I recently came back from a 17-day backcountry hike. At the start of the hike, my backpack was 28 kg. At the end of the hike it was around half of that or a little bit more. I'm fine hiking with 20 kg, but 28 kg is rather heavy.

The first couple of days of my hike I was wondering: is it possible to significantly reduce the mass for a backpack for a long hike, without compromising on safety or comfort, or requiring substantially more skills?

I have a big backpack, a strong tent that is light but not superlight, a solid stove… The details are really distracting from my point. I'm not looking for advice on my gear specifically, but more asking in general: hikers who migrated from “traditional” light but-not-ultralight backpacking gear to ultralight, minimalist gear: do you find that it is in any way less safe, less comfortable, or requiring more skills?

Some examples of my gear, along with alternatives:
I've tried an ultralight tent in the past (Big Agnes) and it felt far less weather-proof than my Hilleberg. When I got stuck in an unseasonal winter storm in the Canadian Rockies in 2014, I was very happy that I had a tent I trusted. Apparently, some people use single-roofed tents or even no tent at all, but I've never seen either in the wild. I spend most nights in treeless areas.
A sleeping bag with less mass than my Haglöfs Goga Pro is inevitably going to be less warm, so it would compromise both safety and comfort.
My backpack is 110 litre and was full at the start of my hike, so with a smaller backpack I'd have to attach stuff to the outside.
All my food is freeze- or air-dried and if I eat any less, I lose even more weight than I already do.
Any alternative to my Trangia stormcooker is going to be harder to operate in bad weather. I've often seen people struggling even in moderate 10 m/s winds, whereas I've never failed to light my stove. Of course, I would survive without hot food.
I bring a GPS receiver, camera (optional), headlight, and satellite phone. Apart from the camera they all improve safety. I enjoy my GPS receiver and camera.
I hike in areas where I'm never more than 10 minutes walk from drinking water, and have no need to carry more than 0.5 L of water at a time.
I use a dedicated wading staff. I don't use trekking poles, but wouldn't trust them for wading. I ford on average 1–2 streams/rivers per day, usually knee-deep.
I do use some ultralight gear, such as my trowel.

(Ultralight backpacking appears rather uncommon in Scandinavia. I've never met an ultralight backpacker in the wild, but they do exist.)

(Note: For the purpose of this question, I am interested in any products, regardless of cost.)

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    don't forget money, outdoor kit, the less it's made of the more it costs o_O – Liam Sep 22 '16 at 14:23
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    @Liam Actually, I left out money on purpose. I'd be quite interested if there existed gear 2–3× as expensive as my tent, sleeping bag, or backpack, with similar reliability/comfort, but substantially less weight. It would put the price over £1000, though. I've edited the question to indicate this explicitly. – gerrit Sep 22 '16 at 14:29
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    So your food was about 14kg for a full 17 days, and your pack, including that tent and the big backpack is still just 14kg. That's not that bad. – njzk2 Sep 22 '16 at 14:47
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    I think the title really mismatches your post. Your post is "Please advise on my gear" which - IMO - is staple hiking forums material but tricky to fit in TGO. I would like to find a way to make that fit. – Russell Steen Sep 22 '16 at 16:07
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    There are certainly gear options that can reduce your weight. Since money isn't a concern, I'd go with a tent and sleeping bag from ZPacks. However, I think the biggest issue is your food load. It's pretty rare for someone to go unsupported for 17 days. 10 is the usual max for most folks. You should try to cache some food/supplies at your halfway point in advance or hire a horsepacker to drop them off if there aren't any roads nearby to allow you to easily get to your halfway point. That alone would get you to about 20kg. – topshot Sep 23 '16 at 13:13

That's one gigantic backpack!

