Lightweight Hiking: My 5 Strategies for Becoming a Hiking Machine

Lightweight hiking and backpacking tips

I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my day hiking and backpacking gear systems. The goal being to lighten my load so that I can hike further faster without compromising my safety.

I have 5 key strategies for accomplishing my goal of becoming a lightweight hiking machine:

  1. Improve my knowledge
  2. Develop my skills
  3. Cut non-essential gear
  4. Replace single-purpose gear with multi-purpose gear
  5. Replace heavier gear with lighter gear

Improve My Knowledge

I am a voracious consumer of information. I eat it up every day in the form of books, blog articles, magazine articles, and YouTube videos. I also take classes occasionally through REI and other organizations when I can.

Wilderness survival training
Several useful notches I learned to carve during a recent overnight wilderness survival class

I’m like a sponge, thirsty to soak up every bit of information I can about the subjects that interest me.

Among the subjects I study relentlessly are wilderness survival, lightweight hiking and ultralight backpacking.

NOTE: I am not fixated on becoming an ultralight hiker. I am, however, fixated on developing a lightweight hiking system that is exactly as light as I need it to be for any given hike, and not an ounce lighter.

On his blog, adventure athlete Andrew Skurka shares his experience with going ultralight. It’s an eye-opening article and well worth reading, but the following quote does a pretty good job of summing up his experience:

“…in an effort to ‘go light’ I ended up going ‘stupid light.'”

I’m going to take the opportunity to learn from Andrew’s experiences and say that going “stupid light” is not my goal, and neither is going ultralight.

Instead, I want to go just right light, and that means studying ultralight backpacking so that I can learn new ways of cutting weight when and where it makes sense to do so.

Develop My Skills

“Knowledge is power”, or so they say.

While there certainly is plenty of truth to that statement, I think the phrase falls a little short. To give it a more solid foundation, I think it should come with the following caveat, “but there is no substitute for experience.”

Unpracticed knowledge is no different than trivial knowledge. It makes for good conversation, and it may save my life in an emergency, but if I’m going to make solid decisions then I have to put my lightweight hiking knowledge to practice.

There’s only one way to do that, and that is to get in as much mileage and trail time as I can.

Cut Non-essential Gear

How exactly do you decide what’s essential and what isn’t when developing a lightweight hiking system?

Little things, like an inflatable pillow, are easy to identify as a non-essential piece of gear. An inflatable pillow is a comfort item. Although I may choose to include it in my loadout, it is non-essential to me as a safe, efficient hiker.

The tougher decisions come with things like sleeping, shelter and clothing systems, as well as tools, first-aid and emergency items. These are all things that need to be evaluated on a trip-by-trip basis.

Cutting hiking or backpacking gear based on weight alone will leave me at risk of going “stupid light,” so this is where knowledge and experience begin to play a vital role.

Knowledge informs me of my options for cutting gear, while experience tells me what I can safely do without. So until I have experienced a particular situation with a particular piece of hiking gear, I usually don’t feel comfortable calling it non-essential.

Quick tip:If you want to cut a lot of truly non-essential weight quickly, the best thing you can do is buy yourself a scale.

Lightweight hiking - photo by 'Playingwithbrushes'
The key to lightweight hiking – weighing your gear. Photo by ‘Playingwithbrushes’.

I picked up a kitchen scale last year and started weighing my gear. I was shocked at what I discovered. My toiletry bag, first-aid kit, and wilderness survival kit have all since been optimized for lightweight hiking simply because I decided to start weighing my gear.

Read: My Lightweight DIY Wilderness Survival Kit for When the SHTF

In addition to a scale, I use GearGrams.com to organize my gear into itemized lists, complete with weights for individual pieces of gear and overall loadouts.

I now know exactly how much my pack, and everything in it, weighs at the start of a trip. With that in mind, I can take note of the gear I use and the gear I don’t, then adjust accordingly on the next trip.

Take that, you heavy, useless piece of gear, you!

Replace Single-Purpose Gear with Multi-Purpose Gear

Creativity plays a big role in cutting weight for lightweight hiking.

Lightweight backpacking gear - titanium spork
A Spork. The ultimate lightweight, multi-use tool. Photo by Karl Baron.

Take the Spork, for instance. A Spork can be found in just about every backpacker’s meal kit today, but in 1874 it was cutting edge (no pun intended) technology.

Samuel W. Francis, inventor of the original Spork-like tool, said that

the tool compactly groups together a fork, spoon, and knife, “…constituting an article which can be very conveniently used for many purposes.”

That is out of the box thinking, and it is precisely the type of thinking I try to do when deciding what gear I need to cut. Granted, I’m not inventing new lightweight hiking gear to carry out my goal of cutting weight. I’m simply looking for gear that can be used in more than one way or circumstance.

Replace Heavier Gear with Lighter Gear

In recent years, the ultralight hiking craze has blown up. From Cuben Fiber backpacks and shelters that weigh less than 5oz, to 1.9oz rain kilts that can be worn in place of rain pants.

These “cottage manufacturers,” a term used to describe mom and pop type ultralight gear manufacturers, are filling the void for ultralight backpackers who have hit the proverbial weight savings wall when it comes to buying from big retailers like REI and Backcountry.com.

For all their weight savings benefits, ultralight hiking and backpacking gear tends to come at a cost. Lighter materials usually means less durable and more expensive. You also need to consider how well a piece of gear might stand up to weather or other environmental factors.

All this is to say that when deciding to replace one piece of hiking gear with another, weight is not the only factor I take into consideration.

Conclusion

In the end, deciding what gear to cut and why is a personal decision. It’s all about finding the right balance of comfort, safety and efficiency for you.

And if you’re anything like me, durability is key as well.

I don’t take gear changes lightly. If I like a piece of gear, I tend to keep it for a very long time, so I want my gear to last. That often means that I will sacrifice weight savings for durability, a compromise that I’m willing to make.

Choose light, but choose wisely, and define what lightweight hiking actually means based on the trip you’re planning.

Are you working to lighten your pack? Tell me about your thoughts and strategies for lightweight hiking in the comments below.


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Robb Keele

Robb Keele

Robb is a native San Diegan and avid hiker, backpacker, picture taker and 52 Hike Challenger. He created Getgo Outdoors with the goal of giving back to the outdoor community and inspiring others to get outdoors.
Robb Keele

2 thoughts on “Lightweight Hiking: My 5 Strategies for Becoming a Hiking Machine

  • December 22, 2015 at 7:16 pm
    Permalink

    What a thorough and in-depth guide. I adore hiking and frequently consider getting more serious about it, particularly when I see guides like these. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

    Reply
    • Robb Keele
      December 22, 2015 at 9:30 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks, Daphne! I’m glad the guide was helpful. Be careful with going hiking too much, though. Mother Nature has a way of drawing you into her clutches, and she doesn’t let go.

      Reply

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