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.

Smaller, lighter gear can help you get to some really cool places.

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
  • Leukotape

*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

A cooking pot does double duty as a bowl.

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

Can you see all the Smartwater bottles in my pack?

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

I still struggle to not bring too much food.

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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Comments 6

  • stabletalus : Sep 24th

    Great article and this should be very helpful for newer hikers.

    That said, I do think that suggesting tent stakes or trekking poles as a substitute for a proper trowel is a bit of a problem. It is much more difficult to dig a proper cathole, 6-8 inches deep, with a trekking pole or tent stake. In some types of soils, it can be way more time consuming and result in people making half-assed catholes and the deposit getting dug up.

    With more and more people going outdoors (which is great!) I think that emphasizing the importance of properly burying human waste is paramount. I’ve seen a lot more surface turds, half-dug catholes, scattered toilet paper, etc. in the last few months than I have previously. Having the proper tool for the job — a trowel — is important and I don’t think there is really a proper substitute for this item.

    • Eloise Robbins : Sep 24th

      I totally agree that burying human waste is super important! I carry a deuce of spades personally, but a lot of experienced hikers do use their trekking poles without issues. It just takes a lot more dedication to make sure your cat hole is a good one (which is basically a whole other article…) Almost all multipurpose items require a bit of extra work or sacrifice to make them appropriate. I also only used my trowel maybe twice on the whole AT, so I think next time I do a trail with privies, I’ll probably leave it at home and just take the extra time/effort to make sure my cat holes are good on the rare occasion that I dig one.

      I’ve also dug cat holes with an ice axe, and I’ll take that over a trowel any time!

  • Kyle B. : Sep 24th

    After having gone through my first pass at lightening my pack weight, the water question doesn’t get enough play. When 1oz of water weighs 1oz (1l = 1kg) and you’ve already done the “big three”, it starts to sound silly to spend hundreds to drop a few ounces of gear weight. Better to refine your approach to carrying water. Carry less, fill up more often, pack some extra capacity for filling up water needed for dinner / breakfast towards the end of your hiking day. Would love to hear others’ philosophies on water carries.

    • Haiku : Sep 25th

      I agree with carrying less water, drinking more at the sources. Use Guthook/guide books to look ahead at available water. If water sources are less than 3 miles apart I don’t even carry any, and just drink a liter at the source and wait until the next water source. Obviously this depends on the trail, and the section (PA ridgeline walks on the AT; the famous 30-mile dry section in southern CA on the PCT, and all the ridgewalking in northern CA and OR; southern NM and the Great Divide Basin on the CDT) because there may be areas you need to carry water for an entire day. But there’s no point in having water in your pack when you arrive at a water source.

    • Weasel : Sep 25th

      This takes actual experience to hone in on your water needs though, it took me roughly 30 nights of backpacking to truely understand how much water I needed, and then on a future trip I low-balled it and almost screwed myself over. I know that I need at least 2 liters to have dinner and then have enough water to reach a mid-day water source the next day if I’m anywhere other than the desert. As much as carrying a ton of extra water sucks, I’d rather a newbie have way more than they need than push that SOS button because they underestimated their needs. But, on the other hand, (if they tough it out and don’t call SAR), they’ll have learned an important lesson that will follow them for every mile henceforth (speaking from experience here).

    • Turtle Man : Oct 4th

      Good points. Obviously, how much water one carries depends on availability, temperature/time of year, possible drought conditions, and personal needs. I usually carry a one-quart, polyethylene Nalgene (only 3.8 oz. compared to the Tritan version at 6.3), a 16-ounce Nalgene to mix lemonade or electrolyte mix in. These are easily accessible while hiking. In the pack somewhere, i have a combo of HydraPak and/or a Nalgene Cantene for another two quarts of capacity for camp use and some redundancy in case one springs a leak. These are soft-sided and collapsable, so take up minimum space in the pack. All my containers are wide-mouthed to be able to get a brush in there to clean them really well every so often (not possible with the Smart Water-type bottles. Biofilm is not your friend. Random (unconfirmed) fun fact: A musician in a winter-hiking class i took a while back said that one of their teachers had noted that it takes about two hours from the time you drink water until it actually gets into your muscles on a cellular level.


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