The fastest way to backpack weight loss

Staff writerMay 11, 2013 

LIGHT BACKPACKING

Taking some simple steps with your gear and your backpacking will lighten your load and make life much easier on the trail this summer. Peter Haley / Staff photographer

PETER HALEY — THE NEWS TRIBUNE Buy Photo

Hike Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail and you’ll see all manner of loads strapped to hikers’ backs.

You’ll see packs smaller than the ones your kids take to school each morning. You’ll see behemoths large enough to haul a mini-bar full of snacks and the generator to keep them cool.

And you’ll find plenty of others who’ve found their sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

All of these hikers could probably find a way to lighten their load.

“Everybody should go through the process of lightening up,” said Joe Hyer, owner of Olympia’s Alpine Experience. “There’s almost always something you can do to lighten your pack a little and make yourself a little more comfortable.”

For some, that might be as simple as leaving home the mallet for driving tent stakes. Or it might mean investing in a lightweight sleeping bag. And for others, it might mean not packing toilet paper.

Mike Clelland is a noted lightweight backpacker from Griggs, Idaho, who hasn’t packed TP in years. And it’s not weird at all, he says.

In his 2011 hilarious and informative must read “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips” (Falcon Guides, $15), Clelland dedicated six pages to “liberating yourself from toilet paper.”

Apparently nature has plenty of the stuff. Rocks. Snow. Pine cones. Grass. Leaves. Hanging moss.

I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, a tiny roll of backpacking TP weighs less than 2 ounces. Heck, a Costco industrial pack only weighs 23 pounds. Strap it on. And, no, Mike Clelland, you can’t have a handful of my trail mix.”

But there is a more important point here. (Actually two. The first of which is that burying toilet paper doesn’t exactly fit backpacking’s “leave no trace” code, Clelland says.)

Every backpacker has a different comfort threshold. Finding and challenging yours is a good way to determine what you need and what you can leave home.

On the Wonderland Trail, my pack for the week weighed a shade less than 38 pounds (including food, water and toilet paper). Both Hyer and Clelland said that’s considerably better than most, but Clelland’s perfectly dialed pack weighs less than 25 pounds for 10-day trips.

“Every ounce you drop makes you a little more comfortable on the trail,” Clelland said.

GET A SCALE

The first and most important step to lightening your load is purchasing a scale.

When I told Clelland that I use my bathroom scale to weigh the entire pack, I got a scolding.

“Go get a scale — or the next time you call, I won’t even answer the phone,” he said, presumably joking. “I’m serious.”

So I bought a $19 scale and started weighing everything in my pack.

“It’s important because it creates an awareness,” Clelland said. “You’re trying to decide between your favorite hat and the dumpy hat at the back of the closet. You might find out the dumpy hat weighs less.

“You have to make these decisions on what to take. Let the scale decide. It simplifies the process.”

SCRUTINIZE EVERYTHING

Once you’ve weighed and made a list of everything in your pack (don’t forget to weigh the pack), it’s time to ponder each item.

“Lay everything out and ask, ‘Do I want this or do I need this?’ ” Clelland said. “Separate your wants from your needs, then scrutinize your needs. What can I do to make this lighter?”

This might mean getting a less hefty lighter or trading it for matches, cutting the handle off of your toothbrush or trimming a bandana.

But do not leave the 10 essentials at home.

Clelland and I went over The Mountaineers’ famous 10 essentials list together: Navigation, sun protection, extra clothes, illumination, first aid supplies, fire starter, repair kit, extra food, extra water and emergency shelter.

“That’s a good list, you need all those things,” Clelland said. “I just wouldn’t use the word ‘extra.’ ”

And just because they’re essential doesn’t mean they can’t be tweaked to drop a few ounces.

The excess in a store-bought first aid kit can be removed. What remains can be repackaged in a sealable plastic bag. Corners can be trimmed off maps. Smaller compasses and headlamps might be available.

THE ‘TOO EXPENSIVE’ MYTH

Clelland says the most common excuse he hears for not dropping weight is that it is too expensive.

Sure, lightweight sleeping bags and some clothing can be more expensive, but most items are actually less expensive, Clelland said.

A standard plastic water bottle weighs 4.6 ounces less than a $10 Nalgene bottle. An $80 lightweight tarp can weigh four pounds less than a $250 backpacking tent. And a $10 container of water purification tablets weighs almost a pound less than an $80 hand pump filter.

“For the most part, less weight means less money,” Clelland said. “... If you aren’t taking those extra bells and whistles, you don’t need to buy them.”

BE CREATIVE

A hiking buddy of mine who lives at the foot of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, says the key to shedding pack weight is creativity.

He’s always on the lookout for ways to cut weight.

Even during his vasectomy.

His urologist sent him with a tiny plastic cup that he was suppose to return a week or so later filled with a sample. He took one look at the container and determined he could make better use of it as a peanut butter container.

To this day, I refuse to touch another man’s peanut butter.

His creativity serves him well. His pack is always a few pounds lighter than mine.

I carry a Jetboil (15.3 ounces). He carries a stove fashioned out of a soda can (3 ounces).

This kind of creativity also comes easily for Clelland, an accomplished cartoonist.

Instead of packing a travel-size tube of toothpaste, he squirts the toothpaste on a plate, lets it harden, then cuts it into tiny pieces. He puts what he needs in a small plastic bag and he’s set.

Instead of taking a book, he clips articles from magazines and newspapers. Instead of a multi-blade knife, he uses a razorblade.

And when a new backpack arrives in the mail, Clelland is waiting with a pair of scissors to remove anything he finds unnecessary.  

When I told him that made me more uncomfortable than backpacking without toilet paper, he laughed.

“Think about it, do you use the entire length of the hip belt?” Clelland said. “Snip, snip away.”

PRACTICE FIRST

A 93-mile trek on the Wonderland Trail probably isn’t the best place to try that new bivy sack that you fashioned from your wife’s wedding dress storage bag.

Test your lightweight gear in your backyard or on a short overnight trip before you put yourself in a place where you are dependent upon it.

GET FIT

For every pound you’re overweight, you get to haul one extra pound. And unlike a sleeping bag, a book, a stove or six extra Clif Bars, you aren’t benefitting from that extra weight.

Looking for a good way to weigh less? Try taking a hike with a heavy backpack.

DROP WEIGHT

By scrutinizing everything in your pack and getting creative, it’s easy to lighten your load the next time you go backpacking. Some ideas that will save weight and money.

INSTEAD OF THIS ...         PACK THIS ...                 OUNCES SAVED

Nalgene bottle, 5.1 ounces   Plastic water bottle, 0.4    4.7

Water filter pump, 15.2        Purification tablets, 0.7    14.5

Stove and fuel, 19.2            No stove, 0.0                  19.2

Tent, 92                             Tarp, 22                          70.0

Book, 10.2                         This article, 0.2                10.0

Deodorant and razor, 3.1    Nothing, 0.0                     3.1

Multi-blade knife, 4.8         Razor blade, 0.1               4.7

Tissue, 0.4                        Farmer’s blow, 0.0            0.4

First Aid Kit, 3.9                Repackaged kit, 1.1          2.8

Toothbrush, 0.6                Toothbrush head, 0.1         0.5

Toilet paper, 1.4                Nothing*, 0.0                   1.4

Total weight saved: 131.3 (8.21 pounds)

* Experts only.

Sources: Mike Clelland, lightweight backpacking author; Joe Hyer, owner Alpine Experience; and the Adventure Guys.

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