Taking the load off your back

Article by Arnie P

Taking the load off your back

There was a time when I was not concerned about the weight on my back. I could pack all the things I wanted and be ready to go. Then five years ago, I was diagnosed with a back problem. After I did therapy, I seemed to be back to normal. Last November, my problem came back. I was told I had a ruptured disk and that I should limit my pack load to 20 pounds. Since winter was approaching, and my winter pack weight was usually close to 40 pounds, I ended up discontinuing backpacking and instead doing day hikes and snowshoeing.

During late spring, I decided it was time to make adjustments in the way I went hiking and backpacking. I made a list of all the items I needed for a summer backpack and looked for lighter weight replacements. All the weights I will be mentioning are approximate. I will also mention that I do about 75% of my hiking and backpacking in NH. My goal was to reduce my pack weight as much as possible. I also did not want to compromise comfort.

I stopped using my heavy, but comfortable, large Gregory pack and started using a Gregory Z pack which is about 3 1/2 pounds. I bought a Marmot Hydrogen sleeping bag and a Thermarest Pro air pad. The combination of the bag and pad weighs slightly over 3 pounds. I had bought a Tarptent Cloud Burst II which weighs about 2.5 pounds. Someday I will find a lighter version tent to reduce my weight possibly by another pound. I have a Katardyn Vario water filter which weights about one pound.

The combination of my MSR Pocket Rocket stove, fuel canister, and pot weighs about a pound. Food for a 2 day backpack is about 2 pounds. Extra clothing is also about 2 pounds. The rest of the miscellaneous items add another 2 pounds.

I carry about 6 pounds of water and this is a significant but an important part of my load. This past summer was very dry, and finding water that I would want to use was not always possible.

The total comes to about 23 pounds. Now, when I finish packing for a trip, I weigh myself with and without my loaded backpack. I was on 6 backpacks this summer and my pack weighed between 22 and 24 pounds.

On some trips, I was able to use someone’s water filter and/or stove. The trip back to my car was always lighter since most of the food and water had been used. I have found that by consuming the food and water, my pack weight is reduced by about 4 pounds on the return trip making the return trip a lot easier.

This is a work in progress. The method I have found to further reduce pack load is: lighter weight gear and sharing when possible. The availability of good water can make a big difference in the amount of weight I need to carry. For instance, if I only need 1 L of water and my water filter, I have reduced my load by about 4 lbs. I have been carrying 3 L and will probably not reduce that amount by more than 1 L.

I am using some high tech materials which are very light but I wonder how durable they are. I am hoping that by next summer, I will have been able to further reduce my pack load by about 15%. My plan at this time, is to look for a lighter tent and a lighter backpack. I am currently using a 2 person tent. Not only does a solo tent weigh about ½ pound less, but it also requires less space in my pack, as well as a smaller area on the ground. Finding a relatively flat ground area is very difficult in New England forest, so requiring less is an advantage.

I have found that the relationship between the capacity and the weight of a pack is not very linear. I will be looking at top loading and simpler packs which may have only a couple compartments and a lighter weight material.

The clothes and boots we wear are items we don’t usually consider in the weight. The weight of my clothes and boots has been decreasing and the comfort has been increasing. The only clothes that get weighed are the items that are put in my backpack. It is common for a pair of boots to weigh less than 3 lb for the pair. I wore trail shoes with wool socks under Goretex stockings all winter and was very comfortable. The total weight of those shoes and socks was about 2 ½ lb.

I have been using silk as a first layer for tops and bottoms. A wool second layer on top followed with a shell jacket and shell pants. I have been using all wool socks. I have found this combination has kept me dry, and as a result, I was comfortable. I feel cool in the silk, but never really cold. Getting used to this cool feeling was not easy for me to overcome. Initially I had the feeling that as the hike I was on progressed, I would get colder, but this never happened.

Equipment sharing

Stove, cooking pot,and hydration filter are easily shared. It takes more fuel for 2 people, but not double the fuel. I have an alcohol stove as well as a canister stove. The canister stove is a few oz heavier than the alcohol stove, but is easier and quicker to use. The problem comes in predicting when I will run out of fuel with the canister stove. I have a digital food scale and will be comparing the weights of a new canister versus an empty one. When it comes to cutting a few ounces, factors such as convenience come into consideration.

Sharing a tent can also be a substantial weight saver. My light weight 2 person tent is 2.5 lb. A few of the hikers I have backpacked with have 3.5 lb single person tents. The potential for sharing in this situation is at most 3.5 lbs, again a substantial amount. In the summer, when it is really hot, sharing a tent may not be comfortable. When the temperatures drop sharply at night, the second “human furnace” in the tent makes a big difference in comfort. Along with the extra heat comes the extra moisture. A tent always needs to be well ventilated. This is especially true for a single wall tent. I have never had very much condensation with a double wall tent, but they have all been a lot heavier. In the colder weather, the amount and weight of clothing increases as the temperature decreases.

I will mention some items that may not be obvious to share. The rope used to hang food on a branch, protecting it from animals, and a heavy duty camp knife can easily be shared. If I go on a backpack that requires water shoes to make stream crossings with someone who is about the same height, weight and shoe size, we might be able to share the water shoes. Here is where the food rope could have double duty to secure the shoes on their return to the second person. I don’t want to lose the water shoes because I did not throw them hard enough to reach the other side of the stream and helplessly watch them float quickly down the stream. There are probably more items that I have missed. The point is that planning and coordinating with fellow hikers can make a difference in reducing pack weights.

Future thoughts

My search for lighter, more comfortable gear will continue. I will continue to look at new products that are being introduced that could be lighter and more comfortable. Each backpacking trip provides data for the next trip. Most backpackers tend to over-pack. When I return from a trip and look at the food, water, and clothing that was not used, I can then evaluate whether these items were surplus or just prudent to have. There is also the possibility that I will get stronger and be able to handle more than the weight I am currently carrying. Through a process of research, evaluation, and strength building I will continue to enhance my backpacking experience.

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