Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

Posted On January 3, 2016 at 11:19 pm by / Comments Off on Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

Hi Michael,

On the hike out from Mount Sopris, near our Aspen, Colorado, home, my husband commented that it feels like time to invest in lighter-weight backpacking gear to ease up the wear and tear on our bodies. Our kids are ages nine and 11, and backpacking as a family is an important part of our lives. Recently, we upgraded our mountain bikes (cushy suspension, etc.) so that we could still happily bike with our kids; it seems like we need to do the same with our backpacking equipment. Knowing that you are in touch with the latest gear compared to our old stuff, what would you recommend as the most important things to upgrade, with weight in mind?

We realize that the answer could be “all of it!”  Our gear is mostly 20+ years old (we got a great Big Agnes tent last year per your advice). With backpacking, there are so many elements, from stove to pack to sleeping bags. Do you think we can reduce our weight loads a reasonable/noticeable amount, and feel like our investment was worth it?

Our kids seem to be just behind yours in age… perhaps you’ve experienced the same need to lighten your load as you get toward your 40s and 50s yourself? Do you feel that lighter/better gear is essential to keeping you in the backpacking game at this point in life?

Thank you for any insights and advice! We’ve enjoyed our trips based on info from your stories: Teton Crest Trail, Laugavegur Trail, Iceland; and we’re considering a trek in either Patagonia or New Zealand next.

Aspen, CO


Jan Roser backpacking below El Capitan, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Jan Roser below El Capitan, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Hi Rebecca,

Whenever I get that question from a friend or a reader and offer them advice, they are all, to a person, glad they got new, lighter gear. If your gear is as old as you say, you could reduce your base pack weight significantly, maybe by 10 pounds or more, as well as cut the volume of what you’re carrying, which allows you to use a smaller, lighter pack. (Base pack weight refers to gear and clothing, not including food and water.) The transition will make backpacking feel like an entirely different experience. When you’re backpacking with young kids and have to haul much of their gear and food, this makes a huge difference.

To anyone updating old gear to new, I always say start with the biggest items because they give you the most potential to reduce weight and bulk, and I’d do it in this order: #1 tent, #2 bag, #3 backpack (because you need to reduce tent and bag weight and especially bulk before getting a lighter, smaller pack), and then #4 boots and air mattress, followed by smaller items like your cooking system and clothing.

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You’ve already switched to a lighter, more compact tent, so now you should invest in sleeping bags, because older models are so much bulkier and heavier than the best new bags. If you do most of your backpacking in the Rockies, with dry summers, you should get lightweight down bags; I use a down bag almost all the time. (I’m always testing out new gear, but I prefer to review lightweight down bags.) See my sleeping bag reviews for ideas. I use a bag rated around 30 degrees in summer in the mountains, when low temps drop to the 30s or 40s, but I don’t get cold easily. My wife, who does get cold easily, prefers a 15-degree bag in summer. For spring or fall trips, I’ll use a 15-degree bag.

Older, inflatable air mattresses were much heavier and especially bulkier than contemporary models—many of which actually fit inside your pack (instead of having to attach them to the outside) and don’t take up much space. Check out my air mattress reviews.

My friend, Steve, backpacking with his family. Knew I'd get to use this eventually.

My friend, Steve, backpacking with his family. Knew I’d get to use this eventually.

Once you’ve trimmed down the weight and volume of major items like tent, bag, and pad, you can fit all your stuff in a smaller, lighter backpack of between 50 and 65 liters if you’re only packing for yourself; I typically still use a 75-liter pack when backpacking with my family, but my kids (now 15 and 12) are getting to the age where they can carry their full share of gear and food. Check out my backpack reviews.

Once you’re carrying much less weight, you can shift to lighter boots, because you no longer really need the heavy-duty boots you may be wearing when carrying 40 to 50 pounds or more (except in really wet, snowy, or rugged, off-trail conditions). See my reviews of backpacking boots and hiking shoes. After that, start working on smaller items, like your stove and cook set (my reviews), rain shell (my reviews), and insulation (my reviews).

Exclusive for The Big Outside readers: Take 15% off any purchase at Outdoorplay.com using code Big15. Some restrictions apply.

You may also want to see my articles:

Buying Gear? Read This First

5 Tips For Finding the Right Backpack

5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent

Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots

Pro Tips: How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun.”

“Why and When to Spend More on Gear: Part 1, Packs and Tents, and Part 2, Rain Jackets, Boots, and Sleeping Bags

5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear

My 10 Most-Read Gear Reviews

10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System

Hope that’s helpful. Thanks for sending such a good question!


Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your great input on the process of lightening up our 20-year-old backpacking gear. It’s especially helpful to know the logic behind the order in which to make the upgrades, as well as your personal experience with the family factors. Your post about how to lighten up backpacking loads was super helpful with specific suggestions for different scenarios. We’ll look at the gear reviews you mentioned, and will keep posted for the upcoming air mats you mentioned for 2015.

Many thanks, Michael. As always, you and your site are our go-to sources for everything backpacking!


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