I think it is important to discuss the whys and hows of changing from a normal over encumbered hiker into a lightweight or maybe ultralight hiker. If you were to walk into a store like REI and say "Outfit me" to a salesman, most likely you will end up with super durable, high quality, expensive gear, but it may not be what you really need, so hopefully I can give you some tips before you start.
First off let me say that pack weight is relative. By that I mean that a person's optimal pack weight shouldn't be some magical number like 8.5 pounds for a base weight or whatever. It should be based on three things:
1. Weather - what clothing, shelter, and sleeping system will carry you safely.
2. Experience - while you may be able to go buy everything ultralight, it may not work for you without some experience using that stuff.
3. Conditioning - a weak hiker will not make it anywhere with a 100 pound pack, but may need some heavier options to make it where a stronger hiker can get by with less.
I also have a personal philosophy about pack weight. Your weight should be computed including everything outside you skin. Glasses, watch, clothing, poles, etc. - everything counts. Then you should set a goal based on your lean body mass.
While I'm an advocate of getting you pack lighter, I think that some people attempt to go way too light, way too fast. It should be a slow process with lots of experimentation and learning. While some think you need to get your base under 10 pounds, and your total under 20, I believe you need to be safe and keep your pack weight at a sensible level, and you can set a goal based on your frame rather than someone else's packing list.
So what is the difference between an ultralight hiker and a lightweight hiker? As far as I know there isn't a definition per say. But I would look at it this way:
An Ultralight hiker is someone with a base weight under 12 pounds. Typically they have gone fairly "radical" in all their gear choices like a one pound choice in the Big Three, and leaving a lot of stuff behind.
A Lightweight hiker is someone with a base pack weight between 12-16 pounds. This is where I am.
Is one better than the other? I don't think so.
Lean Body Mass
I look at weight and pack weight this way: If I weigh 150, and I only have 10% body fat, then I have 15 pounds of fat, and the rest is my lean body mass. That means my organs, bones, and muscles weigh 135 pounds. A person that weighs 175 may have 23% body fat, so in essence they have the same lean body mass, but he is carrying 40 pounds of body fat, which can be worse than carrying a 25 pound pack full time over me. That's because his body must supply that fat with water, oxygen, and circulate blood through it. If you set pack weight as a function of Lean body mass, it levels the part of the body actually doing all the work.
"But isn't the guy with a higher body fat working harder if he has the same pack weight?" Yes he is. What you will typically find, but not always, is the leaner a person is in better shape the heavier hiker. This isn't a 100% true rule, but it is on the average correct. Hopefully this displays why you shouldn't base pack weight on body weight, and why keeping your body fat low is important.
How do you determine your body fat? Well if you belong to a gym, then maybe they can do it for you. Maybe you already know from your last doctor's exam. A rule of thumb of what it should be for men is 20% +1% for every 2 years over 20, and for women is the same, but add another 10%. But most Americans these days are overweight, and there are also the exceptions that go the other way. Although not a perfect system, the Army has a system outlined in AR 600-9 that you can use with just a measuring tape.
Now that I have covered all that, what do you do with it? Well, a lot of research has shown that a load that is 25% of your weight is about the heaviest you can carry efficiently. Since we have shown there can be a huge difference between two guys of the same weight, then we need to base our maximum load on 25% of lean body mass.
Now onto the story.
I started hiking way back. As long as I can remember, I have been going into the woods with my family. As a family, we would go on treks into local forests with or without trails. As a child, I wanted to have my own big backpack like the grown ups, and I got my first one at about 12. It was a small yellow frame pack without a hip belt. My brother and I would load them up on hikes with whatever we thought hikers should carry like canteens, flashlights, ponchos, etc. We didn't care about weight; we just worried about having the right stuff.
At that time we would use cotton socks, t-shirts, blue jeans, long underwear, etc. without thinking about why we would freeze when it rained. We used heavy canvas Army tents and rectangular sleeping bags made for car camping. Our footwear was the sturdy work boot looking things sold at discount shoe stores that gave out blisters like Santa gives presents on Christmas. Hiking up mountains was fun, but it was hard work. My first real overnight trip was on the Appalachian trail at Standing Indian, where it forms a loop trail using the side trails. At some points I thought I would die, but it was an adventure.
Learning to hike like this was simply the way it was done. Sore backs, big blisters, and wet sleeping bags just seemed like normal problems. A Coleman camp stove (almost 2 pounds) seemed like a modern marvel, as did my first down sleeping bag and nylon tent - even though it got wetter sometimes than my canvas pup tent.
