Thru-Hiking Essentials: Striking The Balance

Hiker on a trail ahead of the photo-taker

Backpacking is a great way to get outside and become one with nature. The thought of spending multiple days in the backcountry can feel intimidating at first and can lead to over-packing and carrying a lot of weight. It often only takes a few trips with a heavy pack for many to start thinking about lightening their load.

But how light is too light, and how do you find the balance?

Gear Essentials

Your pack should ALWAYS include:

  • A shelter
  • A weather-appropriate sleep system
  • Rain gear
  • A proper first aid kit
  • A headlamp
  • Food, water, and filter/water treatment

However, each of these items bring with them a chance of overloading your pack. Using the same sleeping bags that you used as kids for sleepovers, the 4-person family camping tent, and the can of beans in your pack usually won’t make for a great backpacking trip. Adding a fresh set of clothes for each day of the trip is also a common cause of pack weight and bulk, so don’t be afraid to embrace the stink! Speaking of stink, there’s not too much need for toiletries in the backcountry either. After a few days of hiking, putting on deodorant is kind of pointless, so you can leave it at home.

When putting together a proper gear list, it’s important to know your route and any weather you may encounter. Spending time researching your trip and getting familiar with your gear is vitally important for a successful hike. Remember, knowledge doesn’t weigh anything! Once you have an idea of what to expect, you can start assembling your kit.

Your big four (Sleeping bag, pad, shelter, and pack) are great initial ways to save big chunks of weight. Some things to consider include opting for a quilt instead of a full mummy bag, a closed-cell foam pad instead of an inflatable pad, a trekking pole-style tent instead of freestanding, and a frameless pack over a full-framed one. These items tend to be the biggest culprits of ‘the lower the weight, the higher the price’, but there are other ways to save both weight and money instead of spending your entire paycheck on gear.

A picture of a Zpacks Duplex set up at sunset with mountains in the background

The lightest tents you can find can cost you a pretty penny.

Tips and Trick to Save Weight

The best way to save? Figure out what you don’t need. When doing multi-day backpacking trips you can easily get away with having one set of hiking clothes, one set of sleep clothes, and an extra pair of socks for good measure. Instead of cooking in one pot and transferring to a bowl to eat, just eat out of the pot and leave the bowl at home. Use a flat-bottom spoon instead of a spork so you can scrape your pot clean instead of carrying a sponge or rag. Some hikers take it even farther by leaving the entire stove at home. Going stoveless is getting more popular, whether it’s only bringing ready-to-eat food or cold soaking (letting your food rehydrate through the day in cold water instead of boiling water). Leave the soap behind too — even biodegradable soaps like Dr. Bronners are not to be used in water sources and need to be buried 200ft away like you would human waste. Bring hand sanitizer and you’ll be set.

Some things to consider when shaving weight is planning on how long you’ll be hiking vs. how long you will be in camp. If you like to put in huge miles and long days, maybe you can forego a camp pillow or seat pad and you will be tired enough to sleep on anything. If you’re one to hang out in camp, maybe you’ll want those extra creature comforts and don’t mind a slightly heavier pack. The best way to figure out what works for you is to do “shakedown” or practice hikes. When going out on an overnight or weekend hike, keep track of everything in your pack. If you’ve gone a few hikes without using an item, try leaving it at home next time. If you aren’t missing it, you can probably keep it out of your pack for similar hikes. This being said, never leave your first aid items at home due to not using them. Ideally, you won’t ever have to use first aid items, but you should always be prepared.

But how do you keep track of all these gear-carrying experiments? Try creating a spreadsheet to note all your gear and pack weight. Websites like make this very easy or you can create your own Excel spreadsheet to visualize where your weight is coming from and focus on where you can lighten the load.

When Not to Shave Weight

Like anything, saving weight can sometimes be taken to the extreme. If you go too far, it can be dangerous.

Hikers desperate to save every gram can start to push the limits of their kit. Sometimes hikers will rely on shelters along the trail and leave their tents at home. With the ever-growing popularity of hiking, it is never a good idea to rely on shelter availability unless you are in an area where they can be reserved. During inclement weather, shelters fill up fast with people deciding not to continue hiking, and if you arrive late with no backup you are left in an awkward and potentially dangerous position. With tarps and bivy’s available and weighing less than a pound, there is no excuse not to carry one.

In extreme cases, some folks will go as far to forego first aid kits or enough food to last for a trip. Even simple things like blisters can become infected and lead to bigger issues when you could be days away from a town or doctor. The weight savings are not worth putting yourself in danger nor relying on others for food. A large part of backpacking is learning self-reliance and begging for food at camp is not the way to do it.

As a personal pet-peeve, following LNT principles is always necessary regardless of how light you want to be. If you plan on eating a hot meal, bring a stove to eliminate the need for campfires. A cathole trowel weighs under an ounce and an extra ziplock for trash is only a few grams. Also, utilize already established campsites instead of trampling vegetation and creating a new ‘stealth’ spot. Protect the environment so others can enjoy it as you have.

Like anything, saving weight comes down to personal preferences and figuring out what works best for you. If you want to carry a Crazy Creek chair, enjoy that sweet back support, eat cold ramen from a Talenti jar, more power to you. What’s important is that you find a way to enjoy your time outside and help keep your body happy to do this for years to come. Now go cut your toothbrush in half and hit the trail!

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