Let's look at it item by item:

  • Tent: Your hillberg is pretty light by several standards, but indeed far from ultralight. Of course the Big agnes is lighter, and there are alternatives that are much lighter, and also cheaper than that, but you do need a tent that matches the conditions. I would not use a tarp in Quebec in summer, because of mosquitoes, and if a winter storm can happen, you definitely want something that can withstand that. However, I have a homemade 2-wall 1-person tent I used for a few days in Ireland (all very rainy days) that held very well, and that weights only 650g packed (the weight of the pegs in that is something like 100g).
  • Sleeping bag: Again, it depends on the temperatures. There are several models of the Gola Pro, but for example the -20ºF contains 25oz of down for a total of 2lbs 15oz. That's 22oz for the shell (620g). A typical quilt will have only 200g of shell. also, using better quality down (800 fill against the 700 of the haglofs) wins you another ~100g. That's 500g for the sleeping bag, and it is going to be much more compact, too.
  • You don't mention your sleeping pad. Again it depends on the temperatures and conditions, a pad to go with that kind of sleeping bag would be 300-700g depending on your budget.
  • Food. Count your calories. If you like peanut butter, you're in luck, otherwise plain nuts are good too. Make sure your food is calorie-dense. Typically around 5 cal/g (peanut butter is 6, noodles are 4).
  • Backpack. That is one gigantic backpack. I don't think I have ever seen anyone carry such a big backpack. For my last hike, 6 days with food, tent, ... I was using a 50L, and carrying 16Kg (2L of water included) at the beginning, and around 11Kg at the end. (and there are still things I can remove, as I realized on the way).
  • Stove. Not a big source of weight, unless you are hiking in winter with a fuel stove. In summer I have an alcohol stove made out of a can that is 10g. For longer trips, a gas stove with ~1 small canister for 10-15 days, depending on how much water I need to heat. You should always try to protect your stove from the wind anyway, as you'll get better efficiency.
  • Electronics. I don't use a GPS. I have a map and a compass. Again, it depends: on the difficulty of the navigation, but I don't think a GPS is often useful.

If you want to consider how light your pack can get:

  • make a comprehensive list, and weight everything
  • for each item, do you actually need it (GPS?), can you use another item you already have instead? (I have seen people carrying a headlamp and another light to read, for example)
  • for each remaining items, consider the alternatives. Lighter sleeping bag (what was the expected temperature during your trip? Did you consider a quilt, for example?), lighter tent (depending on the conditions), different food...
  • Many good comments. Ray Jardine's book Trail Life is an excellent resource. Applying his guidelines, the base weight of my overnight bag and gear is about 12.5 pounds. I use a tarp instead of a tent. Sleeping under a tarp is dryer and more comfortable, generally, and gives a better view of the night woods. Also, I use a quilt instead of a bag. The whole part of your bag you lay on is essentially useless weight. Once your pack weight is down, you can lose the boots and wear trail-running shoes, which are much lighter. – Don Branson Sep 22 '16 at 17:32
  • Not sure I agree with the pack size comparison or with the "over night in a tarp" comparison - while 110L is a very big pack OP said he was out for 17 days. That's 11 or 16 more days of food and weather. I do like the quilt suggestions though - they seem to be coming up more and more. – plast1k Sep 22 '16 at 18:47
  • @plast1k yes, 17 days is a lot. But 110L is enormous, and smaller items (a quilt instead of a sleeping bag, more dense food, better packaging, maybe) would result in a smaller pack, and an even lighter load, as this pack is 3.6kg empty. – njzk2 Sep 22 '16 at 20:22
  • I stopped carrying compass. I got to the point where I could localize myself with topo map only to within 100 feet and that's good enough. – Joshua Sep 22 '16 at 23:24
  • While you're of course right to suggest bringing calorie-dense food, this is not as easy as it might seem... Have you ever actually tried eating a 5 cal/g diet? On a (low) 4000 cals/d hat's 500g of pasta and 300g of peanut butter per day. – fgysin Sep 28 '16 at 10:57

In general the more stuff you have the more comfortable you can make yourself when you aren't hiking, but the less comfortable you'll be when you are hiking. This is the crux of the balancing act.

If you bring a big comfy reclining "camping chair" strapped to your pack you'll be very comfortable sitting in camp but miserable when you are lugging the monstrosity around. If you bring a small square scrap of foam to sit on you'll be less comfortable in camp but much more comfortable hiking.

