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Light Weight Backpacking Gear

The author has been experimenting with putting together a light weight backpacking system. The goal of the project is to get my base pack weight (all gear except food and water) below 10 lbs. If you are looking for a place to begin learning about light weight hiking, Ray Jardine's book, 'Beyond Backpacking' is a great place to start.

I am going to deviate from my decision not to mention gear manufacturers in this site. There are very few light weight gear manufacturers out there & they may be difficult to find. The author does not endorse any of the companies/individuals mentioned in this site, they are listed for reference purposes only.

I have been experimenting with the following items.

Pack | Esbit Stove   Alcohol Stove | Sleeping Bag   Sleeping Pad
Rain Gear   Poncho
| Jacket | Tarp | Shoes | Umbrella

Weight Comparison Matrix

I have purchased a GVP4 pack from Glen Van Peski, a California hiker who has set up a small business (GVP Gear) selling packs of his own design. The pack is quite ingenious, making use of very light weight materials and a Z-Rest foam pad as the suspension system. Glen sells these packs at no profit to himself for $75 each ($145 for semi custom). He provides a free copy of the pattern for the pack on his web site for download if you'd like to try making one yourself. The pack has 4700 cubic inch capacity, a hip belt and weighs just 12.5 oz. There are two key points to keep in mind before you rush off and buy one of these packs:
1. The pack is not designed to carry heavy loads. While it might be possible to do so, it will not be comfortable. The pack is designed to be used as one component of a light weight backpacking system.
2. The nylon that the pack is made out of is fairly strong but not very abrasion resistant (particularly the mesh pockets). You must be very vigilant not to snag your pack as you hike (especially in the desert) and take care when setting it down on rough ground.

Since his initial purchase, author has sewn two additional packs using Glen's pattern (material cost was around $35). A light weight one using the material types suggested in the instructions (total weight 10oz) and a more durable pack made out of cordura and pack cloth (total weight 19oz, I simply substituted pack cloth where the instructions called for nylon or mesh and cordura where oxford cloth was used). The instructions Glen put together are good, though for a novice sewer such as myself, having a completed pack nearby to use as a reference was invaluable.

I constructed the first pack with a standard home sewing machine. While it is possible to do, I found that the small machine did not handle some of the thicker fabrics and heavier thread very well. I then bought a heavy duty industrial walking foot sewing machine (from Ebay) which I used to make the second pack. The industrial machine made the project significantly easier to complete as well as improved the quality of the final pack.

I have been on quite a few 2-4 day backpacking trips now carrying the GVP4 pack. I can say that it carries quite well. The Ridgerest suspension is comfortable and provides good support for the pack contents. The shoulder straps and hip belt have velcro pockets which allow you to stuff spare socks or mittens inside for padding. I would definitely recommend this option for the should straps, which are rather thin otherwise and cut into your shoulder. If the hip belt is uncomfortable, I've found it's easier to just fasten the hip belt over mittens or spare clothes rather than use the pockets. One drawback in Glen's initial design is that the pack rides a little low on your butt. In his latest design, Glen has made a few changes that have helped resolve this issue. I am quite pleased overall with the pack.


Esbit Stove:
I have tested a cheap ($10) and very light weight (3.25oz) Esbit Pocket Stove. The stove basically consists of an aluminum base with two folding legs. It burns solid fuel pellets which supposedly produce few toxic fumes when ignited. It takes 2 pellets to boil 1 quart of water. The pellets are somewhat heavy (0.5oz each) and expensive ($6 for 12 pellets or about $1 per meal), and require protection from wind to keep from blowing out. Stoves that burn white gas weigh upwards of 14oz not including fuel bottle or fuel. Carrying the Esbit stove and 11 days of pellets adds up to just the weight of the white gas stove and your pack gets lighter as you consume pellets during your hike. Another advantage is that if cooking in your tent or tarp vestibule during a rain storm, you would be less exposed to toxic, harmful combustion byproducts.

I've taken this stove on several trips now and am happy with it so far. The fuel pellets burn very hot and boil water in about the same time as a white gas stove. The cheap metal base is stable enough and balances the pot firmly. The fuel does coat the bottom of the pot with some black soot so you'll need some kind of stow bag to keep it from getting all over your gear in your pack. I would suggest carrying a windscreen along with the stove since it doesn't take very much effort to blow out the flame. Planning the # of pellets to bring takes a little more effort than with a white gas stove, but I suspect will become easier as I familiarize myself with it.


