Packing Light for Backpacking

May 23, 2024 50 view(s)

Packing Light for Backpacking

It is important for any adventure you go on that you are mindful about what you are packing. Your packing list is going to be very different depending on what type of trip you are taking. If you are car camping, you have a lot more flexibility on what you’re able to bring. Having a car, van, or trailer allows you to not have to worry about the weight of your gear, and you are able to bring more “luxury” items such as bigger camp furniture, a full camp kitchen, extra bedding, and more. When going on a backpacking trip, you have to be more conscious about what you bring because you have to carry everything. Even within the backpacking category, there are different factors to what exactly you’re going to bring. Where is this backpacking trip? How long is the trip? How many miles per day will you be hiking? Are you going for an ultralight load? Katie, our Digital Marketing Specialist, interviewed her dad, Jeff who, along with her mom, Ellen is an avid backpacker about their experience in packing lightly for backpacking trips, specifically for the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jeff and Ellen on Day 1 of their 2023 PCT Thru-Hike
Jeff and Ellen backpacking in 1991

Tell us about yourself and your history/experience with backpacking (and now thru-hiking)

I grew up car-camping with my family in Minnesota. As part of this we enjoyed short day hikes but never really considered backpacking. Then, while in college at Arizona State University, my girlfriend (now wife) suggested that we buy some gear and go backpacking. She had gone backpacking in the Sierras with her high school club in California. As this was the late 1980's, I purchased a decent external frame backpack ... and then my buying spree went off the rails. The local sporting goods store had a sale and I walked out with a 5 degree synthetic sleeping bag weighing in at 6 lbs! Note that we were in Arizona and had no ambitions for winter camping. What was I thinking?! We also bought a three person Eureka tent with fiberglass poles ... again “on sale”. I don't even know what that beast weighed but I carried that gear on weekend trips and even down into the Grand Canyon. As the years progressed we made increasingly longer backpacking trips to Colorado and elsewhere, often with small groups of friends but still never more than 5 days.  

After getting married, moving to Michigan, and having kids, we were determined to continue camping. We wanted our kids to be comfortable in the outdoors and so an annual car-camping trip became our family tradition. We explored upper Michigan and Ontario, often camping on Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior ... "unsalted and shark free" they say up here. Imagine drive-in campgrounds with well-spaced sites set just inside the forest but mere steps from pristine sandy beaches and remarkably few people. Unlimited possibilities for sandcastles and sunsets! At the same time, we were introducing our kids to backpacking and poopin' in the woods! They each started riding in backpack carriers but at three years old they each put on their own little packs and hiked along carrying their clothing and favorite stuffed animal. We made many 2-3 night trips while still favoring campsites along the Great Lakes shores.  

As the kids grew older we also made annual family canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico provincial park in Canada. Canoe tripping shares a similar rhythm with backpacking; slow-paced human powered travel, wilderness exploration (now both on water and portage trails), spectacular scenery and wildlife, and a new campsite most nights. However, with canoe tripping you are able to take more luxury gear items, more (real) food, and abundant opportunities for fishing, waterfalls, and nightly campfires. 

Aspiring for long wilderness travels, in 2017 my wife and I secured a permit to hike the John Muir Trail, 211 miles between Yosemite Valley and Mt Whitney and considered some of the most iconic landscapes in the Sierra. However, this was a very high snow year and at the last minute we backed out in favor of a 100 mile canoe trip through Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario Canada … not a bad “plan B”! But in 2018 we miraculously drew another permit for the JMT and so we were off on our longest hike to date! I climbed the infamous cables up Half Dome, we staggered over eleven major passes and finally summited Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The John Muir Trail is mostly coincident with the Pacific Crest Trail and so we met many PCT thru-hikers on this trip. This started us dreaming of hiking the PCT ourselves! 

By 2022 we were both semi-retired and finally able to take on a five month thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail! We continued to tune our backpacking gear, purchasing even lighter items or eliminated them altogether. 

We started March 16, 2023 hiking northbound (NoBo) from the Mexican border, but alas 2023 was a difficult year on the PCT. Atmospheric rivers brought record rains, winds, and up to 460% of normal snowpack in some areas. Mountain snow travel into July plus miles of blown down trees slowed our progress. In the end we completed about 1700 glorious miles and are soooo looking forward to completing the PCT in 2024! 

