Let’s face it: backpacking can hurt. Heavy packs, steep hills, variable weather conditions, and difficult terrain all add to the difficulty of backpacking, but that’s all part of the adventure. When you finally crest the top of that ridge you’ve been walking toward all day and take in the beautiful views surrounding you, then all of your hard work has finally paid off.
But what if you could lighten your pack and still enjoy magical moments in the mountains? What if you could lighten your load by five, ten, or even fifteen pounds by making a few small adjustments to your approach to backpacking?
If this all sounds like it’s too good to be true, then we have some great news for you: it is possible to drastically decrease the weight in your pack without too much effort. In fact, there are dozens of different ways to lighten your load so you can spend more time enjoying the mountains and less time complaining about your pack weight.
To help you out, we’ve created this list of the top ways to lighten your backpacking load. Let’s get to it!
49 ways to lighten your backpacking load:
1. Weigh your gear
First things first, you can’t lighten your pack weight without knowing how much your gear weighs. In fact, most people are surprised at how much a sleeping bag, fleece jacket, or even their backpack itself actually weighs. Before you can even think about trimming down your pack weight, you need to get yourself a scale with an accuracy down to 0.1oz.
Before your next trip, take the time to weigh all of your gear and put it into a spreadsheet so you have that information ready and accessible in the future.
2. Ditch the stakes
Who needs stakes when you can use a rock, tree, branch, or some other form of natural material to pitch your tent? The average aluminum tent stake weighs around 0.5oz, so if you bring a set of 16 stakes, you’ve already increased the weight on your back by half a pound. Seems like an easy decision for us!
3. Carry only the water you need
Unless you’re trekking through the desert, chances are pretty high that you’ll be passing quite a few water sources during your trip. In fact, if your itinerary frequently involves walking alongside a river or stopping at a lake, then you probably don’t need to be carrying 3 liters of water throughout the day. (How Much Water Should I Carry Backpacking?)
One liter of water weighs 2.2lbs, so if you carry just what you need to get you to your next water source, you could save 4-6 pounds of weight in your pack.
4. Keep your gear dry
Wet gear weighs more than dry gear, so why do you pack away your gear in the morning before it completely dries out? In many areas of the world, morning dew and condensation build up on tents and sleeping bags is just a part of backpacking. By packing away your tent and sleeping bag before they have a chance to dry out, you’ve increased the amount of weight in your pack for no reason.
Next time, leave your tent up to dry and your sleeping bag in the sun as you eat breakfast. Pack it all away when it’s dry and then hit the trail.
5. Opt for trail runners
Modern science tells us that weight on the feet affects us much more than an equivalent weight carried on our backs. In fact, one pound on your feet is roughly equal to the equivalent of five pounds on your back, so it seems like common sense to want to decrease the amount of weight we’re carrying on our feet.
The best solution is to ditch those heavy leather hiking boots and opt for a pair of lightweight trail runners instead.
6. Get a smaller toothbrush
Why are you carrying around that unnecessarily long toothbrush or – gasp! – an electric toothbrush in the woods? It might not seem like much, but opting for a smaller, travel-sized toothbrush can decrease the weight and bulk of your gear by an ounce or two, perhaps more if you leave the electric toothbrush behind.
7. Use travel-sized toiletries
We can assure you that you will not need a 5-ounce bottle of toothpaste on your 2-day hike. No matter how much you’re brushing your teeth each day, you definitely don’t need a big bottle of toothpaste, nor do you need any large-sized toiletries on your trip. Choose travel-sized toiletries and you’ll save a lot of weight in your pack.
8. Get off the grid
You’re not going outside to bring all of the luxuries of home with you. If you wanted to watch Netflix, you could’ve stayed on the couch and saved yourself the trouble of having to walk into a campsite and pitch a tent.
So, next time you head out on a backpacking trip, leave the iPad, Kindle, and other non-essential electronics behind. You could do some stargazing, catch up on your sleep, or perhaps even talk to your hiking companions instead.
9. Leave your pillow at home
A pillow might seem lightweight, but why carry something when you can improvise it? If you’re someone who definitely needs a pillow to fall asleep, try propping your head up with a spare jacket or some other multi-purpose item instead of bringing an actual pillow with you.
10. Trim excess straps
Chances are pretty high that your backpack straps are much too long. It’s actually quite unlikely that you use all of any of your backpack straps, so why are you wasting your time carrying them around? Use a knife and a lighter to trim your excess backpack straps and then melt the ends so they don’t come undone during your trip.
11. Invest in a down sleeping bag
Down has a much higher warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic. In regular human speak, that means that a down sleeping bag that’s one pound will keep you warmer than a synthetic sleeping bag of the same weight, which makes down a great way to lighten your pack weight.
12. Ditch the stuff sacks
A stuff sack may only weigh an ounce or two (or perhaps more if it’s a dry sack) but when you have 20 of them, that weight can add up quickly. Unless you really need to keep something dry, leave the stuff sacks at home. A plastic bag can organize things just as well as a stuff sack and is a fraction of the weight.
