Seven steps to lighten up

I spend most of my day walking, so I optimize my pack for on-trail ecstasy by keeping it light. However, I don’t go “stupid light” by sacrificing too much functionality, durability, comfort etc. for the sake of saving a few grams. Here are seven tips to lighten up:

1. Create a gear list. In a spreadsheet list the gear you may take on an upcoming trip, and weigh each item with a postal scale. Never guess the weight or trust the manufacturer’s specs. The gear list allows you to compare options, identify excessively heavy items, and track your progress over successive trips.

2. Take less stuff. Research the conditions (e.g. temps, precip, remoteness, and natural hazards) you will encounter so that you do not justify items on the baseless “what if” and “just in case” scenarios or on unfounded personal insecurities. Be realistic about your true needs and wants; if want to take a luxury item, make sure that it has a high luxury-to-weight ratio. After a trip, identify items you did not use or need and consider leaving them at home next time.

3. Take lighter gear. Consider a tarp or tarptent instead of a double-wall tent. Make an ultralight alcohol stove from a cat food can. Take one high-loft insulated jacket instead of multiple fleece layers. And learn to use a map and compass so you can ditch your GPS. These decisions have a multiplier effect: a lighter load allows you to wear trail shoes instead of boots, to carry a lighter and smaller backpack, and to carry less food and water because you will cover distances between resupply points and water sources more quickly.

4. Use versatile gear and eliminate redundancies. Pitch your shelter with your trekking poles. Wear your clothing at night and carry a lighter sleeping bag. Use a sleeping pad as a “virtual frame” in your frameless pack. Replace your raingear, shelter and pack cover with a poncho/tarp. And put soft-sided Platypus water bottles and extra clothing inside a stuff sack to make a pillow.

5. Increase the caloric density of your food. One ounce of fat contains 240 calories; one ounce of protein or carbohydrates, just 100. The most weight-efficient diet, then, would consist solely of butter or some other pure fat. Of course, that would be gross – instead, bulk up on chocolate, nuts, Fritos, peanut butter and similarly fatty foods. Aim for a caloric density of 125-150 calories/ounce.

6. Optimize your hydration. Learn how much water you need per hour under certain conditions (e.g. temperatures, elevation gain/loss, shade, etc.), and only take enough to reach your next water source.

7. Eliminate all extraneousness. Remove ice axe loops, daisy chains, extra webbing and/or hydration sleeves from your pack. Ditto for shirt tags, guidebook margins, and pot handles. And chop toothbrushes, foam sleeping pads, and lexan utensils to make them lighter and more packable. This step is intentionally listed last – the weight savings are negligible compared to the steps above.


  1. zachary on March 29, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    i like it

  2. mat on April 4, 2012 at 10:38 am

    As always, Andrew, your experience and insight are illuminating.

    Go easy on the recommendations for a full-fat diet, though. You are entirely correct that fat is packed with calories like no other food. A diet consisting wholly of fat, however, quite apart from being yuck, would be physically damaging for a simple reason; as all students of biochemistry learn in school, “fats burn in the flame of carbohydrates”. Think of the carbs as the firelighter that’re always needed

    A diet with an excess fat/carbohydrate balance will (a) have you wake up with real bad breath – that’s from ketosis, which results from fat breakdown in the absence of adequate carbohydrate levels and (b) have your body chew itself up to provide the next best thing to dietary carbohydrate. There are few ways your body can do this and the number one way is probably the last thing you want when you’re on a long trek … it chews up your skeletal muscle to provide the firelighter for burning the fats. ouch.

    As aways, a balance is good to have.

