How to Safely Go Lightweight Backpacking

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Can you imagine bounding up a mountainside without hip-strap bruises or being out of breath? This type of travel allows the backpacker to reduce his or her load to a more comfortable weight and travel faster, with less hassle.

Lightweight backpacking is loosely defined as being able to go on a 3-day trip with a load of less than 30 pounds. Before taking on this liberating challenge, there are some important tips that will help your first lightweight backpacking experience be a safe and enjoyable one.

1.) Don’t ever skip on the essentials.

There are some pieces of equipment that are non-negotiable in order to backpack in a safe manner. The smart backpacker will never sacrifice these items in order to reduce weight.

• Map and compass (and the ability to navigate using them)
• Sunglasses and sunscreen
• Extra clothing
• Headlamp or flashlight
• Firestarter
• First-aid kit
• Knife
• Extra food
• Extra water

2.) Choose your equipment carefully.

Research is your friend here. With the amount of gear on the market, and “the best” being within half of an ounce of the next option, your wallet and comfort level are your guides. Read online reviews, check out different stores, and compare.

Sleep system – Your sleeping bag and pad should be matched to the climate you’ll be traveling in. Temperature ratings are the most important component to this selection. You don’t want to wake up shivering and on the brink of hypothermia. The second component is comfort. If you’re sleeping in hot conditions, are you going to be able to have a restful night’s sleep with only a ½ inch of foam between you and the ground? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Shelter – Tent, bivy sack or tarp? If you’re hiking with company, it’s relatively easy to divide up the weight of a multi-person tent. Depending on the tent, you may even be able to leave the stakes at home and rely on rocks. Bivy sacks are much tighter quarters and are a great, lightweight option for those who don’t need much wiggle room. For those who are truly comfortable with an open air shelter, a small tarp and rope will do the trick. (Make sure you know how to string up the tarp beforehand.)
Backpack – Your choice of pack should consider how many days you’ll be backpacking. It can also be smaller and of lighter construction, now that you aren’t carrying a 50-pound load. It’s advisable to plan out your typical backpacking trips and gear before selecting a backpack. Nothing is worse than getting ready for a trip and realizing that you don’t have nearly enough room for your gear. You also want to make sure the fit is good for your body.

3.) Make your clothing count.

• Your clothing selection will have a lot to do with the climate. If you’re traveling through the Mojave, your clothing is going to be much different than if you were hiking in the High Sierras. There are two general rules of thumb for clothing when it comes to lightweight backpacking.

1. Don’t carry two of the same item. You don’t need two t-shirts or two pairs of shorts. Learn to embrace your funky outdoorsy smell! Socks are the one exception to this rule.

2. Don’t carry more clothing than you can wear at one time.

4.) Be smart about your calories.

• The average backpacker consumes over 3,000 calories a day. However, depending on the terrain, weather and miles hiked, there could be a large variation in the number of calories you need. You know your body best. The lightest way to pack these calories is in the form of fat, since it contains 9 calories per gram, and dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. Remember the essentials though, and always carry extra food.

5.) Water is your life source.

• Make sure you have enough water, and one liter extra, when you are between water sources. Before embarking on your backpacking adventure, familiarize yourself with the weather forecast, where each water source is, and the distance between them. Also, have your water purification planned. Will you be adding bleach to your water for the ultimate lightweight travel? Using iodine tablets? Boiling your water or using a mechanical filtration system?

6.) Research your other gear and pack your comfort-items accordingly.

• Cooking systems, toilet paper, a bandana, a book—these are all items that are going to add weight to your load. Some may be essential, such as your cooking system. Your lightweight pair of sandals may be a morale-boosting necessity for you. Perhaps your trip won’t be worthwhile unless you can journal it. Everyone has individual preferences and items that are worth the extra weight.

The rewards of cutting weight can be tremendous and change your backpacking experiences for life. Safety is key to any backpacking adventure, but especially when lightweight backpacking. This list provides a rough outline of considerations. Do your research before heading out into the backcountry—and have safe and happy travels!


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Stephan Aarstol is an American internet entrepreneur and author of the book The Five Hour Workday, which is based on Tower Paddle Boards' invention of the 5-hour workday in 2015 that would eventually spread the idea to over 10 million people worldwide. Since founding Tower in 2010, it has gone on to become one of America's fastest growing companies and Mark Cuban's best investment in the history of Shark Tank. Tower has diversified into a direct to consumer electric bike company called Tower Electric Bikes, a beachfront event venue called Tower Beach Club, and NoMiddleman.com, where consumers can shop all the world's finest direct to consumer brands from one easy place.