At the age of 17, I joined the Army. I wanted to serve my country, but I also wanted some adventure, travel, and a little college money. I had these romantic notions that field training in the Army would be like backpacking - I was right and I was wrong. At 18, I went to Fort Knox and learned that the Army version of backpacking could still have sore backs, wet cotton clothing, blistered feet, but with even heavier loads, and none of the stuff I considered fun about going into the woods. But, as I saw it, I was becoming a stronger hiker for later in life. With what I had been through, hiking would be very easy. Actually the Army was warping my mind even further.
I continued to hike and occasionally backpack on and off for a number of years. Finally in 1996 I was stationed near my family again (my extended family) and my aunt started hitting me up to go backpacking with her again. So in 1997, we finally hit the AT together. It had been a long time since I hiked in those mountains, and I started dragging out all my old gear and supplementing it with stuff I thought I needed from my Army gear. At this point I thought I needed bomb proof gear including a 2 liter pot, a pistol, a Coleman fuel stove with lots of fuel, 2 whole sets of clothing plus cold weather stuff, a big knife, 4 canteens, MRE dinners, a canteen cup and esbit stove (for back up of course) rugged rain gear, etc. By the time I finished, the pack was over 65 pounds for 3 days and two nights! I came off that trail stone bruised and wore out.
At the end of that hike, I did an AAR - After Action Review. This is a method we use in the Army to improve performance. It is comprised of 5 basic parts:
1. What was supposed to happen?
2. What actually happened?
3. What went right?
4. What went wrong?
5. What will I do differently next time?
So I started looking for what I didn't use or need. After I got rid of a lot of stuff (not enough BTW), I had trimmed off quite a bit of pack weight. Then I started looking through catalogues for lighter versions of what I was already carrying. Instead of running out and buying stuff right away, I kept looking and making comparison lists. I also devised my first spread sheet and got a postal scale.
Another thing I did was search the internet. One of the very best sites I found, and my biggest influence was The Lightweight Backpacker. The 27 pound packing list seemed like a fantasy to me, but after a few months of comparing and shopping, I thought I might be able to do it. What really helped were the Knowledge nuggets and pack weight reduction tips Charles had on that site. Some things seemed like a bad idea until I tried them like using empty soda bottles instead of a real canteen or water bottle, using just a spoon instead of a whole mess kit, drinking lots of water at water holes instead of carrying it, etc.
Lightweight hikers and ultralight hikers often get categorized as gear heads, which in a sense we are. What drives the lower pack weight is lighter gear. What I consider a gear head is a person that always needs to have the most or newest toys on the trail. When I go hiking, the last thing I want to think about is my gear, while a gear head loves talking gear and hikes just to be able to use his gear. So a gear head can be a lightweight or ultralight hiker, or they can be a 65 pound pack weekend hiker.
As I said, I started reading the internet and cutting out excess gear. My first real gear purchases were to get lighter clothing. I replace everything cotton with polyester materials which reduced weight wile working more efficiently - exactly what you want. But I didn't get the very best stuff out there; there are a lot of alternatives that may get overlooked like Wal-Mart clothing, or sale clothing at some outdoor stores, or even military surplus. Since I did that, I have replaced everything at least one more time.
Luckily I didn't have a lot of money at that time, or I would have wasted it on a lot of tents and sleeping bags (consecutively lighter) that in the end I wouldn't have been happy with. I would have ended up with probably 2 sleeping bags and three tents in my closet if I had been financially able to buy them.
My next real lightweight barrier breakthrough was making my own gear. I had avoided it for fear of dying somewhere because of failed equipment. But in 2000, I lost my coffee cup while thru-hiking the Pinhoti. That turned into a first gear invention with my Lemonade Jar. When I got off the trail, I immediately started looking at alternatives to other gear and made a Cat Stove.
So now the juices started flowing. I found some real deals on some lightweight gear like a titanium pot, sil-nylon stuff sacks, and some GoreTex clothing. I also started using a hammock and poncho set up I had sometimes used as a teenager in the local woods when camping out in the summer. Again, The Lightweight Backpacker was an inspiration because at that time a review of the Clark Jungle Hammock started me looking in that direction instead of at tents - that eventually led me to the Hennessy Hammock.
At this point I really started looking around on the internet and talking to some veteran thru-hikers like Sweeper and Hungry Howie about their lessons learned about weight reduction. The main emphasis seemed to be "think outside the box". By that I mean: don't think like a American trying to live in the woods with everything you are used to, only made in a backpacking version; think about what you need to live in the woods, and go from there. I also picked up on the notion that if it looks stupid, but it works, then it isn't stupid. So I gave up the idea of a sleeping bag and started looking for a quilt (an idea I had on a winter hike once actually) and forgoing a frame pack (internal or external) and started looking for a frameless rucksack. Also about this time I read Ray Jardine's "Beyond Backpacking" which helped, but I still prefer the internet and its sources.
