An introduction to lightweight backpacking

An Introduction to Lightweight Backpacking

Greetings everyone here at The Prepared. I have been asked to write out my thoughts on lightweight backpacking and how it can play a part in helping people get through the very difficult conditions we may have to face in the near future.

This essay is not intended to be a hiker vs prepper series of arguments. Hikers have a distinctively different outlook than preppers. However, backpacking gear comes from the same desire to survive and thrive in a hostile world. Hikers and preppers can learn a lot from one another. This essay is intended to open a path between our communities so that both may benefit.


Some Principles of Backpack Weight Reduction

1) The heaviest thing we carry on our backs is fear.

Write down what you fear.

Learn how to overcome it.

2) Weigh everything.

List every item and record its weight.

If you do not use it, it is just a rock.

3) Reduce weight where possible.

Eliminate factory packaging.

Carry the least amount of non food consumables between resupplys.

Trim excess whatever as is possible without damaging a things integrity.

Can one item do multiple tasks?

Are lighter, equally useful substitutes available?

Can some pieces of equipment be shared among a committed couple or dependable group?

Are resources available in your environment which can be used, then discarded when done, so that there is no need to carry it around?

4) Properly distribute all weights

Pack in modular sets so that weights can be adjusted as needed to maintain balance: water bottles against your back, food bags in the middle, never let anything dangle off the packs exterior, gadgets in your belt pouches, trekking poles in your hands (not your pack).

5) The more you learn the less you need to carry or the more effective it is.

6) When useless weight has been eliminated, add weight back, as the situation requires, to ensure minimum safety and comfort under anticipated conditions.


The following is mainly a presentation on what lightweight gear is and how to use it under normal wilderness trail conditions.

‘Lightweight’ is defined in the current sense of a base weight at about 20 pounds. This does not include what you wear on a normal day or carry in your hands. This also does not include the rapidly changing weights of fuel, water and food.

Over the years, gear weights have gotten ever lighter. It is now fairy easy to get pack, base weight down to about 10 pounds. Somewhere around this point is where the gear starts getting expensive but IMHO worth it.

There is no one single source of ‘got it all figured out’ book or web site which tells you everything you need to know about lightweight backpacking. There are, however, dozens of summaries from personal experience – such as this one – which are a useful starting point for the motivated individual.

Not Included Weight

Shoes and Walking

Very few people know how to walk (including experienced hikers) and most shoes cripple the feet. A way to learn how to walk properly is to buy whatever kinds of shoes and boots offered at thrift stores, experiment with various off the retail shelf socks and inserts then consciously walk as much as possible in them.

Once you have learned enough to have a conversation about feet, shoes and walking, locate a running shoe store operated by qualified personnel. They probably won’t care too much about SHTF scenarios but they will be interested in helping you to select a shoe suitable for extensive back country hiking.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles are the human version of four wheel drive. The nominal pole height is with your forearms at 90 degrees to your body. Adjust as you feel is needed.

On flat land, the poles will become outriggers preventing ankle roll outs or serious stumbles from becoming injury delivering falls. On steep downhills the poles can be lengthened and now extended out in front as a kind of brake. This will take some stress off of your legs and back and prevent a downhill fall. When your arms are strong enough, the lengthened poles can be used to push yourself uphill.

Animals and predatory humans instinctively regard trekking poles as weapons, which they are. Tarps and one pound tents are possible because trekking poles are used to hold them up.

Wear Clothing 

The clothing layers that are considered normal wear are the base layer or underwear and the shell or pants, shirt, hat and sunglasses on a lanyard around your neck.

Please take the time to do your own base layer research. Fully test out your choices by wearing them for days at a time. An inappropriate base layer will cause all sorts of problems.

The fabric of choice for the shell is nylon or a variety of synthetic blends. Synthetic fabrics are extremely light, dry fast and wear forever. Up until recently, safari shirts and kind of limited pocket cargo pants were the most popular choices on the trail. These are probably still good choices for preppers.