    Keep trekking


  3. A Powell on April 28, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Great tips! I disagree though about wearing more clothes at night in favor of a lighter bag. The biggest mistake people make is wearing too much at night. You want just one layer, but that has to be a thin, soft and most importantly DRY layer! I keep a set of thin merino wool long underwear, a wool beanie and thin liner gloves, along with extra dry socks in a waterproof bag with my sleeping bag. Nothing wet goes in the sleeping bag – that includes body, exhaled breaths, sweaty clothes. My cold weather routine before bed: I first change into my long underwear bottoms, then massage feet for a couple of minutes with a tiny bit of shea butter – that warms them up and stimulates circulation then they go into the sleeping bag and the warm air inside the bag insulates them. I.e. no socks, letting my feet breathe. Then I take off all upper layers and change into the dry wool top. Any wet clothes go between sleeping bad and ground sheet to dry out during the night without the moisture getting inside the sleeping bag. Outer layer can be added on top of the sleeping bag for reinforcement. Now I am tucked into a sleeping bag in a thin layer of “pajamas” and the heat from my body with the air inside the sleeping bag insulates for a very warm and comfortable night. Keeping head covered is important, and optionally gloves for exposed hands bc I sleep on my side.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      I believe that your argument that wearing just a single thin layer at night is warmer than wearing multiple layers is flawed. Quite simply, more insulation is warmer than less insulation.

      Suppose we assign insulation scores to the pieces of a sleep system:
      * Base layers = 1
      * Insulated layers = 3
      * Sleeping bag or quilt = 6

      In my system, 1 + 3 + 6 = 10

      In your system, 1 + 6 = 7. So my system is warmer by 3 points.

      The only consideration in wearing multiple layers to bed is that your sleeping bag or quilt must be wide enough for you and your insulation. If it’s too narrow, it’ll be restricting and it’ll squish your insulating layers, thus preventing the layers from providing their maximum insulation.

      • A Powell on May 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm

        It is the air around your body that forms the insulation, not the clothing. Multiple layers of clothing serves many purposes while active: the base layer to transport moisture away from the skin, a wind- and waterproof shell layer to prevent heat loss and a reinforcement layer to provide extra protection as needed when activity levels change relative to the weather conditions. But during sleep you are not moving and therefor you need only a light perspiration-wicking layer and a (very) thick reinforcement layer (sleeping bag). In between is a nice warm insulating layer of air. Not only do you stay warmer but you sleep more comfortably than in you are wearing lots of layers. I just returned from a four-day trip 200 km north of the arctic circle where I slept in one layer of Aclima light wool top and long leggins and a very thick wonderful sleeping bag with a comfort level of -30. I was totally comfortable – and I am very averse to cold! By the way: same principle as in reindeer hide. Each hair is like a hollow straw, making reindeer one of the best insulating materials. It is the air, not the fur itself. that keeps the reindeer warm.

        • Andrew Skurka on May 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm

          It’s not simply “air around your body” that keeps you warm. It’s air that’s been trapped by insulation. More insulation traps more air, and when you are surrounded by more insulation (be it in the form of base layers, insulating layers, or a sleeping bag) you will be warmer. Your system — and your argument behind it — contradicts itself.

          • A Powell on May 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm

            I don’t see any contradictions but be that as it may. I don’t want to argue about arguments or contradictions. If my advice doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. Maybe it will make sense to one of your readers, or not. I’m happy to discuss it or answer questions – or to just let it drop. I agree with you that it is air that is trapped by insulation. The insulation is the sleeping bag and the pad between you and the ground. The air inside that “trap” is what needs to be heated up by your body – so your sleeping bag mustn’t be too big or you can’t heat it up. If it is too small (made smaller by wearing even one layer of clothes) then you get cold. The air must be dry (so no breathing into your sleeping bag and no introducing wet clothes. If you want to dry out your clothes from the day, then put them under your sleeping bag and not inside it!) The one layer is actually only for comfort. It is best is to wear nothing at all, from a warmth perspective. I usually wear no socks to let my feet breath, but like to wear a top for comfort. Head a must to keep body heat in and hands optional – for me. I have frozen night after night in all kinds of weather until I learned to take OFF all those layers and wear less in the sleeping bag instead of more. I can only encourage you to try it in practice. The key of course is having a sleeping bag that is up to the job. 🙂

  4. A Powell on May 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    You might enjoy this video that explains and expands on this. The man is Johan Skullman and the one who taught me so I can vouch for the effectiveness of his advice.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm

      I just watched this video. I’m NOT sold on this theory, at all. Why would you think that removing a wonderfully warm puffy jacket would be warmer than keeping it on? His concern is compressing the insulation in his sleeping bag, which is valid since compressed insulation is less warm than uncompressed insulation. However, if he just used a wider sleeping bag or a standard quilt (which has a variable girth), he could wear his puffy jacket and avoid compressing his sleeping bag.