In general it seems to me that "ultralight" sacrifices in camp comfort for hiking comfort, while "traditional light" makes small compromises to hiking comfort for in camp comfort. You should decide where you land on this spectrum and plan accordingly.

Personally on a shorter distance, less arduous, and/or mini excursions from base camp type trip I tend to carry more stuff to make the camping more comfortable. When I'm doing a longer thru-hike I'll strip out the camp comforts to make the hiking more pleasant. In short I optimize for comfort wherever I'll be spending the most time. If I'm hiking with all my stuff more I'll pack less. If I'm spending more time in and around camp then I'll pack more creature comforts.

The same general philosophy holds for traveling. If you're going to be on the road traveling through many third world countries over an extending time frame it is infinitely better to only bring a daypack-ish volume of stuff in a backpack. If you're going to visit family and friends for a week there is no penalty for a monstrous piece of wheeled luggage.

In closing I think it is important to reevaluate your stance on learning more skills. It is my strong belief that the more you rely on things to be done for you the more you needlessly load yourself up. For example if you completely rely on a GPS unit for navigation then you really need extra batteries and most likely a second GPS unit in case your primary gets damaged. Instead if you learn to use a map and compass you have less failure modes, plus you can carry less weight AND volume. With this minor increase in your skills you've saved weight. By repeating this process your safety margins are improved without requiring increasing amounts of gear which is really the best of both worlds.


As an aside I don't know where you're going but a sat phone seems overkill in all but an expedition type setting. If you really feel like you need sat phone type capabilities for a rescue then I'd highly recommend you look at an emergency beacon instead. They'll be cheaper, smaller, lighter, and optimized for your specific use case. My dad uses this one when he goes backcountry skiing alone and likes it very much. Luckily he's never needed to use it.

  • Does the same go for safety, you think? – gerrit Sep 22 '16 at 17:08
  • @gerrit I guess that depends on what your tolerances/expectations are as well as what constitutes "safety gear." In general you should look at your gear and decide if this gear really is essential safety gear or something whiz bang you're trying to justify carrying (IMO your sat phone isn't needed). AKA I don't justify my fishing pole as a source of emergency rations. Also it will depend on where you are going. I've never carried bear spray or a large pistol backpacking in the Cascades (California). However I'd definitely consider a 44 Mag if bushwhacking in Alaska. – Erik Sep 22 '16 at 17:17
  • @Erik, if I were bushwacking in Alaska, I'd consider a shotgun loaded with slugs, or a big-game rifle. A handgun has too much recoil to let you get off a second shot. – Mark Sep 22 '16 at 21:12
  • @Mark regardless of the weapon the situation is clearly different in the different areas – Erik Sep 22 '16 at 21:14
  • I used to rent a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). SPOT does not cover where I go and is according to reviews of questionable reliability. Satellite phone is safer than PLB; I send a message with my itinerary daily, so people know where to find me if I go missing. If I have an accident in which I am unable to activate a PLB, chances are no-one will ever find me. With a satellite-phone and a daily itinerary I have a chance of surviving until I am found. Either way, I've found PLB rentals hard to find and not much cheaper or lighter than satphone rentals. – gerrit Sep 23 '16 at 9:25

First, the answer depends on the purpose of your trip

At one end of the spectrum trips involve a little walking and a lot of camping. At the other end you are walking from dawn to dusk and spend little time in your shelter other than to sleep. The best balance between weight on the trail and in-camp comfort will depend on the purpose of your trip.

For long walks, excessive weight affects your comfort and safety too

If your trip is more at the walking end of the spectrum, you should be prioritising comfort on the trail rather than comfort in camp. And nothing destroys the pleasure of walking faster than excessive weight, particularly in mountain country. Excessive weight affects your safety too - fatigue makes you significantly more prone to error, accident and injury.

So the assumption of your question that a heavier pack will provide greater safety and comfort doesn't really hold.