Thinking outside the box has led me to some failures as well, but it has also led to some successes. Failures: SGT Rock's Wood stove - not really efficient or easy to build; the sunscreen heat reflector - simply backpacking snake oil; SGT Rock's Ruck - maybe not a failure, I just ain't light enough yet; Krill Lights - good, but not bright enough; Safewater In-Line filters - they suck. Successes: Hennessy Hammock, Moonbow Gearskin, Nunatack Backcountry Blanket, Turbo V8 stove, running shoes, etc.
Well, I haven't become the 8.5 pound base weight ultralighter like Ray Jardine, but I have gotten my base weight down to a respectable 12.3. And at the same time I have made my hiking experience a lot more enjoyable. Besides being lighter and easier to move, I found my guiding axiom: "The more I carry, the more I enjoy camping; the less I carry, the more I enjoy hiking". Meaning that the more "extra crap" I remove from my pack and from my life while on the trail, the better connected I get to the surroundings and the total experience. If I want to just camp, why not load all that heavy crap in a car and go car camping. Hiking and camping are not the same thing!
While researching hiking equipment, I learned about fitness and nutrition as a by product. I've learned how to eat better food, live healthier, and avoid nutrition and dehydration problems. While researching I also learned about techniques like stealth camping, mail drops, and other ways to improve on no trace techniques as well as stay light. Not a bad deal at all!
So where do you start?
First you must realize that by going light, you usually will sacrifice either some durability, or some safety margin, or possibly some of both. Before you go really light and head out into the wilderness, you need to play with the gear in the back yard under hash conditions like rain and wind to see if you can handle using it properly. Eventually you will be able to, but you may find that some things require you to modify your hiking style. Some people would rather stick to a heavy tent and pad rather than spend a night in the woods with a tarp and blanket no matter how heavy it makes their pack.
If your new to backpacking and don't own any gear. Then don't spend a lot of money to start. Get cheap light stuff and go from there. A good resource is "The $300 Challenge". I would recommend taking some ideas from there then buying some better gear as you go along.
If your already hike, you may actually have a harder time by learning to let go of everything you think you need. After years of habit and programming, it may prove hard to unlearn some habits.
First thing I would recommend is getting a postal scale and weighing everything. Then put your list into a spreadsheet like mine, or use this handy program. Once you get it all down, look for any item over 1 pound, this to me is a red flag. I personally believe that your Big Three should be the only items over one pound. These are: Backpack, Shelter, and Sleeping bag. Also include everything you wear or carry. Some people try to fool themselves by having a waist belt which they don't count in their pack weight.
Now that you have everything weighed, you should look at each item and give it a number rating and be honest. 1 = something vital that you must have, like a first aid kit, a water bottle or hydration system, or a shelter. 2 = something you don't need but use every day. 3 = something you don't need but use occasionally. 4 = something you don't need and hardly ever use. Now personally I would throw out everything with a 3 or 4. Is that drastic? Not really, but when I first started trimming weight I thought it was and resisted for quite a while letting go of some of my "stuff", after all - I paid good money for it.
Now that you have trimmed that off. Look at all the number 1 and 2 items. Is there something there that can be used for double duty? For example: are you carrying a bandana and a pot grabber? Leave the pot grabber and use the bandanna as a pot grabber. Also look for things you use every day but you might not need, like a fork. If you already have a spoon, a fork isn't needed.
Next look at reducing quantities. You don't need a whole roll of toilet paper for a weekend, you don't need a 12 ounce bottle of sunscreen or insect repellent for a week long trip, and you won't need a first aid kit with 10 ounces of supplies for almost anything despite what Backpacker Magazine says. Get some smaller containers and take only what you need.
Then the last part of this step would be to look for stuff to replace your heavier items. A coffee cup may not seem like a lot of weight, but every ounce counts. Imagine this, by replacing a Nalgen water bottle and an insulated mug with a soda bottle and a lemonade jar will save you 4 ounces. True that isn't a lot on it's own, but it adds up quickly. Replace your filter with some coffee filters and some iodine and you can drop a pound!
By now you may have already reduced you pack weight considerable without spending a lot of money
What is next?
