Reduce Your Hiking Pack Weight

By minimizing your hiking pack weight your can reduce the chance of injury and increase the chances of a long and enjoyable hike. Whether you’re going out for a weekend or hiking the Appalachian Trail, most of us try to bring as many creature comforts as we can. Some are worth it...some are not! Here are some of the most common items and a few tips on how you can reduce your hiking pack weight and save yourself some blisters and misery! The estimated weights below are for a 2-3 day backpacking trip.

  1. Water
    Water is the most important part of your pack. Even if clean water from a reliable source is readily available on your route, you’ll still need the containers and ability to carry the water for later. A gallon of water weighs approximately 8.3 pounds. There are many backpacks out there that have a water bladder as part of the pack. These offer a few advantages: (1) The bladder takes up less volume than multiple water bottles; (2) It’s lightweight; (3) It can be stored in a comfortable and accessible spot on your pack; and (4) It’s readily available without taking off your pack.. For the longer hikes, a bladder alone will not suffice in the event that you need to collect water from a stream and boil it over a fire. A metal mess kit and light canteen could come in handy for these efforts and weigh less than 1 pound total. On hikes where you’re losing a lot of water to sweat, be sure to pack plenty of water – it’s worth the hiking pack weight. Water: 5-8 pounds
  2. Clothing
    Clothing may seem to be a small factor when it comes to your hiking pack weight, but that’s really not the case. By packing the wrong clothes or over-packing, you could be adding unnecessary volume and weight to your pack. While durable, canvas and cotton will absorb and retain over 40% of their weight in water compared to polyester and nylon which retain less than 8% of their weight. This can add up to some significant weight when rain and sweat are factors (the latter is almost always a factor!). Fabrics have come a long way over the past few years. Try wearing a lightweight fabric similar to running clothes. This will reduce your hiking pack weight and the weight of the sweat-soaked clothes on your back! And while your clothing should match the various weather and climate changes you’ll encounter, don’t pack too many extras. Socks are the exception – clean dry socks can be a foot’s best friend! Clothing: 3-4 pounds
  3. Food
    Dehydrated meals have come a long way from the military-style MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Most hiking and camping supply stores carry them and some are pretty tasty. These are lightweight and foil-sealed, and should not take up much room in your pack. Your hiking pack weight can really soar if you start adding canned food, jars and other items. Pay attention to the food’s container / wrapper, as this weight has no value. Energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and granola are all good examples of lightweight food that you can pack. Soda, alcohol, heavily salted foods and those with heavy containers should not be packed, as they will increase your hiking pack weight and slow you down through dehydration. Caffeinated and alcohol products should always be avoided. Other food items that work well are beef jerky and pita bread. You can even sponge up your dinner with the pita break – it’s really good…try it! Food: 2-3 pounds
  4. Navigation
    Depending on your familiarity with the location of the hike and the type of terrain, you’ll want to bring some navigation tools with you. The Appalachian Trail books and maps are great resources to find shelters, good camp sites, water locations, and other interesting trail facts. I’m sure that there are similar resources for most of the trails out there. They’re really worth the ½ pound of weight in my opinion. A compass is also a must, but be sure to take some periodic bearings to known landmarks or else it serves no purpose (Example: “The trail runs north-south & the river is to the west of us”). A GPS could also be useful, but this is where my “gadget” nature sometimes gets the best of me. On a short well-marked backpacking trip, a GPS could be unnecessary hiking pack weight. A GPS uses batteries and goes through them pretty rapidly. The added weight may or may not be worth it. You’ll have to make that decision. Navigation tools: 1-2 pounds
  5. Survival Items
    This is where most of us can really get carried away, and all of these smaller items will really add to our hiking pack weight. In general, it’s a good idea to pack a first aid kit, sun tan lotion, flashlight, water purification tablets, cell phone, lighter, utility tool, etc… But evaluate these items carefully. If there is no reception, a cell phone may be worthless weight. If there are no snakes in the area, don’t bother buying a snakebite kit! Keep the first aid kit to just the essential items to treat the likely injuries: cuts, sprains, blisters, etc… (I never use the ice pack, yet I always run out of mole skin!) As for a flashlight, consider a small led headlamp or small light instead of a D-cell flashlight – there’s almost a full pound difference between the two! Try to get travel sized items, too. A full bottle of bug spray or sun-tan lotion may be much more than you need for a short hike. And while a lot of the military-style gear is great stuff, it may be nothing more than a heavy decoration of a backpacking trip. A tri-fold entrenching tool, for example, weighs almost 5 pounds and could easily be replaced by a small 12-ounce camping trowel. I’ve also found that the big Rambo-style knife is a waste of hiking pack weight. I prefer a lockable multi-tool – much more versatile, light, and convenient. And while you may not always use it, a good 15-20’ length of cord has a bunch of uses from securing food in a tree to making a tourniquet to fixing a broken pack– it’s worth the weight. Survival items: 3-5 pounds
  6. Camp Comforts
    This will be the bulk of your pack weight for overnight hikes, as this includes your tent, sleeping bag, and other creature comforts. A small pack of toiletries is a must…but keep it to just a few travel-sized items. The wrong tent could make or break your outing. A recreational 6-man tent is fun if you’re only hiking a mile or two into the woods, as many of these tents can easily weigh over 15 pounds. If it has metal poles…reconsider putting it on your back for 20+ miles! If you’re backpacking consider a 2 or 3-man tent with fiber poles. They fold compactly and can greatly reduce your hiking pack weight. Keep in mind that it’s very rare that a 3-man tent will comfortably sleep 3 men…it’s more like 2! A sleeping bag is another low hanging fruit when it comes to reducing your hiking pack weight. If your hike is going to be during times when the temperatures rarely dip below 40F (4C), don’t bring your down-filled sleeping bag. Some of the newer poly-filled bags are extremely light-weight, compact, and comfortable. You can also find light sleeping mats and air-filled pillows for added comfort. Be sure that you have a water-proof cover for your sleeping bag – I even wrap it in a trash bag on the inside to be safe…a wet sleeping bag means that you’re sleeping on the dirt ;-). Comfort: 8-10 pounds
  7. Cooking
    As stated above, a nice light-weight mess kit should have a small bowl, utensils, plate, and cup and can be used for cooking small amounts of food. For boiling larger amounts of water, you may need a small camping pot. Don’t use your kitchen pot. It’s heavy, unwieldy, and is not worth its hiking pack weight. As you buy your Just-Add-Water meals, it may be worth it to buy the smaller packages that meet your pot’s capacity or the size of your mess kit. And while the motto of “Always be prepared” holds true, there’s no need to bring 3 bottles of propane for a 2-day hike. They have camp stoves that weigh just a few ounces and they come with a can of fuel that weighs less than a pound. It’s OK to be conservative, but you’ll be glad that you don’t have all that added hiking pack weight of added cooking fuel if you plan ahead. Cooking: 2-3 pounds

