Easy Tips to Lighten Your Backpacking Pack Weight

You’ve been on a few backpacking trips now and have a better handle on your gear. But man, you’d love to lighten that pack weight by 2-3 pounds.

After reading a ton of ultralight articles on reducing weight, you’re a little concerned.  This is looking like it’s either going to be expensive, or you’ll need to become Bear Grylls.

  • Do you have to spend hundreds of dollars on new gear to decrease your pack weight?
  • Do you need to start thinking about cutting the handle off your toothbrush?

I’m not going to beat around the bush, the answer to both of those questions is no.

Before you start panicking and kicking yourself about being frugal when you bought your gear, let’s take a peek at what’s in your pack.  I’ll bet there are a few places where you can shed some weight.

If you’re new to backpacking and not sure how much weight is normal, start out with our article How Much Weight Should You Carry Backpacking” here.

Who I Am 

First, I’m not an ultralight backpacker. While I’m all for cutting weight where it makes sense, I also understand that not everyone is into going as low as possible. My goal is to give you real information so you can make the best choice.

On top of that, I’ve been a backpacking guide for several years and I work with new backpackers.  This post is not a list of my personal ideas on how to cut weight. What you’re getting is years of experience watching new backpackers make the same choices over and over. 

While there’s always the crazy one-off (like the 20-ounce insulated coffee mug filled with coffee while hiking), for the most part, there are consistent areas where weight could easily be cut.

The biggest obstacle to dropping backpacking pack weight is confidence. Those nagging little “what ifs”. “What if I don’t pack a long-sleeve shirt and it’s cold at night?” A lot of decreasing your pack weight is knowing that even if a situation arises where you would have benefitted from an item, you can still manage without it.  

As I work with backpackers, I see them become more confident leaving things home and their pack weight goes down readily.  

Two backpackers standing on a mountain, one has a heavy backpack.

Will Ounces Get Me Where I Need to Be? 

This depends on what you’re packing and how you’re packing it. Trying to save less than an ounce here and there isn’t the first thing I’d do as a new backpacker. But, if you’re packing large bottles of liquids you don’t need (sunscreen, bug spray, etc.) then repacking could save you some weight.  

What’s the difference? Let’s do the math.

Removing 1 ounce per item (or less) means you’ll need 8 items to save half a pound, or 16 items to save a pound. That’s going to be difficult. However, if you’re packing 4 bottles that are 3 ounces each and you repackage each one down to 0.5 ounces, you just saved 10 ounces – that’s just over half a pound.

So, while ounces count, it matters what ounces you’re talking about. Unless you’re trying to break a record for the most ultralightest of the ultralight, then cutting the handle off your toothbrush isn’t going to make a huge difference.  

I think we can help get you to a comfortable weight faster and a little easier than destroying your gear.

Once you have more experience and have made the bigger changes you can fine-tune with the smaller ones.

Bonus – When Ounces Can Make a Difference

So before all the ultralighters out there come after me screaming about how ounces add up, I’ll point out that the advice here is for a weekend trip and it flows through trips up to around 5 days.

Ounces can make a difference if you’re going on a long trip or thru-hiking.

So what’s the difference? Volume. It comes down to volume. I’m going to do a little math again.

On a three-day trip, let’s say you take 1 snack for Friday, 2 snacks for Saturday, and 1 snack for Sunday. That’s 4 snacks. If you buy energy bars that are 1.4 ounces instead of 1.8 ounces, you can cut a grand total of 1.6 ounces. That’s not a lot. But if you’re on an 8-day trip and taking 1 snack on your first and last day each, then 2 snacks for days 2 through 7, now you’ve got 14 snack bars. Cutting 0.4 ounces per snack bar is a savings of 5.6 ounces. That’s over a quarter of a pound.

This is why thru-hikers talk about the ounces. They’re out for days between resupplies so it can make a difference.

