Two years ago my younger sister and her boyfriend went on their first backpacking trip together—a weekend-long summer outing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Based on our shared genealogy, she apparently assumed she’d been blessed with comparable backpacking wisdom as her older brother, so she borrowed some equipment I’d left in my parent’s basement and drove to Pinkham Notch. Like many Trips Gone Bad, she and her fiancé can tell great stories from that experience, including how they tried to keep themselves dry underneath a tarp during a nighttime downpour without having poles or guylines, which they didn’t realize they needed until they arrived at their camp.
A tarp was a poor choice for them—like many pieces of lightweight equipment, it requires a level of skill to properly use, and they didn’t have the know-how. In this post I discuss nine skills you can learn in order to safely carry less and lighter gear on your next trip:
1. Assess your true needs
Where, when and for how long you are going is the primary determinant of the conditions you will encounter: temperatures, precipitation, sun exposure, water availability, snow coverage, hours of daylight, bugs, wildlife, and remoteness.
If you know the conditions you can realistically expect, you can pack accordingly. Uninformed backpackers justify poor gear choices on the grounds of unfounded “What if…” and “Just in case…” scenarios.
2. Select a good campsite
I avoid established campsites whenever possible. Instead I look for a virgin site that:
- Has a soft bed of natural materials, e.g. pine needles, leaves, moss, tundra;
- Is not in the very bottom of a drainage, where the air will be colder and more humid, and where the bugs will be more intense; and,
- Is not near a wildlife travel corridor.
By selecting this type of campsite, I can take a thinner sleeping pad, a lighter sleeping bag and less bug protection, and less robust food protection (e.g. odorproof sacks instead of a bear canister).
3. Minimize food weight
As a long-distance hiker with a ravenous appetite, I love coming up on overloaded backpackers who are delighted to give me some of their extra food. But for your own sake, please don’t feed the thru-hikers! I recommend 3,000 calories per person per day; this equates to about 1.5 pounds, assuming a caloric density of 125 calories/ounce. Some backpackers need more and others need less, but this is a good starting point.
To minimize the weight of these 3,000 calories, eat fatty foods (e.g. chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, cheese, Fritos, and cookies), since fat is 2.4 times as calorically dense as carbs or protein or a given weight, i.e. 240 calories per ounce versus 100.
4. Minimize water weight
In arid environments, water is sometimes worth its weight in gold. Unfortunately it is almost as heavy—it weighs 2 pounds per quart—so don’t carry more than you need. How much do you need?
- Determine the distance to your next water source and the time it will take you to reach it.
- Recall how much water you have needed in the past for similar stretches.
For example, if it will take me 3 hours to reach the next water source 6 miles away, and I’ve been needing 1 liter every 2 hours, then I will need to carry 1.5 liters with me.
5. Keep down insulation dry, and know when to use it
I generally prefer goose down instead of synthetic insulation—it’s warmer for its weight and more compressible, and it has a longer lifespan. While synthetics are not “warm when wet” like they are sometimes marketed (no outdoor gear is warm when wet, sorry), down is more adversely affected by moisture.
It is easy to protect down against rain and river fords—simply line your pack with a plastic trash compactor bag. (Avoid pack covers, which don’t work, and waterproof stuff sacks, which wear out and are expensive.)
Protecting down against ambient humidity is more challenging. You can use a shelter that has good airflow (e.g. a tarp instead of a stuffy tent) and dry it regularly in the sun or near a fire, but in consistently wet environments like the East and Alaska synthetics are probably a better choice.
6. Use map and compass
People often seem shocked that I don’t carry a GPS, relying instead on old-school paper maps and (sometimes) a $12 baseplate compass. I’m equally shocked that GPS units are so popular. A GPS might tell me exactly where I am, but I can do the same thing by tracking my progress on my maps. And a GPS might tell me the direction and distance to my next waypoint, but I can use my map to figure this out too—and, more importantly, with the map I can identify a route that will avoid thick brush, canyons, extra elevation gain and loss, unpassable passes, and steep side-hilling. A GPS may take me across all of that.
7. Make an alcohol stove
My Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove weighs just .3 oz (10 grams); it has no moving parts; it will never clog; if I step on it, I can bend it back into place and keep using it; and it costs just $1.50 to make—$.50 for the can and $1.00 for the hole punch (grab a plastic bottle from the recycling bin for fuel storage). Alcohol stoves are best for 1-2 people since they do not produce the heat of a canister stove, which is my preferred setup for group and/or winter use, with some exceptions. To use this stove successfully, you will need a windscreen made from aluminum foil and a wide-and-short pot, which is more fuel-efficient than a tall-and-skinny one.
8. Be realistic about in-the-field first aid
There are two categories of first aid situations:
- Field treatable, e.g. blisters, headaches, mild diarrhea, small cuts, and anaphylaxis; and,
- Not field treatable, e.g. broken bones, HAPE and HACE, anad cardiac arrest.
My first aid kit is designed only to treat the former. I carry ibuprofen and loperamide, Luekotape and duct tape, Krazy Glue, Hydropel, and callus cushions (to take pressure off blisters), among a few other items.
In the very unlikely event something more serious happens, I get resourceful with what I have (closed cell foam pad, guylines, extra clothing, pen knife, etc.) and make a call for help with my SPOT or satellite phone. Even if I carried 50 pounds of medical equipment and was a certified EMT, I’m still not equipped to treat serious medical problems in the field over the long-term.
9. Pitch a tarp
I love tarps: they are ultralight and versatile, and they are less prone to condensation build-up because they have better airflow than conventional double-wall tents or tarptents. I use tarps year-round, even last winter during the Alaska-Yukon Expedition when I was 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Tarps have two main drawbacks:
- They do not offer full protection, and
- Pitching them is not foolproof.
For protection against groundwater and bugs, I compliment my tarp with a groundsheet, water-resistant bivy, or bug nest—making a “modular tarp” system. To achieve a taut pitch, I do the following: practice in my backyard before I go; use two simple knots—the bowline and the trucker’s hitch; and adjust the shelter 2-3 times after its initial pitch, to get it perfect.
10. Now it’s your turn
What skills do you have that allow you to safely carry less? What did you do before you developed these skills — Did you suffer or did you carry something differently?