      • A Powell on May 1, 2012 at 4:10 pm

        Well, it works. That’s all I can say. 🙂

        • Parker on November 19, 2013 at 7:53 am

          Andrew is right, he has more experience and knowledge than all of us. What he is saying is right, and proven.

      • A Powell on May 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm

        Actually, I can add that main reasons not to wear the warm parka to bed are that a) it is more effective to be used to apply topical reinforcement as shown in the video and b) for most people it is more comfortable to sleep in fewer clothes and c) most importantly, wearing a coat is likely to make you sweat which causes heat loss. There are those five properties of heat loss to consider (conductive, convection, respiration, perspiration and radiation) and messing up any one of them will get you in trouble, at least in the extreme conditions I have been in. I suppose in more moderate circumstances, when you sleep in a hammock where there is always some degree of convection, wearing a lot of clothes may be your only option. But lying on the ground, even on a thin foam pad directly on ice with a good bag is enough to protect from convection. You don’t want a bigger bag to fit a parka you don’t need. You simply allow your body to radiate the heat to warm up the air and you get the best night’s sleep of your life, even in minus 30 degree temperatures. But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself sometime. All the best.

        • Pete on September 4, 2012 at 8:30 pm

          Gentlemen, you may well both be right.
          I’m tipping that the “fit” of the clothing worn to bed would come into play also. If the clothes become tight in certain areas- especially where arms and shoulders connect- then this can reduce the efficiency of blood flow, thereby making us sleep colder.

          I tested this by wearing different “upper” clothing to bed on two nights, same temp, same exertion each day, same food- as close to “controlled” conditions as i could muster out in the wilds. The looser clothes kept me warmer- and they were lighter ( less insulating ) than the “tighter” clothes.

          I think a lot would be “person-and-clothing” specific, although there would be generic contributors, there’s a bit more to it than just “this will/that won’t” work

          I might also point out- to all contributors here as well as Andrew Skurka- that’s the time I have spent on your website (first visit today) has been an absolute pleasure.

          Cheers to you all, and happy travels.


          • Andrew Skurka on September 5, 2012 at 8:29 am

            Indeed, compressed insulation will not be as warm as it could otherwise be. If you plan to wear clothes inside your sleep system, this must be considered at the time of purchase. If you use a mummy bag, it will have to be oversized. Or, I use a quilt, the girth of which can be adapted by my clothing system.

      • Mike Kiernan on May 27, 2013 at 10:45 pm


        I agree with you about sleeping with clothes. More insulation, closer to the body is warmer than less insulation. But I do have a question.

        Are you at all concerned that wearing your puffy jacket to bed chronically and compressing the insulation as you lie on it wear it out sooner? Seems to me those jackets were not designed to be crushed by torso weight for 8 hours at a stretch. For this reason, I do not wear that layer to bed as a rule. I will add it if it gets much colder than I anticipated and my other clothes/bag are not sufficient.


        • Andrew Skurka on May 28, 2013 at 8:06 am

          Degradation of the insulation due to nighttime use is more of a concern with synthetic insulations than down insulations. I’ve owned the same down jackets for many, many years, and their warmth is almost as good as new, if not as good as new. Synthetic jackets, well, I get a good season out of them before retiring them to alternative uses or giving them away. In the end, I don’t think it matters much whether you use the jacket at night — insulated jackets spend most of the day stuffed into a backpack, and one insulation type is fundamentally flawed and the other is highly evolved.