1991 Hells Gate, Arizona backpacking trip
2004 Nordhouse Dunes, Michigan backpacking trip - Ely Family: Jeff, Chris, Katie, and Ellen

Describe the process of packing for a backpacking trip? How does it differ from a thru-hike?

My wife and I met in engineering school so naturally we have a spreadsheet for every aspect of our lives. Our Backpacking Gear & Food spreadsheet lists every piece of gear we own and everything is weighed to the tenth of an ounce. Multiple columns form checklists tailored for backpacking in summer, spring/fall, and even winter snowshoe camping. To be clear, we are not “ultralight” hikers but certainly qualify as lightweight.  

When prepping for a trip, choices must be made to balance comfort with safety. It is often said that people "pack their fears" on trail. If you are afraid of being cold you will likely pack too many clothes. If you are afraid of being hungry or thirsty you will pack too much food or carry too much water. Research is useful but only through experience can you determine what YOU actually need on trail.  

Packing for a months-long thru-hike is really not very different from a shorter hike except that you may have to live with your choices for a long time. In addition, a thru-hiker might require some resupply boxes to be mailed to them where local sources are not available. The logistics of packing a mass quantity of trail food in advance and knowing what and how much food will be desired can be daunting. It is difficult to know how much food your body will need and it is common for a hiker’s tastes to change while on a long trail. Funny, after hiking thousands of miles we never tired of peanut butter and ramen but neither of us wants to see an energy bar ever again!

What are your essentials and what are some things that you are willing to leave at home to save weight?

The 10 essentials for backpacking usually include the following:

  1. Water and the ability to make water safe to drink (filter)
  2. Food
  3. Navigation skills, including paper maps
  4. Shelter
  5. Clothing
  6. Fire starting capability
  7. First aid kit and medications
  8. Sun protection (hat,long sleeves, sunscreen)
  9. Illumination (headlamp)
  10. Repair kit
Part of the PCT Preparation Excel sheet
Jeff and Ellen on the PCT in 2023

Does your gear change drastically from a short couple night trip to a multi-week trip?

While we might make room for luxury items (like a chair) on a short backpacking trip, we find that our base pack weights remain essentially the same whether on a short or long hike. This applies to clothing as well. We dress for the season and the expected weather but never take more than two socks, two underwear, one pair pants/shorts, one hiking shirt and usually a separate shirt kept clean and just for sleeping in. Add long underwear, a fleece upper layer or puffy, and rain pants in cold weather, but always at least a top shell to ward off the wind and rain.  

Protection from the sun is critical and we prefer to cover up rather than bath in sunscreen throughout day. Like most thru hikers my wife prefers the versatile long sleeved sun hoodie to protect herself from the sun. I prefer a lightweight long sleeved button down fishing shirt (Columbia PFG).  


What is some of your favorite lightweight gear that you would recommend to someone trying to shed weight on a trip?

Like most thru-hikers we converted from sturdy boots to lightweight trail runners and have not looked back! A US Army study found that “a pound on your feet feels like 5 pounds on your back”.  Hiking in trail runners feels liberating! Your feet stay cooler and each step feels lighter. Their mesh uppers will quickly wet through but then dry out nearly as fast. Before a water crossing we used to take off our hiking boots because so-called waterproof boots will never dry out after being submerged. Now we just wade through streams in our trail runners keeping our feet protected after rocks. 

The so-called "big three" backpacking gear groups are shelter, sleep system, and the backpack itself. While you can save a lot of weight in other areas, these three items have the greatest impact. Here are some examples:

  • Start with a smaller volume pack. If you carry a larger pack, you will probably find more things to put in it! There are many pack options 40-60 liters and weighing no more than 2-3 lb.  
  • A single wall trekking pole tent eliminates the poles and a separate rain fly to save a lot of weight. Higher end tents are made of Dyneema fabric which is incredibly strong, lightweight, and waterproof. A 2-person trekking pole tent, including stakes and optional ground cloth, might weigh as lot as 1.5 lbs!  
  • True ultralight hikers might ditch the ground cloth to save weight but we don't want to risk damage to our tent floor. A ground cloth cut from Tyvek house wrap is lightweight, waterproof and strong. It also works great under your sleeping pad if you choose to cowboy camp under the stars.
  • Nothing beats a quality 800-900 fill-power down sleeping bag or quilt for lightweight warmth and low volume compressibility.
  • 1/8" closed cell foam pad (Gossamer Gear ThinLight). In cold weather place this on top of your normal sleeping pad for added warmth. At other times fold it up and use it as a sit pad.
  • A silk sleeping bag liner is more comfortable against your skin than the sleeping bag itself. It can add a small amount of warmth to your sleep system and also keeps the sweat and dirt from degrading your expensive down bag.  

Other gear favorites include:

  • A single layer waterproof shell might weigh a pound less than a multi-layer jacket you wear at home.
  • Most ultralight hikers prefer a tiny gas canister stove burner and titanium pot. However we have found that a high efficiency stove such as Jetboil or MSR Windburner might consume half the fuel. So, there are tradeoffs here. You might save weight and space with a tiny stove alone but end up carrying another fuel cannister on a longer trip.
  • The Sawyer Squeeze water filter is THE standard on trails today. It is lightweight, compact, reliable, and affordable. Just don’t let it freeze! Put it in a ziplock bag and toss it into your sleeping bag. Unfortunately the bag that comes with the Sawyer has a single small opening and is did to fill from a stream or lake. We prefer the 2 liter Vecto Water Bag from CNOC Outdoors instead. One end opens completely for filling and then seals watertight. The opposite end screws onto the Sawyer or other filters.  
  • Foldable bowl from Fozzils.
  • Collapsible cup from Sea to Summit.
  • Satellite communicator such as the Garmin InReach Mini2 or Zoleo.
  • We often use a bear and mouse proof Ursack food bag rather than hanging food in a tree and in place of a bear barrel where regulations permit.
  • Cold wet hands make for miserable hiking. Fortunately we discovered SHOWA 282-02 Breathable, Waterproof, Insulated Gloves. Intended for commercial fishermen, these gloves extend up the forearm and have an elastic cord to seal tight against your jacket sleeve.

Any other tips for packing light?

The less you weight you carry, the more you can do, and the less likely you are to suffer from injuries. Examine each piece of your gear and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do I really need it?
  2. What will happen if I don’t have it?
  3. Am I taking something else that would do the same?

With that in mind we recommend you leave the following items at home:

  • Single use items and luxury items (chairs & tables, coffee presses and filters, games, lanterns, hammocks unless hammock camping, swimsuit)
  • Heavy water containers such as heavier bottles and water bladders. We recommend a SmarTube hydration tube attached to a lightweight 1 liter "disposable" water bottle.  These bottles are known to last for thousands of trail miles and weigh only 0.75 oz empty. 
  • Large multi-tools. I used to carry a 9 oz multi-tool ... but why? I don't expect to mend fences or repair machinery on trail. A small 1-2 oz blade or tiny multi-tool is all that is required for backpacking.
  • Large knifes, machetes, axes are not at all necessary for backpacking. Hopefully you all are following Leave No Trace Principles which means small campfires (if at all). Collect only small deadwood which can be broken by hand.  
  • Mallets or hammers. In thousands of miles on trail, we haven't needed a hammer to pound in a tent stake. If necessary, rocks are plentiful and work just fine. 
Ellen at a campsite on the PCT in 2023
Jeff and Ellen enjoying dinner on the PCT in 2023

Jeff and Ellen will be hitting the Pacific Crest Trail again this summer to finish the remaining 900 miles they did not get to last year. You can follow along with their adventure with their blog and YouTube channel, Journeys with Jeff and Ellen, as well as read their PCT Pre-Trip Planning blog and PCT Gear blog. As their daughter, I am super proud of them for hiking most of the Pacific Crest Trail last year and I am so excited to watch them continue the adventure this year. They are the reason why I love the outdoors, hiking, and camping so much, and I am so thankful for the outdoorsy childhood they gave me. 

Do you have any tips for packing light for backpacking? Comment below! Don’t forget to share your adventures with us on Instagram @peregrine_equipment. 

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