
Slimming down a heavy backpack is like developing a smartphone: there will always be something to improve. Even as you pack for your 37th backpacking trip you will find a new way to slim down.
The best way to learn how to pack light is by simple trial and error. Fortunately, the backpackers before us have done plenty of that, so we won’t have to! Exactly what did the mad packing scientists before us find? Let’s start with the essentials.
The Pack on Your Back
Choosing the right pack is half the struggle of traveling light. Choose one that is too big and you will probably end up stuffing it with items that you will not need. On the contrary, choose one that is too small and you will be underprepared for the trip (unless your name is Les Stroud or Bear Grylls). Follow these easy steps to select the best pack for the trip:
- Choose the right size. Thirty-liter packs will be enough for anything lasting a weekend or less. Fifty-liter packs are the minimum size for anything longer than five or six days, but keep it below seventy liters. Seventy-liter-plus packs need only be used for expeditions lasting longer than a week.
- Get the right fit. Backpacks are not always “one size fits all”. Make sure to get a pack that secures flat against your back (for proper posture) and has adequate shoulder strap cushioning. Few things will annoy more than strap chafing during a backpacking trip.
- Choose the right material. If the destination and budget permit, invest in an ultralight backpack. These packs are made of light, durable materials that perform just as well as traditional models. Some ultralight materials also have moisture-wicking and weatherproofing features that add value to the investment.
PRO TIP: Be wary of gimmicky features. A simple black trash bag can be more waterproof, lightweight, and cost-effective than some of the fanciest covers and linings. Backpacking is all about spending wisely!
Gimme Shelter (and Sleeping Accommodations)
Tent setups, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads can go from being the heaviest items you pack to practically weightless. Traditional tents feature poles and tarps made of heavyweight materials such as canvas, plastics, and metals. Tent setups nowadays can fold down enough to fit in a fanny pack. Sleeping pads and bags followed the same trend and also come in space-saving, ultralight varieties today.
The right setup for your trip depends almost entirely on the destination. These are the most popular options available today, along with their most effective use:
- Trekking/Ski pole compatible. Tents that use trekking or ski poles for support are all the rage right now. Most of you will already have some of these poles on your journey. Using them to prop up a tent eliminates the weight of additional tent poles. Additionally, you can use rocks to tie down a tent instead of stakes to shed even more weight.
- Ultralight tents. Just like backpacks, tents come in ultralight, weatherproof varieties. These will usually be more expensive than a standard tent but entail a lighter load. You get what you pay for, right? If weatherproofing is not imperative where you are headed, the next two options will be the best for you.
PRO TIP: Make sure to dry out your gear! Moisture like dew, fog, and rain collects easily on surfaces. Stretch it out in the sun and give it a good shake to shed any unwanted weight.
- Tarps! According to Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation, a canvas sheet is the most versatile tool known to man. He might just be right! Consider using a simple tarp (canvas or otherwise) for shelter. If the weather permits, it will be more than enough.
- Hammocks! When the weather is friendly, nothing beats sleeping under the stars. A lightweight hammock and a mosquito net, if necessary, will provide for a great night’s sleep. Hammocks also eliminate the need for sleeping pads, which makes them an even more attractive option.
- Ultralight sleeping pads. No need to carry rolls of memory foam around. Inflatable varieties will usually be the lightest and offer decent support. Down-filled sleeping pads can also compress to a nice size and offer better ground insulation and heat retention. Lightweight foam hybrids have also grown in popularity as of late. Your local outdoor goods store will probably have these different types available for you to try!
- Ultralight sleeping bags. Down-filled bags are the way to go – they are comfortable, compressible, and affordable. Go for outer linings versatile enough to reuse on multiple trips, such as hydrophobic or tear-resistant.
PRO TIP: Always compare product warranties. When multiple choices fall within the same price range, choose the one that is guaranteed to last the longest. A savvy backpacker knows how to balance quality with price.
Food and Water
Fact: it takes a few trips to figure out your ideal balance of food, water, and weight. Myth: there is nothing you can do to make the process easier.
If you carry too much food and water you will end up needing more energy from each to carry the extra weight, plain and simple. While you zone in on the right balance, the best policy is to keep packaging and equipment as light and compact as possible.
Backpackers have come up with several ways to minimize food and water weight over the years:
- Dry foods. The humans of yore were hunter-gatherers. They took only what they needed and respectfully ignored the rest. Their diet serves as an example of what you should pack. Try to get all your energy from dry foods that do not require cooking, such as nuts, grains, and jerky. Fruits carry too much liquid weight and raw foods require cooking equipment.
- Ultralight equipment. If a Michelin-Star-worthy cuisine is absolutely necessary (no one blames you!), carry the lightest cooking equipment you can. Some manufacturers sell all-in-one stoves the size of a thermos that you can eat directly out of. Those are perfect for morning coffee and oatmeal, and can probably cook anything else you bring along.
PRO TIP: Hot rocks are a great grilling surface for any freshly caught game. They eliminate the need for cookware and people swear food tastes better!
