Going Light



A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


Since the mid 1990’s in the United States, there has been a revolution of sorts in the way in which many people approach backpacking. A shift has occurred towards lightening pack loads, enabling hikers to walk faster, farther, more comfortably and with less chance of incurring stress related injuries.

Walking “The Wave”, Coyote Buttes, Hayduke Trail, UT, USA, 2012

This “Going Light” philosophy manifests itself in two ways; tangibly and intangibly. In regards to the former, innovative designs combined with increasingly lightweight, yet still durable materials, have meant that manufacturers can now produce incredibly lightweight equipment, without unduly sacrificing performance or safety.  Intangibly speaking, it constitutes a change of mindset. A reassessment of what we ‘actually’ need, as opposed to what we ‘think’ or have been ‘told’ we need.

All that being said, it is worth remembering that there is nothing new under the sun. For millennia, indigenous peoples around the globe, including the native inhabitants of Australia, the Americas and Africa, were all covering vast distances without the aid of fancy shelters, packs and footwear. They did so in an unencumbered lightweight fashion, which emphasised practicality and necessity over superfluous luxuries.  By choosing to “go lighter” you are essentially making a conscious decision to adopt a similarly uncluttered approach to your time out in the wilderness.

The Basics

There is no universal blueprint as to how you should backpack. Every hiker is different. We all have our own motivations, needs, levels of fitness and experience. However, one thing upon which everyone can agree is that walking is substantially easier and more enjoyable, if your pack doesn’t weigh the proverbial tonne. Basic principles of Going Lighter are as follows:

  • Safety First: Going lighter should be a gradual process, which ideally should parallel a corresponding improvement of a hiker’s backcountry skill-set. When starting out, it is better to err on the side of caution by taking a little more than the bare necessities. Time spent in various types of conditions and terrain, will gradually teach you what you can and can’t do without.
  • Leave Behind the Non-Essentials: Review each and every article in your pack and ask yourself: Do I really need it? What will happen if I don’t have it? Hikers are often amazed at the amount of redundant items they have been carrying out of habit rather than necessity.
  • Downsize the Essentials: Lighter materials and innovative designs mean that it is easier than ever before to lower your pack weight simply by using lighter versions of essential items (eg. shelter, sleeping bag, backpack, sleeping mat). In addition, before setting out on each and every hike, ask yourself what types of conditions you are likely to encounter, then figure out what equipment you need to be safe and relatively comfortable whilst hiking in those conditions (eg. You don’t need a sleeping bag rated to -17° celsius if you are hiking in the middle of summer).
  • Emphasise multi-purpose items: Necessity is the mother of invention. Many items in your backpacking kit, such as sleeping mat, hiking poles and cooking pot can serve more than one purpose. By emphasising multi-function equipment, you can eliminate redundant or duplicate items and thereby decrease overall pack weight. See Double Duty for suggestions.
  • Balance: Let me reiterate – there is no right or wrong way to backpack. Essentially Going Lighter is all about making your time in the wilderness more enjoyable. For a handful of hikers (ultralighters) this means poncho tarps, frameless backpacks and wafer thin foam mats. For the majority of others, who prefer a little more protection, support and comfort than such minimalist items can provide, it means downsizing, culling and finding a happy medium between on-trail enjoyment and in-camp comfort. To each their own. Find a balance that feels right for you.

It’s Cheaper too!

As an added bonus, going light is cheaper than going heavy. It breaks down like this: 1. Less stuff in your pack translates to less money spent on non-essential items; 2. Because of a combination of “no frills” designs and less raw materials, most lightweight products are less expensive than their heavier equivalents (eg. shelters, backpacks, raingear, stoves, footwear). The principal exceptions to this rule are products made of down, such as sleeping bags and jackets.


Commonly used terms used in regards to Lightweight Backpacking:

  • Base Weight: Your pack weight minus consumables (e.g. food, water, fuel).
  • Pack Weight: Overall pack weight including consumables.
  • Ultralight: Base weight below 4.5 kg (10 lbs).
  • Lightweight: Base weight below 9 kg (20 lbs).
  • Traditional Weight: Base weight over 11.3 kg (25 lbs).