Two key requirements of a shirt is that it have full length sleeves and that there not be a stitched seam across the top of the shoulder. This goes for the base layer T shirt or sports bra as well. Such a seam at this location will cut into your shoulder under the weight of even a lightweight backpack. The pain comes on fast and will put a stop to your hike.

One very useful type of pants is the ‘convertible’. This allows the bottom of each leg to be unzipped to create temporary hiking shorts.

A reminder: Cotton Kills!

Rapidly Changing Weights

As previously mentioned, fuel, water and food are not counted against the base weight of the backpack because these weights change quickly and in practical terms are very difficult to measure. However, these obviously are weights which needs to be managed.

Fuel & Stove

If you do not need to cook your food you do not need a stove or its fuel. An upfront savings of 1 to 2 pounds.


Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter. Hikers generally favor the tall plastic bottles made by Lifewtr or smartwater. Both are about 1.4 ounces empty weight each. 1 quart Nalgene plastic bottles weigh about 6 ounces. Metal bottles tend towards Nalgene weights.


A rule of thumb is that we can go without air for 3 minutes, without water for 3 days and without food for 30 days. The air and water estimates are highly controversial, but people can go without food for extended periods and generally are the better for having done so. The health improving effects of not eating are widely documented and even formalized in fasting disciplines.

Thru-hikers routinely, but inadvertently, practice a kind of fasting because the act of long distance hiking will burn more nutrition between re-supply points (usually measured in calories) than can be carried in a pack. The way we deal with this is to eat like starving coyotes while in town.

Historically, refugees have routinely had to travel hard with minimal food or no food at all. Preppers will have to deal with this in future SHTF scenarios. It would be interesting to hear a qualified nutritionist comment on how conscious fasting disciplines can be used to extend food supplies.

Actual hiker foods are normally straight off the grocery store shelves. Some hikers will cook, dry and vacuum package food then have someone send it to a re-supply point on the trail. Very few eat the freeze dried backpacker foods. No one eats MRE’s.

An understanding of food values is as important as an understanding of lightweight gear. Unfortunately, it is outside the scope of this presentation.

Food weights vary from one hiker to the next and one re-supply point to another. This is where lightweight backpacking really pays off: you can load up with as much food as you can get in your pack and still make big miles without crippling yourself.

The estimated load limit for my light weight backpack is about 35 pounds. As my total pack weight is about 13 pounds 9 ounces, that allows for about 19 pounds of food and 2 pounds, or one liter, of water. That is enough for 5 to 7 days of normal hiking. Rationing and/or fasting could potentially double that estimate. Water weight obviously varies daily and is replenished on the fly but as food weight decreases, water weight can increase. Water is an very important part of a fast.

Backpack Base Weight

This base weight presentation will be organized around my backpack and some of my personal gear selections. This is not an attempt to promote my gear choices or my favorite vendors. I do not financially benefit in any way or receive free gear. This is simply the outfit I know best and hope that a examination of it will serve as a departure point for others who wish to assemble their own lightweight backpack. Out on the trail there are almost no two packs alike as there are hundreds of ways to put one together. Just ask any gear head.

Pack Sack System, about 24 ounces

There is no need for built in compartments with zippers and excessive loops. There is no need for strong fabrics or heavy duty hip belt and shoulder strap harnesses either. I have an original Gossamer Gear ‘G4’, bought in 2010, now with 1300 miles of mountain hiking bushwhacking on it and its still good to go. It is just a big empty sack. With two belt pouches it weighs 20 ounces. Too bad its not made anymore. But you can make your own with a very low cost pattern from Quest Outfitters!

There are two easy to overlook sources of weight that properly belong to the pack sack category: pack cover and gear stuff sacks.

Pack covers are a pointless weight and a waste of money. They do not keep the surface next to your back dry so moisture leaks into the pack from there and the bottom of the cover collects water. Hikers have been experimenting with a variety of plastic bags used inside the pack as pack liners and stuff sacks. Current favorites are turkey roasting bags and the Clean Zipper brand zip lock bags (lighter and safer than ZipLoc). I use 5 dyneema fabric stuff sacks and a waterproof liner from Zpack. These weight just over 3.5 ounces.