For 3 season alpine walking, I'm safe & comfortable with a max base-weight of 5 kilos/11 lbs

This is a reasonable target for exposed alpine thru-hiking without making significant sacrifices in comfort or safety. At this weight I can be safe in a major storm and comfortable down to around -5c/20f. This weight includes:

  • A very comfortable and ergonomic rucksack
  • A rugged phone with GPS
  • A GPS Personal Location Beacon
  • A small tablet for reading and backup mapping
  • A 6000mAh battery for recharging between trail towns
  • A high-end travel camera
  • An MP3 player
  • A very powerful torch for off-trail night walking and a spare for camp
  • Warm, dry clothing for camp and sleeping
  • A warm, full-sized sleeping mat
  • An ergonomic sleeping pillow
  • Full rainwear
  • Full cooking gear
  • Full bug-protection.

As you can see, I'm hardly cutting corners. This is the max I would need for three seasons - for shorter, warmer or more clement trips I would shave a fair bit off this base-weight.

So what am I sacrificing in terms of comfort and safety?

Very little, in my experience, and the lighter weight makes walking much more enjoyable. The more ambitious projects on my bucket list simply wouldn't be practical with a heavy pack, so lightweight gear opens up (quite literally) a world of possibilities.

The main sacrifice is tent-space - it's sized for sleeping. Though I have plenty space to cook, pump up my sleeping mat and pack my sack under cover.

More generally, you have to spend time and $$$ to achieve these weights. You have to treat lightweight gear with a bit more care. And you have to budget to replace it more often.

To get much below these weights you have to start cutting corners and relying on skill and hardiness to get you through. For me, this is the happy medium.

So how do you achieve these weights?

As anyone will tell you, you start with the Big 3 - your tent, pack and sleeping setup. A full discussion would literally fill a book, but modern materials mean that each of these should come in at under a kilo / 2 lbs.

Some general tips:

  • Shelter: you can save a lot of weight by using walking poles for the support - stronger than tent poles and weight-free if you're a pole user. By the way, use full-weight aluminium poles and you need have no fears about stream crossings. They won't weigh any more than your staff and have a myriad of uses (but that's another discussion). Vendors like TarpTent, TrekkerTent, Yama, MLD, Six Moons and Z-Packs provide a wide range of lightweight shelters that will survive most conditions. I wanted serious storm-worthiness so I've made my own, with the design goal of being quiet at 40mph and surviving 80 mph without damage. It weighs 800 grams, has an excellent porch for gear and cooking and is pretty much as strong as your Hilleberg.

  • Pack: I've never bought into the frameless idea - once you're carrying significant weight a frame that weighs very little hugely improves the carry. Your 120 litre pack is staggeringly large. My base volume is 25 litres with 1.5 litres per day allowance for food. I've made my own pack on ergonomic principles, but there are plenty of good lightweight options from vendors like Z-Packs, Exped, Granite Gear, ULA and many others.

  • Sleeping: I don't compromise on this at all because I'm a basket-case if I don't get a good kip. Vendors like Exped and Therm-a-Rest provide warm and comfortable sleeping pads for around 450 grams / 16 oz. For your bag, go for down and consider a quilt - they give more insulation for the weight, and I personally find them less restrictive and more comfortable. Enlightened Equipment provide a good product at a very fair price.

Beyond the big 3, simply focus on sourcing the lightest option for everything - the grams add up. For example my Opinel No 6 knife gives me a practical 7cm blade at just 30 grams. My Petzl E-Lite gives me 70 hours of camp light and on-trail walking for 28 grams, and a set of spare batteries is 6 grams. It's the cumulated impact of lots of small decisions like this that makes the difference.

For more detail I'll point you to this excellent gear list by one of the most experienced and respected people in the field.

Food

Depending on your weight and mileage, you should be budgeting around 1 kilo / 2.2 lbs per day. This assumes you focus on foods with high calorie density - do a quick Google and you'll find many blogs exploring this in detail. I've read widely on this and every credible expert gives similar advice. For short trips you can pack a bit less and lose a bit of weight on the hike. For longer trips you simply can't undereat of you'll start cannibalising muscle.

Hope this is helpful!