- Minimize packaging. You will learn many tricks to compact food as you collect backpacking experience. Open any packaging with air inside, like chips and trail mix, and let the air out to save space. Use a pillbox to take single servings of condiments and spices. Avoid boxed packaging of any kind and take only what you need.
- Collapsible water bottle. Hydro-packs have extra parts that take up space and add weight – exactly the opposite of what we need. Instead, pack a collapsible water bottle and a filter. If water will be abundant on your trip, a liter-sized bottle should be more than enough. Try to drink as much as you can at water sources to avoid running out in between them.
That’s it for the essentials! You will need food, water, shelter, and something to carry it all with on any backpacking trip. Other things you carry will be all about making the trip more comfortable and fun. How do you know what to take and what to leave behind? Let’s discuss.
Gotta Have Vs. Wanna Have – the Non-Essentials
We live through the struggle between wanting and needing even when we stay at home. It does not matter nearly as much at home, however, as it does when backpacking. To determine which description (gotta have or wanna have) fits an item the best, follow these simple steps:
- Rank everything. Pack everything in order from absolutely essential to hopeful luxury and take whatever fits. This process not only ensures that you pack responsibly – it also helps to realize just how little we need to survive. After all, that is what backpacking is all about: stepping back, minimalizing, and refocusing on what really matters.
- Shed as you go. You should clean out your backpack periodically on longer trips to shed some weight along the way. Dispose of any unused items (including personal waste) responsibly!
- Analyze surpluses. As you return from a backpacking trip, take time to sort out everything you never used. Nothing will help to know what to pack in the future more than this process. Most times, some forgotten relic will come out from the bottom of the pack as a testament to minimalism.
Most unnecessary items discovered through that simple three-step process fall in the realm of clothing and hygiene. Spend a night in a hostel or group camp and you will realize just how little western hygiene standards matter to adventurers.
Embrace the outdoors! Deodorants, conditioners, perfumes – they all weigh too much and contribute too little to a backpacking adventure.
For those hygienic substances that feel absolutely essential, bring only as much as you need. Odds are you will not need an entire tube of toothpaste or sunscreen for a trip less than a week long. Outdoor sites and stores sell products that allow you to carry the right amounts of these substances compactly.
The same idea goes for clothing. One set of clothes is enough for up to five days when you learn to embrace the trademark backpacking smell. Two sets of clothes are all you will ever need for any trip. Just wear one while you wash the other! You can also use one set to sweat in while you hike and another to wear at gatherings. That will keep you smelling fresh when you need to.
PRO TIP: Layers, layers, layers. Dressing like an onion is the easiest way to regulate temperatures and make sure that you can handle any kind of weather. Underwear should be moisture-wicking and outerwear should be weather-resistant. Everything in between should provide insulation.
As far as footwear goes, trail-runners are the best option. They are lighter than boots and function as effectively. Make sure to take two pairs of socks. Wet socks act like incubators for bacteria and disease – and they are just plain uncomfortable.
Tools, Games, and Everything Else
There is no limit to the kinds of items people will try to bring on backpacking trips. There is a limit, however, to how much fits in an online article. Below are the most common miscellaneous backpacking articles and how to most effectively pack them. Some of these are must-packs!
- Cameras. The quintessential item of the aspiring Nat Geo photographer. Absolutely bring them along if you have room, just avoid any unnecessary equipment and cases.
- First Aid. Any seasoned backpacker has an injury story and a first aid kit in their backpack. If you plan to travel in a group, only one person has to carry a kit. Furthermore, try to pack it in a resealable plastic bag as opposed to a plastic box to save space.
- Rope. Rope is a useful tool for any trip but you do not need to carry enough to climb El Capitan. Thirty feet should be more than enough for most common uses.
- Knives. Just one will do. Try to find a lightweight knife or multitool that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Anything bigger is too much.
- Sewing kit. Simply bring floss and a needle. Floss is stronger than regular sewing string and also keeps your teeth clean!
- Books. Avoid paper books! An e-reader like a Kindle can carry thousands of books at a fraction of the weight. Do not even think about a hardcover book or textbook.
- Games. Fun to have, hard to carry. Anything other than a card game will take up too much of the all-important space in your backpack.
PRO TIP: If you plan to travel as a group, try to avoid duplicate items. Only one person needs to carry a group game or a set of tools. Alternate carrying duty to spread the workload evenly!
The Best Backpacking Policy
There is one general rule that will help you with any backpacking problem. Simply ask yourself: “do I really need this?” The answer to that question will tell you whether you need to pack something or not. Also, make sure to completely understand the trail and conditions you will be facing; that often determines the answer to the question of necessity!
All in all, backpacking is one of the most rewarding experiences around. Make sure to give yourself the best shot at a great time by packing efficiently. Trust your fellow backpackers, too, especially those with more experience than you. Chances are they have made many mistakes, just like you will…and you can all learn from each other. Here’s to all the journeys to be had and all the stories to be written. Happy trails!