Zen And The Art Of Not Packing Shit You Don’t Need

I once packed a can of chili ten miles into the backcountry. It weighed 15 ounces and it only contained 560 calories—about as much as two Snickers bars (which weigh 12 ounces less). I was younger, hungry, and didn’t care how much my pack weighed, since it already had a full rack of climbing gear in it.

That was now several years ago, and I’m not as young. If I’m not wiser, I certainly have less tolerance for needlessly heavy backpacks. I’ve started to embrace the tactics of the ultralight backpacking practitioners and evangelists, and although I’m not a full-on card-carrying, gram-counting ultralighter, I have identified some ideas and principles that I think will help anyone who’s interested in not compressing their spine under the crushing weight of their superfluous gear, fears, and anxieties:

  1. Don’t pack a bunch of shit you don’t need
  2. You probably don’t need most of that shit
  3. The more you know, the less you need. This adage, often attributed to Yvon Chouinard, has definitely proven to be true for me as I have amassed more and more days in the backcountry, as it probably has for everyone as they gain experience: When you don’t know, you pack everything, just in case. The more experience you acquire, the more things you can eliminate from your pack. Maybe you realize you always pack rain pants but have rarely worn them, or that there’s no point to packing your tent in the bag it came in, or that when you have a tent and sleeping bag in your pack you really don’t need to carry a space blanket.
  4. You can have a really really light pack or be really really comfortable, but not both. Your plush sleeping pad, pillow, and comfy camp shoes, are, wait for it—heavy. Are your hiking boots (better yet, hiking shoes; even better yet, trail running shoes) really so uncomfortable that you have to remove them immediately after finding a campsite and put on other shoes? The lightest camp shoes are ones you pack in on your feet.
  5. You can always go lighter. A few years ago, I was talking to climber Bryan Gilmore about a “Light and Fast” climbing clinic at the Red Rock Rendezvous. I asked him what he covered in the clinic and he joked, “I just had everybody leave their packs in the parking lot and we free soloed everything.” Which is funny, but also illustrates a point: if you’re really hardcore, you could go “backpacking” with nothing but a knife to kill your food with—and that’s truly ultralight. Most of us won’t do that, but there are always more ways to cut weight.
  6. You will probably have to get geeky. If you seriously want to eliminate weight, you have to know what you’re packing. If you ever weigh your pack before a trip, you might be surprised to see how heavy it actually is, and how easy it is to eliminate a few pounds. If you seriously, seriously want to eliminate weight, you will probably—like serious ultralight backpackers—buy a postal scale and make a spreadsheet of the items in your pack and how much each one weighs. No way, you say, that’s soooo geeky. Sure it is, but so is fantasy football, and Strava, and probably a bunch of other things we do but probably don’t list on our Tinder profiles.
  7. Everything that possibly can should do double duty. A mug is a mug, but a mug can also be a bowl so you can leave a bowl at home. Trekking poles are also tent/tarp poles. A puffy jacket shoved into a stuff sack is a pillow. Your toothbrush is … actually, your toothbrush should probably just be single-duty. But don’t bring a whole tube of toothpaste.
  8. It’s not a fashion show. Ever end a backpacking trip and realize you had a clean pair of pants, and/or a clean shirt, and/or a clean pair of socks that you never wore? That’s a lot of weight. You probably don’t need “changes” of clothes—you just need different layers for different conditions. Rain jacket for when it rains or when the wind picks up, puffy jacket for cold evenings, et cetera.
  9. Smelling good is heavy. Wet wipes, unlike almost every other consumable thing you bring, stay heavy. A deodorant stick is heavy and bulky no matter what. A little bottle of biodegradable soap doesn’t weigh that much, does it? Weighs a hell of a lot more than just getting used to the idea of not smelling good, which is weightless. If you simply can’t stand the smell of your own B.O. after a few days in the backcountry, by all means, knock yourself out. But probably no one’s expecting you to smell good out there.
  10. The ratio of pack weight to comfort is only limited by how hardcore you want to get. For example:
    Heavy: Camping French press with ground coffee
    Lighter: Instant coffee packets
    Ultralight: chewing coffee beans
    Savage: going without coffee for the entire trip

Wrap your head around something like chewing coffee beans, or going without coffee altogether, and you can probably achieve great things in regards to pack weight. Only you can decide what’s going too far.