13. Take the Rambo knife out of your pack
For some reason, people are under the impression that you need a machete or a 6” long fixed blade every time you go into the woods. Sure, if you’re in the Amazon or you’re out hunting, this might be useful, but most of us backpackers don’t really need a knife, or at least one that’s that large. Find a small pocket knife or just bring a single razor blade with you and you’ll save a lot of weight and money in the long run.
14. Purchase a lightweight backpack
It doesn’t matter how light your stove is if your backpack weighs 12 pounds. Sure a heavy backpack might have a lot of padding and extra features but you won’t really care about that when you’re thinking about giving up on your trip because your pack weighs 75 pounds. A lightweight backpack can provide some substantial weight savings, so it’s worth some consideration.
15. Carefully calculate the amount of food you need
Although you don’t want to run out of food, you probably don’t need a week’s worth of rations for an overnight trip. Most people eat 1.5-2.5 pounds of food per day while backpacking, so careful calculation of your food needs can really save some weight.
16. Bring a tarp
Tents are heavy. A tarp, on the other hand, can weigh just a handful of ounces and keep you just as dry, making them a great alternative for pack weight-conscious individuals.
17. Sleep under the stars
If you’re trekking through the desert, you probably don’t actually need to protect yourself from the rain so you can leave your tent and tarp behind. Even if it does rain during your desert trip, things dry out so quickly that you and your gear will be warm and comfortable again in no time.
18. Perfect your bushcraft and primitive skills
If you know how to forage for food or make a quality fire, you might not have to bring lots of snacks or any firestarter with you. Thus, some extra knowledge and skills can help lower your pack weight.
19. Carry trekking poles, not tent poles
Trekking poles are multi-purpose, versatile pieces of gear. In fact, they can even double as tent poles in some ultralight set-ups. Why carry tent poles in your pack when you can use your trekking poles on the trail and use them to pitch your tent once you get to camp?
20. Check the weather forecast
If your average nighttime low temperature during your trip is 60 degrees, you probably don’t need to bring that gigantic puffy jacket. Check the forecast before you head out and you might be able to trim down your clothes packing list.
21. Throw away excess packaging
If you’ve ever gone grocery shopping in a supermarket, you know how much unnecessary packaging our food comes in. What you don’t want is to be carrying this around in the woods with you. Throw out the excess packaging on your food before you head out on the trail and you’ll end up with less trash at the end in your backpack.
22. Pre-package your meals
Unless you’re a particularly big eater, you probably don’t need to bring a pound of pasta for your one-night solo backpacking trip. In fact, you could probably make do with just 2-4 ounces of pasta for the night. If you plan out your meals, you can reduce food waste and lower your pack weight by upwards of five to ten pounds.
23. Get a dehydrator
Much of the weight and bulk of a fruit or a vegetable comes from the water inside it. Luckily, there’s a way to reduce this water weight. The answer? A dehydrator. You can purchase a home food dehydrator and make your own hummus powder, dehydrate some vegetables, or make dehydrated fruit for your trail mix and save weight along the way.
24. Ditch the deodorant
Let’s face it: we all smell when we’re outside. Leave the deodorant and perfume at home. No one will be able to tell the difference anyway and it’s just extra weight in your pack.
25. Leave extra batteries at home
Unless you’re going out for more than three or four days, you probably don’t need extra headlamp batteries. Put fresh batteries in your headlamp before you head out and you’ll almost certainly be good to go for your trip.
26. Use a miniature lighter
You don’t need a whole lighter for a week-long backpacking trip where you light your stove maybe a few dozen times. Instead, opt for a miniature lighter and save some grams on your pack weight.
27. Get a 3/4ths length sleeping pad
A 3/4ths length sleeping pad can reduce your pack weight without affecting your sleep quality. Opt for a shorter sleeping pad for your head and torso and place your empty backpack under your feet at night to make up for the lack of insulation.
28. Go stoveless
If you’re only going out for a night or two, you can probably make do without a stove. You can simply bring meals that can be eaten cold (like a sandwich) or, if regulations permit, build a fire and enjoy the great outdoors. Just be sure to pay attention to your fire and put it out before you go to bed.
29. Use crocs for camp shoes
Tennis shoes are heavy, so if you must have a dedicated pair of camp shoes, opt for crocs instead. Lightweight, quick drying and close-toed, crocs can keep your feet happy in camp without breaking your back.
30. Photocopy guidebook pages
There is little reason to bring an entire hiking guide book on your trip unless you plan to traverse an entire mountain range and really need the author’s insight. Instead, photocopy the pages you need and put them in your pack. Generally, a map, compass, and GPS, along with solid navigation skills will get you where you want to go.
31. Get rid of your trowel
It turns out that you can use a sharp rock or a stick to dig a good hole for when nature calls. A trowel, even those lightweight orange plastic ones, weighs something, while a rock or a stick can be left in the woods. Seems like a no-brainer to us!
