How to Reduce Base Weight Without Replacing Your Big Three
Your tent, sleeping bag, and backpack are often the heaviest items you carry. If your Big Three are heavy, you can sometimes halve your base weight just by replacing these three items with ultralight options. But that doesn’t work for everyone.
Maybe you love your current non-ultralight pack for how comfortable it is. Or maybe you just don’t have $1,000 to replace your entire setup. If this sounds like your situation, don’t worry! There’s still plenty you can do to reduce your base weight without touching the Big Three.
Leave Things Behind
If you want to shave weight, the first step is not to run out and buy more ultralight gear. It’s simply to leave things behind. It’s important to note that by doing this you may trade comfort in some areas for more enjoyment while you are actually hiking. For example, leaving your camp shoes at home might mean that you shave a whole pound from your pack, but then you have to deal with wet feet in camp. It’s up to each person individually to decide what creature comforts are non-negotiable.
The first step is self-evaluation. Next time you go hiking for a few days (or once you hit your first town on a thru-hike), lay out all of your gear when you return. What did you not use? What did you use, but not enough to justify carrying? If you brought a book, but only read a paragraph before falling asleep, was it worth it? Did you really need that extra layer? Chances are, you won’t miss a lot of things if you leave them at home.
Emergency and bad weather gear are the exceptions here. Don’t leave your rain jacket or first aid kit at home just because you didn’t use it, but be mindful of what you do bring. We have a tendency to carry our fears, and that can make us over-prepared for unlikely scenarios. Experience really determines what emergency gear we are comfortable leaving behind, so don’t worry if you’re not ready to pare down your first aid kit just yet.
Example Backpacking First Aid Kit
- 5-10 Band-Aids, assorted sizes*
- Ibuprofen pills in a mini Ziploc
- Antihistamine pills in a mini Ziploc
- Antidiarrheal pills in a mini Ziploc
- 2-3 alcohol wipes
- 1-2 mini packs of triple antibiotic ointment
*Quantities of each item will depend on your comfort level and how accident-prone you are. As a general rule of thumb, you just want to make sure all your first aid supplies fit inside a sandwich-size Ziploc.
Get a Shakedown
If you haven’t managed to cut enough weight by yourself, the next step is to get a pack shakedown. A shakedown is when a more experienced hiker looks through your pack and advises you on what you can get rid of or replace. You are free to disregard their suggestions, but this can be a useful tool to drop base weight fast.
If you don’t know a hiker willing to do this in real life, there are plenty of online tools that are useful. Lighterpack will let you develop a gear list—as will Hikerlink—and hikers in a variety of online forums and Facebook groups are all too willing to weigh in on what you should get rid of. Many outfitters also give pack shakedowns, and it’s worth calling your local camping store to ask whether they offer this service. For example, Mountain Crossings outfitter on the Appalachian Trail offers both in-person and virtual shakedowns.
Use Multipurpose Items
The next step is to get creative. Are you carrying an item that can do double duty so you can leave something at home? If you’re still bringing a plate or a bowl, can you eat out of your cooking pot? Can you use your rain jacket as a wind shirt rather than carry more clothes? If you’re hiking a trail other than the AT (which normally has loaner clothes in hostels), you can use your rain gear as town clothes while doing laundry, rather than carry an entire town outfit.
Multipurpose items can also save your butt in an emergency. I had to splint a tent pole twice this summer. The first time, a friend had a commercially available tent pole splint that we used. The second time, we used tent stakes and Leukotape. Sure, the commercial option was quicker and easier, but we were still able to repair the tent without it. Creative thinking about what is already in your pack can help you save a lot of weight.
Other Common Multipurpose Items
- Foam sleeping pad as sit pad
- Hiking clothes in stuff sack as pillow
- Spare clothes as potholder
- Cell phone as camera, ebook reader, journal, etc.
- Trekking pole/tent stake as trowel
Replace the Small Stuff
There’s a common saying that ounces lead to pounds and pounds lead to pain. Even though replacing smaller gear might not seem like it will do a lot, the weight savings will add up. A fleece jacket is heavier than a synthetic puffy, which is heavier than a down puffy. Most people don’t use their knives for more than cutting cheese or opening packaging, and a 1.3 ounce Swiss Army does the job just as well as a bigger knife.
Smartwater bottles are another thru-hiker favorite. They fit on a Sawyer Squeeze and can be used with a Steripen Ultra. They also weigh a lot less than a Nalgene. Depending on your gear list, you can almost certainly find several small things to replace cheaply and easily.
Other Common Replacements
- Trash compactor bag instead of pack cover
- Titanium cookware/tent stakes instead of aluminum
- Trail runners instead of boots (technically considered worn weight but still makes a big difference)
- Ultralight headlamp instead of (wait for it) non-ultralight headlamp
Don’t Overpack Consumables
Consumables aren’t technically part of your base weight, but they still weigh a lot. A liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. A day’s worth of food can weigh anywhere from one pound to two or more, depending on how much hiker hunger you have. If you make sure that you don’t have surplus food or water on a trip, your pack will be much lighter.
Judging how much water to bring between sources or how much food you’ll eat in four days is a skill that comes with experience. However, if you pay attention to how much food and water you finish each section with, it will help you estimate how much to bring in the future. The same goes for toilet paper, spare batteries, Leukotape, sunscreen, and other bathroom items.
In summary, you don’t have to run out and replace your Big Three in order to lower your base weight. Be mindful of what you bring, ask for advice from more experienced hikers, and start to think creatively about gear that’s already in your pack. As your experience level grows, you’ll feel more comfortable leaving unnecessary gear behind.
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