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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Comments 12

  • Happy Baby : Mar 22nd

    Great article. Ive become a full fledged ultralight gear nerd since the trail. I second the advice: better to buy light gear before you go, rather than regretting it after buying something cheaper but heavier. Another thing I would add, is consider going without a cook stove and fuel. There’s a fire pit at most every shelter before getting into New England.

    Reply
    • Draggin' Tail : Mar 26th

      Interesting that you would cut off half your toothbrush but carry a pillow…… Wadded up clothes could save that wieght. But overall good advice and considerations.

      Reply
      • Draggin' Tail : Mar 26th

        Sorry Happy Baby…. This was a general comment not one directed to you. 🙂

        Reply
      • Glacier-Swiss : Mar 31st

        Hi Steep! I try to shave off as many ounces as I can wherever I can while still allowing myself certain luxuries. While on the AT, I used my clothes as a pillow, and it worked well! However, because my MST pack is so light, I do plan on bringing along a 2.4 oz pillow. It will help me keep my body well rested and lessen the likelihood of neck cramping.

        Reply
    • Glacier-Swiss : Mar 31st

      That’s solid advice, Happy Baby! I couldn’t ever bring myself to do that on the AT, but I know a lot of people who did and loved it! I’m too attached to the comfort of a hot dinner. 😛 Hope you’re doing well!

      Reply
  • TBR : Mar 23rd

    This is a great post — thanks. I’m old school and am trying to learn more about thinning down the gear.

    When I was on the trail, I had a light pack, but not by current standards.

    I would never send my knife home, though — I used it every day on the trail! It was a very light Gerber. Wish I could find another like it.

    Keep blogging, Glacier-Swiss!

    Reply
  • Jim Mulvey : Mar 24th

    My base weight is 18 lbs. 16 on the AT. My knees are shot my shoulder is shot, I’m no longer a millennial lol. My 14 year old and I are Trad Section Hikers. No shame…. I feel great about it. (Relationships are solidified or vetted in deep woods ask my ex wife, not nastiness, we truly saw who we each were off the grid.)

    Okay so……I didn’t want to buy an HH. (Single Dad and budget) I just picked up 2 Eno’s, I’ve always used a solo or tarp tent. Made the switch to Smart Water bottles years ago. I can’t fathom giving up my 3 musts or think I must. 1. Sleep system, 2. GG pack (I use my Deuter for the snow) or super light weight Mora (spork, gentle hammer, scissors, knife, all in one. I have a needle and dental floss inside it sheath wrapped in glow in the dark Duck Tape).

    I carry a GG 62 my son a Leopard VC 46 and mini S filters. Please oh please tell me the Eno’s could work 🙂 We want to do a few sections in the summer with hammocks. Honest thoughts from all?

    Reply
    • Mark Stanavage : Mar 26th

      I love my eno. I have a top quilt from Hammock Gear, 13oz. Saved 2lbs. When I have the $$, get cuban fiber tarp and shave another pound or so. You and son can go Gillian Is. Style and both use same tarp. There may be a better way to go, but for sleep system in a hammock,this is as light or more so than a tent, off cold hard ground and wake up feeling like a million bucks! Saving oz or lbs is great, but after a point you do yourself a disservice. Be comfortable.

      Reply
  • Steep : Mar 27th

    I was surprised to see that someone was carrying a hammock and a tent. I always have fun reading stories like this, but the question I always have about these articles is “How much time did you spend backpacking/hiking before attempting an AT thru-hike?”

    For 10 or so years now I’ve done mostly sub-50 milers and my gear loadout has evolved over time as well, but I’ve also seen the gear world change over that time. The Whisperlite International that I now only use for car camping and big hiking groups (rare), was a staple in the beginning, but quickly gave way to a DIY alcohol stove once I saw some thru-hikers doing that. My pump-style filter has been changed out for a Sawyer Squeeze, and then the Mini, but that was over time as these things weren’t available initially. I guess my point is, these lessons that people learn in the early miles of a multi-month dedication seem to be things that could be learned over a few weekender hikes as well, and i’m always shocked that people haven’t had that background/experience before diving in. Instead, the things that i’ve learned over longer miles and time are more like “dry bags suck, packcovers are useless, and trash compactor bags are awesome!” “Tents are heavy, hammocks are super comfy, tarps are useful, and shelters are dry” and “know what gear is out there, and don’t rush to buy anything, and always try it out before having to rely on it”

    Reply
  • Ski Buhny : Apr 3rd

    Weigh ALL your stuff INDIVIDUALLY and ITEMIZE it. That is the only way to reduce your load…. you have to count it all.

    Reply
  • Karyn : May 22nd

    Very helpful post and all the comments too. Thank you all. I will refer to this later in the year when I go to buy my stuff.
    No one on any post that I’ve asked has answered this question: when you use a hammock, what do you do when you are in ‘country’ without trees (or two together)? I guess this isn’t a problem on the AT.

    Reply
    • ThreeSpeed : Jul 26th

      Sleep like the unenlightened…on the ground
      There are portable hammock stands, both cottage industry and diy, but may best be used for car camping. Lots of YouTube stuff in “going to ground” including using trekking poles for hanging the fly.

      Reply

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