    • LightDan on August 7, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      well, I’m with Andrew on this, I sleep comfortably in my Haglöfs LIM 100 with a comfort temp of 10℃ in vinter temperature below -10℃.
      (I’ts 50℉ and 14℉ respectively)
      I used wool long johns, beanie and a down jacket in the bag. I tried with the jacket on top of the bag, but it got freezing cold every time I moved, the trick was to put the jacket on, open up the zipper and use the bag i kind of a quilt mode with the zipper underneath me, giving both the jacket and the bag maximum loft and still trapping the air inside.

  5. Dave P. on May 5, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Great tips! I would only suggest that you should entirely remove the last part of number 6: “only carry enough water to reach your next water source”…..

    To be blunt, that is terrible advice. If there is 1 thing you should always have extra of, it’s water. Shit happens on the trail, people get stuck, and dehydration will kill you faster than just about anything else. You can go for quite a long time without food or shelter if you have decent gear, but water? Dead in days or less.

    So many people get stuck in the thought process of “I have to shave absolutely every last ounce” these days or does that hearing someone as well respected as you saying to minimize the amount of water might encourage people to skimp where they really shouldn’t.

    just my 2 cents. great site, and I will be ordering a set of your sierra high route maps soon 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka on May 7, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Dave – I think your opinion is misguided here. You are really pointing out the need for Tip #8, which should go without saying: “Be smart out there!” This tip would include such things as:

      • Accurately assessing risks
      • Knowing your limitations
      • Making conservative and rational decisions
      • Understanding your environment
      • Having a back-up plan

      If you follow this bit of advice, you probably will never be in a situation where you need “extra” water. It’s worked out pretty well for me, and for others too.

      I have made a similar judgement about other “essential” items like a map, compass, fire starter, light, knife, whistle, or water purification — I left them behind because based on my past experience I was confident that I would not absolutely need them. Each person must be responsible for themselves, and they must understand the risks of their actions. I’m not in a place to say what’s best for each reader of this blog — I can only offer suggestions about what may work for them, based on what has worked for me.

      • Dave P. on May 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm

        fair enough. I think “misguided” maybe a bit strong. remember, no matter how well you plan and assess rich, no matter how well you know your route, everybody rolls an ankle once in a while… even if they are smart out there… little delays can turn into big problems when you don’t have a reserve of extra water to keep from getting dehydrated.

        as I said, it wouldn’t matter if the advice to not carry extra water came from someone who wasn’t respected or well known, but being who you are, your opinion carries more weight (zing) in some peoples decisions, and it would be a shame for someone to get into trouble because they had listened to you when you told them to not carry extra water.

        worth thinking about.

        and yes, the unspoken number 8 definitely needs to be there

      • Mitchell E. on December 3, 2013 at 5:41 pm

        I think that step in particular needs a note clarifying that this is only something you should do with experience and knowledge. I can imagine a beginner reading this and getting into big trouble because they don’t have the experience to predict their next water source or their rate of consumption, or they don’t have the navigational skills to ensure that they won’t get lost on the way.

        Tip #6 isn’t dangerous if you know what you’re doing, but it could be very dangerous for a novice.

    • Mike on September 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      I will carry extra water. That is a good policy…

    • LightDan on August 7, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      I always carry a little extra water ever since the time I come to a “reliable” water source that had gone dry and I had my last water 3 hours later with 5 hours walk to the next source, and this on a sunny and warm summer day.
      I’t gave me a headache in more than one way.

      And thank to you Andrew for a fine page full of good advice, although I don’t agree 100% on all ŧour advice. 🙂

  6. Jim H on July 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I think it’s great a busy guy like Andrew is responding.
    Having lugged around a ton of gear in the woods and snow, I have been trying to lighten the load. The Canadian army would often demand we wear just our gitch in our arctic sleeping bags. I think this was supposed to guarantee we would keep wet and sweaty kit/clothes out of the bags. Of course we had cotton underwear and still have cotton sleeping bag liners. I went with a layering system based on civilian models and have never regretted it. The Canadian army sleeping bag system is warm but it weighs over 15 pounds and the 2008 pattern ruck sack weights 12 pounds empty. I like the layering concept for fun camping or field work.
    I won’t argue about water. I would happily dump clothes for water but I have also drank some seriously suspect gunkie water to stay hydrated and that certainly isn’t recommended.
    Thoughts on water filtration and treatment are welcome.

