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Backpacking Gear Tips

*Professional wilderness home setup, with tips for the ladies

Hiking versus Backpacking: What’s the Difference?

You might think that if you like hiking, you will like backpacking… but carrying weight on your back and making the wilderness your home is a very different process.
Here are some things to think about

Hiking is much faster but…

If you’re used to trekking 10 miles a day with a daypack, don’t count on even half that speed with a packload for an overnight stay. Even if you can get your pack down to 30 pounds, all kinds of factors you won’t experience as a dayhiker will slow you down:

  • obstacles on the trail are harder to get around
  • steep up or down is harder on your knees and ankles
  • your upper body suddenly has to work harder so until you are used to it, your first couple of backpacks will be especially hard

Your Body is Working Differently

You might be able to trail run or climb or crossfit for hours, but weirdly, none of that prepares you for lumbering along under a backpack. You might feel wobbly, uncoordinated, and sometimes unable to enjoy the scenery due to the weight on your back. This plays a big game on your head… you might even beat yourself up for not being more in shape or more on your game. Welcome to the humbling word of backpacking. Be Gentle with yo bad self.

Your Mindset is Shifting

When you’re only there for the day and rushing back to the car, you’ll still be partway in your other life, that one with the roofs and air conditioning and traffic. This means that whatever happens, it is more temporary and you *might be OK without that first aid kit, lunch, water, etc.

When you’re planning on staying overnight, you pay a bigger price for leaving essentials out of your pack, and mentally, you are committing more fully to whatever the weather brings, animal encounters, and the people with whom you pack in. This means you start thinking hard about what it means if you lose your last bandaid, haven’t seen a stream in a while, hate the pace of a companion, or have to run from a moose.

It Is NOT the Destination

Your normal attachment to reaching a set destination is not going to help you, it may actually hurt you. Bagging the peak, swimming in the perfect lake, or seeing the wild goats… all of these are still possible, but you will more likely release these attachments and settle for a nice campsite when they are too far, too hard, or just not the right spot. You can usually rearrange your hike so that you see these destination points some other time or after a good night’s sleep. Because of all these new factors, don’t commit yourself to being back in civilization at a set time.

Saving Weight

  • Top ways to keep your pack closer to 30 pounds

You might be looking at that extra pair of pants and thinking “it only weighs 6 ounces.” But if you add 20 things to your bag that weigh 6 ounces, that’s 7.5 pounds. Now take into account your total body weight. According to studies conducted on runners, strapping that much weight to your waist increases the energy cost by a whopping 22 percent. Consider these points when buying, borrowing, sharing, and packing your gear.

(Especially for the ladies, every ounce counts. Men seem to haul loads give-or-take a few pounds with more ease, probably because they tend to have more upper body strength and more experience picking up heavy things. As much as we ladies would love to do everything better, this is one we might just have to do a little more carefully than men.)

Tent (<3.5 lbs)

Sharing a tent with someone usually shaves the most weight.

  • 2-person, 3-season tents should weigh closer to three pounds.
  • If your tent is for 4 seasons, you can carrier a lighter sleeping back in all but winter.

Backpack (<4 lbs)

The fancier the backpack, the more it weighs.

  • Try to find a pack under 4 pounds but bear in mind that *ultralight packs might not be comfortable beyond about 30 pounds.
  • When you try on a pack in the store, load it with at least 35 pounds and get help fitting it and cinching up the straps etc. If the shoulders pinch your neck or the majority of the weight is not on your lower back, it is the wrong pack for you.
  • Packs with “clamshell” zippers let you get to your stuff the fastest, even if it is in the center or bottom of your pack. This feature means you can forego a lot of others in a backpack.
  • If you backpack is light enough, you won’t mind using it for dayhikes from camp, so you can skip the extra daypack or fancy lid gizmo.
  • If your pack is too big (75 liters or more), you’re more likely to put too much stuff in it, and the pack itself will weigh more. The sweet spot for most people is right around 65 liters. Any smaller and you’re going to spend a lot of time and fiddling getting your stuff into the pack.
  • Get a superlight compression sack for your sleeping back and nighttime clothes. This saves oodles of room in your pack for things that won’t squish.
  • Google around for how to pack your backpack. Generally put the densest, heaviest things near the bottom+center and then fill around and above it. This centers the weight on your center of gravity.

Sleeping System (<4 lbs pad and bag)

Your sleeping bag, pad and pillow can really add up. Here are a couple ways to save weight:

  • zipping your bag with someone else’s is lots warmer (so a lighter bag may work)
  • use an ultralight quilt instead, especially if you know overnight temps are above 40°F (even better, share a two-person quilt with someone!)
  • get a down bag (tends to be much warmer per ounce)
  • use an ultralight pad for summer, and a more insulated one for cooler temps
    Women tend to get much colder than men. A 20-degree down bag weighing closer to 2 pounds will be just barely warm enough for most women even in summer about 10,000 feet.
  • you can stuff your clothes in your bag (especially puffy things) to add warmth
  • you can stuff clothes in a stuff sack to make a pillow (albeit lumpy)

Cooking and Food (<.5 lbs cookware, <2.5lbs food)

Here are some ways to cut ounces on the most important part of your setup:

  • share your cookset with someone else (but bring extra fuel!); for this reason, 1-person, 1-liter cooksets (like Jetboils) are not always the best (they weigh more than just a basic lightweight stove and a pot). A pot that holds closer to 1.5 or even 2 liters can usually heat enough water for 2 to 3 people’s meals.

  • focus on freeze-dried food (not the DIY grocery store stuff, get the hiking stuff)

  • coordinate with your cooking buddies to just boil water. Food that has to be cooked in the pot means you have to clean it and keep other people waiting.
  • don’t plan on feeding other people (you’ll bring too much food if you’re nice)
  • consider you might not be as hungry as usual (lots of people have smaller appetites in the backcountry… many say about 1200 calories a day is enough give or take)
  • skip heavy stuff that has low caloric value, like fresh fruit

Tip: check out Primus and Optimus brands, avoid MSR and JetBoil (which push you to spend a lot more money and carry a lot more ounces for group-cooking versatility).


Bringing too much clothing is usually where many careful packers go astray (this is where you mare prone to add 10 6oz things).

Aside from the items below, try to eliminate everything else:

  • Rain Jacket (waterproof, not water resistant)
  • Base layer (long johns, top and pants)
  • Pants (tough enough to walk through brush, and room for the base layer underneath)
  • Spare socks and underwear (1 per hiking day)
  • Cold weather: warm hat, gloves, puffy jacket
  • Sun hat
  • Bandana

When in doubt, use a postage scale. It is crazy how much one piece of clothing weighs.

Ladies, you can toss in a light little skirt and wear it over your long johns for a break from the pants.

The 12 Essentials

Don’t Hit the Trail Without:

  • 1 extra snack
  • Raingear
  • Cold weather layers
  • Trash bag (large tough one)
  • Map of your trail plus a compass (don’t count on your tech)
  • “oh-shit kit” (separate survival gear kit from your regular stuff, so you always have this stuff regardless of your packing… like matches+firestarter, paracord, signal mirror, whistle, duct tape, a pen and something to leave notes)
  • Headlamp and one other source of light
  • Batteries for above
  • Toilet Paper
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunblock
  • First aid kit