Backpackers usually have to lighten their wallets to lighten their load. That’s because the most technologically advanced and lightest equipment is also the most expensive.
As an example, you can buy a great two-person backpacking tent that weighs less than two pounds, but you have to pay $500 to $600. Granted, if you take good care of the structure it could last you for many years, but it would still be a hard sell to my accountant.
There are a few hulking backpackers for whom weight is of no concern, trail trolls who seem to revel in their ability to carry heavy loads that include cast iron frying pans without breathing hard. But the vast majority of backpacking participants are more load conscious and therefore scrupulous weight watchers. For the majority of folks, less is best.
With all of this in mind, on a recent trip I decided to lighten my backpack load by leaving what some may think of as “essential” gear in the car at the trailhead. Although it was a last-minute decision, it was one I had contemplated in the past. And with the daily temperature expected to be in the 80s and nights in the 50s with only a 20 percent chance of rain, I thought my bet was fairly safe. So I sacrificed comfort for going light, leaving behind my sleeping bag and the rain fly for my tent.
As I would soon find out, the problem is that going lighter often means being less comfortable. A word of caution: experiments like this should only be attempted by those skilled in spending time outdoors.
One of the things I like about backpacking is that it forces you to whittle your gear and food down to the barest essentials. That seems to get harder the older you get because you tend to have more gear — but you don’t have to take it all, right?
It’s usually a given, though, that you can’t do without certain essential items: a backpack, a sleeping bag, tent and sleeping pad. These essentials also comprise some of the heaviest items in a backpacker’s kit.
All of the items can be downsized with investments in lighter gear. For example, no one should be carrying a huge flannel sleeping bag with cotton batting. Modern mummy bags are substantially smaller and warmer and some are reasonably priced. These days, some people are even using a simple down quilt to sleep under – a half bag instead of a full bag.
Old external aluminum frame backpacks can be swapped out for the lighter internal or no frame packs, substantially cutting pack weight. The newer self-inflating sleeping pads pack down to nothing, although you could rough it and sleep on the cold, hard ground. Tents can also be exchanged for tarps, which can take an advanced engineering degree to properly set up and won’t keep the mosquitoes from pestering you. But the tarps weigh in at less than a pound.
A gas stove is sometimes required when there are forest fire restrictions, but it’s also possible to eat only cold foods that could provide just as many calories without the work of preparation. For some folks like me, giving up a morning cup of coffee may be extremely hazardous to their health. Chocolate-covered coffee beans are a possible substitute.
These are some of the more obvious trade-offs that can be made.
Weighing the decision
So it all comes down to this: How much comfort are you willing to sacrifice in camp for more comfort on the trail? How light can you travel without feeling like you’re on a forced march compounded by food, sleeping and shelter deprivation?
My decision was to try to be less comfortable in camp. In place of my sleeping bag, I wore my lightweight winter coat, long underwear, extra socks, beanie and mittens. These were all items I would pack anyway in case the weather turned cold. I slept atop my self-inflating pad and, for the first night, woke up often to move about to stay warm.
The next night it rained. So I fashioned my rainfly-less tent into a tarp to sleep under. The tent was rigged with the waterproof bottom on top. I never used it, though, because the rain ended. Instead, after trying to keep my legs warm stuffed inside my empty backpack, I got up, took the tent tarp apart and used it as a large comforter.
My thinking was, for only two nights out I could handle a little sleep deprivation. And I did. It wasn’t great fun, and I envied my backpacking buddy who slept soundly while I got up and did jumping jacks every two hours, but that was my choice.
I’ve still got a long ways to go for a total “dirtbag” experience, carrying nothing but a tarp to roll up inside, and I may be too much of a gear addict to ever reach anything near extreme weight loss. But the idea that as I age and my muscles wither that I might still be able to spend nights out in the woods by using less or lighter gear warms the cockles of my heart. They need warming, as I am usually cold.