Alcohol Stove:
My wife constructed an extremely light weight alcohol stove from a soda can, chicken wire and aluminum flashing. The entire set up with stove, pot stand and wind screen weighs a total of 1.9 oz! The stove burns denatured alcohol which burns quite hot & brings water to the boiling point as fast as other stoves. When not in use the entire assembly is small enough to fit inside your cooking pot. Instructions for construction of the soda can stove may be found here. Instructions for making other types of alcohol stoves may be found here.

I've used the alcohol stove on several overnight trips now & feel it is definitely the lightest & most simple way to go for short trips. On the positive side: the stove burns very hot & leaves no residue on your pot. The stove costs practically nothing to make and a one gallon can of denatured alcohol will last a very long time. On the negative side: it's a little tricky gauging how much fuel to use and once you light the stove you can't really extinguish it (not a big deal since burning the fuel will create less air pollution than letting it volatilize anyway). There is no simmer feature (it's full blast or nothing), and the stove and pot stand get very hot during use (don't set the stove on leaves or pine needles since they may ignite). The other thing I don't care for is that the fuel doesn't smell very good when it's burning. Overall, however, the alcohol stove is an ingenious and ultra light weight addition to your pack.



Sleeping Bag:
The author and his wife are using a Feathered Friends 'Hummingbird' sleeping bag for backpacking trips. The bag has 850 fill power down, is rated at 10 F and weighs 24oz. The shell is made from 1oz rip stop nylon. Personally, I am a big fan of down as an insulator - it is the lightest, warmest, most compressible and durable substance available. Down is useless when wet, but having backpacked many miles in rainy weather have found that keeping the bag dry is a simple matter of wrapping it in a kitchen compactor bag while hiking & having a decent tent/tarp to sleep under at night. Ray Jardine recommends the use of a quilt instead of a sleeping bag, however, the GoLite company which markets a synthetic quilt of his design reports the weight as 40oz for a 20 F quilt & sleeping pad (sized to fit a 6' individual). My sleeping bag and pad are lighter at 34.5oz, warmer, and suit my taste better since you and the bag can roll over as one during the night, while with a quilt you'd have to learn to spin around underneath without disturbing the insulating layer.

The Feathered Friends sleeping bag has been a great success so far! It is very comfortable and warm and the 1oz nylon feels nice next to your skin (better than some nylon that sticks in an unpleasant fashion, especially if you haven't had a chance to clean up in a while). Because the nylon is light weight it's tear strength is probably not as strong as heavier fabric, so you have to take care not to snag it on anything. The bag also does not have a draft collar (to save weight), so you have to synch the hood down to keep warm air from leaking out on cold nights.


Rain Gear:
Typical hiking rain gear consists of a waterproof, breathable jacket and pants. There are maay expensive, heavy rain jackets on the market to choose from made from Gortex or similar fabric. A few companies have started a new trend by making cheap rain suits out of a new waterproof fabric which looks and feels a lot like Tyvek. Two rain suits that I have been testing are made by RainShield (Yellow Rain Suit, $46, 10oz) and Frogg Toggs (Pro Action Suit, $75, 19oz). These suits are both very light weight, packable and fairly comfortable. Again, like with other light weight gear, they are not going to be as durable as a nylon suit. In the desert, where your rain gear spends the majority of time in the pack, you don't need to be lugging around a bombproof suit which you will rarely use.

I have used the RainShield suit on several occasions in a downpour and found it to be extremely effective. The fabric is waterproof and breathable and loose enough to hike in. The suit comes in a little stuff sack which can be used to stick your camera in if it starts to rain. If you had to hike in the suit day after day, I suspect it would shred in no time, however, pound for pound it's hard to beat for day hikes and short backpacking trips.
I have not had an opportunity to test out the Frogg Togg suit yet. It appears to be better manufactured than the RainShield suit and the fabric feels more durable. The trade off is that it is double the weight, however, for a complete suit at just over a pound it's difficult to complain.