Well now we go back to our list. Hopefully you have updated it and subtracted any stuff you don't carry anymore. Now we will start looking at anything over a pound (except the big three). Get a Campmor catalogue, or go to their web site and start looking at lighter gear to replace anything you have, but especially the items over a pound. Don't just rush out and buy anything though. Make some shopping lists and comparisons of what you think might work, then go to the internet and ask questions on some message boards. People will give you feedback about gear, but remember people are actually generally overly positive about anything they have paid for.
Next, start making stuff. It is cheaper and can be more effective than stuff you buy. I would recommend starting with a stove and then looking for other things you can make. I always say start with the stove because there are lots of great plans out there. Another reason to start with a stove is the money. While you can spend $100+ on an ultralight stove, you can make something equally efficient for pennies and spend the big money on something else.
And lastly for this section I would recommend going to Wal-Mart. I don't mean the camping section per say, I mean the whole store. Keep an open mind and the thoughts of what you have been looking at in those expensive catalogs, and then look at the various things in different sections of the store. A 4.5 ounce grease saver pot makes a cheap and light cooking pot. A car shammy cloth makes a good backpacking towel, gutter nails make excellent tent stakes and they don't bend as easy as real aluminum ones while weighing the same, trash compactor bags make great pack liners, $1 oven liners are the same grade aluminum as those $10 MSR windscreens. You may even want to bring a postal scale into the store with you.
It keeps being said, and it also keeps being ignored, but a pound on the foot is like five on the back. Once you can get you pack weight below 35 pounds, and assuming your legs are in good condition, the feet are something you should pay close attention to. One of the best things I ever did was get rid of boots and switch to running shoes.
But what about the foot support I need? But what about my ankles? But what about kicking rocks? All are valid questions. Look, switching to running shoes is like any other lightweight gear switch, there are tradeoffs. But I think I should cover some of what I have found:
1. Ankle support. I personally have very high arches, so high I needed a waiver to join the Army, and I'm very prone to ankle twists. I've had a few bad ones in my day, but looking back, every one of them happened while I was wearing boots with ankle support. Once I switched to running shoes I didn't stop twisting my ankles, but I now had flexibility in my ankles to handle it while I didn't in boots, and I twisted them a lot less and a lot less severely. I also found that I was more careful about where I step, not on a conscious always looking level, but it does happen.
2. Foot support. This depends on what foot type you have. While boot manufacturers mostly make standard boots then expect you to get orthotic inserts for you foot type, running shoes are made to each foot type already. High arches need cushion sole, normal feet need a stability shoe, and flat feet need motion control. This is also one of the areas that Ray Jardine's book "Beyond Backpacking" does a great job by describing how running shoes are built and what will make a durable running shoe for hiking. For some information about running shoes and selection based on foot type, check out this foot glossary. Bottom line: I run hundreds of miles on my running shoes. Foot strike while I'm running has about the same, if not more, pressure per step than my hiking with a light pack does. If they are good for my feet when running, why not hiking?
3. Foot protection. Here is a tradeoff. You do loose some foot protection for lighter weight, but you will put you foot in safer places; I can attest to it myself. It won't be a conscience effort, it will normally just sort of happen. You can't go stepping directly on rock spikes or kicking roots, but you probably won't anyway. Our ancestors did fine for thousands of years without solid toe shoes while wearing soft sole moccasins. It will not kill you, and I bet your feet will enjoy it.
4. Foot Stress. Here is a tradeoff, but in a good direction. A solid sole boot is like being in a car wreck with in an old solid steel car - the car survives but your face takes the beating. Your foot gets the same thing, but by 1,000 - 2,000 times in a hiking day. With a solid sole, your foot gets a lot more shock transferred to it, then your ankles, then your knees, and your hips. With solid sole boots there were those times when my feet would actually be numb after about 12 miles, and it would sometimes last for days after I got off the trail. But with running shoes, all that cushioning designed for running does the job instead of your feet.
5. Wet feet. "But boots are waterproof and running shoes aren't" you may be saying. Sure they are - NOT! There isn't a way I have found that will keep your feet dry, believe me I have tried them all. Bee's wax, mink oil, GoreTex, heck - even rubber. If it is waterproof, it makes your feet sweat. "But GoreTex breaths" - RIGHT! Imagine walking every hour of every day in your GoreTex jacket and not sweating to death, it's the same thing. Also, there seems to be an unwritten equation that says that the more waterproof a boot is, the loner it takes to dry out once it soaks through. In Vietnam they invented the jungle boot based on this principle - let your feet get wet, but make the boot so it dries quickly. Running shoes will do the same thing. But what about cold weather? Get some of those GoreTex socks like Rockies or Sealskinz for that weather. Then you can wear them or not depending on the weather.