Sleeping Bag system, about 48 ounces

The most common choices are goose down insulation in the 0 to 10 degree range. Do your research as you will get what you pay for. I threw down a kilobuck for a state of the art 10 degree bag that all but sings me to sleep. Weighs 37 ounces.

Like pack sacks, total sleeping bag weight includes two other pieces of gear: the ground sheet and the ground pad.

A 6×4 foot (or so) piece of black Tyvek can be bought from picture frame shops or online and is a good choice for the ground sheet. It weighs about 4.5 ounces. The same size piece of clear plastic Polycryo from Gossamer Gear weighs 1.8 ounces and is claimed to be tougher than Tyvek.

The Thermorest Z-lite pad is an all around good choice. I cut off 4 of the sections to make a  ¾ length pad which dropped the weight from 13 ounces to 9.2 ounces. Two reasons: A) the G4 backpack uses the Z-lite as the frame. You will have to study the pattern from Quest Outfitters to see why. Anyway, 14 sections make too thick of a frame. 10 sections is perfect, B) when the ¾ pad is laid out for sleeping, you can put the empty pack sack under your feet for a full length ground pad insulating effect.

Tent, about 33 ounces

Free standing tents are more popular than tarps and bivvy bags because tents can more easily handle a wider variation of weather conditions as well as provide privacy in public areas like campgrounds. The tent will add several degrees of heat capture even without direct solar gain. 2 person tents for single person will also allow for room to wait out a multi day storm without going stir crazy.

Tents of any kind, as well as tarps and bivvys, need to be carried in waterproof stuff sacks because they are usually wet from overnight dew or rain.

I transferred the tent stake weight to my one of my trekking poles.

Note: The rain poncho and the bivvy always seem like good light weight gear choices but in practice they never work out very well. The poncho is simply not big enough and the bivvy becomes a sauna on a warm, skeeter filled night because it cannot be opened. I have always wondered if these technologies could be improved. If so, the weight reduction would be on the order of several pounds. The light weight backpacking community has pretty much abandoned both of them. Perhaps gear heads in the prepper community would be interested to keep exploring this weight reduction opportunity.

Carry Clothing, about 55 ounces

The insulating layer is quite important as is easy to imagine. What usually gets overlooked is that hiking burns calories which heats the body. Too warm of an insulating layer gets the body too hot while hiking and thus is pointlessly heavy to carry.

The most common list is: insulated bottoms & tops (which double as pajamas and increase the heat capture of the sleeping bag) Second pair of socks. Possible second pair of shorts. Dedicated sleeping socks. Skull cap & balaclava. Weather resistant gloves. And zip lock bags which are carried to isolate dirty socks.

The same problem of overheating applies to the weather shell, usually a goose down puffy under a rain jacket. But there is an important additional problem; body heat also generates sweat which can be captured by the rain jacket. Unless vented, this can lead to soaking wet clothing then to chaffing or hypothermia.

One solution is to wear a vest, made of synthetic material, under the rain jacket and keep flapping air between the several layers. The other is to buy a crazy expensive rain jacket at the hardshell level which will vent out the sweat without letting the rain in.

Water Containers, About 5.5 ounces

A noted earlier, tall skinny smartwater bottles weigh 1.4 ounces each. I prefer to carry 2 Platypus 2 liter bags at 1.6 ounces each with the drinking tube attachment at 2.2 ounces. These are BPA free and work very well with the Sawyer inline filtration system.

Water Filtration, about 6.5 ounces.

Micro Squeeze Sawyer filter, its misc parts and the A/B containers of Aquamira chemical disinfectant. The Micro Sawyer works with the smartwater and platypus containers but not with any other water container that I know of.

Food Containers & Utensils, about 4 ounces

Food containers are a bit of a wild card. The normal container is a couple of simple stuff sacks or even heavy duty plastic grocery bags. For no-stovers, add a P38 can opener and titanium spork for about 2.5 ounces.