As an alternative to the rain jacket, I have also tested a cheap coated nylon poncho (sold under the Campmor brand name) to serve as a waterproof outer layer, a pack cover (just put it on over your pack) and a ground cloth for sleeping under a tarp at night. By carrying this one light weight garment, I can eliminate two other items from my pack. Plus ponchos by their very design are breathable. Since they don't fit close to the body they allowing air to circulate from below. The one drawback for the fashion conscious hiker is that ponchos are rather unattractive and will end up making you looking like a hunchback if worn over your pack. Oh well, a small price to pay.

Well, despite what seemed like a good idea, the poncho in reality didn't quite work out as planned. On a trip to the Grand Canyon my wife and I were faced with steady 40 degree rain and 10-15 mph winds.  The ponchos whipped around in the wind providing little warmth or protection. What was worse, while they provided some rain resistance the supposedly waterproof coated nylon leaked! Becoming wet in these conditions is the perfect recipe for hypothermia. Perhaps ponchos would be more suited to warm conditions only.  Further tests are required.


In order to keep warm on the trail, a layering system of clothing works best. Typically a long sleeve shirt or polartec layer is used underneath your outer waterproof layer. The author is experimenting with a light weight nylon jacket (Patagonia Zephyr) to replace this under layer. The jacket consists of a light weight nylon shell and a thin layer of insulating material. My thought is that the nylon shell will trap somewhat more heat & repel wind better than a shirt. The jacket weighs in at 10.25oz. The main drawback of this jacket is the cost - cheaper brands would probably perform similarly.

My experience with the Zephyr jacket has been nothing but positive to date. It is very light weight, warm and comfortable. Two issues that do not effect performance, but are a little annoying, are the fact that the shell fabric has a slight electrical charge that causes dust to stick to it, and the inner lining snags on your hands putting it on when your skin becomes dry. The outer shell seems quite soft and probably does not have a lot of abrasion resistance, so you have to be careful not to snag it while hiking.


Sleeping Pad:
As mentioned in the pack section, a Z-Rest 3/4 length foam pad doubles as the pack's suspension system. The foam pad weighs just 10.5oz and is sufficiently comfortable. Extra clothes or gear could be placed under your feet at night to keep them off of the cold ground if needed. The foam pad is fine for 3 season use and can not puncture like the inflatable pads. If winter camping in cold a climate, the foam pad will not provide the insulation from the frozen ground that an inflatable pad will.


The current trend in going light is to replace your tent (probably the single heaviest item in your pack) with a tarp. The lightest production tents out there weigh ~4lbs. They can sleep 2 people (barely), but leave no room for gear or movement. A tarp offers protection from the elements (except for bugs), weighs considerably less and can provide more sleeping room.  Other benefits include: good air flow, the ability to cook from inside, flexibility in set up to adapt to current weather conditions and quick drying.
A tarp requires some concessions, however. You must select the location of your camp much more carefully than with a tent. A tent floor will provide some resistance to rain run off, which would end up right in your living area with a tarp. Choose a site that has a layer of earth, sand or forest debris that will absorb rain. You should also avoid sites located in a depression or area that would tend to accumulate rain water.
Some commercial sources for silicon coated nylon tarps are: Integral Designs, GoLite (who also offer a net tent which hangs under the tarp for bug and ground protection) and Campmor.
A good web site that offers instructions for sewing your own tarp (as well as some ideas for combating insects) is: 
Henry's PCT Hike - Henry's design consists of a tarp with flaps of mosquito netting sewn around the perimeter for bug control. 

The author currently uses a two person GoLite tarp and net tent. The tarp works quite well, it provides quite a bit of room and affords protection from the elements. If there are no trees to use as the main supports (the ends of the line that runs from head to foot down the middle of the tarp), two walking sticks (or branches if you don't hike with a stick) may be used by pulling the main line over the sticks and staking it down on the other side. You will need to drive these two stakes in very securely since the integrity of the entire tarp depends on these points. Choosing a camp site that lends itself to secure staking will make this task easier. A spot that is too rocky will not allow you to get the stakes in deep enough, while a sandy spot will not allow you to provide the tension required to hold the tarp in place. In addition to good site selection, it takes a little practice to set up a tarp as well as more time than setting up a normal tent. I have slept under the tarp during a torrential thunderstorm and remained totally dry. Plus, because the tarp is so much larger than a small backpacking tent I was able to keep all of the gear dry as well. One item of annoyance is that the silicon coated nylon attracts dust and sand like a magnet and won't let it go. Resign yourself to having the thing covered with sand after the first use. Photo of tarp and net tent.