32. Use chemical water treatment
Water pumps are heavy, so unless you have a sensitivity to chemical water treatments, they’re a much lighter and less bulky alternative to a water filter for your next backpacking trip.
33. Make your own first aid kit
Those store-bought first aid kits sure are convenient, but they come in heavy bags and are filled with a bunch of random stuff you probably don’t need. Instead, make your own first aid kit and put it all in a Ziploc bag or two. You’ll save a lot of weight this way any only carry what you need.
34. Simplify your repair kit
For the most part, a repair kit can consist of some paracord, gear repair tape, and some seam seal, so there’s no reason to bring a whole tool kit with you into the woods. Depending on how long you’re going out for, a multi-tool might also be handy, but you don’t need much else.
35. Review your gear after every trip
Usually, we bring quite a few things with us into the woods that we don’t actually need. Besides a first aid kit and a pared-down repair kit (both of which we hope to never need) is there anything you brought on your last trip that you didn’t use? Could you do without it next time? These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself at the end of every trip to minimize your pack weight.
36. Opt for calorie dense food
Celery might be tasty, but it’s filled with water, takes up a lot of space, and doesn’t provide any substantial amount of calories. You have to eat something on the trail, so make it calorie dense food items, like nuts, which can provide lots of energy for relatively little weight.
37. Don’t bring an extra outfit
No one cares if you wear the same shirt two days in a row when you’re backpacking. In fact, it’s expected. Leave the spare outfit behind and rock the clothes you’re already wearing for the duration of your trip.
38. Use a seasonally-appropriate sleeping bag
You might love your 0-degree sleeping bag, but it’s probably overkill for your summer backpacking trip. Choose a sleeping bag that’s seasonally appropriate and you won’t be carrying around extra weight for no reason.
39. Try a lightweight air mattress
Air mattresses can be incredibly comfortable and lightweight, all at the same time. They can be a great alternative to a heavier foam mattress when you’re trying to save weight.
41. Limit yourself to one luxury item
If you’ve stuck it out with us to this point in the article, you probably think that shedding weight in your backpack is all about not bringing things with you as we’ve been telling you to ditch a lot of unnecessary gear. The good news is that you can bring fun things with you to enjoy your backpacking trip (that’s why we’re out there to begin with, right?).
The point we’re trying to make here is that you can certainly bring some “luxury” items with you, just limit yourself to one or maybe two non-essentials, not seventeen. Your back will thank you later.
42. Use a lightweight water bottle
Some steel water bottles and thermoses weigh one to two pounds when they’re empty. Thus, you can save a lot of weight simply by switching to a lightweight water bottle option, like a collapsible bottle or even a plastic Gatorade bottle.
43. Leave your bowl behind
If you’re camping alone or cooking for yourself, you can probably just eat out of the pot you’re cooking in. Why bring a bowl when you already have something to eat out of?
44. Don’t bring a full cutlery set
Are you going backpacking or to a Michelin-starred restaurant? Unless you’re planning a five-course meal for dinner, you can probably make do with just a spoon or a spork, if you really want to get fancy. You can leave the fork, butter knife, and dessert spoon at home.
45. Bring a point and shoot camera – or a smartphone
Unless you’re a professional photographer or you’re really passionate about taking photos, you might want to consider leaving the DSLR behind. Modern point and shoots, as well as our smartphones, can take some amazing photos and are just a fraction of the weight.
Or, if you still want to take photos and have some control over the camera settings, try a mirror-less camera system instead. If you really can’t give up the DSLR, bring only one lens with you. A wide-angle lens will probably suffice.
46. Carry a mosquito head net, not bug spray
Bug spray is heavy but a mosquito head net isn’t. In fact, head nets can be much more effective at keeping the little buggers off of you than bug spray is, depending on where you are. Plus, head nets require no chemicals, and they’re a fashion statement, to say the least.
47. Use zinc oxide
Zinc oxide, unlike new “sport” sunscreens, is thick and you only need a little bit of it to stay protected from the sun. Thus, you can get away with carrying less sunscreen if you opt for zinc oxide on your next trip.
48. Wear a sun shirt
Instead of having to carry enough sunscreen for your face and arms, cover up with a lightweight sun shirt and you substantially decrease the amount of sunscreen you need to carry in your pack.
49. Repack your toiletries
Companies such as Nalgene sell these fantastic little lightweight plastic bottles that are perfect for repacking small amounts of toiletries. It might seem like a hassle, but by re-packing your toiletries, you ensure that you’re only taking the amount you need on your next trip.
Ultimately, working toward lightening your pack weight is a fun and rewarding process. By taking the time to look through your gear, pare it down to the essentials and eliminate waste, you can move more quickly and more confidently through the mountains without having to lug around a behemoth of a backpack.
That being said, unless you’re keen to join the ranks of the ultralight backpackers, what’s important is that you lighten your pack enough to be comfortable on the trail while simultaneously allowing yourself some of your favorite luxury items, be that a book, a harmonica, or a watercolor set. Have fun with this process and enjoy your time in the mountains!
David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.