5. Durability. Here is the biggest trade off. While you can spend a few hundred dollars to get some boots that will outlast you feet, running shoes will eventually fail. According to Roland Mueser's book "Long-Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail" the average running shoes lasted about 700 miles while the average boots lasted about 1000 - 1600 depending on the style - 1000 for lightweight and 1600 for the heaviest. But compared to cost, running shoes averaged $50 while the boots averaged $90 to $150 (again $90 for lightweight, $150 for the heaviest) so if you figure cost per mile, there isn't a real difference.
6. Traction. Depending on what you are shopping for, running shoes will most likely have worse traction on wet mud. That has been the only real difference I've seen; but, it isn't that big a difference. In my experience a pair of boots will eventually get the soles clogged with mud and be about as equally worthless. The main difference is that while the running shoes my now weigh about a pound on each foot when clogged with mud, the boots will weigh over two pounds, maybe a lot more, on each foot.
Wow, I just spent a lot of time on footwear. Maybe that should tell you just how important it is.
Now the big stuff
By now you have done a lot of stuff for the little things, and the bite into your pocketbook should be minimal except in clothing, which may or may not be expensive depending on your tastes. Now we move on to the big ticket items: shelter, sleeping bag, and backpack.
You can go very cheap on these, and I highly recommend doing so. You can even make all three depending on what you want to do. If you opt to make it, again I recommend The Lightweight Backpacker and their section "Make Your Own Gear" or Thru-Hiker's Workshop. There are lots of ideas and links there for many items including the big three.
I personally have made some gear (like my backpack) but in the end have opted to buy the big three. Again, I think you need to "Think outside the box". Even though you may think you need a tent, a tarp or hammock may actually be better, you just need to learn to use them correctly and then try them. You may think you need a sleeping bag, but the quilt options are getting great: Big Agness, Go-Light, Nunatack, etc. Or something even different like the Feathered Friends Wren which can also be a parka sort of; or maybe even a 1/2 bag and a real down parka from Nunatak.
Whatever you decide, I recommend keeping them below 2 pounds each. Depending on what you choose, you may even make it below a pound each, but again, it is based on what you can handle. I would however recommend changing your backpack last. In order to go with the smallest and lightest pack you can get, you should first get everything else reduced.
Two of the best gear innovations I've had the pleasure to ever test were from the big three. The Hennessy A-Sym Ultralight Hammock, and the Moonbowgear Gearskin. If you plan to buy, they are worth a good, hard look because of their value and innovative designs.
Food and water
Although separate from gear, these are not separate from pack weight. Food and water can quickly add weight to a pack.
Although some ultralight hikers believe in skimping on food, I do not. I agree with Ray Jardine on this, with the philosophy that food is like rocket fuel. If you use fuel that doesn't have enough energy, you will limit your performance. While some ultralight pages will say reduce your food weight to about 1.5 pounds a day, I still recommend 2 pounds of food a day, and that you pay close attention to everything you pack. I don't plan to go into great detail with this here because I wrote an extensive article already about hiking foods.
Water is very essential and also very heavy. It is actually one of the heaviest items in your pack, weighing more than one ounce per fluid ounce. Today hydration systems are all the rage, and I own them too. But depending on where you are hiking, you may be dooming yourself to carry more weight, thus actually needing more water to perform. The human body can carry water as effectively as a 2 liter water bladder in my experience, and it isn't pack weight. While you need to drink from the bladder constantly to keep hydrated because that is where the water is, you can put it in you body first and avoid the need to constantly drink. Depending on the weather and water sources, try forcing yourself to drink three liters before you start. The first one will probably just get you body properly hydrated (Americans are chronically dehydrated); the other two will fill up your system. Now carry a liter of water in a bottle and go for a hike. You will probably not feel thirsty for hours, and if you do you have a liter in you bottle. Much better than carrying 4 liters all day long!
Throughout the process you need to go for short trips to test out changes you have made. From each trip you need to perform the AAR after each trip. Were the gear changes good or not? Were your systems to use the gear efficient or not? Is there another gear change that could be even better? Maybe you can change how you hike and get rid of the need for a piece of equipment or modify what equipment you need.
BUT let me say this, while on the trail I don't want to think about or discuss my gear. I'm out there to hike, and going light is a means to make that fun and increasing my connection with nature and the trail. I don't do it for the sake of playing with new gear. I do not like to mess with gear and packing lists until I'm off the trail, then it helps me to get better for the next trip and keeps me in a trail frame of mind.
I hope this helps you.