A Note About Ounces on a Scale

This may sound odd, but I’ve run into it more than once so it bears a mention. When you weigh items on a luggage scale using pounds, remember that a pound is 16 ounces. That means 4 ounces = 0.25 pounds. When you see 1.25 on the scale, that is 1 pound 4 ounces.

People get tired as they run around weighing things, struggling to cut down the weight, and things can get a little fuzzy.

Look at Your Clothing 

The number one excess I see with new backpackers is clothing. If you’re going on a weekend backpacking trip you will wear the same clothes Friday through Sunday. You do not need to change your clothes.

I live in the hot and humid southeastern US.  I have been on trips where I reeked and knew it. It’s not an issue because everyone smells. Being dirty and smelly is part of the sport. Embrace it.

In warm weather (Summer, Spring, possibly early Fall), besides what you’re wearing, you just need sleep clothes, possibly an extra set of underwear, and 2 pairs of socks. I mention the underwear and socks because if you’re in a humid climate like I am, they can become soaked with sweat, and you’ll need something dry for hygiene.  If you can dry them overnight, great, but here in the Southeastern US, that’s a long shot in the summer.

If you want a change of clothes for the ride home, leave them in the car. 

The Cold Weather Exception for Clothing

Now, in cold weather, things change. Even on a weekend trip, I’m concerned with the potential for hypothermia if your clothes become wet. On cold trips, I pack a pair of shorts to wear under my rain gear or over my base layers in an emergency. I also pack an extra short sleeve shirt. For camp, I have a windbreaker that weighs almost nothing for fall and a puffy for winter.   

There are people that will tell you to just check the weather the day of your trip. If there’s no rain, you don’t need to worry and you can leave your rain gear at home. No. No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do that. Please don’t do that. Always be prepared for the temperature to drop 10 degrees below what’s predicted and always expect rain.

I have been in my tent getting pelted with rain and hit with winds gusting at over 40 mph while looking at my phone and there is nothing on the radar. The mountains make their own weather and you need to be prepared.

Clothing for Longer Trips

On longer trips, I still wear the same clothes every day, but I pack my shorts and an extra shirt for emergencies regardless of the weather. I’m willing to risk wearing my sleep clothes in an emergency on a 3-day trip in warm weather, but not a 5-day trip.  

Clothing Summed Up

I understand that it’s going to take a bit of trial and error to work out your clothing and determine your preferences for different weather. Make a note after each trip of what worked, and what didn’t. Was anything too warm or too cold? Did anything remain unused? What was the weather like? 

Pretty soon you’ll have your clothing down for any type of trip and that will save you at least a pound of weight, if not more.  

One note of caution, while I already mentioned packing extra for cold weather, I can’t emphasize this enough. Do not fret about weight to the point that you pare down too much for your cold weather trip. An extra pound versus calling your trip off early, or worse, isn’t worth it.  

You can check out more tips for cold weather backpacking here.  

Pro Tip

Consider getting a lightweight windbreaker. If it has pit zips, even better. A windbreaker can be used as a technical long-sleeve shirt.  It weighs less than a long-sleeve shirt and I find the windbreaker is more versatile. 

Cutting Back on the Electronics 

I am floored by the vast array of electronics I see on trips. It’s truly shocking. On a weekend trip, I bring my phone, Garmin InReach, and Mophie charger. For longer trips, I bring a bigger charger. That’s it.  

On a 3-day backpacking trip, you do not need a phone, solar charger, satellite device, regular charger, tablet, kindle, and other assorted gear. You just don’t need it.  

Electronics are heavy. Just bring your phone, a small charger, and your headphones so no one else has to listen to your podcasts all night. That’s all you need. 

Embrace turning that phone on airplane mode and being out of touch for 3 days. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m also seeing a lot of solar chargers on 3-day trips. Always compare weights before purchasing items. Solar chargers can be over a half pound more than a regular charger. On a long trip where you may need 2 portable chargers, solar could make sense. But not on a 3-day trip where a simple Mophie will do. 

