Ultralight: How to Cut Your Base Weight In Half
When I first started the Appalachian Trail, I didn’t understand why my pack was so heavy. I only brought a few “luxury” items; everything else was essential. But when I told people how much I was carrying, I received comments such as:
“What do you have in that bag?!”
“Give it time, you’ll learn.”
“You don’t need THAT much stuff.”
The people who said these things weren’t incorrect, but as a relatively new and insecure backpacker, comments like this made me feel embarrassed and judged – two emotions I was hoping not to experience on the AT.
I went through my pack again and again. I didn’t have the money to invest in lighter equipment, and besides a few things I knew I could send home, I didn’t have much to lose. A shake down wasn’t an option – I didn’t want some stranger going through my bag to deem what was important and what wasn’t. So I carried my 28 pound base weight, 4.4 pounds of water, and about 20 pounds of food, and tried not to complain.
I just didn’t understand how I could make my pack any lighter.
It wasn’t until I started hiking with a group that I started honing in on how to shave ounces. Little by little, I left things behind, I traded things out, I carried less food and less water, and I finally gave in to letting a friend go through my bag.
The trade off? I started hiking faster; I had more energy to enjoy my time on trail, and I had the ability to crush miles when I wanted or needed. To quote my dear friend (and triple crowner) Texas Poo, “When the pack weight goes down, the fun goes up.”
By the end of the AT, my base weight was about 16 pounds, which is almost half of what I started with. 5 months after my thru-hike, I’ve built a new pack for my next adventure: thru-hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail of North Carolina. My base weight for this trip is 10 pounds.
In less than a year, my base weight went from 28 to 10 pounds. Here’s some steps I took to lighten my load:
1. Cut Down on Luxury Items
I started with a paperback book and an Eno to keep me occupied for whenever I had downtime. I pretty much never had down time. When I did, it was spent socializing, catching up on social media, or writing in my guidebook – not relaxing in a hammock and reading a novel.
2. Leave Behind “Essential Items” That You Never Use
I packed several things that I thought I would need, but wound up never using: lotion, bug spray, a knife, pepper spray, a compass, deodorant, sun block, chap stick, a second outfit, various first aid supplies, excess tent stakes. These items were nice to have “just in case,” but on the AT, we were never so far from town that I couldn’t get my hands on these items if I really needed them.
3. Carry Less Food
My biggest fear was running out of food and being hungry. I don’t like being hungry. My solution? Carry a lot of food. You don’t need to do this! Just put more thought into planning. Planning meals and adequate snacks gets easier especially after spending about a month on the trail. You really start to understand how much you need to sustain your body.
4. Cut Out The Small Stuff
In Harper’s Ferry, I finally let my friend Kaleidoscope go through my pack. He picked out a lot of small stuff that I never would have thought could make a difference: spare bobby pins, my tent stuff sack, half my tooth brush, spare tampons, neosporin, half my bear bag chord. Alone these items didn’t weigh hardly anything, but when I packed them in a gallon ziplock to send home, the bag weighed about 2 pounds. There is a lot of truth to the phrase “the every ounce counts.”
5. Make Inexpensive Gear Upgrades
I started the trip with a pretty heavy duty blue tarp from Walmart rather than a footprint for my tent. At Neel’s gap, I upgraded the tarp for a piece of tyvek. In Pennsylvania, I traded in my 1-liter pot for a tiny little thing that was part of a Wal-mart mess kit. It was smaller, but so much lighter and less bulky. I also sent home my Camelbak. The convenience of a Camelbak is incredible, but the piece of plastic used to “cap” the bag is a significant source of weight. It’s lighter to carry a Platypus or Smart Water bottles. Go through your gear, and truly scrutinize what you’re carrying. What are some simple changes you can make to shave a few ounces on each item?
6. Rethink Your Shelter
I sent home my shelter because I started hiking with a partner, and we never used my tent. This was a special circumstance. Even so, a tent is not absolutely necessary on the AT. It’s risky not to carry a shelter, but during the later part of the hike, it’s completely doable. So many people drop off the AT, and shelter space is normally available if you get to a shelter early. Cowboy camping is also an option on clear nights. If you don’t like the idea of traveling with no shelter, look into alternative UL shelters such as Tarp Tents or poncho tarps.
7. Major Gear Upgrades
After I thru-hiked the AT, I picked up a job at an outfitter that allowed me to upgrade more expensive pieces of gear. My partner and I upgraded to an ultralight tent, ultralight quilt, and short sleeping pads. I ordered a new cooking pot, an ultralight umbrella, and even bought myself a UL pillow. If you’re serious about backpacking, paying the extra money to get ultralight gear is definitely a worthy investment.
So there you have it – Start small. Send home what you know you don’t need. Don’t take items you don’t see yourself using every day. Upgrade your equipment where you can. Whether you start the trail with a pack that’s 60 pounds or 16 pounds, the AT is a learning experience. Have fun with it!
To see a full breakdown of the gear I started with verses the gear I ended with, visit my personal webpage: www.continuetheadventure.com/appalachiantrail and click on the picture at the bottom of the page that says “GEAR.”
For more detail on my gear list for the Mountains to Sea Trail I will be starting on July 4, subscribe to my webpage at www.continuetheadventure.com/contact.
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