The outdoors is in and everyone you know is taking to the trails this summer. This might lead to a bit more crowding than you’re used to, maybe even leaving your favorite trails as crowded as the local shopping mall, so just how do you zip ahead of the crowd and avoid the masses?
First on your list ought to be your gear and how you pack, as while you’ve been sitting indoors all this time, the innovative lightweight gear movement has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Here are a few tips for ensuring that everything can fit in your pack, as well as making sure it isn’t pulling you back down the hill when you are trying to go up.
It’s all about base weight
While the old adage when it came to backpacking (or just about any travel) was to fill your pack and then take out half of what was there, the new norm gives a bit more concrete advice. The idea is to focus on getting your base weight, meaning your pack loaded with everything except food and water, down to at least 15 pounds or less.
In order to do this, the most efficient route to take in shedding pounds is to focus not on cutting your toothbrush in half or snipping out the labels in your underwear, but rather to take a look at your “Big Three,” meaning those items that normally make up the bulk of your pack weight. Usually, this means your pack itself, your tent and your sleeping bag.
Ten years ago, my friends and I all were hauling lots of gear in big backpacks that weighed up to 7 pounds, and while these beasts did offer plenty of back or hip support, they also ironically caused plenty of back and hip damage just due to the sheer amount of torture we were inflicting on ourselves when loaded up.
Today, a wave of lightweight outfitters such as Gossamer Gear, ULA,and Hyperlite Mountain Gear are making packs that weigh around 2 pounds or less, getting rid of heavy top attachments, straps, padding and other bells and whistles. As long as you keep your pack weight under 30 pounds, these new packs all carry loads with plenty of comfort.
Old school tents were also heavy, originally made out of thick canvas, and even when made with waterproof or more breathable material, they still tipped the scales with separate rain flys, metal stakes and other attachments. The new ultralight tents today are being made from Dyneema Composite Fabric, also known as cuben fiber, a high-strength and low-weight fabric found in sails, which is not only light, but also totally waterproof.
A batch of small companies such as Tarptent, Six Moon Designs and Zpacks have been garnering attention for their simple strong tents that often use only a trekking pole to set up, eliminate heavy zippers, use titanium or other ultralight stakes, and come in at under 2 pounds. Many trekkers are even deciding to ditch the full tent and opt instead for just a basic tarp shelter, enough to stay dry under during a rainstorm and cut one’s gear weight even further.
The third item where you can save some weight is your sleeping bag. Down sleeping bags, while pricier and much slower to dry when wet, are far more compactable, lighter and warmer than synthetic ones.
Taking things even a step further, the lightweight gear revolution has now moved away from sleeping bags and towards quilts, where parts like hoods or zippers have been eliminated, and the bag is designed to cover the areas of your body that get the coldest. Check out Enlightened Equipment for some ideas.
Embrace multiple uses
There are plenty of items in your pack that can serve more than one purpose. For example, ditch that extra air pillow and use one of your stuff sacks instead. Opt for a pair of zippered cargo pants that convert from long to short instead of bringing a pair of shorts and a pair of trousers.
Rather than bringing along the proverbial kitchen sink, use your cook pot as a bowl as well, or even better, get a titanium cup that you can boil water in if you are opting for dehydrated meals that just require hot water.
Some ultralight hikers have taken to cold soaking, meaning putting food like instant potatoes, oatmeal or couscous into a container with cold water and leaving it to sit for awhile. It might not work for everyone, but it does eliminate the need for a stove and cookware.
But even going hot, these days you can find stoves like the MSR PocketRocket, a 2.6-ounce canister stove that will boil your water in less than 4 minutes and take up virtually zero space in your pack.
Merino is your best friend
The word cotton is verboten in the outdoor industry these days. Cotton is heavier than synthetic fabric and doesn’t dry as fast nor insulate when wet. But at the top of the clothing chain these days is merino wool, a natural fiber grown by merino sheep, which is lighter and thinner than traditional wool, as well as comfortable next to the skin.
Not only does it insulate and breathe, but it also doesn’t absorb bacteria-causing odor. Thus, you can wear merino socks, shirts and, yes, even underwear these days, without having to stuff your pack with multiple changes of clothing.
Scales and spreadsheets
Once you have your main items, it’s easy to fall in love with throwing in all sorts of last-minute things that will overload your pack. Do you really need your Aeropress for a weekend trip? Tip: Starbucks VIA packets will make you rethink instant coffee.
Leave “War and Peace” at home, or if you just have to read it, make sure it’s on a Kindle. The best way to help minimize excess weight is to get a small food scale and actually weigh every item you are putting in your pack and then mark it on a spreadsheet.
There’s even a website that will do all of this for you, LighterPack, where you can see exactly what items weigh, which part of your gear is the heaviest and set yourself on a course to actually enjoy your hike.
These days, you don’t have to sacrifice comfort to shave weight, and backpacking no longer has to be an endeavor in suffering. And with all that weight savings, you might even have room for a celebratory beer!
10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network — providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world — in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.