As you can see, a multi-day backpacking trip will likely include 25-35 pounds of just the above essential gear items. This doesn’t include the pack itself or the miscellaneous odds & ends below. If you do a little planning and preparation, you’ll be able to pack smart and really enjoy your trip that much more. In summary, here’s my “lessons-learned” list of some small items that are worth the hiking pack weight…and those that are not:

I hope these tips help you have a memorable and fun hiking trip. Minimizing your hiking pack weight ahead of time is well worth it. Every ounce adds up. Before your trip, try putting your pack together and try it on to see what it feels like. Step on the bath room scale with and without your pack to see how you’re doing with its weight. You’ll thank me later. Have a great time!

Items that are worth the hiking pack weight:

  • Extra Socks – wet / worn socks are like sandpaper on your feet
  • Poncho – good to wear in the rain or makes a nice shelter
  • Maps & Guide Books – they're nice to have once you’re in the woods!
  • Baby Wipes – helps you feel cleaner at the end of the day
  • Cord – it’s like duct tape…1001 uses
  • Small camera – They won’t believe you about the bear unless you show them ;-)
  • Ziplock bags with some toilet paper – you laugh now…

Items that are NOT worth the hiking pack weight:

  • Binoculars – I keep bringing them…never use ‘em
  • Lantern – nice to have...if it’s in someone else’s pack!
  • Shovel – unless you foresee the need to dig a cave…bring a trowel
  • Sunglasses – A good boonie hat will shade your eyes…when the trees don’t
  • Wallet – An ID, credit card, and a few bucks are all that you really need.
  • Fold-up chair – don’t laugh...I’ve seen it…a fallen tree makes a fine seat ;-)
  • Thermos – drink it while its hot or re-heat it later.

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