    • Evan Ravitz on January 7, 2013 at 11:11 pm

      I never carry a filter. I carry iodine drops but rarely use them. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years all over the West and through Mexico and Guatemala and have built up a fine immune system. BUT, I carry the “final solution” which I’ve used maybe 8 times in Latin America to kill amoebic dysentery, ascaria worms once, and giardia once in Colorado. It’s the shredded root of chaparral sold in herb shops as Quassia, which contains the bitterest substance in nature, quassin. It works just as well as pharmaceuticals to cure these parasites. It’s important to understand just how to use it, as, like the usual pharmaceuticals, it’s killing EVERYTHING in your gut so you don’t want to do it unless necessary and must replenish healthy bacteria when you’re done. I’ve put all I know at:

  7. cbayer113 on July 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    I really appreciate all the information on this site. Its helped me lighten up my backpacking load and made my overnight nature experiences that much more enjoyable.

    I did have a question about packs though. By following these tips I have really cut the weight of everything in my pack. However my pack has stayed the same weight throughout this whole experience (Gregory Baltoro 75L). I was wondering if anyone know’s of some good lightweight packs that I could possibly replace my pack with? I dont wan’t such a big pack for the tiny amount of gear I now carry.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      Sounds like it’s time to get a new pack. (This is the correct way to do it, BTW — if you swap to a smaller and less robust pack without first addressing the weight and volume of everything else in your pack, you will be uncomfortable.) My preferred brands are GoLite and ULA. There are many other companies that make good packs too.

      • Tony Hobbs on December 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm

        MLD make great packs. Been using them for a year now on my little jaunts.
        Good post and comments.

  8. Ed on September 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I’ve been preparing to take my nine year old son hiking in the White mountains this fall so I’ve been doing some reading trying to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Last week I read the story of MacDonald Barr who died of exposure while climbing Mt. Madison in August. Now it isn’t just me that I’m responsible for but a nine year old so I’m reevaluating emergency equipment.

    We are going to be hiking to one of the Huts that the AMC maintains, spending the night and then day hiking with our sleeping bags in the hut. Would something like an emergency mylar bivy sack be worth the weight or am I just a bit paranoid? (It could be both)


    • Andrew Skurka on September 11, 2012 at 11:18 am

      Personally, I don’t take an emergency mylar bivy. To me, it’s an unfounded “just in case” or “what if” item. If you are in a situation where you have to use it, you probably did something stupid minutes or hours or days before. I think it’s more valuable to make sure that you pack your brain: know where you are going, know the likely conditions, have appropriate gear (and know how to use everything), know your limits, etc.

      Good luck on your trip. Glad that you’re taking your 9 y/o out with you — that’s how I got my start in the outdoors.

      • Ed on September 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm

        Thanks for the advice. Now I have to convince his mother.

  9. Troy on November 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Andrew your book on backpacking helped me to go from a 45 lb pack to a 25 lb pack. Thank you for your expert tips and proven methods.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 5, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      Congrats on the progress. Glad I was able to help.

  10. Grayson Cobb on December 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Andrew, I’ve loved reading your tips. Thanks for writing this stuff so we all don’t have to make as many mistakes! Especially thanks for your article about vapor barriers-I’m going to implement a bag liner on my upcoming trip. I just wrote a short post about lightweight backpacking-I hope you’ll check it out! Thanks!

  11. Lasivian on May 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    When did the remote outdoors stop being fun and start being a challenge of ounces?

    I think some people enjoy cutting a tenth of an ounce more than they enjoy the trip.