Cartoon of young boy with a heavy backpack.

Repackage Your Toiletries 

An easy way to keep those pounds moving down is to repackage your toiletries into smaller containers or purchase sample sizes.  

I buy the small sunscreen samples. They’re perfect for my trip and keep the weight down. If you have a brand you love that doesn’t make samples, or you’d like to buy a large container to be eco-friendly, consider squeezing some into a GoTubb or small, lightweight bottle.  

The same goes for hand sanitizer, toothpaste, and bug spray.

Anytime you see yourself packing a bottle because that’s what the product came in think, “Is this more than I need for my trip?” If the answer is yes, repackage it. 

And while we’re on the topic of toiletries, all you need is a toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bug spray (seasonal), and possibly some wipes. I like the small Dude wipes. They’re unscented and lightweight. While being dirty is part of backpacking, you do need to keep some key areas clean.  

You do not need deodorant. It’s a losing battle, so just leave it home. On a weekend trip, there’s also no need for soap. Just rinse off with a camp towel or wipes.

If you’re like me and have hair that can’t be left to its own devices, the little black combs they give kids for picture day at school are perfect. They sell them at most drug stores.

Luxury Items 

Do you really need the backpacking chair? I mean they’re great, but if you’re heading to a State Park with picnic tables, could you possibly leave it home? Even the lightest chairs are still a pound. That’s an easy way to drop some significant weight.  

I’m not saying to never bring it. But think about whether it has value on this particular trip.  I bring my Helinox chair zero when it’s an easier trip and I’m not as concerned about weight. It’s the first thing I drop on longer or more difficult trips.

You also don’t need books, art supplies, or other items to entertain yourself at the beginning. Just load a few podcasts or ebooks on your phone.

Rethink Your Food 

Backpacking food has come a long way over the years. There are now freeze-dried meals that are lightweight and provide the calories and nutrition you need, plus they taste good.  Heck, they even make Keto meals like these from Next Mile Meals.

These are much better options than cans of ravioli.  

If the manufactured meals are breaking your budget, consider investing in a dehydrator for just $50 and create your own. I make a sloppy joe recipe and dehydrate it. Just add water on the trail and it’s good to go. What I really love about this method is I know what ingredients are in my dinner.  

Hyperlite Mountain Gear has been working with Hillary Pride, a registered dietician and certified personal trainer, to create tasty meals that just need water. You can check out her Coconut Mango Sticky Rice recipe here.

You can also go through the grocery store to look around and be inspired. The key is to ignore the packaging. Remember, things can be repackaged.  

The Knorr sides are cheesy and delicious as well as lightweight. Or how about the microwavable macaroni and cheese in the cups? I’d package at least 2 cups together to make a meal. Don’t get me started on the instant mashed potatoes. The loaded version is spectacular.  

Items can be added to a Ziploc freezer bag (it must be a freezer bag) which can handle boiling water and you can eat out of the bag. If this isn’t something you’re comfortable doing, then cook the food directly in your pot. You can make some herbal tea in the pot later to clean it out.  

While you’re at it, take a good look at your snacks. Nuts provide a lot of nutrition, but 1 ounce is a serving. I see people with 1-pound bags. You don’t need that much and it’s extra weight.  

The same goes for Good Old Raisins and Peanuts. That stuff is heavy.  

I don’t want you to be hungry but look at your snacks and have different options so you don’t get tired of any one food, and look at the portions you’re bringing.  

If I’m concerned about hunger and want to pack a few extra snacks, I go for the individual chocolate sunflower butter pouches. They’re lightweight and pack a punch.   

Assorted backpacking gear laid out on a white background.

Look for Gear Changes That are Win-Wins 

I know I said you don’t need new gear to drop weight at the beginning, and I stand by that statement. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out some areas to think about for future gear swaps.  

Before you go crazy swapping out everything just to drop weight, make a list of the items you don’t like and want to replace regardless of weight.  