Most backpackers wear heavy boots when they hike. I'm not sure how we got sold on the illusion that boots are required for hiking. Perhaps it was the promise of added ankle support, though, my feeling is that a fit hiker carrying a light pack shouldn't need any extra ankle support and, in fact, might find the boot restricting to the natural motion of the foot.
Except for cold weather when they might be needed for warmth, I do not believe heavy, all leather boots to be necessary for hiking or backpacking. For the last 4-5 years the author has been hiking with light cloth/leather boots (51oz) and recently switched to even lighter trail running shoes (35.5oz) with no loss of performance. Regular running shoes could probably save another 8oz, though may not have a firm enough sole for serious hiking.


An umbrella is another idea promoted by Ray Jardine that some other light weight hikers seem to have adopted. I initially approached this idea with skepticism, but, since I hike in the southwest, considered the possibility that an umbrella may provide permanent shade against the harsh desert sun (an intriguing possibility).

My experiments hiking with an umbrella, have born out my initial reluctance however. For day hikes, holding the thing in your hand at all times is cumbersome and tiring, it also restricts the natural swing of your arms and inhibits climbing. If there is any breeze the umbrella catches it and whips around in a frenzy or inverts forcing you to constantly struggle with it to remain in control. If backpacking, it would be possible to construct some sort of mount on your pack to hold the umbrella, allowing your hands to remain free, but the wind issue would remain. If hiking in the rain, an umbrella only keeps you dry if rain is falling straight down, if there is any sort of breeze you will be required to wear your rain gear, so the umbrella is no substitute for any other piece of equipment and only adds weight to your pack (I tested a very light London Fog umbrella which weighed 7.5oz).
The umbrella experiment was a failure in my book, however, I would encourage others to come to their own conclusions, maybe you will find that it works for you.


Weight Comparison Matrix
Traditional Gear Light Weight Gear
Back Pack Dana Design Terraplane
Weight: 99oz
Cost: $300
GVP Gear
Weight: 12.5 oz
Cost: $75

Stove MSR Whisperlite & Fuel Bottle
Weight: 24.75oz
Cost: $69
Esbit Stove Windscreen & 1 week fuel
Weight: 12oz
Cost: $16

Sleeping Bag Campmor Brand -5 F bag
Weight: 65.5oz
Cost: $150
Feathered Friends 10 F bag
Weight: 27oz
Cost: $275

Sleeping Pad UltraLite Therma Rest - long
Weight: 28.5oz
Cost: $65
Z-Rest - 3/4 length
Weight: 10.5oz
Cost: $20

Outer Layer
Marmot Gortex Jacket
Weight: 14.25oz
Cost: $140
Campmor Brand Poncho
Weight: 8.5oz
Cost: $22

Inner Layer
Polartec Jacket
Weight: 15.5oz
Cost: $40
Patagonia Zephyr Jacket
Weight: 10.25oz
Cost: $125

Shelter Sierra Design Clip Flashlight 
Weight: 60.75oz
Cost: $185
Integral Design Tarp  & Stakes
Weight: 22oz
Cost: $150

Shoes Vasque Clarion Impact
Weight: 51oz
Cost: $80
Merrell Trail Running Shoes
Weight: 35.5oz
Cost: $35




Weight: 359.25oz = 22.45 lbs
Cost: $1024
Weight: 138.25oz = 8.64 lbs
Cost: $718

Conclusions: Though this is merely an armchair analysis and the above comparisons only apply to the gear in my closet, it appears that it is possible to dramatically reduce pack weight by making a few simple changes in your gear choices (a whopping 13.81 pounds!!). Total cost paid can be reduced as well especially if you choose to make your own gear. I have not thoroughly tested all the light weight gear above, so there may be differences in performance which outweigh the advantage of less weight. I will report out further findings on this page as they are acquired.

Though this page is completely focused on gear, it is appropriate to mention that in a country where 50% of adults are considered overweight, perhaps the best method of reducing the amount of weight you carry would be to begin by trying to eliminate any extra body fat you may be toting around. It will improve health, increase your hiking ability, reduce the possibility of injuries and reduce the load that your poor feet must carry.