In some areas, bear cans, Ursacks or hanging your food bags from trees are advisable or required. As bear cans and a two Ursacks are in the pound range, hanging food bags is the preferred option. I made a food hanging kit from the little stuff sack that the tent stakes came in and a length of macrame cord. Weighs about 1.5 ounces.

Medical / Hygiene / Repair / Misc Kits, about 7 ounces

Note: There is a truism on the trail that the bigger the medical kit the less likely the hiker knows how to use it. With any luck this is not true of preppers. However, your recommended medical kits look like they could stand to be measured against the Principles of Backpack Weight Reduction and still be as effective as you intend them to be.

Medical: 2 Neosporin goop packets, one with tic fork in it. Two band-aids. 20 Advil tablets. 6 electrolyte tablets. Not counted weight is duct tape and muscle tape attached to one of my trekking poles.

Another Note: It is also a truism that very few hikers know anything about wilderness first aid regardless of med kit size. Our guiding philosophy is: ‘Don’t Get Hurt!’. Granted, not a very good one, but injuries are quite rare.

Hygiene: (it is unethical to use soap in the backcountry) 2 ounce spray bottle full of 70% rubbing alcohol and dedicated handkerchief for daily cleaning of feet and smelly bits. 1 toothbrush with handle cut down (to get it inside a plastic bag) 6 dental floss toothpick things. Plus a plastic comb.

Repair: 20 feet of polyester thread wrapped around a plastic thing I found with a sewing needle stuck through it.

Misc: mini lighter in tiny plastic bag with vitamin bottle absorbent pouch and small piece of cardboard soaked in candle wax for fire starter. A KN95 face mask and two sets of soft ear plugs.

Poop Kit, about 6 ounces

In a small stuff sack are a half roll of toilet paper, a 2 fl oz squeeze bottle of hand sanitizer gel and The Deuce cat hole digging tool. In addition are 4, one quart zip lock bags for areas where packing out your toilet paper is required.

The Bat Belt, about 32 ounces

More and more hikers are attaching little pouches to their hip belt and shoulder straps. Photographers often have a not so small camera bag hanging off of their sternum and shoulder straps.

If done correctly, this throws weight forward and down in a kind of counter balance to the loaded backpack weight without interfering with the back and forth movement of trekking pole swinging arms.

Here is what I carry:

100% Deet skeeter juice.

Skeeter hat net

Petzl Zipka headlamp (eliminates the bulky head harness)

Reading glasses

3 AAA & 2 AA batteries in a plastic case

Garmin Oregon 450 stand alone GPS (uses 2aa batteries)

Small cell phone

BTECH UV-5X3 handy talkie (do not have ham license yet)

Opinel folding knife (can sharpen on a river rock)

BASUNE slingshot (never runs out of bullets)

Some of this stuff is a new addition to my regular outfit and I am struggling with how to incorporate it. Given the list of hardware that preppers like to carry around, the Bat Belt seems like a backpacking technology that your community would be motivated to advance. I am very interested in any in any suggestions or innovations that you come up with.

Happy Trails!



  • Comments (21)

    • 3

      Thank you Chance for taking the time to write this incredible introduction to lightweight backpacking. I want to work on lightening up my bug out bag while not sacrificing on durability and there are many techniques in this that I am looking forward to implementing.

      Things I especially liked:

      • Weigh everything – Such a great concept. You may easily just throw an item into your bag because it is small, but if you really weighed all your items you would be able to see how much they weigh and take an extra moment to think if it’s really worth add it.
      • Food – the idea that some backpackers don’t pack any food and just fast until they get to their location is an interesting concept that I hadn’t thought of. The prepper in me shuns at this and not having some emergency source of calories if you were to get lost or stranded, but for lightweight hikers it makes sense.
      • A hold up I’ve had in adding a bulky sleeping pad to my bag is that it is quite bulky. But if you cut off a few sections and use your pack under your feet you still get the insulating ability. Love that idea!
      • I like how compact that Petzl Zipka headlamp is.