    • Bob Skurka on September 7, 2013 at 8:46 am

      Its not a “challenge of ounces” but rather its the challenge that pounds add to your weight and consequently increase your work, decreasing your pleasure. My first experiences in carrying too much started on the AT in 1981 after I had taken a winter survival training course. Winter survival does not equal backpacking, as I found out the hard way. I was fortunate to be on the trail with a Kelty aluminum frame pack and 2 guys with old frameless military rucksacks. While I was modestly uncomfortable, they were totally miserable as they both had even heavier loads than I carried.

      We learn from our experiences. And with the advent of lightweight strong materials that dry quickly we can also all carry lighter packs, go farther, and enjoy more. My wife and I, now both in our 50’s, are getting our gear ready to walk across England on their 88 mile Hadrian’s Wall Path. If not for the new light weight materials, which are much more comfortable to wear, and the new technologies (compare a 1980 vintage boot to today’s lite hikers!) it is doubtful we’d bother to make the trip.

      Don’t think of it as a challenge of ounces, but rather as freedom from a burden. With lighter weights we can walk farther, will less energy, feel better at the end of the day, and enjoy the experience more.

    • Jesse on October 27, 2013 at 10:32 am

      I personally found “engineering” my base pack weight from 35lbs to less than 10 lbs and learning how to effectively plan/use my gear a lot of fun. Besides, I can’t always be on the trail, but planning for the next trip is fun too….even more fun is hiking without knee/back pain and covering 15-20 miles a day instead if 5. I’m actually seeing the great outdoors now instead of staring at the ground in front of me fearing a twisted ankle from carrying a heavy load and anticipating the next rest stop. Thanks Andrew for all the great info. I love the great outdoors again!

  12. Adam on November 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Your tips are spot on.Been on many long distance hikes , would much rather wear my gear in the bag.It’s much warmer. As far as water when I have to refill and know there won’t be water for awhile I try to drink at least 32 to 64 ounces in addition to refilling my bottles. Andrew’s way isn’t for everyone but one thing is for certain, it works and he has proven that time and time again..

  13. ShooTa on December 12, 2013 at 5:08 am

    Just to sort of weigh (hehe) in on the clothes in a sleeping bag discussion.

    personally – i agree with the – as little as possible between me and my bag – philosophy
    the only time I’ve ever gone against it was whilst in the forces – where you had to keep kit on in case of night attacks – but then the army sleeping systems i hope were designed for that.

    i can easily see that wearing the RIGHT clothing in your bag Could work well – but i also think that if thats the case you could do without the bag.

    i would only say this – use your time between trips to try this stuff out in a SAFE situation – to those saying must wear lots of lovely warm layers inside a bag – try a night in your garden with just skin and bag (don’t scare the neighbors) and visa versa for the skin crew – try a layered approach.

    you may find out you prefer the other type to the one you currently employ.// ultimately it comes down to the quality of the sleeping bag – and a square ended campervan one wont cut it.

  14. Craig on June 14, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Andrew Skurka

    Did you notice that A Powell said he used a -30 sleeping bag? I think you are referring to a 20 thru 30 degree sleeping bag not a Negative 30. Maybe that has something to do with the disagreement between the 2 of you? I’m sure if a person is wearing several layers of clothing in a Negative 30 sleeping bag, that person would sweat like crazy, especially if that person is over weight or carry more body fat than normal, also a Negative 30 sleeping bag would trap less air because of the sheer thickness of such bag. So maybe both of you are correct depending on the type of sleeping bag? Hmmmm? I’m just guessing from the conversation/debate.

  15. Evelien on July 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm


    I really like your blog! I’m in my preperation year for my first real trip. My trip will be about 3000 km (don’t know how many miles, miles are weird) and I’ll riding my Icelandic horse. I need to keep the full weight on my horse below 85 kg. That includes me (52 kg) and the necessary riding gear (8 kg) for my horse. That leaves me with 25 kg for my stuff and my horses stuff. You’re blogs and reviews are very helpfull.

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