One way to reduce your pack weight is to get rid of unnecessary gear. The other way is to replace essential gear items with lightweight alternatives, that work just as well.
Here are five gear items you can replace to reduce your pack weight:
1. Freestanding Tent (3 pounds)
The lightest one-man freestanding tents are around 3 pounds. 2-person tents are around 4 pounds. That is pretty impressive considering all the materials that go into them (poles, mesh, rainfly, guylines, stakes, etc).
But, many of the benefits of traditional tents (ease of pitching… protection from weather, bugs and wind… sturdiness and durability) can now be found in other types of backpacking shelters weighing half as much.
The comfort and homely feeling of a tent is nice, and freestanding tents are more practical for two people than one (because the weight can be divided). But, if you don’t want to carry the weight you don’t have to.
Ultralight Alternative: Tarp-tent or Tarp (1.5 pounds)
Tarptents provide full protection from rain, wind and bugs at a fraction of the weight of traditional tents. A one-man tarptent typically weighs only a pound and a half. Two-person tarptents are not much more, weighing in at just over 2 pounds with enough room inside for two hikers, their gear and the dog.
A two person tarp such as mine weighs just 13 ounces, but when combined with a ground cloth and removable bug tent weighs about as much as a tarptent. I like a tarp because it provides more space, ventilation and pitching options. I leave the bug tent home in places where mosquitoes are not a problem, to save weight.
2. Hiking Boots (3 pounds)
If this were 1992 and I were Ray Jardine, I would have to make an impassioned plea for abandoning heavy leather hiking boots. Luckily this is 2011 and, with the exception of a few holdouts and contrarians, the boots vs. shoes argument has already been settled.
Boots are no longer the preferred footwear for backpacking… and with good reason. Boots are hot, heavy, stiff and abrasive. No other piece of gear is responsible for more foot pain and blisters.
Unless you’re hiking hundreds of miles of scree fields with an 80 pound pack, the excuse that boots are necessary foot “support” and “protection” is a myth.
Ultralight Alternative: Trail Runners (1.5 pounds)
Trail runners (and cross trainers) provide adequate protection for the feet from all but the most rugged terrain. They are flexible, breathable and most importantly… comfortable.
I’ve hiked thousands of miles in trail runners with nary a blister or foot problem. They are the preferred footwear among thru-hikers and long distance backpackers on trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and other long trails.
The only downside to trail runners is they are not as long-lasting as boots. In my experience, you can get 500-1,000 miles out of a pair before they need to be replaced. But the added comfort is well worth it.
3. Fleece Jacket (18 ounces)
If your backpacking clothing system includes a base layer, insulation layer and shell layer (as it should) then a jacket is not that important by itself. Your insulation layer should work in conjunction with all of your other layers to keep you warm.
Fleece jackets are fuzzy, warm, semi weatherproof and great for blocking wind. When I’m at home in the fall and winter time I never leave the house without my fleece.
But a fleece is not the best choice of insulation layer for ultralight backpacking. They are heavy, bulky, and take up too much room in your pack. There are lighter options for torso insulation that are even warmer.
Ultralight Alternative: Puffy Jacket or Vest (5-10 ounces)
Puffy jackets and vests consist of a nylon outer shell and high loft insulation (down or synthetic) much like a sleeping bag. They weigh half as much as a fleece and compress down to the size of an orange.
When they loft up they provide a thicker insulation layer than fleece, so this is one of the instances where a piece of gear is not only lighter weight, but more effective than it’s heavy counterpart.
Down is lighter and warmer, but doesn’t insulate well when wet. Synthetic is not as puffy or warm, but it stands up better to moisture. I wear a synthetic vest, but know many hikers who swear by their down jackets.
4. Specialty Water Bottle (6 ounces)
Specialty water bottles are a perfect example of over-engineering something simple. They are made from high-tech plastics and even metals which make them indestructable and supposedly more healthy to drink from. They also weigh a ton (for a water bottle).
As for the supposed health benefits (BPA free, non-leaching plastics and whatnot) that might make sense, except for that fact that we all drink water and other beverages from plastic containers without those safeguards all of the time. It doesn’t make much sense to drink out of a specialized container on the trail and then go home and drink Aquafina and Pepsi from cheap plastic bottles every other day of the year.
Ultralight Alternative: Soda/Water Bottle (2 ounces)
Lightweight plastic water or soda bottles from your local convenience store (like the kind Pepsi, Aquafina or Gatorade come in) will do the same job of storing your water at a fraction of the cost and weight.
I always carry my water in cheap plastic bottles like this and have never had one bust or spring a leak.
They are designed for storing and carrying liquids and they hold up to abuse surprisingly well.
If you do manage to lose or break one (or it gets too gunked up to keep using) you can get a replacement for 99 cents at any store on the planet. And you get to drink whatever came inside for free!
5. White Gas Stove (14 ounces without fuel)
White gas stoves like the MSR Whisperlight shown at left (which is neither light, nor could it’s high pitched howl be considered a whisper) are great for camping and outdoor expeditions where you don’t have to carry your gear very far on your back.
They are extremely efficient, fast to cook and can run on various types of fuel, making them very flexible. But, they aren’t good for ultralight backpacking because they are heavy, a PITA to set up and prime, loud (which disturbs your campmates) and did I mention HEAVY?
There are better backpacking stoves that are less expensive, less complicated and weigh half as much.
Ultralight Alternative: Canister Stove (7 ounces without fuel)
Canister stoves like the MSR Pocket Rocket actually only weigh about 3 ounces, but I included the weight of an empty fuel canister (3-4 ounces) to be perfectly fair in comparison to the white gas stove.
Weight savings aside (which are substantial) canister stoves are a better backpacking stove in my opinion, because they are simple and easy to use. Simply screw the stove on top of the canister, turn the valve, light the burner and you will be enjoying your Hungry Hikers will be ready in no time. No priming, pumping, shaking or waking up your hiking partners at 6am when you want to brew a cup of coffee.
How Much Weight Can You Save This Way?
If you start out with a freestanding tent (3 lbs), Hiking Boots (3 lbs), Fleece Jacket (18 oz), two Nalgene Bottles (12 oz) and a White Gas Stove (14 oz)…
and swap them out for a Tarptent (24 oz), Trail Runners (24 oz), Puffy Vest (5 oz), two Aquafina Bottles (4 oz) and a Canister Stove (7 oz) you would save…
…4 pounds, 12 ounces!
Not too shabby for five minor gear adjustments -Erick the Black's