      The picture and links in the above post are ones that I added after Chance submitted this post. I asked his permission to do so to help readers have a general sense of some of the specialized gear he is talking about.

      • 3

        Thank you for your interest Gideon. Its always good to see people shed weight and gain mobility. If you are keeping track of your weight reduction process i would like to see it. Perhaps others as well.

        On one point, it appears that i have overstated the case as concerns food: thru-hikers pack as much food as they can carry. Its just that the physical demands of daily 20 mile hikes and multi thousand foot climbs consume more calories than we can carry. This becomes a sort of accidential fast but more in the feast and famine mode.

        I have never seen a qualified nutritionist comment on this. Am now motivated to do some research. Will get back to you if i can get a better handle on it.

      • 3

        In thru- hiker slang this is called ‘The Gong Show’.

        The hiker dumps his or her gear on the ground and invites intetested people to comment on or ask questions about some piece of gear.

    • 3

      Thanks, Chase, for a very informative overview of backpacking! I appreciate not only what you prefer to carry, but why.

      I think one of the most important points you make is to see what your group can share so not everyone carries the same thing.

      You also mention that some will not know what to do with some of their medical supplies. This actually goes for everything one carries. As a backpacker I know you’re using what you carry, but preppers can get sucked into creating their go bags and then setting them in the closet or vehicle, waiting for when it’s needed. Unfortunately they may find out too late that they don’t know what to do with half of what’s carried, or if they really needed it in the first place. The best learning comes from practical experience and application, not from a recommended list or book.

      • 2

        Hey Mr Mark

        You make a very good point about how easy it is to toss a go bag in the closet and wait for the SHTF event to figure out how to use it.

        I have had dealings with the people that one day will be called bandits and warlords. They are already calling the such preppers ‘mules’ because the mules will have just enough gasoline, strength and wits to get the go bag out of urban danger zones where it then becomes a convenient reesupply for these combat oriented predators.

    • 3

      Just wanted to say thanks for this. I hadn’t looked into lightweight backpacking before and in the context of this website I found it really thought provoking. I have some chronic joint issues due in part to overly stretchy ligaments which means I can’t walk far with a lot of weight without some kind of increased pain and, eventually, even less mobility. Being less able than the average person my age has motivated me think about being prepared for things, but also has me looking at some BOB recommendations with a bit of despair. So it’s just good for me to consider that there’re options. I think the principle “the more you learn the less you need to carry” is particularly motivating for someone in my position. I also think I’ll try weighing the stuff I often carry just in everyday life and take a closer look at weight distribution. So thanks for the contribution!

      • 4

        You are welcome Bin Chicken!

        I once hiked with a man who was legally blind. In another hike with a woman who’s knees were so badly screwed up she could not walk without special braces. Both completed their long trail hikes. They taught me a great deal about lightweight backpacking and more importantly, about the determination to succeed no matter what!

    • 1

      What is the “bat belt”? Something you purchased online and could link to? Something you made by adding hooks to your pack and belt?

      • 3

        ‘The Bat Belt’ is a made up term for anything carried on the pants belt or the pack hip belt. Like what Batman or police officers do.

        Search for hip belt pouches or pockets. Cell phones or GPS units can be carried on the shoulder straps as well.

        The pouches are a great idea as they put weight down and in front which acts like a counter balance to the pack weight. Problem is that the gear load is increasing but the pouch designs are not keeping up.

        Preppers have even more stuff such as a hand gun, belt knife and handyman tool. Very useful things to have but not so useful if buried inside the pack. I thought that the prepper community would have more motivation to work on how to solve this problem. Hikers seem content with simple pouches.

        The only clear idea that I have is that the Bat Belt accessories cannot interfere with the back and forth swinging motion of the arms. Maybe some kind of flat pack there.

      • 2

        Sounds similar to a handyman’s tool belt. They’re great on their own, but would get in the way of a backpack’s waist strap. Maybe a utility vest would work better, providing lash points around the chest and abdomen.