  • While your light pack is impressive I'd argue that a tent like the one in your linked list (mountainlaureldesigns.com/shop/images/solomidxlside.jpg) is actually sacrificing a lot in terms of comfort and safety: there is no protection from bugs, 1-wall makes it a fair bit colder and from the back of my head I can think of at least 3-4 different storms I weathered, which would have blown this silly thing clear off the mountain. – fgysin Sep 28 '16 at 11:10
  • I think this is actually exactly the point the OP is trying to make. Yes, a pole-less, 1-wall setup made of almost transparently-thin nylon is very light. I'd really rather not take this into the mountains though.... – fgysin Sep 28 '16 at 11:12
  • The 9 pounds list contains several mis-evaluations (such as the rating and the weight of the quilt), and should be taking with a pinch of salt (or two or three). – njzk2 Sep 28 '16 at 13:05
  • The MLD SoloMid isn't for everyone, including me. But it's a lot more storm-worthy than you seem to think. Andrew Skurka used it for his heroic Alaska expedition: goo.gl/1VP7ot. So hardly a "silly thing". With bugs around, you'd also use a nest - Skurka survived Alaskan mozzies in it. There's a huge variety of shelters under 1 kilo these days, and many offer more comfort than the SoloMid. Try to keep an open mind - a lot of people carry too much gear because they have preconceptions about lightweight equipment that aren't borne out by experience. – Tullochgorum Sep 28 '16 at 22:16

I am going to suggest your question is conflicted. If you are not willing to sacrifice comfort and even take responsible risk then you are not ultralight. If you are not willing to sacrifice comfort you are light and comfortable.

To me ultralight is sacrifice comfort. And you don't necessarily have to sacrifice safely. Willing to sleep cold if the temp drops is comfort if there is no chance of freezing to death. In some ways ultralight is more safe as if you have to get of dodge for like a major storm then you can do it more quickly / cover more ground. If you had to extricate and immobile party ultralight is safer.

If you are not willing to sacrifice safety or comfort then you are limited to is there an item with same (or better) features and reliability that you can purchase. You rapidly get into diminishing marginal utility. Take each item and search the Internet. Your current weight is pretty good so I don't thing you are going to significantly reduce the weight even if money is not a limit.

If you have a good water proof tent you are probably not going freeze to death or get frost bit. If you get some unexpected cold weather then you sleep cold with a bag that was designed for the expected weather.

For sure you can go without a camera.

No light is safety problem. You may need to travel at night. Get away from a storm or get behind schedule getting to next camp site.

No stove is not necessarily lighter. If the body has to break down cold foods you will need more food and you will need to spend more time eating. If you get in a storm hot food is a safety thing.

The best way to reduce weight is a group. Share stove, pot, first aid kit .... Eat out of the pot and skip plates. Three man tent is better weight / person.

The best way to reduce risk is group. Solo hiking a sprained ankle can be life threatening. Plan escape routes from each camp reduces risk with no weight. With three one can stay and tend to the down party while the other goes for help. At that point your risk to permanent harm or death is very low.

There are questions on food and weight loss already to not going to duplicate there. I don't totally agree with maximize calorie / weight as the only or even primary factor. A body needs a % of carbohydrates and other nutrients. It should be a healthy diet the leverages calorie to calorie / weight.

  • Of course I'm always taking a risk by going into the great outdoors… – gerrit Sep 22 '16 at 15:35
  • And that is kind of my point. Your wording makes this a difficult question. Without sacrificing safety is hard to design for if we don't know your safety threshold. – paparazzo Sep 22 '16 at 15:44
  • By sacrificing safety, I mean compared to “classical” non-ultralight backpacking. – gerrit Sep 22 '16 at 15:52
  • Sure, I think this is a good answer. I upvoted it. Thanks :) – gerrit Sep 22 '16 at 16:00
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    @Joshua If sleep cold is an immediate health hazard for you then fine address it. Most people it takes a lot to die - you literally freeze toes and fingers before death. Frost bite is where safety becomes an issue. If this guy en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Simpson_(mountaineer) is a 10 on tolerance to cold where you you rate yourself? Light a campfire if that is how you role. What if the emergency is driving rain and everything is wet? – paparazzo Sep 23 '16 at 0:13

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