Thursday, February 28, 2013

How low can you go?

What is your base weight?

That's your backpack weight without food and water. If you ask a thru-hiker, he or she will say something like 11-15 pounds. On the low end, you have the tarp carriers and those who are just one snowstorm away from disaster. Or the people traveling together who have the luxury of splitting up big ticket items. These are the people who obsess over ounces and pout over pounds. It's easy to get caught up in the madness, even when it makes sense.*

On the JMT my base weight was a startling 22 pounds, which doesn't sound like a lot until you stuff the pack with water and six days of food and start hiking up 13,000 foot passes. While it is a lightweight piece of fluff compared to my wilderness ranger days of 70 pounds fully loaded, it was still too much. I am on a weight reduction program.

If you're interested in shedding weight for a long hike, where to begin?

If you follow my method, you lay everything out in a big pile and then start paring it down...

1. The big three. That's your pack, sleeping bag and shelter. On one end of the spectrum, you have the hammock swingers and the previously mentioned tarp people. We watched many a tarp carrier obsess over the oncoming thunderstorms, enough for me to decide a tent is worth it. Plus, mosquitoes. My tent is 2 pounds, three ounces, and worth every bit of it. Some people snooze under down quilts, reasoning that you don't need insulation where your back meets the pad, but my sleeping bag weighs about five ounces more than those, so I am sticking with it. Packs are always a contentious issue, debated loudly on thru hiker forums. There are plenty of minimalist packs out there, packs without suspension, packs without stays. After I saw my JMT companions suffer under two of these, I am sticking with my lightweight but full suspension Granite Gear pack. The full weight of my big three plus my sleeping pad is seven pounds. Could I go less? Maybe, but everything works.

2. Cooking system.  There are those who cannot live without hot breakfasts, coffee and elaborate dinners. For those people, it's probably worth it to bring the whole set-up of mug, spork, scrubbie, pot, stove. There are homemade stoves out there that you can make from a tuna can and fuel with denatured alcohol (look on Youtube). The downside of these is that basically all you do is boil water. No fancy pasta dinners here. Stoves are one item where there is plenty to choose from. For my section hike this year I am going stoveless. This should cut at least two pounds.

3. Clothes. Most people bring WAY too many clothes. For my three week hike last year I wore one T-shirt, one skort, one set of long underwear, rain gear, one fleece, one sports bra, two pairs of underwear/socks, and one down puffy (no, not all at once.) I brought a long sleeved sun shirt, running shorts, and a tank top that I could have easily done without. For my section hike this year I am dumping the tank top , the fleece and possibly the sun shirt. After all, you hike all day and then get into camp. You aren't going to a beauty pageant. Weight loss=maybe a pound.

4. Electronics. Yep--everyone's bringing them these days. I saw hikers festooned with solar chargers and vainly trying their cell phones on every pass on the JMT. It's easy to go overboard with SPOTs and GPS and Ipods and everything else. Most of the time all you need is a good old-fashioned map. I'm bringing a Kindle because I like to read at night in my tent, but that's all.

5. Food storage/water treatment. The Sierra required 1.5-2 lb bear canisters, but Washington does not. There I am bringing the basics: stuff sack and rope. For treating water, I often watched in envy as my friends filtered merrily away and I was stuck waiting for my aqua mira to do its chemical thing. I ordered a sawyer squeeze filter and will test it out this summer. Weight loss =2 lbs.

6. Misc. Toiletries, first aid, matches. It's a given, you need it. Some people go way overboard here too. Deodorant on a backpacking trip? You can lose a lot of ounces in this arena. I am going to veer into the heavy zone with blister prevention and treatment. Weirdly, I was astoundingly afflicted with blisters on the JMT to the point of a painful hobble. I don't usually get them and was saved by Dana's sterile needle (to puncture the blisters). No weight loss here. I definitely can't forget my passport or my "permission to enter Canada" form!

I can enter Canada!

7. To flip flop, or not to flip flop. Personally if I am just going out for a couple of days, I stick with one pair of hiking shoes or boots, unless I know that there are river crossings. For a longer trip, I like the luxury of camp shoes. Many other people would skip this item. I am bringing slightly lighter camp shoes this time. Weight loss=a few ounces.

What will my base weight be on Washington sections K & L? I'm hoping for 18 pounds or less, with a total pack weight of about 30 at max fullness (I have to carry food for 100 miles before resupply, 7.5 days, that can be a lot of weight). Pretty soon I'll load it up and let you know.

Where to start if you want to lose some weight? There are plenty of gear lists posted online at places like You can geek out for days on the different forums like Backpacking Light or

What is your normal base weight? Is it worth it to you to try to go lower?

*This is not about fastpacking, running or record setting. That is a whole different realm of ultralight.


  1. I don't usually fuss over things and my base weight is often around 20 lbs. I'm guilty of bringing a few extra pairs of undies and socks, camp shoes (cheapo water shoes from a dept store that are pretty light), deodorant, a packtowel and soap to wash my hair. I don't enjoy feeling like a Yeti. I often bring a jetboil, cup, and spoon for hot food, no fancy pots or pans. The only electronic I bring is my camera. I'm not really a long distance backpacker either though, the longest I've gone was about a week.

    PS- You look super happy about being allowed in Canada. The question is: Will they let you come back all smelly? ;)

  2. Karen, she has to ride back with me so she better have showered. If not it's gonna be a long drive home.

    Can't wait to hear what your final base weight will be. I know you've worked hard on this. Weeding things out would not be easy for me, but then you would probably never see me hiking that far either.

    Have fun!

  3. I am around 12-15 lbs for a summer trip. A ULA Ohm pack, The One tent, western mountaineering down bag, neo air short pad, soda bottle stove with a small mug/pot, plattys for water, chemicals to treat (though I think you have the right idea with the Sawyer). On trips of two we use a gravity filter, which rocks. Limited extra clothes. I take a 3 oz puffy vest which takes off the morning chill but not a full puffy.

    I like a bit of comfort. Camp shoes - yes. Inflatable pillow - yes. Ipod with books - yes.

    I did big sections of the pct in 2010 - solo. It was incredible!

  4. Yes, I will shower!!!

    Allison, how do I follow your blog?

  5. You know, I'm not sure. I use Google Reader to keep up with the blogs I follow and it works well. I'll look into a way to do a direct subscribe. I look forward to reading more about your trip planning. Exciting stuff!


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