I hated my synthetic sleeping bag. It did the job, but I sweated all night because it didn’t breathe, and it was 3.5 pounds. One year into backpacking, I finally bought a quilt, and I couldn’t be happier.  I don’t sweat as much in the down, and with a quilt, I can move around all night and don’t become a tangled mess.  

If you want to learn more about how backpacking quilts work, check out my post and video here.

The quilt was almost $200, but I’m glad I paid the money and made the switch. Not only did it save me 2.5 pounds, but I sleep better. That’s what I call a win-win.  

I’m not saying to swap out your sleeping bag. This is just my example of a win-win swap.  

Budget Matters – Don’t Blow Yours

I know a lot of other people will tell you to swap your tent, but I don’t recommend that right off the bat. Your tent was probably the most expensive item you purchased, and to just swap it out and spend more money because you want to decrease weight may not be feasible. I get that.  

The idea is to cut where you can now while planning for the future when you have more experience. Plus, you’ll likely see more gear in the field as you encounter other backpackers, which will give you a better idea of what you do and don’t like.  

Don’t Buy Something Just Because It Weighs Less 

One year into backpacking, a friend trying to go ultralight bought one of those sleeping pads that are three-quarters in length. The idea is that the bottom of your legs can rest on your pack so you don’t need the extra weight.  

Long story short, he was uncomfortable, and we all heard about it.  

Sleeping pads are dicey. It’s hard enough to find one that’s comfortable, let alone cuts some weight. Then you have to consider warmth. The more insulated pads are going to be around 1.5 pounds, and uninsulated pads are going to be around 1 pound. If you plan to camp in cold weather, you’ll want the insulated pad.  

I found an inexpensive non-insulated pad on sale and use that for warmer weather, but I still have my insulated one for winter. There’s no way I would use the non-insulated pad below 30 degrees. 

Your Backpack Should Be the Last Piece of Gear You Replace

The last piece of big gear that can easily cut weight with a replacement is your backpack, but I’m not going to tell you to replace this. Your pack must hold the gear you currently have comfortably. If you still have 30 pounds of gear and purchase an ultralight pack, it’s going to be uncomfortable.  

Even if the pack is rated to carry 30 pounds, the lack of padding and support means the higher you get to that max weight, the more uncomfortable it’s going to be.  

Don’t replace your pack until you have your gear down in weight, or until you need to replace it.  

Now, that being said, I am also not a fan of 5-pound packs. While they may be super comfortable and cushy, they’re 5 pounds of weight. These days it’s difficult to find a beginner pack under 4 pounds, but pay attention and at least be aware of what you’re purchasing.  

Do A Gear Debrief After Every Trip 

When you get home, look through what you packed and note anything you didn’t use. Why did you bring it? Why wasn’t it used?  

Keep in mind, it could just have been circumstances like the weather was warmer than anticipated and you didn’t need the windbreaker.  

But if it was just fear or concern that made you pack it, and you didn’t need it, can it stay home next time? 

I know it can be scary but try leaving a few things at home. Even if it would have been nice to have, you’ll find you were able to manage without it. Bit by bit, you’ll find yourself saying, “I don’t need this” and leaving more things home. You’ll be surprised how fast you can drop 2-3 pounds out of your pack just leaving things home.   

Also, make a note of what equipment isn’t working for you and start a replacement list. It doesn’t have to be for your next trip, just begin thinking through what you want to replace first.  

Lightening Your Backpacking Pack Weight Isn’t as Hard as You Think 

Take a look at your clothing, electronics, and extras. I’ll bet you can drop 2-3 pounds right there. To go further, you may need to consider some new gear. It really depends on the gear you purchased at the start.  

But remember your goal. Backpacking is about getting out and seeing amazing things you can’t get to on a day hike and truly getting away from it all. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about your pack weight. If you can carry it and you’re having a good time enjoying the outdoors, you’re doing great.  

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