        My EDC kit mostly goes in a waist pouch. I can wear it in combination with a backpack by sliding the pouch up to my belly, fastening the backpack waist strap, then sliding the pouch down to drape over the pack’s waist strap.

      • 1

        Is this tactical vest roughly what you had in mind for a bat belt? I like the functionality, but prefer to avoid anything that looks so militaristic. Maybe we could find something similar with a less militaristic appearance.

        Modular Rapid Assault Tactical Vest

      • 3

        My first thought is that the Bat Belt (or whatever you would like to call this) needs a dedicated thread.

        My second thought is that hiking generates a lot of body heat. I once carried a fanny pack in the forward position. It worked out pretty well except that it weighed a pound, empty, and my pants were drenched in sweat. 

        My third thought is that there are probably several different applications. I prefer to walk quietly through the forest and hide as needed. This is much easier to do and more effective than most people think is possible.

    • 2

      What are you using that slingshot for? Do you typically hunt squirrels or other small animals to supplement your packed food during a hike?

      • 3

        The slingshot and a simple fishing kit are new additions to my pack. Hikers are constantly flushing out all kinds of birds and small animals or coming up to a never been fished stream. This is a skill set that needs a great deal of work. I am not a hunter and there is the problem of cooking.

        In thinking about how a lightweight backpack can be adapted for use by preppers, it occurred to me that a hand gun has some serious drawbacks: 1) what happens when all the bullets have been used up? 2) how is it carried for ready access? 3) Slingshots are silent and very accurate.

        Just a thought. Not an anti-gun sentiment.

    • 2

      What kind of trekking poles did you choose? I notice there’s a very broad range of prices for these poles. Does quality vary enough for the more expensive poles to be worth it?

      • 3

        I use the basic Black Diamond. Spent some time at the REI mothership in Seattle hefting different models until one felt right. I have naturally strong arms so enjoy using ‘heavy’ trekking poles as tiny barbells. Added duct tape and muscle tape to one and the tent stakes to the other. They now weigh about 1 pound each.

        If trekking poles are new to you, you can start out with sticks or ski poles from a thrift store. That’s how I got into it.

        Thanks for your questions. I will try to answer as many as I can but have limited access to the internet both in time and proximity.

    • 3

      A very thoughtful summary – thanks, Chance. As a fellow light/ultralight hiker I have nothing substantive to add; great job.

      And, as others have already seconded, regularly using your gear is so important; you build and refine skills, learn what works and what doesn’t, and become ever more unburdoned—freer to fully enjoy your time in nature. 

      • 3

        Thanks nazSMD

        Maybe see you out there someday!

    • 1

      Hi Chance,

      Terrific article!

      Putting my go bag together, I was, and am, very aware of my physical limitations – there was no way on this here earth I could carry a hefty pack. So when I looked for gear, I did so with weight and multiple uses in mind. Up until I started looking, I had no idea that lightweight hiking was a thing! Now, I’m in awe at how people can get so much out of so little.

      For my preps, I haven’t gone down the super lightweight road – that gear is too expensive for me and right now, I only take it out to practice and check. My go-bag is about 6kg (in a 40L bag, good for about 3-5 days if I have to evacuate), which is maximum for me to carry over any length of time. In my next preps review, I’ll be looking fresh at everything to see where I can get more weight down.

      Love your use of the name for a Bat Belt! I saw this review on Hill People Gear chest rigs, which could be an option if you don’t want to wear anything around your waist. They’re not for me, but I can see how they can be super useful.

      • 1

        That chest rig article was interesting, and I like the HPG chest rig design. $140 feels a bit high for this, but I’d probably feel different if I were on frequent SAR or orienteering trips like the author.

      • 1

        Hi GB

        Glad you are able to incorporate some of these ideas!

        Lightweight gear started out in the early oughts with mostly homemade stuff, cottage industry folks making things one at a time, a careful search through standard equipment suppliers like REI or EMS and rummaging through thrift stores or yard sales.

        This is still a very good way to put a lightweight kit together. Unfortunatly most Americans are heavily conditioned to buy everything new and as much of it as possible.

        Good luck with your downsizing!